2014 ICON - Gere Kavanaugh


Gere Kavanaugh is a rare living design legend whose career is defined by the belief that a designer need not limit her work to a specific field.
In recognition of her formidable contributions to the industry, the LA Design Festival honors her with the ICON Award.

From working for General Motors as a designer in the architectural division designing fridges and exhibitions, to creating architectural graphics, interiors, and furniture design for corporate clients like Joseph Magnin Department Stores, Hallmark Greeting Cards and Wells Fargo Bank, to graphic design for Max Factor and Pepsi Cola, to designing the Research Library for the Richard Nixon Birthplace and Library, to creating signature textile designs, to ceramics, to even birthday cakes; Kavanaugh’s work has spanned disciplines and eras.  Her work has been featured in exhibitions such as California’s Designing Women, and she continues to practice today, working on new product designs with a major national retailer and collaborating on new projects with creative LA studios like Artecnica.

When asked about her design process, she replies with her trademark candor and bluntness, “I don’t have a design process, I just do it.”

Kavanaugh was just the fourth woman to graduate from the Cranbrook Academy of Art design program and went on to be a stylist for General Motors.  Shortly thereafter, she took a job with shopping mall pioneer Victor Gruen in Detroit, which eventually sent her to Los Angeles, where she spent the next 50 years.  She opened her own practice, Gere Kavanaugh/Designs and moved into a bungalow office space with her fellow creatives Frank Gehry and Greg Walsh, whom she’d met during her time with Gruen.

“One day Frank asked me to meet him at a parking lot on San Vicente,” she said.  “He wanted me to look at a new space.”  It was 1964 and they were visiting well-known artist Rico La Brun‘s old studio space, three times larger than their 4th street bungalow with trussed ceilings and a steep rent of about $350/month.  Unconvinced, Ms. Kavanaugh agreed to move into the space, but only if the owners agreed to clean the floors. A thorough cleaning revealed the gorgeous birds eye maple floors of the original dance studio that had existed there before La Brun had moved in.  Eventually, Deborah Sussman moved in and together, they created an incredible atmosphere of excitement and creativity, becoming a epicenter for the burgeoning LA art and design community. “We threw a parties for Ruth AsawaEd Ruscha, and Billy Bengston,” Kavanaugh remembers.

Part of moving forward with Los Angeles’ exciting design story is of course looking back at our rich history and essentially unforgetting LA as we go, and Kavanaugh’s contributions are hard to ignore.  Today, she is enjoying a well-deserved surge of attention thanks to recent coverage and her continued work.

From her unassuming beige house in Angeleno Heights, Kavanaugh presides over a city that she sees is hitting another pivotal turning point.  

“There is a sense of excitement, curiosity, and ingenuity today,” she says.  “It really feels like there is a collectiveness, something bubbling up.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Gere Kavanaugh will be honored at the LA Design Festival Opening Night Party hosted at Natural Curiosities (June 13th). Also, view her work at CROSSROADS, a special installation at Artecnica, which will be open to the public for one night only on June 20th. For the first time ever, view significant fragments from the designer’s body of work alongside selected pieces from the Artecnica collection. In essence, the presentation is a fusion of alike-minded work that spans over half a century, and now comes together in this crossroads of exciting past and new objects of beauty and function.

To learn more about Gere Kavanaugh, check out this lecture she gave at Carnegie Mellon in 2012, and this month’s Newsmaker feature at Architectural Record.

Christine Joo