The Rowena Reed Kostellow Fund

Elements of Design: The Early Years

The story of Rowena Reed Kostellow’s life and work is inseparable from the story of American design education. She was present at the creation in 1934 of the country’s first industrial design department, at Carnegie Technical Institute. She came to Pratt two years later to help found the department in which she taught for fifty years and she continued to teach private classes until just weeks before she died. Hers was a household name within the industrial design profession. But she left an equally important legacy in the students who established and taught in industrial design departments throughout the country and passed on her principles and methods in their own teaching.

Rowena taught two generations of teachers following Kostellow’s death, enlarging the circle of influence further. Through her students-turned-educators, Rowena Reed made an enduring imprint on the teaching and practice of industrial design not only in the U.S., but beyond. Gerald Gulotta taught foundation principles in Guadalajara, Mexico; Craig Vogel applied them successfully in New Zealand; Cheryl Akner-Koler teaches them in the Department of Industrial Design at the University College of Art, Crafts and Design in Stockholm, Sweden.

Rowena Teaching Foundation 3-D Class

Those who studied with Rowena Reed didn’t easily forget her. Although she was a small-boned woman of medium height who rarely raised her voice, she was a person of commanding presence, demanding enormous effort from her students. Abstraction doesn’t come easily to most fledgling designers but she insisted that an understanding of abstract visual order was at the heart of good design and that by perseverance and hard work students could master that order. She refined a methodology for teaching that led students, step by step, to an understanding of and ability to use what she called “the structure of abstract visual relationships.”

Rowena Reed was born in Kansas City, Missouri on July 6, l900. One of three children of a doctor and his wife, she grew up in a prominent family, in a growing heartland city, in the optimistic early years of a new century. Her upbringing gave her an unshakable confidence and sense of entitlement that never left her. She entered the University of Missouri in l918, intending to study art. “I didn’t know about three-dimensional design. I just took all the art courses I could take until there were no more,” she recalled in an interview in l982. “But even then in my untrained way I knew I was wasting my time. They weren’t teaching me anything. There was no order, no organization, no continuity, nothing you could build on.” She majored in journalism, worked for a while as a fashion illustrator and, in l922, enrolled in the Kansas City Art Institute.

There she met Alexander Kostellow, a Persian-born, European-educated artist who was beginning his teaching career as an instructor in painting. She was his student. He was, she said, “simply the most interesting man I’d ever met.”

Kostellow was a powerful personality. A graduate of the University of Berlin with degrees in philosophy and psychology, he had declined an invitation to join the German army during World War I and escaped the country through Holland, where he boarded a boat to the U.S. He jumped ship in Boston Harbor to avoid immigration officials, worked his way to New York and studied for several years at The Art Students’ League, The New York School of Fine and Applied Arts and The National Academy of Design.

Kostellow felt the same way about his art education as Rowena Reed felt about her own. In l947 he wrote: “My own experiences as an art student had not been too happy, because of the rather haphazard way one had to acquire the necessary knowledge and experience to become self-supporting in the field of art. Many of my fellow students were armed with plenty of patience and visions of ultimate glory, and spent years drawing casts in the national academies. Clearly it was a case of “life is short; art is long.” But to one who looked upon the graphic and plastic arts as a legitimate profession and part of our economic set-up, and expected a definite type of fundamental training as a preparation for his career, the method was far from satisfactory.”

Rowena Reed and Alexander Kostellow were married in Kansas City and she returned with him to New York. There she studied sculpture with Alexander Archipenko. “I got a great deal from him,” she said. “His work is very profound and beautifully organized. But after I studied for a while I came to feel that the one thing lacking in his work was an awareness of space.” That quest was to remain a driving force in her professional life. In l929 the couple moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where Kostellow had been hired to teach painting at the Carnegie Technical Institute. Rowena taught at a private school and worked as a sculptor. She and Alexander had a daughter, Adele, their only child. And together they pursued their interest in developing a structured language for understanding and teaching visual arts.

Next Section: Inventing Industrial Design Education