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Anne Swainson : The Making of a Design Pioneer

Updated: Apr 21, 2021

by: Vicki Matranga & William E. Meehan Jr.

“Optimistic” read the caption above Anne Swainson’s photo in the Oakland Tribune on Friday, November 11, 1932. Smiling beneath a natty cloche hat, the “New York business woman” told a reporter, “Business conditions on the Pacific Coast look very promising; promising enough to encourage Atlantic seaboard manufacturers to develop new markets in the west…industry will experience a new type of prosperity—a slower but more certain progress.” Swainson believed, as did many at the time, that the Great Depression would be short-lived. Having met with her employer’s West Coast sales representatives in San Francisco, she boarded a plane in nearby Oakland to return to her office on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

In a career that spanned the Progressive Era to the midcentury modern period, designer, design educator and corporate design manager Anne Swainson (born in 1888) shaped the profession of early 20th-century industrial design. Through some of the most tumultuous decades of American business—two world wars, the Great Depression and the post-World War II consumer economy — Anne Swainson created a remarkable path for a woman in design. Earlier publications that describe Swainson concentrated on her years at Montgomery Ward. We were interested in what formed her, how she arrived in Chicago to work at Ward and aspects of her personal life.

Creative Educator

Swainson zigzagged from coast to coast, with stops in the Midwest, during the Progressive Era when education in industrial or applied arts was evolving into industrial design. She also studied “household arts” in the growing field of home economics, which offered women exciting opportunities in business and social reform. Home economists worked for food companies and manufacturers of consumer goods and in retail management and the hospitality industry as well as engaged in scientific research.

Our recent research has shown that some previously published biographical information about Swainson was incorrect. Born Anna Elizabeth Swainson in Nevada, MO, she was the middle child of Per “Perrie” Swainson, a housepainter, and Bettie Swainson, both Swedish immigrants. She received degrees from the University of Missouri (a BS in education in 1909) and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College (an MA in 1913), followed by an MA in household arts (1915) from the University of Chicago, a vibrant center for home economists. While in Chicago in 1915 and 1919, she taught textiles and created museum exhibitions at Hull House, which was a nationally important hub for social and political activists and an empowering environment for women.

After serving as the supervisor for industrial art for elementary grades in Columbus, OH (1910–1912), and teaching a summer session in industrial art at the University of Virginia in 1915, she joined the predominately male faculty at Illinois State Normal University (now Illinois State University) in the applied arts department, where she mentored young women in student club activities as well. Although Swainson’s specialty was textiles, she was also skilled in other crafts. In 1915 she organized an exhibition to display student-produced “work in copper and silver. Desk sets, book ends, blotter corners and pen trays… in saw piercing and repousse… with beautiful colorings. A blue gray finish…is indeed pleasing… and is the result of Miss Swainson’s mixing chemistry with applied arts.”

She resigned her position in 1919 and left central Illinois to teach at the University of California at Berkeley in the Department of Household Arts until about 1928. Along the way, educator Anna Elizabeth Swainson reinvented herself to become Anne Swainson, industrial designer. As an instructor who rose to an “associate in textiles,” she taught textiles, metalwork and jewelry, pottery, and a teacher’s course in industrial arts. One of her notable students was weaver and interior designer Dorothy Liebes, who credited Swainson for spotting her talent and redirecting her from painting to textiles.

Swainson traveled to Europe several times in the 1920s, with an extensive stay in 1926. In Jazz Age Paris she was hosted by former Berkeley friends, and she visited textile manufacturers in France. In Lyon she learned about the economics of cloth supply and demand and was dismayed to see that industrial production resulted in the decline of handwork. While traveling in Italy and France with Charmian London, the widow of author Jack London, they visited artists and authors, including leftist journalist Lincoln Steffens.

New York Businesswoman

She left academia for the business world in 1928 to become one of the first residents of Manhattan’s Barbizon Hotel for Women, home to generations of up-and-coming actresses and writers. She worked at New York’s Lord & Taylor as its fabric stylist at a time when elite department stores began to compete for in-house experts in modern design.

In 1930 Swainson was hired by the Chase Brass & Copper Company in Waterbury, CT, as the first director of design of its new Specialty Sales Department. Chase, a maker of brass and copper building and plumbing supplies, followed some of its Connecticut metalworking neighbors into modernistic giftware and small appliances. Chase maintained offices and a showroom in Manhattan.

Despite the worsening economy, in 1931 Chase Specialties offered 30 items to the trade, from candlesticks to vases. Some of them, like the Glow Lamp No. 01001, Coasters No. 11261 and Triple Tray No. 09001 by the selfemployed designer Ruth Gerth (later Ruth Kosmak), proved very popular. No patents assigned to Chase credit Swainson as the company’s designer, but since Chase Specialties had no other in-house stylists at the time, it is likely Swainson executed the latter two and others.

By the time Swainson left Chase for her next position, she had retained Gerth and rising design consultant Arban Jay Ackerman and was directly responsible for helping independent designer Lurelle Van Arsdale Guild obtain the Chase account. They and other design consultants would create many of the most striking and successful Chase Specialties items until production ended under wartime restrictions in early 1942. Swainson was succeeded by socially prominent Bostonian, Helen Catherine Bishop Dennis, another Lord & Taylor alumna and its assistant director of design.

Saving a Struggling Company with Design

In 1932, at the age of 44, Swainson took on the most challenging work of her career. In her new responsibilities as head of the Bureau of Design, a middle-management position, for retail catalog giant Montgomery Ward & Company, Inc. in Chicago, she would need the optimistic attitude toward business improvement that she had expressed in California. At Ward, she played a major role in the new concept of applying design strategy to improve a company’s market position, brand image and merchandise appearance.

Montgomery Ward, the country’s oldest catalog retailer (established 1872), along with its rival, Sears, Roebuck (founded 1893), had created the American mass market. Both Sears and Ward ventured into bricks-and-mortar retail stores in the 1920s. Ward feared that stores would take away mail order customers and struggled to digest the changes necessary in its marketin and branding during the first years of the Depression. Sewell Avery, president of U.S. Gypsum in Chicago, was recruited to reorganize the company in 1931, when Ward operated 610 stores, most of which were losing money. Mail order sales were down by nearly 40 percent and prices were under pressure in the years after the 1929 stock market crash. Ward suffered an operating loss of $8.7 million in 1931 and was selling at 25 percent of Sears’ volume.

Avery soon made a clean sweep of management and hired new personnel as advised by a New York department store employment agency, which identified top retail talent. In 1932 Avery chose, among other executives, Walter Hoving, an executive vice president at R.H. Macy & Company in New York, to become general sales manager, and C.D. Ryan, a house furnishings buyer with J. N. Adams & Co. of Buffalo, NY, as the manager of housewares and home furnishings.

Swainson might have been known to Hoving because of her position at Chase, which supplied giftware to Macy’s. After taking courses in painting, textile design, silver and furniture at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, Hoving strongly believed in the importance of good design in merchandising. Hoving was charged with redesigning products and packaging to align the merchandise in the catalog and the stores, develop store advertising and overhaul the catalog. He also was determined to develop the Ward’s brand for private-label merchandise. The Bureau of Design would accomplish several of these goals. He is believed to have delegated the catalog project to Swainson, subject to his review, and under Swainson the 1934 catalog, which featured 40,000 items, was successfully redesigned. In addition, she was responsible for the look of its merchandise. She contributed some designs herself and worked with staff designers from Ward’s suppliers (some 15,000 manufacturers in 1935) to adapt their products to Ward’s specifications. By 1934, sales at the stores and the catalog had rebounded dramatically, aided by federal income support to farmers, proving that the stores could create new business rather than cutting into the catalog business.

Although about 70 percent of Ward’s 35,000 employees were women, Swainson was a rarity in management, as was typical of large companies. In the rough retail industry, her position was affected by competitive men in management layers above her and ambitious men under her command. Only a strong woman could survive such an office environment for more than 20 years. Swainson’s experience as an educator and her work in retail and for a manufacturer enabled her to form the Bureau as a unique multifunction design agency to use design to improve the making and merchandising of consumer products for a retailer serving a huge national market.

Swainson had come to Chicago, probably in December 1932, during the streamlined Art Deco era. Never married, she took up residence on one of Chicago’s most exclusive streets, living with a maid at 219 East Lake Shore Drive, a few blocks away from the dramatic Palmolive Building completed just a few years earlier and with a convenient commute westbound on Chicago Avenue to the Ward headquarters.

Design Thinking in Practice

Sears, which formed its design department in 1934, hired designers trained at General Motors. Swainson, who knew from her teaching about how design was included in vocational education, first hired architects, such as 1932 Armour Institute graduates Frederic David (Dave) Chapman and Joseph Palma Jr. Most importantly, she identified young talent and hired industrial design graduates from the School of the Art Institute and the Institute of Design. She trained them in the business of design to serve the Bureau’s clientele—the all-powerful buyers who headed Ward’s merchandise departments. She claimed design patents for several small products in the 1930s and early 1940s, but generally allowed her designers to patent work in their own names, unlike the common practice of managers claiming credit for staff designs.

By mid-1934, Chapman had applied to patent new kitchen appliances and assorted products. According to Chapman’s daughter, a model of a sailboat in the Bureau’s studio brought Chapman to the attention of C.D. Ryan. Ryan commissioned Chapman to design a new yacht, during which time he met Ryan’s daughter Eileen. As their friendship deepened toward marriage, to avoid the impression of impropriety Chapman left Ward’s in 1936 to start his own firm and designed products for Ward suppliers. Palma later also left to start his own design firm and taught industrial design at the School of the Art Institute for 20 years.

The quality of products created by Swainson’s Bureau of Design attracted compliments from her peers. In their 1936 examination of America’s industrial design scene, Art and the Machine, Sheldon and Martha Cheney compared the design efforts at the country’s two major retailers, Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, which had “adopted policies of redesign for large volumes of their entire products.Not one but many kinds of industries produce commodities directly for them.”

Swainson established a work process familiar to designers practicing today in order to educate both the buyer/client and the suppliers who produced products to Ward’s specifications. According to Art and the Machine, “Montgomery Ward and Co. began in 1934 the redesign of its merchandise to bring it into line with modern appearance standards. Miss Anne Swaynson [sic] is Director of the Bureau of Design, which has a permanent staff of accredited artist-technologists. She describes the procedure which always goes on with close cooperation of the merchandise divisions concerned and with reference to the manufacturing practice: ‘First, there is a thorough study of the needs; then rough preliminary sketches are developed; the merchandise division executives, and often the manufacturer, analyze these sketches with the design director; when sketches have been produced which meet with the approval of all concerned, working drawings are made and turned over to the manufacturer.’”

The authors also noted that the Ward organization had “arrived at a policy of building a permanent staff of artists who have an architectural or engineering education, after experimenting with the general run of free-lance designers and finding the results unsatisfactory.” Harold Van Doren included the c.1939 Ward’s Electric Toaster in his 1940 textbook Industrial Design: A Practical Guide. He described it as “inexpensive merchandise” and “simple, good.” Even more striking was its simple carton labeled WARD’S Electric Toaster / MONTGOMERY WARD in red and white lettering on bold red and white stripes reminiscent of the American flag.

Wartime Conflicts Impact the Bureau

Hoving left Ward’s in 1936 to head Tiffany’s and was succeeded by C.D. Ryan. In October 1940 Ryan engaged Norman Bel Geddes, one of America’s most famous industrial designers, to analyze its mail order catalog’s “pulling power, from a consumer’s point of view, as is normally provided in a well-designed retail store and to improve on its pulling power as much as possible” and to recommend improvements. In January 1941 Ward thanked Geddes & Company for its suggestions and wrote that it would review “which of your suggestions with practicality can be put to use,” and then terminated the relationship.

Yet in October 1941, in an attempt to gain the Ward account, Bel Geddes met with Ryan in his office. The two men discussed new design directions for the company’s products and stores. The merchandise and store planning managers joined Bel Geddes and Ryan for lunch. In an internal memo, Bel Geddes noted that the Bureau of Design “consists of only seven people. The head of it is a woman, who is not a designer herself, but has good taste and has been with them for years.” Bel Geddes proposed that his firm “open a Chicago office, near or even in their building, that we absorb their present design department, that we add two or three really first rate talents, that we have one of our design directors keep a regular weekly or biweekly date out here, and that all of us be on call on one or two day’s notice.” However, Geddes & Company was unsuccessful.

During the 1940s, when the manufacture of consumer products was restricted by the war and Ward’s management suffered from conflict, Sewell Avery reduced the Bureau’s importance, and after the war, the Bureau was restructured. Yet, while managing the Bureau, Swainson had drawn upon her social and professional network to promote design by delivering public lectures before reform-minded civic clubs and organizing trade exhibitions and competitions. In 1940, she invited 20 designers to participate in a Chicago exhibition to educate manufacturers in how to redesign products to impact sales. In 1941 she organized a competition, sponsored by the Chicago Society of Industrial Designers, for the design of traffic control lights for city intersections, and she headed the jury that included László Moholy-Nagy and Alfonso Iannelli. In 1943, she presented diplomas to the 10 graduates of a war training course in engineering drafting at the Illinois Institute of Technology—nine graduates were women and the tenth was a man of Chinese ancestry. In 1944, she was mentioned in a society column as one of the celebrities vacationing at an Arizona pueblo with Chicago socialites, artists and writers.

Meanwhile, Ward’s president, political conservative Sewell Avery, resisted New Deal regulations and reforms. Carried out of his office by the National Guard in 1944 for refusing to settle with a striking union, he was mired in controversy for years to come. His obstructionist policies damaged the company’s present and future. Many managers quit or were fired. The federal government took control of Ward’s production plant to ensure supplies for the war effort. The board of directors installed C.D. Ryan as president in 1943, and Ryan served in this difficult role until he resigned in 1945 to become an executive of a retail operation in California.

Facing the Fifties

Avery, expecting a depression to follow World War II, hoarded cash instead of updating urban stores or building suburban locations for the booming consumer culture, as did its profitable competitor Sears. By 1955, after a 20-year standstill, Montgomery Ward had lost almost half its share of the nation’s retail market. It took a new chairman five years to cure the company to a competitive position. Ward never recovered and in 1968 was merged into a holding company and became a subsidiary of Mobil Oil Corp. in 1976. It filed for bankruptcy in 1997.

Anne Swainson survived tumultuous management changes to remain on the staff at Montgomery Ward & Company for 22 years. At rival Sears, several design directors came and left during those years. Unlike the one-hit wonders or impractical flashy New York consultants, Swainson went the distance; she played the long game. She was selected by executives who gambled that design would save a company on the brink of collapse and during the most difficult years of the Depression. According to her former employees, who went on to establish notable consultancies, Swainson ran a disciplined and efficient Bureau that trained them to think fast and think smart. Every day they delivered design concepts for countless product categories required by demanding buyers who knew the tastes of the national and regional markets. She held her position, even as company bosses cut away the foundation of her department.

Nonetheless, she created an elegant life and must have found personal reward in her design efforts. Her final residence was an apartment in a modernist high-rise constructed in 1950 on the North Lake Shore Drive site of the former 1882 “castle” of real estate magnate and hotelier Potter Palmer. A single woman of 67 years, she died of a heart attack at the office in May 1955 a week after Avery was ousted from the board of directors. In December 1955, the National Home Fashions League, of which she was a charter member, established a scholarship in her name to be given to a woman for exceptional contributions to the home furnishings industry.

Educator, talent scout, mentor, tastemaker, designer and manager—in a career of nearly 50 years with numerous firsts, unheralded Anne Swainson was a unique woman who fulfilled many roles now common for today’s industrial designers. She never appeared on the cover of Time magazine, but along with the men considered to be the founders of the profession in the 1930s, she applied the power of design to business and contributed to creating the business of design.

Sources available by request.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of INNOVATION, published by the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA)


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