We were first smitten with the work of Marilyn and John Neuhart upon discovering the handcrafted, colorful dolls that Marilyn created on commission for Alexander Girard’s Textile & Objects Shop in New York City. Anyone obsessed with mid-century modern design might wish that they could step back into the 1960’s to visit a store like this—a world of pure color, Girard’s Herman Miller textiles, and folk art from around the world. It was an environment that encapsulated Girard’s creative vision. But the work of the Neuharts extended far beyond this, as they were part of the creative force behind names like Eames and Girard, and helped to create an era of color, warmth, and simplicity in American design. They still maintain their passion for design and documenting design today. We asked Marilyn about the experiences that made them into an iconic design couple.
The Scout: What first inspired you to become designers? What was your education like and what were your early influences?
Marilyn Neuhart: From childhood both of us just gravitated intuitively to the visual world, and there was never any doubt about what we would do. We went from LBCC to UCLA’s Art Department to study graphic design, typography, art history, painting, and also history and anthropology. … Our instructors were rigorous and demanding, and introduced us to the work of designers like Charles Eames, George Nelson and Alexander Girard, among many others. They took us to galleries and museums, and to the local businesses beginning to sell the products designed in first postwar years that are now known as “mid-century modern.”
Looking back at the 1950’s and 60’s it appeared to be an exciting time for design in all disciplines. Did you feel any of that excitement or was it just another day at the office? Was there collaboration and exchange of ideas?
This was a great period to be starting a career in design. There was so much energy and optimism in the air that you’d have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to be touched by the creative forces at work in Southern California, where arts and architecture, music and writing were enriched by the expatriates who had left Europe and settled here in the early 1930’s and 40’s. We had been through a Depression and a World War, and in their aftermath life looked so much brighter and full of hope. We feel so fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time where we could absorb and often take part in some of the new things happening around us. Such optimism! Design was going to save the world and we were all happy to be a part of the effort. The Los Angeles magazine Arts & Architecture was reporting on all of the new work being done in Modernist circles and in art, literature and music and we all used it as a kind of Bible.
How were you introduced to the work of the Eames, George Nelson and Alexander Girard?
In the early 1950s these designers were just beginning to be known nationally and internationally. We were acquainted with their work (Charles’s especially) through our introduction to it at LBCC and UCLA and through articles in Arts & Architecture and other design periodicals. A few of us had actually ventured by the recently completed Eames House in the Pacific Palisades to peek throught the glass walls. In 1952, while at UCLA, Norma Matlin, one of our former LBCC instructors, called to invite us to an on-campus talk that Charles was giving to show some recent work. That was our first face-to-face meeting with him and our first glimpse into the inner workings of the Eames Office. Charles talked a little about furniture and then showed a few scenes from the uncompleted Eames Office film Communication Primer. We were really impressed by this guy who seemed to be working on projects that interested him and having a great deal of enjoyment in doing so. What a great idea! Definitely something to strive for.
How did you begin working with them?
In the summer of 1957, after a two-year stint in the army, John returned to UCLA and then was hired by the Eames Office as a graphic designer. We were married in that year and began working together as freelance designers. … Our relationship with the Eameses and Girard was mostly professional in the beginning. We worked mostly by mail for Girard, who was in Santa Fe, New Mexico from the early 1950s, seeing him when he came to Los Angeles, or when we visited Santa Fe to work on some of his graphic projects. We often drove around Los Angeles with him searching for toys and folk art— that was a real learning experience. We did become friends with the Eames Office staff members and continue that relationship today with those who are still around. If you worked at the Eames Office, you were required to adapt to any project in the office at the time, regardless of the type of discipline involved. As freelancers, John and I took whatever jobs were of interest to us that we thought we could do.
What was your involvement with the Textile and Objects shop? Do you think it could succeed if brought back today?
We worked on the graphics for the T&O shop and I produced the small, embroidered cloth dolls sold there. I don’t think that it would do well today if it were to be resurrected, but who knows?