The 1960s at GM: Behind the Scenes with the First Woman Exteriors Design Artist, Joan Klatil.
Jul/Aug 2021 edition
Issue #17 AutoMobilia Resource Magazine
In 1965, Joan Klatil, all of 20 years old, was interning at General Motors. She was one of nine students who had been chosen from top design colleges nationwide – and the only female who was selected for GM’s Summer Design Program that year. She worked with David Rossi, a talented model maker, and Bob Verizer, who was her director for three months.
In June of 1966 Klatil was hired full-time by GM and placed into the Design Development Studio under the direction of Chief Designer David North. Six months later she was moved into Production Cadillac, making history as GM’s first woman exterior designer. Stan Parker was Chief Designer there, and Wayne Kady Assistant Chief, along with Charley Gatewood, Charlie Steward, John Perkins and Don McElfish, who were all exterior designers.
Joan’s schooling at Cleveland Institute of Art in Industrial Design was where she learned to work in transportation with glass, steel and reflections through illustrations and mechanical drawings to final concept. Her favorite medium was gouache, a thick watercolor, but colored markers were faster and great to work with, too. GM was exactly where she wanted to be, although the job wasn’t without some challenges. She was quoted at the time as saying, “I think it has been harder for the men to get used to me, than for me to get used to them.”
Company policy prohibited women from wearing pants to work throughout the 1960s at GM. Not too long after she started, Joan came to the design studio dressed as per requirements in a skirt. Surprisingly, she discovered her drafting table was sporting its own new “skirt” of a plastic sleeve surround, in order to keep the model makers from being “distracted” while working around her desk. The designers sat up high at their drafting tables, and the model makers sat and worked at their feet.
Michigan state law during those years didn’t allow women out past midnight. All-night work sessions were not an option if you were female; you simply couldn’t participate.
But Joan’s most difficult challenge was probably with the head of design, Bill Mitchell, who didn’t particularly like any female distraction (talented or otherwise) in “his” design studio. About a year after Joan’s move to Cadillac, he forgot she was around one day and had an embarrassingly bad profanity-laced episode in the studio. His face turned beet red after several others reminded him of her presence. It was obvious to all he hadn’t remembered she was there, and he was angry. The next day he asked Irv Rybicki to move Joan out of exteriors and over to Oldsmobile interiors, where he felt she would be better suited (other women were there), allowing him and his men to swear freely.
The marketing department and other executives knew Joan had talent and belonged in exteriors. They told her to be patient and they would get her moved back. About three months later Joan (happily) was moved again into exteriors with Jerry Hirshberg’s Advanced Buick studio, which was working on the start of the boat-tail Riviera. To protect her position, the team often played a shell game, hiding her behind large 10x20-foot display boards on wheels whenever Mitchell would come in (they were known to hide an occasional full-size prototype car they were working on with these large rolling boards as well). They didn’t want her to be noticed and “moved” again. But knowing Mitchell’s feelings and the power he wielded at GM, she had already put out feelers for a female-friendlier workplace. Not surprisingly, she left for General Electric within the year.
A lot of women quit during Bill Mitchell’s reign as head designer. There were no new female exterior designers hired until after he retired from GM in 1977. Women weren’t encouraged, much less valued. It’s believed his leadership set back female exterior car designers a decade or more.
Joan went on to have a long and illustrious career designing everything from television sets to refrigerators. In 1987 she formed Joan Creamer Design (CreamerDesign.com), serving the consumer gift and collectibles business, with her latest project being a series of wonderfully whimsical children’s books. She also plans to sell “future car” designed Christmas cards through AutoMobiliaResource.com in the 2021 holiday season.
During her short time at GM, as you can see from her drawings pictured in this story, she definitely had some influence on the Cadillac series of the time. All her original design drawings were owned by GM, and sadly many were thrown away, as designers were not allowed to take them out of the building. However, there were some janitors and dumpster divers of the time who apparently rescued some of Joan’s (and others’) work.
A few years ago, Joan was invited to join The League of Retired Automobile Designers. Each year, this group of some 50-odd ex-designers gets together, and each designs an updated concept car focused on a particular car marque: Ferrari, Duesenberg, Ford, Cadillac, etc. They start with the model of their choice and then design their vision of how it might have transformed into the future. Prints are available of these inspiring new concept cars in various sizes by contacting Joan directly at 401-556-3053 or JC.ExteriorDesigner@gmail.com.
Looking at the cookie-cutter cars on the road today, it’s near impossible to tell them apart, with most only being identifiable by a logo. GM or any other car manufacturer might do well to hire Joan and the other talented designers from this group of retirees now.
Her Duesenberg is my favorite. I can only wish Mary Barra, the current CEO of GM, would see Joan’s designs and be inspired to build a car that looks this dang good! And I can only imagine where exterior car design might be today if Joan hadn’t been repressed, but instead had been able to work in a supportive environment worthy of her talents.
Patrick G. Kelley included Joan and her designs in his beautiful hardcover book Imagine, Automobile Concept Art from the 1930s to the 1980s. He had found a few of her design drawings through a dealer, and after some investigation found Joan. He was smart enough at the time to purchase these rare drawings for his collection. She was amazed to be contacted about her early career years and thrilled to see drawings she hadn’t seen in over 40 years.
To read more great columns like this one from Publisher Sharon Spurlin...
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