In 1987 Ellen Manderfield wrote, “There is much to be said for the industrial design profession, and there is room for the feminine touch—with a sincere approach and the right attitude, one can go far.” A “sincere approach” might be a bit of an understatement when describing Manderfield’s almost 50-year-long career. As a pioneering American designer who produced hundreds upon hundreds of commercial product designs, she was also highly skilled, focused and, above all, ambitious.
As a child, Manderfield was an aspiring furniture designer, and although she joined her father in woodworking projects, he steered her away from what was thought of as an unladylike profession and instead urged her into the commercial arts. After completing her studies at Mundelein College of Loyola University in 1939, Manderfield worked as a graphic and packaging designer at Meyercord Company in Chicago before switching to the industrial design field in 1944 with a job at the Colonial Radio Corporation (later known as Sylvania Electric) in Buffalo, New York. As supervisor of the styling department, she oversaw a staff of seven, designing televisions, record players and radios. In 1947 she returned to Chicago, briefly designing appliances for George McStay Jackson before moving on to a position in Anne Swainson’s Bureau of Design at Montgomery Ward. She would stay for four years, designing numerous household goods and appliances under Swainson’s watchful eye. Records from her time at the bureau reveal her great range, with Manderfield producing designs for toasters, metal vices, air conditioners, coffee makers, arc welders, accordions, bathroom fixtures and more.
A position with General Electric in Syracuse would bring her back to upstate New York, where she designed radio and television cabinets from 1951–56. Manderfield would switch jobs only one more time, joining Oneida Ltd. Silversmiths in 1956 and staying until her retirement in 1986 as a senior designer. In those 30 years she designed over 200 silver and stainless-steel flatware patterns, in addition to hollowware, plastic dishware and giftware.
Ellen Manderfield technical drawing for a hurricane lamp, 1984. Oneida Ltd.
Rendered drawing for a hurricane lamp, 1984. Oneida Ltd.
At Oneida she worked closely with design director Frank Perry to produce a number of best-selling designs, including the flatware lines Omni and Michelangelo. Oneida's current design director, Paul Gebhardt, notes that Manderfield and Perry’s design process was extremely rigorous—for a single teaspoon in the Michelangelo line, for example, they “looked at a minimum of 20 versions of the teaspoon to get the balance and flow just right.” From there, Gebhardt relates, technical drawings of the teaspoon would be drafted and a 250-percent-scale model would be created in clay and then in plaster, in order to tool the intricate patterns. The final model would be used with a reducing mill to create master tools for the spoon.
Set of Michelangelo flatware for Oneida Ltd.
Shortly after joining Oneida, Manderfield became the first female member of the IDSA (then known as the American Society of Industrial Designer)—and in 1992 she became the first woman to receive the IDSA Personal Recognition Award, for her commitment to the design profession and her “major contribut[ions] to its long-term welfare and importance.”
Spoon from the Oneida Ltd. Omni line, from 1975. The Museum of Modern Art acquired the Omni line for its collection in 1979.
Dover flatware line designed by Manderfield for Oneida Ltd. in 1968
Drawing for a teaspoon, 1972. Ellen Manderfield Collection, Syracuse University Libraries
Flatware drawing study from the archives of Oneida Ltd., 1984
Ornament study by Manderfield from the archives of Oneida Ltd.