Skip to main content

Suzanne E. Vanderbilt Papers

 Collection
Identifier: 1998-02

Collection Scope

The collection documents Suzanne Vanderbilt’s pioneering role as one of the top female designers in the automobile industry. It reflects her many accomplishments in the design field during her studies at Pratt Institute, Cranbrook Academy of Art, and various projects beyond her career at General Motors.

SERIES I: Topical (1954-1994; undated) which contains biographical information, correspondence, and files documenting Ms. Vanderbilt’s General Motors career and studies at the Cranbrook Academy of Arts.

SERIES II: Photographic Materials (1924-1988; undated) contains numerous slides and photographs. Her automotive design work at General Motors is documented, as is her work in metals, jewelry, photography, and sculpture.

SERIES III: Oversized Materials (circa late 1940s-1988; undated) contains examples of Ms. Vanderbilt’s automotive design work, sketches, Pratt Institute and CAA projects, and personal.

Dates

  • 1924-1994; undated

Creator

Access

Access to the collection is unrestricted.

Use

Copyright to this collection has been retained by the donor or the donor’s assignee. Permission to use collection materials must be requested in writing.

History

Suzanne E. Vanderbilt was born on August 25, 1933 in Mt. Vernon, New York to Donald and Evelyn (Sandberg) Vanderbilt. She graduated in 1951 from Mamaroneck [New York] High School, and went on to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, receiving a Bachelor of Industrial Design degree in June 1955. Following graduation, Ms. Vanderbilt began work as a Junior Designer at General Motors Corporation, becoming one of the “Damsels of Design”, a pioneering group of women automobile designers hired by Harley Earl (VP of Design) in the mid-1950s. Ms. Vanderbilt started in the Chevrolet and Cadillac Interior Studios, working on several production and show cars. Ms. Vanderbilt herself was a Corvette enthusiast, and owned several of the sports cars. She moved to the Research Studio in 1958, where she was able to work on interior sections of the Firebird II show car and on an experimental automated highway system. At the age of 28, she was the first female assistant designer at GM, and assumed responsibility for the Human Factors and Safety Program in addition to her regular design duties. During this time, Ms. Vanderbilt developed two patents relating to automotive safety and ergonomics. In 1965, Ms. Vanderbilt was promoted to Senior Designer for Chevrolet Interiors, and later became Chief Designer in the Chevrolet Interior #2 Studio in 1971. Ms. Vanderbilt left GM in 1977 on a disability leave.

From 1963-1965, General Motors granted Ms. Vanderbilt a leave to study at the Cranbrook Academy of Art (CAA), where she earned a Master of Fine Arts in Metalsmithing in May 1965. She was chosen to give the farewell address at the graduation ceremony, and received much attention for her work in religious iconography. Following her retirement from GM, Ms. Vanderbilt continued her interests in metalwork, jewelry design and manufacture, sketching, and photography. Her work was displayed in many exhibitions in the Detroit area. Drawing from her extensive group of nature photographs, she began work on a project illustrating design forms in nature. After an extended illness, Suzanne Vanderbilt passed away in November 1988.

Extent

13.6 Linear Feet (7 MS, 4 OS, 4 OS folders)

Language of Materials

English

Abstract

Suzanne E. Vanderbilt was an industrial designer at General Motors, hired as a “Damsels of Design”, a pioneering group of women automobile designers hired by Harley Earl (VP of Design) in the mid-1950s. While there, she became the first female assistant designer and developed two patents relating to automotive safety and ergonomics, among other accomplishments. From 1963-1965, General Motors granted Ms. Vanderbilt a leave to study at the Cranbrook Academy of Art (CAA), where she earned a Master of Fine Arts in Metalsmithing in May 1965. Following her retirement from GM, Ms. Vanderbilt continued her interests in metalwork, jewelry design and manufacture, sketching, and photography. Her work was displayed in many exhibitions in the Detroit area. Drawing from her extensive group of nature photographs, she began work on a project illustrating design forms in nature. This collection documents Suzanne Vanderbilt’s pioneering role as one of the top female designers in the automobile industry. It reflects her many accomplishments in the design field during her studies at Pratt Institute, Cranbrook Academy of Art, and various projects beyond her career at General Motors.

Arrangement

The collection is arranged in three series: Topical (boxes 1-3) arranged alphabetically by subject; Photographic Materials (boxes 4-6; 10) arranged alphabetically by subject, with dates given when possible. Files titled "Photography" contain a mixture of images from different projects or the specific project thee images are associated with cannot be deciphered. Oversized Materials (boxes 7-9; 11; oversize folders 1-4) are arranged alphabetically by subject, with dates given when possible.

Additional Access

An index to the collection is available.

Acquisition

The collection was the result of two gifts: materials separated from the Jayne Van Alstyne gift (1990-51); and the gift of Richard Vanderbilt (1998-02).

Related Materials

Jayne Van Alstyne Papers (1990-514)

Suzanne Vanderbilt file (E&M files)

Transfers

Audio cassette removed to the Audio Recording Collection.

Processing History

Initial processing by Amy James, December 2000. Final processing and finding aid updated in September 2020 by Nichole L. Manlove.
Title
Guide to the Suzanne E. Vanderbilt Papers
Status
Completed
Author
Original finding aid written by Amy James. Final processing and finding aid updated in August 2020 by Nichole L. Manlove.
Date
December 2000; August 2020
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
English
Script of description
Latin
Edition statement
Resource record created by Laura MacNewman.

Repository Details

Part of the Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research Repository

Contact:
39221 Woodward Ave.
P.O. Box 801
Bloomfield Hills MI 48303 US