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Ilonka Karasz Design Pioneer in the Arts

November 6, 2015

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Ilonka Karasz (1896-1981), was an American designer and illustrator known for avant-garde industrial design and for her many New Yorker magazine covers.  Born originally in Budapest, Hungary, the oldest of three children. One of her younger sisters was the fashion designer and textile artist Mariska Karasz with whom she collaborated on a variety of projects.

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She studied art at the Royal Academy of Arts and Crafts during a period when the reigning aesthetic owed much to the Wiener Werkstätte and was one of the first women to be admitted to the school. She emigrated to the United States in 1913 as a young woman and began to make a career for herself in New York City.

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In 1914, Karasz co-founded (with Winold Reiss) the European-American artists’ collective Society of Modern Art, and shortly afterwards she was commissioned to create advertising for the department store Bonwit Teller. For a few years in the late teens she taught textile design at the Modern Art School.

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Karasz was the founding director of ‘Design Group’, a firm of industrial designers, craftspeople, and artists. From the 1910s to the 1960s, her designs—inspired equally by folk art and modern art—found their way into a wide variety of textiles, wallpaper, rugs, ceramics, furniture, silverware, and toys. Between 1916 and 1918 she won several prizes (and gained visibility) for textile designs entered in competitions run by the fashion magazine Women’s Wear. As early as 1918, she was being called “one of the best designers of modern textiles,” while by 1950 she was considered one of America’s leading wallpaper designers, known for experimenting with different methods for transfer and layering of images. In the 1950s, she was one of a handful of artists selected by the aluminium manufacturer ‘Alcoa’ to experiment with the use of aluminium for wall coverings.

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Karasz ventured into a number of unusual areas connected with textile design and production. She was known as a pioneer of modern textile designs requiring the use of the Jacquard loom, and she became one of the few women to design textiles for planes and cars.  In the late 1920s, Dupont-Rayon Company hired her to help improve the texture and feel of rayon and generally raise the production standards for this then-new material.

In 1920, Ilonka married Dutch chemist Willem Nyland, with whom she had two children. They built a house in Brewster, New York, where Karasz lived for most of her life and which was featured in a 1928 spread in House Beautiful magazine. The couple lived in Java between 1929 and 1931, where Karasz complemented her eclectic mix of modern and traditional furnishings with murals that paid homage to the surrounding tropical foliage.

Here’s a few of her book covers.

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Karasz’s exploration of furniture and silverware was most intense in the late 1920s and 1930s. Her furniture was often rectilinear and strongly planar, inspired by the European De Stijl movement; she also designed a number of multifunctional pieces. In 1928, she was included in a European-American exhibition put on by Macy’s department store in New York, alongside such prominent designers as Kem Weber, Bruno Paul, and Josef Hoffmann.

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In another 1928 exhibition, organized by American Designers’ Gallery in New York, she was the only woman given responsibility for designing an entire room, and in fact she designed both a model studio apartment and a nursery. The latter is considered possibly the first modern nursery designed in America, and Karasz followed it up with several later nursery designs pragmatically featuring convertible furniture and washable fabrics. She also tried to incorporate elements that would help very young children learn, such as colour-coded knobs on dressers.

Less well known are the numerous maps she created, mostly for books but also as magazine covers and there’s an interesting post about this here.

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Her Twelve Days Of Christmas has a lovely folk art look to it.

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Karasz began painting covers for the New Yorker in 1924 and continued up to 1973. She had a total of 186 New Yorker covers across those six decades, many of them featuring lively vignettes of daily life viewed from above and drawn using unusual colour combinations. She also created covers and illustrations for avant-garde magazines—including Bruno’s Weekly, Modern Art Collector, and Playboy: A Portfolio of Art and Satire—as well as for children’s books such as ‘The Heavenly Tenants’.

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I think these illustrations are amongst my favourites. Such amazing detail.

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Karasz died in 1981 at her daughter’s home in Warwick, New York. The year after she died, the New York gallery Fifty/50 mounted a solo show of her work. In 2003, a retrospective of her paintings, prints, and drawings entitled “Enchanting Modern: Ilonka Karasz, 1896-1981,” was mounted by the George Museum of Art. Several dozen of her drawings and sample books for wallpaper, rugs, and metal-ware are in the collection of the Cooper Hewitt Museum.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. hoorayhenrietta permalink
    November 6, 2015 10:32 am

    I particularly love her covers for the New Yorker ♥

    • November 7, 2015 10:24 am

      She’s so inspirational and across so many different disciplines.

  2. November 7, 2015 5:09 am

    Amazingly prolific artist and designer. Thanks for sharing your research on other well known talented artists. They are very inspiring and a joy to see their beautiful work.

  3. November 8, 2015 2:10 pm

    Wow! Such wonderful work – thanks for introducing her to me.

  4. November 8, 2015 2:12 pm

    Reblogged this on Cat Among the Pigeons Press and commented:
    A wonderful blog post as usual from on a fantastic designer.

  5. November 10, 2015 8:48 pm

    Beautiful, intricate, detailed work, but when I got to the very last image (night sky), I thought that was breathtaking!

  6. Michael Einhorn permalink
    February 29, 2016 4:34 pm

    I own two small studio ceramics made by Ilonka. She had associations where such pieces could be finished; Atelier Archipenko, Woodstock. Scraffitto design, possibly Gurdjeiffian. Her husband was in my neighborhood in 1947 purchasing a ranch for the Gurdjeiff Foundation, with instruction from Gurdjeiff himself. Ilonka left some deep footprints. Inside the foundation she was known, or is known as Mrs. Nye. I believe there is still more to be known, and more to discover.

  7. Barbara Drebing permalink
    January 19, 2019 4:19 pm

    Wondered where you retrieved the images of bus and lion with plumes done by Ilonka Karasz. From her book illustrations? Such a lovely summary of her life’s work!

    • January 20, 2019 8:10 am

      Thanks Barbara for your comment, the lion must have appeared when I searched for her work on Google, off hand I’m afraid I don’t remember specifically.

    • Marty West permalink
      March 23, 2023 5:26 am

      Such amazing timeless work. Are any of her wallpaper designs available.
      Paul Huber, a friend of my husband’s, was her nephew and did a portrait of her based on a photograph. He gave that to us several years ago before he died.

  8. Holly Sierra permalink
    November 20, 2021 9:37 pm

    Such a lovely site to stumble upon. My parents were friends with Ilonka and Will long ago. I simply adore Ilonka’s work and ended up purchasing a large book that features the New Yorker Magazine covers, many of which are hers… Thanks!

    • November 21, 2021 10:48 am

      Cheers Holly for your comments

    • Linda Sposato permalink
      December 5, 2021 6:59 pm

      Hi Holly,

      So glad you enjoy llonka Karasz as much as I do. She painted St. Andrew and the fishes on her bedroom wall it’s stunning.

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