Even though women have historically been underrepresented in the auto industry, the truth is that those who have managed to work in the sector, have made revolutionary leaps, leaving a bright legacy. Helene Rother is one of these wonder-women, whose path has definitely not been an easy one. Nevertheless, she managed to get through the obstacles, defying stereotypes and succeeding in a typically male-dominated industry. She made it: not just as a regular worker, but as a successful entrepreneur.
How did Helene Rother’s journey begin?
Born in 1908 in Leipzig, Germany, Helene was brought up in an environment that was constantly under war threat. Germany and France, where she later lived, became battlegrounds for the World Wars. Therefore, it is not difficult to imagine her childhood and teenage years resembling a rollercoaster with sharp ups and downs.
Yet, she managed to study art in Germany and then worked as a jewelry designer in Paris, before World War II. During this time, she gave birth to her daughter and formed her little family. However, as I mentioned in the beginning, there were times of danger and uncertainty.
Soon enough, she had to flee from Nazi-occupied France to North Africa. It was very hard for her and her seven-year-old daughter to travel to the US right away without a visa. However, somehow she got lucky and embarked on a ship to the United States.
Going through all these hurdles ever since she was young, then traveling across three continents with a child, shows her resilience and determination to thrive. A new chapter began for her in the US where she would make history as an automotive designer.
What made Helene Rother successful in the male-dominated auto industry?
Helene was an able professional, a beautiful woman, and a great mother who did not have an easy start in the U.S. After all, she was a refugee, and most importantly, a woman. Yet, her design skills found application in art, jewelry production, marketing, and even book illustrating. It was by chance that she came across a General Motors interior designer vacancy ad. Though Helene did not have any experience in the industry, she applied and got the job.
Interior design was an area that was just taking off in the auto industry, as people were seeking more comfort and luxury in their cars. No wonder, Helene was the first woman doing this job in Detroit, as the damsels of design were growing in number. To everyone’s surprise, she became quite good at it and soon was one of the best paid General Motors employees. Such a high salary for a woman was so unusual, that it even made headlines in The Detroit News.
But the attention and media scrutiny did not stop her. She continued gaining expertise in the industry and doing research work. She was the first woman to speak at the Society of Automotive Engineers in Detroit. Her paper titled “Are we doing a good job in our car interiors?” was highly praised. Soon enough, her work was getting awards such as the Jackson Medal.
How did the entrepreneurial career unfold for Ms. Rother?
As Helene had gained a reputation for high-quality car interior design at GM, other automotive companies started contracting her as a design consultant. Realizing that she could be her own boss, Helene opened her own studio named Helene Rother Associates.
Her designs for Nash Ramblers became famous, and her name was part of all advertisements. She turned to be a symbol of European influence on American automobile designs. She did not just design car interiors, though. Her style was also present in the stained glass of many reconstructed American churches. Expanding her work, communicating with clients like a true businesswoman, without losing quality and creativity were remarkable qualities of Helene.
What differentiated Helene Rother’s work?
Cars shouldn’t just take a person from point A to point B. They should also offer comfort and a pleasant experience for the driver. This is what Helene understood very early on. She saw the potential of interior car design as adding value to the car and ultimately giving the auto companies a competitive advantage. From a simple and basic design, she brought style, elegance, and uniqueness to each of the cars she designed. People loved buying cars that had her name as an interior designer.
As technology advanced, more high-quality materials could be nicely incorporated into vehicles, adding to their charm. The ambition to strive for more quality and more elegance, adding a modern contemporaneous touch to the dull vehicles made Helene unique.
She was a true trailblazer in the design world and her work has been acknowledged throughout the years. Lastly, in 2020 the Automotive Hall of Fame inducted her, along with other professionals who have contributed to the automotive sector. Helene Rother remains a role model for so many women who are seeking to unleash their potential and strive in male-dominated industries.
What about your car? Have you checked who designed its interior? I bet now you are curious to find out whether your car is designed by a woman. Let us know!
Image: Automotive Hall of Fame