Dr Alison Kowalski

Research project: Pipsan Saarinen Swanson: From Interior Decorating to Mass-Produced Furnishings, ca. 1929–1955


This thesis examines the relationship between designer Pipsan Saarinen Swanson's work in interiors and mass-produced furnishings. I assess how her career progressed from interior decorating, a field with many women, into areas of mass-production design with little female representation, namely furniture, lamp, metalware, and glassware. I also explore how her interiors, designed for individual clients, developed into product lines as well as brand identities aimed at national audiences. Part I of this thesis analyses Pipsan Saarinen Swanson's early design activities, including her entrance into interior decorating in 1929. Parts II through IV focus on three lines of furnishings designed by her in partnership with various male architects in her family. I demonstrate that her interior decorating work drew her incrementally into and prepared her for mass-production work. Additionally, collaborations helped her access certain design fields and also served as gateways to independent projects. Released between 1940 and 1955, the three furnishing lines each grew out of her interiors work and, as I argue, each represented a different phase of her career in terms of her development as a designer and her visibility within family partnerships. Pipsan Saarinen Swanson's renowned father provided her with vital opportunities, but she struggled to step out of the shadow he cast over her public image. On the other hand, she relentlessly uplifted her lesser-known husband, sometimes at the expense of independent recognition. I conclude that her forays into male-dominated territory were rooted in and nurtured her work in interiors; by foregrounding her domestic interiors, she anchored her career in a realm normalized as feminine. My analysis shows that her mass-produced furnishing designs closely related to her interiors stylistically. Mediating channels, however, reframed the furnishings to better appeal to middle-class American consumers. In marketing and press, the three lines assumed identities that spoke to the times they were released: the late Depression, when discussions about shared American values poured out of popular media; immediately after World War II, when business and political elites promoted individuality, diversity, and teamwork as defining American qualities; and the early Cold War, when influential design writers promulgated a revisionist history of modern design, relocating its supposed origins to pre-1900 America.

  • Research degree: PhD
  • Title of project: Pipsan Saarinen Swanson: From Interior Decorating to Mass-Produced Furnishings, ca. 1929–1955
  • Research supervisor: Professor Pat Kirkham
  • Other research supervisor: Professor Penny Sparke


I earned a BFA in fashion design and art history from Pratt Institute (Brooklyn, NY) and an MA in History of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center (New York, NY). After completing my master's degree, I worked as a researcher at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Arts and Design, and Phillips auction house. My research has been published in academic journals such as the 'Journal of Design History', and I have presented papers at international conferences. Recently, alongside dissertation research, I have taught history, research, and studio courses at a number of art and design schools including Parsons School of Design (New York, NY), Drexel University (Philadelphia, PA), Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ), the College for Creative Studies (Detroit, MI), and Wayne State University (Detroit, MI). 

Areas of research interest

  • Design history


'The Pursuit of Art and Professionalism: Dressmaking, Millinery, and Costume Design at Pratt Institute, 1888–1904'. Journal of Design History 31, no. 4 (November 2018): 305–327.

Exhibition review, Denim: Fashion's Frontier, The Museum at Fashion Institute of Technology. Textile History 47, no. 2 (2016): 255–59.

Contributor, 'Selected Biographies'. In An American Style: Global Sources for New York Textile and Fashion Design, 1915-1928, by Ann Marguerite Tartsinis. New York: Bard Graduate Center, 2013.

Conference papers

Design History Society, New York (September 2018): '"Nordic Modern of the Midwest": Pipsan Saarinen Swanson's 1955 Model Home for LIFE Magazine'

Design History Society, San Francisco (September 2015): 'Folk for the Future: The Early Soviet Dress of Nadezhda Lamanova'

The Association of Dress Historians, London (July 2014): 'Counterfashion of the Nigilistka: Female Defiance of Convention and Law in 1860s Russia'