The Enchanting Modernist

If you’ve been following the cover credits of the 113 issues I have featured so far, you’ll notice that many of the covers were illustrated by Ilonka Karasz, including the cover of the April 16, 1927 issue featured in this post.

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April 16, 1927 cover by Ilonka Karasz. She would design 186 covers for the New Yorker between 1925 and 1973.

During her long and varied career Karasz would design 186 covers for the New Yorker. A native of Hungary, she moved to the U.S. in 1913 and settled in Greenwich Village, where she quickly rose to become a prominent practitioner of modern design and the decorative arts.

She created paintings, prints and drawings in her early years before moving on to a variety of machine- and hand-made objects rendered in silver and ceramic. She designed furniture strongly influenced by the European De Stijl movement, and was also a pioneer of modern textile design, even developing textiles for use in airplanes and automobiles.

Beginning in the 1940s Karasz would emerge as one of the country’s leading wallpaper artists. Her younger sister, Mariska Karasz, would also become a noted American fashion designer and textile artist.

The range of Ilonka Karasz’s work is astonishing — from homespun images of rural America to the sleek, hard edges of modern design; from textiles and wallpaper to silver sets and large-scale furniture. Now I will get out of the way so you can see for yourself:

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Ilonka Karasz’s first and last covers for the New Yorker: April 4, 1925 (left) and Oct. 22, 1973.
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Many of Karasz’s covers were scenes of bucolic Americana–small towns, villages and farms. From left to right, covers from Dec. 9, 1950, July 5, 1952, and March 28, 1953.
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Ilonka Karasz, circa 1920s. At right, an illustration from her 1949 book, The Twelve Days of Christmas.
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TEXTILE ARTIST…Karasz’s cover design for the Aug. 19, 1944 New Yorker (left), and an oak leaf-pattern textile in Mohair, 1928 (RISD)
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WALLPAPER…“Wisconsin,” a mid-century wallpaper design by Ilonka Karasz (left), and her “Ducks & Grasses” wallpaper from 1948.
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Candlestick and small bowl by Karasz from a set designed for Paye & Baker, 1928. (Cooper Hewitt)
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Karasz’s mahogany desk from 1928 (Minneapolis Institute of Arts)

For more on Ilonka Karasz’s amazing career, see the Core77 article, Ilonka Karasz, 20th-Century Design Polymath, by Rebecca Veit.

Next Time: The Castle Builder…

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David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

2 thoughts on “The Enchanting Modernist”

  1. THANK YOU for writing about Karasz. I have discovered her by doing jigsaws on the NYer Web site and find her work fascinating. Haven’t been able to discover much about her, so I’m grateful for the pieces you’ve pulled together!

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    1. That is what I enjoy most about reading history through the New Yorker–discovering artists, writers and other personalities who are little known today. In the case of Karasz, I suspect she didn’t get due attention simply because she was woman. Looking at her innovative work in so many mediums, she should be better known today as one of the pioneers of modernism.

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