“Alexander Kostellow was a juggler—a genius at keeping all the balls in the air,” Ron Beckman says. “Rowena Reed only juggled one ball, but she could do everything with it.” Three-dimensional form-making was Rowena Reed’s magnificent obsession and after the death of her partner in life and work she took the study of three-dimensional abstraction into an entirely new realm.
“Kostellow created the foundation course in three dimensional visual abstraction that Rowena Reed considered key, based on years of his own study of the abstract intelligence of the best of western art and design,” explained William Fogler who studied with Reed and Kostellow at Pratt and became one of the first of many former students to join the Industrial Design faculty. “In contrast, the advanced courses in visual abstraction created by her were based only on her, on what she saw. His contribution was eclectic, it embraces the best insights to be found in Western art; her contribution was egocentric, it glows with the insight of one majestically gifted woman. Alexander Kostellow explained the difference. He said, “It took me many years to learn abstraction. Miss Reed was born abstract.”
“She wasn’t directly connected intellectually or professionally to anyone,” said Fogler. “She disconnected from her husband, the constructivists, European design. She was a terribly complex person—and very original. The meaning of her insight is that a three-dimensional object or space cannot be created on a piece of paper. She knew she was teaching the potential depth of the abstract visual stimulus.”
“It has been thirty or forty years since many of us were in class with her,” says Midori Imatake, a designer who practices in Japan. “But our appreciation for her process and philosophy has deepened and I believe that the wisdom and validity of what she taught has been confirmed by what science has learned about the brain’s visual function.”
The 1960s spelled hard times for structured approaches to education. “Foundation flies in the face of the cafeteria/self-feeding approach,” says Eugene Garfinkle, who taught at Pratt during that beleaguered time. Foundation became a rear guard activity. Many of Rowena’s original colleagues had died or retired. She still had around her a small group of dedicated teachers from the early years including Ivan Rigby and Robert Kolli (who had become chairman of the department after Kostellow’s death), and others whom she had trained: Bill Fogler, Richard Welch, Gerry Gulotta among them. But fewer faculty than before taught full time. And others came from schools and disciplines that did not honor what they saw as outdated or irrelevant methods. Although the task of preserving Foundation looked like a losing battle, Rowena would not cede defeat.”
Rowena Reed became head of Pratt’s Industrial Design department in l962. During the next four years, under her direction, students in the department prepared two important exhibitions of their work: one in l965 at the IBM Gallery in Manhattan and the other at Expo 67 in Montreal, where Pratt was one of three American design schools chosen to participate in the ICSID Designer’s Pavilion. Deadlines, budgets, and students strained nearly beyond endurance didn’t deter her from her inviolable practice which was to scrutinize, criticize and do it over and over until it was right. Sculptor Jon Pai, who studied with Rowena in the mid 60’s, recalls “I remember when we were preparing the exhibit at the IBM gallery. I walked into the space one day and there were faculty just sitting there, looking glum. They weren’t saying a word. Then I saw Rowena across the room, standing by herself, her arms folded, holding her ground. She didn’t like the color of the wall, she demanded that it be repainted and she wouldn’t let go.”
By the time she retired from full-time teaching in l966 the name Rowena Reed was synonymous with Pratt industrial design. “The Pratt approach was the Rowena Kostellow approach,” Arthur Pulos wrote. “It was Rowena who brought the preoccupation—if that’s the word for it—for plastic form to Pratt. She saw forms as being the one thing that the industrial designer can do that no one else can do.”
“She became,” Bill Fogler asserts, “the premier arbiter of form and space in industrial design.”
Rowena Reed was named Professor Emeritus and continued to teach her Space Analysis course for twenty more years. She judged sculpture and design competitions and lectured in schools and to professional organizations throughout the country and in Europe. She continued to act as an outspoken advocate for the industrial designer and industrial design education.
“Industrial design started out as a reaction against the purely mechanical work that the engineers were doing,” she declared. “There was a need for someone to design objects that make a definite design statement. Industrial designers were brought in to save industry—and they did. Industrial designers put industry on its feet in this country and they’ve never gotten credit for it. Our government has never supported schools of design as they do in some European countries. And Europe supports design in other ways. Money spent on public relations creates a climate favorable to good design and makes the consumer more aware of it. This in turn makes the designer feel that his contribution is important. This country, which has benefited the most from design, has given the profession little recognition and support.”
“She really was a missionary,” sculptor John Pai says. “She had that missionary spirit—an idealization of how society could become transformed—and a belief that designers could do it.”
The design statement she looked to industrial designers to make was a statement about the visual qualities of objects. “She didn’t care where you put the motor,” Bruce Hannah says. And Louis Nelson adds, “Her point of view about function was that you learned about it somewhere else.”
In a speech delivered in Paris at the 1962 International Conference of Industrial Designers in Paris she chastised those who would reduce design to the pursuit of structural or functional solutions. “They refuse to concede that visual organization may be a discipline in itself, and necessary to the designer, or that the conceptual thinking of a design-oriented person can possible approach that of the engineer.” Rowena warned her students: “Never let function be an excuse for a bad design.”
During the decade of the 1970s she was awarded “The Bronze Apple” design award by the New York Chapter of the Industrial Designers Society of America; and the “Design in the Americas” award of the IDSA Congress I in Mexico City. In 1972 Pratt awarded her its “Distinguished Visiting Faculty Award.”
Semi-retirement had its drawbacks. Rowena Reed was an intensely social person. She had never organized her life to allow much time alone. Now, as she entered her 70’s, the apartment in Queens that she had lived in for thirty five years seemed far from the center of things. In l972 she gave it up and moved to an unfinished loft in SOHO.
Rehabilitation of the neighborhood between Houston and Canal had just started but artists and designers, including some of her former students, were beginning to move in and Rowena felt the promise. “I think this will be an interesting place to live,” she said and, against the judgement of family and friends, took possession of the big brick-walled loft overlooking West Houston Street.
She relished the large open space, separating living and working spaces with bookcases and placing her bed in the center of the loft. She designed a galley kitchen with storage below the counters so she wouldn’t have to reach up, and without an oven because the only one beautiful enough to live with was far beyond her budget. (A former student bought her a toaster oven.) She brought along her Eames chairs, her grand piano and Jacques, the Siamese cat. Her beloved Volvo stayed behind. She had Alexander’s paintings hung high up on the walls. Once a month a local florist delivered an oversized bundle of laurel which she stood in a large container near the door.
She became a familiar figure in the neighborhood. She was the fine-boned lady in cape and gaucho hat who bought gourmet food at Dean and DeLuca, had her red hair colored and coiffed at a salon on West Broadway and shopped with the ingenues at Agnes B. “She loved good things, including couture clothes and fine food,” remembers RitaSue Siegel, a student in the l960s who is principal of a leading design search and consultancy firm. “She was really quite poor, living on a small retirement pension, but when exposed to the luxuries of life, she took them in stride as if she were used to them.”