Natalie de Blois
“Her mind and hands, worked marvels in design — and only she and God would ever know just how many great solutions, with the imprimatur of one of the male heroes of S.O.M., owed much more to her than was attributed by either S.O.M. or the client.”
Natalie de Blois (1921-2013), was born in Paterson, New Jersey into a family of engineers. In a 2004 interview with the late architectural historian Detlef Mertins, de Blois recalled that she wanted to become an architect from the age of ten or twelve and found support from her parents – her father a civil engineer and her mother, a school teacher. She earned her architecture degree at Columbia University in 1944.
DeBlois began her career at a New York firm, Ketchum, Gina, and Sharpe, but after “rebuffing the affections” of one of the firm’s male architects, she was fired. She then joined Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill (SOM).
One of a few women architects during the Fifties and Sixties – a period the New York Times‘ David Dunlap in a recent tribute described as “architecture’s ‘Mad Men’ era” – de Blois played key roles in the design of corporate skyscrapers during her time at the firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, first in New York, then in Chicago.
She was the senior designer for many of SOM’s most renowned commissions as well as a mother to four sons. De Blois was in a league of her own.
While in the New York office, she worked closely with Gordon Bunshaft on the Lever House (1948-51), Istanbul Hilton Hotel (1953-55), Connecticut General Life Insurance Building (1954-57), Pepsi-Cola Co. Headquarters (1960), Union Carbide Headquarters (1957-60), the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Library and Museum (1965), and others. In the 1960’s, she moved to SOM’s Chicago office, where she became an associate partner, but never full partner. In 1964, she was the first female at SOM to become an associate partner. In 1964, she was the first female at SOM to become an associate partner.
These postwar corporate landmarks are most often attributed to Skidmore partner Gordon Bunshaft, whom de Blois worked with as a team. In the obituary written by David Dunlap for the New York Times, Beverly Willis remembers, “There wasn’t anybody in the country quite like Natalie, because there was no one else working for a firm quite like Skidmore,” now one of the largest architectural firms in the world, known for high-end commercial buildings in the modern international style. “At that point, there were only five or six women across the U.S. who had a substantial architectural practice,” Ms. Willis said. “And, of course, Natalie was doing bigger buildings, and she was doing them in the heart of Manhattan. These were celebrated buildings that the press fawned over, but Natalie’s name was never mentioned.” Nathaniel Owings, one of the founders of SOM, wrote of her in his autobiography that “her mind and hands worked marvels in design–and only she and God would ever know just how many great solutions, with the imprimatur of one of the male heroes of SOM, owed much more to her than was attributed by either SOM or the client.”
After moving from New York to Chicago, de Blois founded the group Chicago Women in Architecture in 1973 to promote greater awareness of women’s issues within the profession. The group still exists today, working to advance the status of women in architecture. Convening at the “Women and Minorities” conference at Washington University in St. Louis in 1973, de Blois joined forces with Judy Edelman and the National Women in Architecture Task Force of the American Institute of Architects. She later coordinated the Houston installation of the Women in Architecture exhibition, originally on display at the Brooklyn Museum in 1977.
Despite her enormous contributions to SOM’s portfolio, de Blois was never elevated to full partnership and left the firm in 1974. That same year, she was honored as a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. An inspired and enthusiastic teacher, she taught from 1980 to 1993 at the University of Texas at Austin, where a scholarship was later named for her. She received the Romieniec Award of the Texas AIA for distinguished achievement in education in 1998. The Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation continues de Blois’s legacy and dedication to supporting women by expanding knowledge about women’s contributions to the built environment, including the lightness and elegant proportions of the modern icons she herself designed.
Read Natalie de Blois’s profile in the BWAF Dynamic National Archive of Women of the Built Environment.
Natalie de Blois explained her life, career and major building projects through animated anecdotes in the SOM Journal interview with Detlef Mertins in 2004.
Listen to the 1987 Architectural League recording of Natalie de Blois in conversation with architect Françoise Bollack, one in the series “Three Modern Architects,” in which she discusses the full scope of her career.
Dunal, David W. “An Architect Whose Work Stood Out, Even if She Did Not.” 31 July 2013. NY Times. Accessed 06 Dec 2013. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/01/nyregion/an-architect-whose-work-stood-out-even-if-she-didnt.html?ref=obituaries&_r=2&>
Kamin, Blair. “Natalie de Blois, pioneering architect at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.” 30 July 2013. Chicago Tribune. Accessed 06 Dec 2013. Web. <http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-07-30/news/ct-met-deblois-obituary-0731-20130731_1_nathaniel-owings-new-york-city-architect>
“Natalie de Blois, FAIA, in Memoriam.” 06 Aug 2013. Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation. Accessed 06 Dec 2013. Web. <http://bwaf.org/natalie-de-blois-faia-in-memoriam/>
Natalie De Blois Interviewed by Detlef Mertins, SOM Journal 4. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, 06 Dec 2013. Web. <http://www.som.com/publication/natalie-de-blois-interviewed-detlef-mertins>.
Owings, Nathaniel Alexander. The Spaces in Between; an Architect’s Journey. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973. Print.
Smith, Amy. “Then There’s This: A Pioneer Among Women Architects-Celebrated designer Natalie de Blois helped Austin’s future.” 31 July 2013. The Austin Chronicle. Accessed 06 Dec 2013. Web. <http://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2013-08-16/then-theres-this-a-pioneer-among-women-architects/>