Ask Gere Kavanaugh about her life spent in design, and the conversation may well cover ikat fabric from India, the finer points of teapot design, the iconic aesthetics of the 1984 L.A. Olympics, or any of the numerous artists and designers she has befriended or collaborated with, from acclaimed architect Frank Gehry to sculptor Ruth Asawa. For more than six decades, Kavanaugh has worked in just about every facet of design, from textiles, ceramics and color theory to furniture, lighting, retail interiors and exhibition design. Some 80 years after she took her first art class at age 8, she shows no signs of slowing down.
Born in Memphis in 1929, Kavanaugh knew early on that she wanted to be a designer, crediting influential midcentury magazine Arts & Architecture with opening her eyes to the field's potential. She studied at the Memphis Academy of Arts, where her textile designs caught the eye of Francis Henry Taylor, then director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who lobbied for her to come to Parsons School of Design in New York. Instead Kavanaugh chose to go to graduate school at Cranbrook, the interdisciplinary art and design school outside of Detroit. She was only the fifth woman to attend the Design Studio there.
Cranbrook's open course of study — dissolving barriers between the “fine” and “applied” arts — proved invaluable, but what was happening outside the classroom was just as important to Kavanaugh's education. “It was a very interesting time to be in Detroit,” she recalls, recounting how she would benefit from the critical mass of architectural and design offices in the city. “[Minoru] Yamasaki's office was in Detroit; so was Victor Gruen's. Down the back road was Eero Saarinen's office. After the studios closed, we could go there and sort of hang out and find out what they did during the day.”
“I work every day. There are a lot of things I still want to get done.” —Gere Kavanaugh
After Cranbrook, Kavanaugh designed retail interiors and showrooms for General Motors and Gruen, the father of the shopping mall, who offered her a position in his L.A. office. She moved West in 1960 and immediately became part of a small, close-knit community of designers, architects and artists. “It was a very exciting climate; you knew everybody,” she says. “It was like a colony.”
She struck out on her own in 1964, opening Gere Kavanaugh Designs, and sharing a studio in a Santa Monica bungalow with then-budding architect Frank Gehry. “We kept our drawings in the bathtub,” she jokes. The two soon moved to a larger space on San Vicente, which became a kind of gathering place for their creative community. “Everybody began to hang out at the space. Charles and Ray Eames would come, and Cesar Pelli and Tony Lumsden. It was a real hub. We had camaraderie and it really worked.”
Over the ensuing decades, Kavanaugh would take on a wide range of projects, including retail spaces for department store magnate Joseph Magnin, exhibition design for the Huntington Library, numerous household and industrial objects, and textiles, which she has traveled around the world to produce. In the mid-'60s she created a simple and smart set of urban planning toys, “Mini City,” which was acquired for LACMA's permanent collection.
Despite her prolificness, she still felt the stigma of being a female designer in a male-dominated field. “I had a designer friend say, 'I know you can do fabulous designs, Gere, but can you really cook pork chops?'” she recalls. “That was the mentality at the time when I started out.”
As she has done throughout her career, Kavanaugh is still constantly coming up with new ideas and projects inspired by her voracious cultural consumption. (“Oh, that is just to LIVE FOR!” she is fond of exclaiming about designs, artworks or even foods that delight her.) Her latest project is a light based on a 19th-century green glass lampshade fused with a component of a contemporary photographic clamp.
“I've had a very interesting time, and it's not over yet,” she declares. “I work every day. There are a lot of things I still want to get done.”