As much as designer Gere Kavanaugh is known, she’s known as a signifier of the California design aesthetic: bright, playful, relatable, optical—and as Louise Sandhaus, professor at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and co-author of a new monograph on Kavanaugh describes it, “no longer observing the aesthetics defined by the East coast or European design.” As Sandhaus recalls, California artist Billy Al Bengston puts it even more succinctly: “Fuck New York. Fuck Europe. We’ll figure out what art is.”
Kavanaugh did define design on her own terms—and she defined it broadly, having worked as an interior, graphic, product, exhibition, and textile designer, and as an artist and entrepreneur throughout her decades-long career. But one prominent takeaway from A Colorful Life: Gere Kavanaugh, Designer written by Sandhaus and Kat Catmur, is that as much as she is Californian she is even more representative of a larger American experience.
“The joy was in her work even before she came to California,” Sandhaus says. In fact, it had always been there. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1929, Kavanaugh’s creativity was recognized at an early age by her parents, who enrolled her at the Memphis Academy of Arts Junior Saturday School. After receiving her BFA in 1951, she began class at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, just outside Detroit, and it forever shaped her view of what was possible.
“Cranbrook’s hothouse environment of artistic experimentation essentially birthed the modernist design movement of mid-twentieth century America,” Andrew Blauvelt and Christopher Scoates, director and former director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, respectively, wrote in the book. “For many graduates, it was ultimately about designing one’s life… Gere’s varied design practice—textiles, graphics, interiors, furniture—resists compartmentalization, and that approach is quintessentially Cranbrook.”
Kavanaugh draped hot pink chiffon banners from the ceiling, installed futuristic, starburst light fixtures, and designed a set that involved 100 rented canaries in thirty-foot-tall net towers.
Having developed a varied portfolio across practices in Cranbrook’s grad program, Kavanaugh secured a position at Detroit-based General Motors immediately upon graduation. There she joined a group of female designers within GM’s Styling Group dubbed the “Damsels of Design,” under the direction of Harley Earl, the department’s Vice President. There her role—and her vision—would continue to expand. She designed interior kitchen models for GM’s Frigidaire division, a slew of trade shows, and the 1958 French garden party-inspired Feminine Auto Show, developed in an attempt to appeal to women. The lofty, domed exhibition space, designed by Eero Saarinen, made for an ongoing design challenge to be addressed with each new trade show. Kavanaugh draped hot pink chiffon banners from the ceiling; installed dramatic sculptural elements; and for the Feminine Auto Show in particular, designed a set that involved 100 rented canaries in thirty-foot-tall net towers.
Kavanaugh expanded into interiors throughout the 1950s. From 1954 to 1955, she took a break from GM to join the Detroit office of Victor Gruen Associates, the architects credited with concepting and developing the large shopping centers that began to pop up after World War II and are now ubiquitous as the cliched hangouts of suburban teens. She returned to GM from 1955 to 1959, after which she began to pursue her own projects. Incorporating the work of her contemporaries like Alexander Girard, she also designed interiors for private residences, and developed a point of view that married the craft and folk movements she was introduced to at Cranbrook with her own sensibilities.
“You see this kind of riot go on—crazy supergraphics, whimsical uses of plexiglass, whimsical floral elements.”
Kavanaugh reached a turning point in 1960 when she took an offer from Victor Gruen to join their main office in Los Angeles. At this point, “everything gets turned up.” Sandhaus says “It was there already, but it becomes larger and more colorful.” In 1964, in the design for the Mayfield Mall in Mountain View, California, Kavanaugh included a carpet that was just one enormous daisy. “You see this kind of riot go on—crazy supergraphics, whimsical uses of plexiglass, whimsical floral elements. You see someone who was just totally liberated,” says Sandhaus.
California provided a kind of petri dish for ideation that was, according to Sandhaus, three parts liberation, opportunity, and community. Just add heat (an easy task in LA) and new life begins to form. Opportunity was everywhere. With Victor Gruen, Kavanaugh designed all-encompassing interiors that spanned material, lighting, display, furnishings, and wall treatments. She founded her own firm, Gere Kavanaugh/Designs, in 1964, and her own line of textiles, Geraldine Fabrics, in 1970.
She injected her “radically upbeat” design aesthetic into a slew of other urban spaces outside of sunny California, like Detroit, Chicago, Austin, Rochester, Albuquerque, and Pittsburgh.
She also designed interiors for Joseph Magnin stores, the offices of Hall & Levine, and the Neutrogena Corporate Offices, saturating them with cheerful color, pattern, and texture. Throughout her career, she injected her “radically upbeat” design aesthetic into a slew of other urban spaces outside of sunny California, like Detroit, Chicago, Austin, Rochester, Albuquerque, and Pittsburgh. “Just name it and Gere’s got a million ideas on how it can be done,” wrote Women’s Wear Daily in 1965.
“It seems like the idea of ‘anything goes’ could be realized here because no one was paying attention,” says Sandhaus. “They didn’t have to get noticed or meet the standards of the East Coast. Gere was encouraged to look at all design practices.” California was the state of technicolor; brighter, and more vivid than our reality.
It helped to have a small and intimate community of fellow LA-based designers. As Sandhaus recalls, after meeting Sister Corita Kent and Sister Magdalen Mary at a barbeque in Memphis, the Sisters offered Kavanaugh a place to stay when she arrived in Los Angeles. They remained close ever since. In addition to Kent, she has worked alongside rising stars Frank Gehry, Greg Walsh, and Deborah Sussman in their shared office space. Their time working together spawned a kind of kaleidoscopic entanglement of influence. Put a seed in the right environment, and see how it will grow. “Gere was of a moment where the drumbeat she heard was truly an American one—one coming from the Eameses, from Alexander Girard, Harley Earl, and GM, who were really starting to redefine an aesthetic for America,” says Sandhaus.
Like New York, I often hear people say of LA that everyone is from somewhere else. Take Billy Al Bengston, credited with that famous “We’ll figure out what art is” quote. He was from Dodge City, Kansas. Deborah Sussman was born in Brooklyn. Likewise, much of the CalArts Graphic Design Program faculty at the time, credited with creating the California aesthetic, was trained by Cranbrook’s caution-to-the-wind program. For many new arrivals from across the U.S., California had been a beacon of optimism to travel toward, with the color palette to match.
Kavanaugh’s imprint across the U.S. gives her a more multifaceted place in design history than one coast could allow. But it’s undeniable that after reaching Los Angeles, her work amplified. As the co-authors write in the book, “After that moment, everything went bright.”