Throughout history, there have been many designers who have contributed to the field significantly. Some of them are remembered and revered, while some have been forgotten. In the latter case, if one looks, one can find a genius of industrial design in the early 20th century. Helen Hughes Dulany was an American industrial designer of the 1930s, and one of the first female industrial designers ever. Unfortunately, she had a short but brilliant career.
Moreover, unlike most of her contemporaries, despite living in the age of information, one can hardly find anything about her today. Let’s take a look at her life and her work, in an attempt to push the spotlight on Helen, for it has been long overdue.
Helen Hughes Dulany was born in Bismarck, North Dakota in 1885 to a wealthy family owing to her father’s earnings from electric utilities. She grew up to become a socialite and moved to Chicago in 1920 with her husband, who was a wealthy lumberman. Having moved to Chicago, she went on with her life as an active socialite. Things took a turn when she fell ill in 1931. Her doctors, unfortunately, considered her a ‘hopeless invalid’. However, this hard situation had a silver lining for Helen. She picked up clay modelling as a hobby out of boredom.
Even though she did not have any sort of formal art or design training, she discovered her hidden talent of visualising and creating novel objects in three dimensions. With a newfound passion for design, she moved to a new apartment for a fresh start after recovering from her illness and started designing the furnishings herself.
Soon enough, she started receiving orders from stores in New York and founded her design studio—Helen Hughes Dulany Studio. Alongside, she opened a factory to produce her designs. During this time, Helen experimented with all sorts of materials and came up with many novel works. She started getting a lot of positive attention from the industry as well as numerous design magazines and soon became 1930s industrial design’s ‘it’ girl. She was also working as an industrial design consultant for ‘opulent fees’ as was how it was described by the Chicago Tribune.
Suddenly, in 1937, Helen completely disappeared from design, in what seems to have been an unfortunate consequence of her divorce a year earlier in 1936, the same year when she permanently closed her studio.
Helen Hughes Dulany was known to experiment with chromium, brass, wood and copper. Apart from products, she also invented a new method of backing glass with metal. According to the magazine Creative Design, she seems to have been the first person in the USA who morphed stainless steel for designing tableware. She redesigned a line of electric ranges for General Electric, where her brother worked, and who was stunned to find out in an official meeting there, that her sister was designing the ranges.
Her other works include steel table settings and interiors for the famous art deco Zephyr train, and hotel dinnerware for Buffalo Potteries. The caviar server she designed is probably one of her many iconic works.
Helen’s style of industrial design was perfectly synchronised with what people of the 1930s imagined their modern homes to be. Even large firms recognised this and commissioned her to ‘modernise’ their image. Hence, she became one of the most in-demand industrial designers in the USA of the 1930s. She was named as one of the ‘best known’ female industrial designers for home furnishings by the New York Times in 1937.
The decades following the unfortunate end of Helen Hughes Dulany’s career have made it difficult to find her design pieces except for a handful in a few American museums. Her chrome-plated caviar server is held in the Brooklyn Museum, stainless-steel-and-Bakelite coffee service in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and her modernist candelabra in a collection housed in Dallas Museum of Art. Moreover, she holds numerous patents of home accessory designs to her name including the dumbbell-shaped cocktail shaker and salt and pepper shaker set.
The Unfortunate End
Unsurprisingly, and unfortunately for Helen, the majority of the press of that time was now suddenly more interested in her divorce, instead of her designs. In 1938, she married Atherton Richards, who was the president of the Hawaiian Pineapple Company, and little information seems to be available publicly about her life after that. She passed away in 1968 and by that time, most of what she achieved had already been forgotten.
One can never know, but one can expect how many more of her ingenious works the world would have witnessed today, if only she continued her studio. It is a collective matter of concern, and in a lot of ways, shame, for us a society that the works and life of an industrial designer of her stature are not talked or shared about as much as they should be—especially for a woman, who rose to that stature rapidly and on her merit, in an era when challenging the tides of patriarchy was not the norm.
- allarts.org. (2018). Industrial Designer Helen Hughes Dulany | Art & Design in Chicago. [online] Available at: https://allarts.org/programs/art-design-in-chicago/industrial-designer-helen-hughes-delaney-9cmufb/ [Accessed 29 Aug. 2021].
- Brooklyn Museum (n.d.). Brooklyn Museum. [online] www.brooklynmuseum.org. Available at: https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/1692 [Accessed 29 Aug. 2021].
- Veit, R. (2021). Helen Hughes Dulany, 1930s Socialite Turned “Over-Worked Genius” of Industrial Design – Core77. [online] Core77. Available at: https://www.core77.com/posts/46465/Helen-Hughes-Dulany-1930s-Socialite-Turned-%E2%80%9COver-Worked-Genius%E2%80%9D-of-Industrial-Design [Accessed 29 Aug. 2021].
- WTTW Chicago. (2018). Helen Hughes Dulany | Art & Design in Chicago. [online] Available at: https://interactive.wttw.com/art-design-chicago/helen-hughes-dulany [Accessed 29 Aug. 2021].