The field of industrial design has an impact on our daily work and life. All the products around us that we regularly use, from simple toothbrushes to electrical gadgets and automobiles, are all the results of many people’s design ideas. A person of the past and present, regardless of a title, was and is one of those many people who contributed their design ideas to the world.
Designing a product is a crucial aspect of industrial manufacturing that men once believed that women were not competent in doing it. The products meant to use by women were designed by a man as well. There were some exceptions such as the interior designer Maria Bergson. However, the first American woman regarded as a prominent female in the profession (Godmother of Industrial Design) as well as one of the founders of industrial design for all kinds of products was Belle Kogan.
Belle Kogan was born on June 26, 1902, in Ilyashevka, Russia. At the age of six, her family emigrated to Allentown, Pennsylvania. Her strong interest in art was probably developed because of her father—a jeweller. This passion for art led her high school art teacher to recommend that she enroll in a Mechanical Drawing class. Soon, she realized that she was the only woman in this field of study.
After completing high school, she hoped to earn a degree at the Pratt Institute, however, unfortunately, she could not continue the study because of the needs of her family. Later, after almost a decade, she managed to attend the Art Students League in New York and made progress toward higher education.
Belle Kogan’s actual career began in 1929, the year of the incipient of the Great Depression. In the summer of 1929, she was offered a paid job by the Quaker Silver Company of North Attleboro, Massachusetts. They trained her as a silver designer. Impressed by her work the company paid her tuition to attend design classes in Germany, France, Rhode Island, and Czechoslovakia in the same year.
During this time, she disciplined herself by learning that knowledge of various fields like aesthetics, business management, and many others is necessary for good product design.
Kogan became one of the top designers at Quaker Silver Company where she went on to head a department of 20 employees and by 1932, they offered her a retainer that permitted her to leave the company and work as a freelance designer. She started her own office named Belle Kogan Associates in New York and hired a staff of three female designers. Independently, she struggled to set up her business with clients who devalued her talent. Kogan often found that people in the industry were defiant to her ideas because of her gender and art-oriented background.
Some clients assumed that she did not know the mechanical workings of a product whereas, others disrespected her by suggesting unprofessional dinners or hangouts. In 1939, in an interview, she recounted one of her experiences where she was mistaken for being a man by a large electrical appliance company, when consulted, the company engineers were shocked and further denied working with her as she was a woman.
Despite such obstacles, Kogan rose herself as a true professional and continued to expand her business into various fields. Her designs proved to be elegant, charming, and stylish. She designed for men and women regardless of age, with a wide range of materials from wood to Melamine, keeping in mind the product balance of practical function and aesthetical originality.
Some of her famous designs are a duck-shaped electric alarm clock for Telechron, a silver-plated vegetable dish for Reed and Barton, a set of glass piglets for Viking Glass, the series of Zippo lighters in 1938, and her Prismatique ceramics for Red Wing Pottery. Kogen and her team also designed products for companies such as Bakelite Corp., Libbey Glass, Maryland Plastics, and many more.
Kogan gave lectures, interviews, spoke on television and radio, and wrote and exhibited her works often. She also filed numerous patents for her designs. In 1970, Belle Kogan closed her New York office and moved to Israel under contract with KV Design, where she set up a studio offering comprehensive design services. In 1972 she left the studio and worked as a consultant. She continued to live in Israel until age 98.
In 1994, Kogan received IDSA’s Personal Recognition Award for her life’s work and contributions to industrial design. She also received IDSA’s highest honour of Fellowship.
Belle Kogan proved to be a pioneer in the field of industrial design. She became a voice that illustrated a striking place for women in design. Even though Kogan was the first woman in her field, she helped to find the Industrial Designers Institute. She also managed to be recognized by the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) for her achievements, out of only a handful of women.
Though her career Kogan knew that she was an essential representation of females all over America as she said:
“…Thirty million women—all potential customers—constituting practically the entire buying structure of the nation—comprise a force which cannot, or should not, be disregarded. The tastes of the American woman, her reaction to colour and form, are of vital importance to the manufacturer.”
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Industrial Designers Society of America – IDSA. (2010). Belle Kogan, FIDSA. [online] Available at: https://www.idsa.org/content/belle-kogan-fidsa [Accessed 1 Jul. 2021].
Driving for Deco. (2020). Belle Kogan – 20th Century American Industrial Designer. [online] Available at: https://www.drivingfordeco.com/belle-kogan-20th-century-american-industrial-designer/ [Accessed 1 Jul. 2021].
Core77. (n.d.). Belle Kogan, Godmother of American Industrial Design. [online] Available at: https://www.core77.com/posts/37135/Belle-Kogan-Godmother-of-American-Industrial-Design [Accessed 1 Jul. 2021].