Ilonka Karasz circa 1920, wearing a dress with a silk print she designed for H. R. Mallinson and Company in 1917
To call the Hungarian-born artist and designer Ilonka Karasz “multi-talented” would be a serious understatement. By the time of her death in 1981 at age 84, she had helped to modernize American textile design; challenged the male-dominated worlds of both furniture and industrial design; created the first modern nursery in America; earned her description as “the country’s leading wallpaper artist”; and, oh yeah, also found time to illustrate 186 eye-catching New Yorker covers published between 1925 and 1973. Karasz did all of this while staying true to her European roots—infusing her designs with a modernist sensibility that referenced Vienna’s Wiener Werkstätte movement (in her floral motifs and geometric patterns), the Bauhaus school (in her minimalist metal work), and the Dutch De Stijl movement (in her rectilinear wood furniture).
Karasz was one of the first women admitted to the Royal School of Arts and Crafts in her native Budapest, where she studied before immigrating to New York City’s Greenwich Village in 1913. Upon her arrival in New York, she found work as a graphic designer and illustrator and also taught textile design at the Modern Art School. With a handful of other European émigrés, she founded the Society of Modern Art in 1914 with the goal of promoting European modernism in America. This was achieved through a short-lived publication and also a “service bureau” that advised American companies on how to best use modern art and design in their promotional materials. From 1915 to 1935, Karasz was also busy designing a large range of fashionable textiles, helping spread her modern aesthetic to the mass market with designs in silk for dress fabrics, early experiments in rayon for DuPont, woven rugs and wall hanging for residential interiors, and some of the earliest designs for automobile and airplane upholstery.
Karasz’s working sketches for a teapot, trays and a salt shaker, circa 1928. Image via the Cooper Hewitt
In addition to her textile commissions, Karasz was hired by the silver manufacturer Paye & Baker to design a line of hollowware in 1928. Her resulting creations owe a huge debt to the radically simple designs of the Bauhaus metalsmith Marianne Brandt; the book Modernism in American Silver calls Karasz’s first design for a silver-plated coffee and tea service “the most severely minimal service to have been produced industrially in America in the 1920s.” Karasz’s best-remembered objects from this period are an equally severe group of conical vessels supported on cruciform bases, including a vase, a teapot, a candlestick, a bowl and a tea ball and stand, all of which eschewed any sort of decoration in favor of simple geometry.
Karasz’s design for a silver-plated tea ball and stand resting on a cruciform base for Paye & Baker Manufacturing, 1928
A slightly less minimalist coffee and tea set designed by Karasz in silver plate with wooden handles for Paye & Baker Manufacturing, 1928
Her furniture from this period took an equally austere form, almost plank-like in its construction. These monumental wood furnishings—made when few women were active in the field—were featured in a number of exhibitions, including one in 1928 at Macy’s department store in New York, where the room featuring her furniture was described by the New York Times Magazine as “the most iconoclastic of any in the exhibition.” That same year she was the only woman invited to design rooms—a studio apartment and a nursery—for an exhibition at the American Designers’ Gallery. Her uncluttered spaces with rectilinear furniture were hailed as groundbreaking, especially her nursery, which is credited with modernizing design for children in America. Karasz’s 1928 nursery and additional designs in the early ’30s replaced the frilliness of a typical child’s room with basic geometric shapes, primary colors and convertible furniture that grew with the child. As Karasz scholar Ashley Brown relates, Karasz “asserted that using simple geometric units in various sizes would teach children proportions, help them to relate objects in their nurseries to objects in the outside world, and encourage them to discover that all of nature consisted of such units.”
Karasz’s furniture designs were often monumental wooden pieces. Above: a mahogany desk from 1928; image via the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Karasz’s groundbreaking modernist nursery for the American Designers’ Gallery in 1928
The geometric rug designed by Karasz for the nursery
In the ’40s and ’50s, Karasz shifted her focus to wallpaper, working with the firm Katzenbach and Warren in New York to produce contemporary designs and develop new techniques for printing. As in her previous endeavors, her work was highly praised for its innovative new styles. Portfolio magazine called her “Miró on the Wall,” while a search of the New York Times archive reveals multiple articles written during the era that celebrated her pioneering approach with headlines like “New Wallpapers Odd in Technique“ and “Blueprinting Used in New Wallpaper.” (Apparently the news cycle was a bit slower back in the day.) Karasz also collaborated with ALCOA’s research program to produce an unprecedented radiant-heating wallpaper made of heavy-gauge aluminum foil.
A wallpaper sample titled Garden Baskets, designed by Karasz for Katzenbach and Warren, 1950–52. Above and below images via the Cooper Hewitt
A whimsical skeleton-themed wallpaper design by Karasz and William Justema for Katzenbach and Warren, 1948
Karasz in her studio, at work on her 1957 wallcovering project for ALCOA
As if her own design duties didn’t keep her busy enough, Karasz was also the founder and director of Design Group, Inc., a cooperative of designers and craftspeople (many of whom were her former students) that she mentored and helped introduce to larger audiences through exhibitions and a small retail store in New York. Over the decades her versatile career also extended into book cover design, illustrations for children’s books, ceramic dishware and tiles, architectural murals, toys, lamps—and let’s not forget those 186 New Yorker covers published over five decades. Each of these accomplishments is extraordinary in its own right; taken together, they are simply astounding.