Helene Rother Ackernecht was one of the first females to work as an automotive designer when she joined the interior styling staff of General Motors in Detroit in late 1942. It is unclear whether she was an official team member or a consultant at General Motors because thorough records were not kept on her. In 1947, she established her own design studio and was soon contracted by Nash-Kelvinator as a design consultant.
Rother was born in 1908 in Leipzig, Germany and spent her childhood in one of the most creative and artistic community’s in Germany at the time. She graduated from Kunstigwerbe (by 1900 it was known as the Royal Academy of Graphic and Book Arts), a crafts school in Leipzig, around 1930, with the equivalent of a master’s degree. She began her design career illustrating books. By the mid 1930s she decided to flee Germany for France with her seven-year-old daughter and began designing fashion accessories via her own studio, the Contempora Studio. By 1941, Rother and her daughter were forced to flee again after Nazi’s had overthrown France’s army. Her and her daughter were briefly refugees in the northern part of Africa before arriving in the United States.
In 1942, Rother responded to a newspaper advertisement for “a designer of fashioned materials” at General Motors. She sent her already full portfolio of designs for jewelry, book illustrations, and more to GM and soon after, Harley Earl offered her a position. As part of the interior styling staff at GM, Rother specialized in upholstery colors and fabrics, lighting, door hardware and seat construction. She would help in updating the interiors for the Buick, Chevrolet, Cadillac, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac divisions, pushing for more stylized and eye-catching designs. Rother was also on the design team for GM’s Electro-Motive Division’s Train of Tomorrow, working on wall coverings and seating. By 1947, Rother had established her own design studio located on the sixteenth floor of the Fisher building in Detroit. Her primary account was with Nash-Kelvinator and designed most of the elegant interiors of the Nash vehicles from 1948-1956. She worked with designer, Pinin Farina on the Ambassador, the Statesman, the Rambler, and the Airflyte models.
Helene Rother helped shift the standard of automotive design, post WWII, from basic and simple to elegant and unique. This focus on design and quality features helped establish a new segment in the automobile market, as the Rambler is widely acknowledged to be the first successful modern American compact car. Rother’s accomplishments and natural talent for industrial design mirror the stories of the pioneers and are reflected in the existing list of Inductees in the category of Inventors, Engineers, and Designers. She was also the first woman to address the Society of Automotive Engineers in Detroit. Her paper was titled, “Are we doing a good job with our interiors?” and urged those in the industry to begin looking forward on the details of interior styling. This paper also highlighted the importance of quality of design and taste of the buyer would in-turn elevate the car.
Rother’s name would become much more well-known at this time, after her address at the SAE conference, members of the press ignored CEO’s to record her presentation. She also began to be named alongside Pinin Farina in Nash’s advertisements for the Rambler and the Airflyte; “Thus there is new confirmation of Nash leadership in design…for the swift, clean continental styling of Pinin Farina, world’s foremost custom car designer…for the luxurious harmony of interior fabrics and colors planned by Madame Helene Rother of Paris.” By 1951, Rother was invited to assist in the presentation of GM’s LeSabre concept car in at the Paris Auto Show that year. She also toured the show as a Nash contingent, touring the floor with Farina discussing his custom bodied cars he had on display.
Rother’s influence on the industry is not well known to many but her influence on the styling and design of vehicle interiors is clear.