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Helen Hughes Dulany | Art & Design in Chicago

Helen Hughes Dulany

A caviar server designed by Helen Hughes Dulany
A caviar server designed by Helen Hughes Dulany. Photo courtesy Brooklyn Museum

Her career began during an illness and lasted a short six years, but for that brief period in the 1930s, Helen Hughes Dulany was one of the most in-demand designers in the country. Born in 1885 in Bismarck, North Dakota to a family that helped settle the state – one newspaper article about her notes that she “is said to have been the first white child born in North Dakota” – she married a wealthy lumberman and moved to Chicago in 1920. Her own family was well off, her father having become rich from electric utilities.

In 1931, she became ill and began modelling objects out of clay to pass the time. It was then that she discovered a gift for design, despite a lack of formal artistic training. She began designing pieces of furniture for her new apartment, in which “none of the family heirlooms would fit gracefully,” as a Chicago Tribune profile put it. Using some of her own money, she manufactured several objects of her own design and sold some of them in New York. Emboldened by her success, she opened a studio.

Cocktail shaker patent design by Helen Hughes Dulany
Pineapple packing patent design by Helen Hughes Dulany
Designs by Helen Hughes Dulany

Dulany’s style of industrial design fit perfectly with what people imagined a modern home to be in the 1930s; she was the first to use stainless steel for tableware, and her clean, geometric shapes seem futuristic and efficient. Her dining ware for the sleek, art deco Zephyr train (the train is now in the Museum of Science and Industry) matched the locomotive itself.

Industrial Designer Helen Hughes Dulany
Watch: Industrial Designer Helen Hughes Dulany

Her designs were in demand from coast to coast, but after some New York shops took credit for her work, she insisted that any clients come to Chicago and buy directly from her. Large firms commissioned her to modernize their image. General Electric asked her to redesign a line of electric ranges; amusingly, her brother worked there and was stunned at a meeting when someone announced that the company ought to turn to a woman for the ranges – had anyone heard of Helen Hughes Dulany?

Then, just as suddenly as her career began, Dulany faded from attention. By 1937, she was no longer designing, perhaps as a result of her public divorce the previous year. Most of the press was more interested in her divorce than her designs. By the time she died in 1968, she had been all but forgotten.