Rowena Reed Kostellow, FIDSA

Rowena Reed Kostellow, FIDSA
(1900-1988)

Regarded as one of the founders of American industrial design education, Rowena Reed Kostellow, FIDSA was a highly regarded industrial design leader, sculptor, and teacher of design for half a century.

Born in Kansas City, MO on July 6, 1900, Rowena received a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and later studied sculpture at the Kansas City Art Institute. Rowena married Alexander Kostellow, FIDSA on September 26, 1921. In 1929, the duo moved to Pittsburgh, PA to teach at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. There they co-founded, with colleague Donald Dohner, the Institute's first industrial design education course.

In 1938, Rowena and Alexander were invited by Dohner to join the faculty of the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY, where they initiated and co-founded Pratt's industrial design department with other teachers and artists. 

In 1959, Pratt formally established a Department of Industrial Design. In 1962, Rowena was named Chair of the Department, a position she held until 1966. She continued to teach until 1987. 

When they began teaching, Rowena and Alexander believed “art education was purely subjective…there was no order, no organization, no continuity, nothing you could build on.” They thought it was possible then to define a rational structure of visual relationships, and that the objective principles of order and organization on which that structure rested could be applied to all forms of visual expression. They created visual exercises, such as exercises in music, to develop sensitivity and skills to make beautiful forms. 

The original Pratt vision was organized in a triangular fashion: Dohner handling the practical instruction, Alexander expressing his philosophies of organic visuals, and Rowena expounding on the physical disciplines of organizing shapes and materials into a coherent, three-dimensional whole. Their new design process, focused on mass production and mass markets, required a multidisciplinary approach, iterative process, visual design, and user-centered design thinking. They developed a curriculum based on learning abstract relationships with application in real products and environments that began in Foundation courses at Pratt and ended at graduation. Their program combined teaching sculptural form with real-life projects sponsored by industry partners.

Rowena's unshakable conviction was that Foundation studies aimed at exploring abstract visual relationships were essential to creating and appreciating art and design. She focused her attention and considerable gifts on exploring these relationships in the three-dimensional realm, creating the standard three-dimensional exercises for Pratt ID students. She spent her life developing and refining a methodology for teaching what she called the ”structure of visual relationships," with three-dimensional exercises of form, plane, and line; convexity and concavity; and space problems.

With rigorist, formalist, and principle-based visual relationships of dominant, sub-dominant, and subordinate composition, the curriculum started with simple pieces—three rectilinear forms, two colors, black and white compositions—and then moved to more complex curvilinear forms, dynamic compositions, color gradation, and color transparency. She introduced abstract projects to Bach’s piano exercises so students could practice them over and over.

Reed Reed Kostellow died on September 17, 1988, at the age of 88. Her students created the Rowena Reed Kostellow Fund at Pratt in her memory; learn more at rowenafund.org.