Ellen Birnbaum Manderfield
Pictured: Ellen Manderfield at the Montgomery Ward Bureau of Design, 1950. Photo courtesy of The Chicago Athenaeum, Christian Narkiewicz-Laine, Director.
Written by Vicki Matranga, H/IDSA, Chair of IDSA's Design History Section:
“No time is wasted. It is one of my golden rules,” said Ellen Manderfield. Persistent and determined, she fulfilled that motto in her design career of nearly 50 years and as a multi-media artist. A designer for large companies in Chicago and upstate New York, she was also a leader and pathbreaker in design organizations. She managed her long career and equally long marriage for professional success and personal rewards.
Growing up in Chicago, Ellen Birnbaum took as many art classes as she could in high school and wanted to design furniture. However, her father advised that was not a profession for a woman and suggested commercial art instead.
In 1938 she earned a BFA in art and a teaching certificate at Mundelein College (later acquired by Loyola University). With a six-month scholarship to Harrison Commercial Art Institute, she took a full course load while also teaching art at several elementary schools. From 1939 to 1944, she designed products, packaging, and advertising for the Meyercord Company, a maker of decorative decals and synthetic surface materials used in furnishings.
Seeking new directions, she took a job at Colonial Radio Corporation in Buffalo, New York. She designed radios, phonographs, and television cabinetry, and could apply her knowledge of woodworking. She organized the design department of seven designers and model makers, gaining valuable managerial experience. When Sylvania acquired the company and disbanded the department, she returned to Chicago in 1947. The previous year, she had married photographer and artist Walter Manderfield, her former coworker at Meyercord, who remained in Chicago while she worked in Buffalo.
Hired by retailer Montgomery Ward in 1947, Ellen Manderfield worked under Anne Swainson at the Bureau of Design. Manderfield designed products in many categories, including sewing machines, lawn mowers, shop tools, kitchen appliances, musical instruments, and radios.
While in Chicago, the Manderfields were both active members of the Society of Typographic Arts (STA) and the Industrial Designers Institute (IDI). IDI had been formed in 1938 by designers in the interiors industry and had many female members. Ellen served as an officer and Walter photographed IDI events.
When the Korean War limited Montgomery Ward consumer product development, the design staff was reduced. In 1951, Manderfield returned to upstate New York to join the industrial design department at General Electric in Syracuse. She designed electronic equipment, television cabinets, and accessories.
While at GE, she also freelanced for Syracuse China Corp. Her dinnerware designs were awarded in the prestigious Ceramic National exhibitions held at the Syracuse Art Museum, and in 1956 her “Evening Star” pattern was selected for use on American Airlines’ first class Champagne Flight.
For three years, she and Walter commuted to see each other until a job brought him to Syracuse as well. In 1956 she was faced with yet another corporate shake up and had to leave General Electric. She accepted an offer at nearby Oneida Silversmiths, where she remained for 30 years until retiring as Senior Industrial Designer in 1986.
At Oneida, Manderfield designed 200 patterns of stainless and silver flatware, many of which were produced for long life spans. She also designed melamine and holloware products. In 1979, her ‘Omni” contemporary stainless steel set was accepted by the Museum of Modern Art’s Design Study collection.
In 1953, she founded the Syracuse chapter of the IDI with 24 members and led it as the chapter grew. She aimed to be accepted as a member of the elite American Society of Industrial Designers (ASID) whose strict entry requirements favored consultant designers: candidates needed to submit designs in three product categories for three different clients. Manderfield’s work for multiple employers met the criteria and Manderfield was accepted as the first female member of the ASID in 1957 while also heading the local the IDI chapter. (In 1965, ASID, IDI and the Industrial Design Educators Association merged to form IDSA.)
At the same time as she was responsible for precision assignments at Oneida, she spent her lunch hours creating jewelry and metal sculptures in the company’s shop. Because of dangerous driving conditions during Syracuse winters, Ellen lived in Oneida during the work week and Walter in their home 30 miles away. On winter evenings, she created weavings, macrame, and paintings in varied media. The Manderfields shared civic and artistic activities and refurbished several historic homes to adapt for their art studios and public gallery.
In 1981 Mundelein College presented her its Distinguished Alumnae Award. In 1992 Manderfield was the first woman to receive IDSA’s Personal Recognition Award.