Helen Hughes Dulany pictured in the Chicago Tribune in 1934, with the stainless steel plates she designed for the Zephyr trains
For a few brief years in the 1930s, Helen Hughes Dulany became industrial design’s “it” girl. Her modernist table accessories retailed in stores from Chicago to New York and were featured in magazines like House Beautiful and Arts and Decoration. In 1934, the Chicago Tribune described Dulany as “an over-worked genius with a many-angled career,” and in 1937 the New York Times named her one of the “best known” female industrial designers for home furnishings. So why isn’t her work better known today?
Born in North Dakota in 1885 to a wealthy family (her father made millions in the electric utility business), Dulany married an equally wealthy lumberman and in 1920 moved with him to Chicago, where she led an active life as a socialite. In 1931, she fell ill and “was considered a hopeless invalid” by her doctors; out of boredom she took up modeling clay as a hobby. Much to her own surprise, she found that she had a natural talent for fashioning objects in three dimensions. Later that year she regained her health and moved to a new apartment, which she began furnishing with her own designs. Emboldened by the exercise and some early orders from stores in New York, she founded Helen Hughes Dulany Studio and opened a factory to produce her designs. Dulany experimented in all types of materials, using chromium, brass, wood and copper, and she is credited with inventing a new method of backing glass with metal. The magazine Creative Design pointed out that she was “perhaps the first person in America to design and fashion stainless steel for use in table appointments.”
A rare silver-plated candelabra designed by Dulany in 1935, from the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art. The two-tiered design is believed to have been an experiment by Dulany.
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Until 1937, Dulany was also in demand as an industrial design consultant, working for what the Chicago Tribune called “opulent fees.” She redesigned a line of electric ranges for General Electric, designed stainless steel table settings and interiors for the Burlington Zephyr trains, and created hotel dinnerware for Buffalo Potteries. But after 1937 Dulany all but disappeared from design, apparently as an unfortunate consequence of her divorce one year earlier. In the decades since, her designs have become difficult to find outside of a handful of pieces in a few American museums. The Dallas Museum of Art has a modernist candelabra in its collection, the Brooklyn Museum holds a chrome-plated caviar server that looks like it could have come out of the Bauhaus, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art has a stunning geometric stainless-steel-and-Bakelite coffee service, currently on view as part of the exhibition Reimagining Modernism. It is painful to contemplate what other designs might have come about had she continued her practice.