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Newsmaker: Gere Kavanaugh

By Carren Jao
June 16, 2014
Gere Kavanaugh
Photo © Christine Kim
Gere Kavanaugh

In Los Angeles, June is the month for design. Coinciding with Dwell on Design (June 20-22) at the Los Angeles Convention Center, the Los Angeles Design Festival (LADF) celebrates local and international talent with a series of events. Last year, LADF introduced the Julia Morgan Icon Award, intended to recognize a bold woman and her outstanding contributions to the design industry. This year’s recipient is Gere Kavanaugh, one of California’s pioneer female designers.

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Kavanaugh earned her BFA from the Memphis Academy of Art and was one of the first women to receive an MFA from Michigan's Cranbrook Academy of Art. She began her career working at the architectural arm of General Motors in Detroit. Then she became head of interiors for shopping mall design pioneer Victor Gruen. When Kavanaugh began her studio in the 1960s, she shared office space with Frank Gehry, Don Chadwick, and last year’s Julia Morgan Icon Award recipient Deborah Sussman.

For more than 35 years, Kavanaugh has crafted a career that defies specialization. She’s done graphics and interiors for Joseph Magnin department stores and Hallmark greeting cards; graphic design for Max Factor and Pepsi-Cola; even a research room and typeface for the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. She was honored Friday night at LADF’s opening party. A special one-night installation of her work will be on view at Artecnica’s showroom on June 20. RECORD spoke to Kavanaugh, 85, about her approach and motivations, and thoughts on design in Los Angeles.

How did you get into design?

I always liked to make things. I went to art school from the time I was eight through grade school and high school. I won a scholarship to go to Memphis Academy of Arts, where I got a real good general education in ceramics, jewelry, painting, drawing, sculpture, and all those things. Then, I had a teacher who went to Cranbrook and that fascinated me. Though I had a scholarship to go to Parsons [The New School for Design], which Francis Henry Taylor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art [former director, 1939-1955] helped get me, I had submitted my portfolio to Cranbrook and got accepted. It was one of the luckiest things I ever did in my life.

How did Cranbrook affect your practice?

I wanted to be a designer because I was scared to death to be a painter or sculptor, but I knew I liked to make things and I love materials. Cranbrook exposed me to so many things. It was not a niche design school. Being in that environment, I saw so many interesting things. Plus, the Eero Saarinen office was down the back road from the schools so all the students just sort of hung out there. There were so many things happening at the Saarinen office: Harry Bertoia, Florence Knoll, all of this people. There was just this influx, coming in and out.

How did Gere Kavanaugh Designs start?

I had a yen for it. I had always developed product on the side like textiles. I designed that for a company in New York called Isabel Scott Fabrics. At Victor Gruen, there was an interesting hotbed of designers. I became friends with Greg Walsh, Frank Gehry, and Don Chadwick. When Frank came back from Paris, he opened up his office with Greg. Then, Gruen got slow and they asked me to share the space with them. No one else had done that before. There were a lot of people who visited, like Cesar Pelli and Judy Chicago. We had parties for Ruth Asawa, Ed Ruscha, and Billy Al Bengston.

You have a body of work that doesn’t conform to just one design discipline. How do you manage to tackle such different fields?

As one teacher said to me when I was in Memphis going through art school, “The best thing you could have is curiosity.”

You’re still working. How do you keep motivated?

I’ll be working until they sprinkle me out over the ocean. I don’t know. There are just so many things that interest me.

What projects would you still like to do?

There are so many things I want to do. I’d like to make a whole line of dinnerware based on my sayings that make you happy. I would like to do a small boutique hotel someday and also an interior of an airplane because they’re so damn boring.

How do you feel about design in Los Angeles?

I think it’s bubbling up. In the '50s, '60s, and little bit of the '70s, there was a lot going on here. Then, like nature, it goes down and comes back up. I think it’s bubbling up again. In just the last six months, I’ve run into interesting younger people, but they don’t have a sense of history.

What do you think is the most important thing designers should learn?

Curiosity! Curiosity leads you to so many things. It leads you into looking, details—into a whole kind of awareness, history–into finding out what is cresting.

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