Godmother of Automotive Design: Helene Rother

It’s a story that sounds as though it were ripped from the pages of fiction or the basis for a harrowing World War II drama directed by Steven Spielberg. Leaving behind her war-torn homeland, a young woman makes her way out of France just as the Nazi hordes begin their invasion. She finds herself in North Africa, doing a spell in Casablanca – with her seven-year-old daughter in tow – and unable to leave due her lack of a visa. Finally, miraculously, she ends up living the paragon of the American Dream as one of, if not the first female automotive designers, joining General Motors’ famed design staff in 1943 and then, in 1947, opening her own design studio and forming a successful partnership with Nash Motors. The remarkable story of Helene Rother is far from fictional, however, despite bordering on the fantastic.

Born in Leipzig, Germany in 1908, Helene Rother seemed a born artist. While accounts vary as to whether she studied at the famed Bauhaus or Kunstgewerbeschule in Hamburg, one thing is indisputable: she had an eye for stylish design. Working with everything from furniture to jewelry, fashion to stained glass, she made a name for herself after having moved to Paris and embarking on a career within the city’s high fashion market. Her timing, unfortunately, as hindsight shows, could not have been worse. By the end of the 1930s, it became clear that France was no longer what it once was.  With the looming specter of Nazism casting a long shadow over the whole of Europe, Rother found herself fleeing with her daughter.

By 1941, she had found her way to New York City. Here she put her artistic skills once more to good use, landing a job as an illustrator for Timely Publications (later, and certainly better known, as Marvel). Within a year, however, she found herself continuing west, landing in the automotive mecca of Detroit. She quickly took a job with General Motors, working for their interior styling staff where she was responsible for all manner of upholstery, fabric, lighting and hardware – all more or less in her already-established wheelhouse.

This being 1942 and Rother being a woman, however, her quick success did not sit well with many in the male-dominated industry/society. At the time, it was reported by The Detroit News that she was not only “Detroit’s first female automotive designer,” but also collecting an unheard-of $600 per month (roughly $8,500 in today’s money). Given the tenor of the times, GM was quick to downplay the report due to the progressive idea of having a woman not only working in a male-centric field, but also making more than the average man. After four years with the company, she had stockpiled enough capital and name recognition to open her own design studio. If her position with GM was seen as radical, one can only imagine how this follow-up move was perceived.

Continuing her work as an interior stylist, Rother’s first independent account was with Nash-Kelvinator. Here she continued to refine her work on interior colors, fabrics and assorted hardware (no doubt bringing to mind her pre-war period as an in-demand jeweler). Given her origins, she managed to bring a bit of European flair to the Nash brand, helping engender the automaker with an air of fresh, modern style. By 1953, she had helped Nash win the coveted Jackson Medal for outstanding design. Following the Nash-Hudson merger that resulted in the formation of American Motors, she continued working for a number of automotive-related companies including Goodyear, B.F. Goodrich and Miller-Meteor, the latter a company known for its ambulances and hearses.

In her time, she achieved a great deal of success and recognition and, like many a female pioneer, helped open the door to women in an industry from which they’d been previously shut out. By time she died in 1999 at the age of 91, Rother had spent her later years designing stained glass windows for churches, providing color and style for a whole new type of interior.