Event: General Motors Highlights The Contributions Of Women In Car Design

The Museum of the City of New York presented an evening charting the influential past, present, and future of women in the field of automotive design.

PSFK recently attended an event titled Designing Women: The Intersection of Art, Culture and Car Design held at the Museum of the City of New York. The evening featured presentations by three women working within various levels of GM’s Global Design Studios.

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Teckla Rhoads, GM Director of Global Industrial Design talked about how GM functions as a global design organization. Currently they have ten studios around the world and employ 800 designers in the US, and a total of 1500 designers worldwide from 37 countries. This has made GM more culturally diverse in terms of the design staff. This allows the studios to develop products better suited to particular regions of the world such as Europe and Asia. GM also recognizes the importance of having women as members of the design staff.

In particular, we want more women designers. Not to fulfill some kind of quota but because they bring a unique design perspective and sensitivity. Even though men and women often want the same thing in a vehicle, we do have different needs and wants when it comes to aesthetics, function, and comfort. Women designers bring a unique and different perspective.

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Susan Skarsgard, Archive Manager, GM Global Industrial Design reviewed the history of women who worked as part of the GM design staff. Beginning in the 1940′s, legendary head of design Harley Earle began the trend of hiring women designers with the goal of having at least one in the design department of each division. He recognized the influence of women in the marketplace which at the time showed women having the deciding vote in 70 percent of the cars sold. Moreover, Earle recognized that women looked at things differently than men. This diversity in staff was used as a PR and marketing tool through the presentation of special auto and fashion shows where female designers were given the opportunity to create female centric versions of GM products.

One milestone at GM was ‘The Feminine Auto Show” held in 1958 at the GM Technical Center. Management commissioned female designers from each of the studios to create two cars for each division from a female point of view. Initially custom paint and trim along with interior fabrics and hardware were the focus. But the women extended the project further proposing solutions for improved human factors and safety. The first retractable self adjusting seat belts were debuted in the show for the first time. They also proposed open door warning lights, another safety feature common on all cars today. All the concepts were favorably received by GM management and more significantly appealed to both the men and the women.

Skarsgard noted the involvement of women in the design studios at GM and in the industry as a whole has been slow but consistent. In 1956, GM had 11 women designers. In 1994 the number increased to 21. Today 117 women work in the global design studios of GM.

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Current Cadillac designer, Christine Park did a live digital sketching demo and showed the process she used to create the interior theme of the Cadillac XTS Platinum Concept which debuted this year. The interior concept which draws inspiration from the lotus flower, will eventually show up in a future Cadillac production car in a few years.

The program was held in conjunction with the Cars, Culture, and the City exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.

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General Motors

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