Natalie de Blois
- LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0083
- LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0083
For thirty years, architect Natalie Griffin de Blois (b. 1921–d. 2013) worked for the firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), where she helped design the firm’s best-known mid-century buildings, all of them exemplars of corporate modernism. While design decisions explicitly attributed to de Blois are difficult to pinpoint, there is unanimity in the historical record that she made key contributions to what are now regarded as iconic modernist buildings. These contributions were largely behind the scenes—the institutionalized sexism of the era meant that de Blois was prevented from dealing directly with clients—but they embraced design development, spatial programming, and structural, façade, and interior detailing. De Blois, who was born and raised in New Jersey, decided to become an architect at an early age. She graduated from Columbia in January 1944, one of only five women in her class. After de Blois was fired from her first postgraduate job for rebuffing the advances of a male colleague, she entered the New York office of SOM in October that same year. Her first major project, the modernist high-rise Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati, opened to great fanfare in 1948. During the 1950s, de Blois worked on the Lever House, the Union Carbide building, and the Pepsi-Cola headquarters, all on Park Avenue in New York. With their sleek glass curtain walls and stainless-steel mullions, these buildings exuded the urbane glamour that, for many, characterized the era. In Connecticut, de Blois worked on the corporate campuses of Connecticut General and Emhart. These low-slung buildings, surrounded by lush landscapes and surface parking, were the horizontal suburban counterparts to SOM’s towers. Like the skyscrapers, these groundscrapers also typified the period in which modernism established itself as the architectural aesthetic of the establishment. While SOM partner Gordon Bunshaft most often receives credit for these projects, de Blois was the senior designer for many of them. During her time at SOM, de Blois was a rare woman practicing at the profession’s highest levels, and while she was well-respected, when she moved to the Chicago office in 1964, after two decades with the firm, she was promoted only to associate partner. While sexism remained an unwelcome touchstone throughout her career, it also prompted her engagement with second-wave feminism. In 1974, she cofounded Chicago Women in Architecture and served as a member of an American Institute of Architects (AIA) taskforce studying gender discrimination in the profession. That same year, de Blois left SOM and eventually moved to Texas, where she would practice architecture for another two decades; she also began to teach, offering skyscraper studios at the University of Texas, and influencing a generation of young designers. By the time de Blois died in 2013, her profound contributions to mid-century modernist architecture were increasingly acknowledged by the profession and studied by scholars. But appreciation of an architect’s work is no guarantee of a building’s longevity: while some of her buildings have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places (Connecticut General) and other have been landmarked (Lever House and Pepsi-Cola), Emhart and Union Carbide were both demolished, in 2003 and 2020, respectively.
General Overview of de Blois’s Career
Paine 1977 was the first, and for many decades the only, publication to trace the trajectory of de Blois’s career, map the extent of her work on of SOM’s best-known mid-century projects, and outline the professional barriers she faced as a woman. A decade later, de Blois and Bollack 1987 expanded this account, but the recording of this public conversation with de Blois was not accessible until its recent digitization. The early aughts saw a resurgence of interest in de Blois’s contributions to notable SOM buildings, spurred in large measure by a series of interviews the architect gave, beginning with Blum 2004, the longest and most in-depth, and followed by Adams 2005 and Mertins 2006. These interviews fleshed out key details about de Blois’s role in the design of specific buildings and her experience of the gender politics of the firm. Equally important in this regard is de Blois and Adams 2006, a timeline of her SOM projects. The obituaries that appeared in major newspapers following de Blois’s death, including Dunlap 2013 and Kamin 2013, relied on the information and anecdotes these interviews provided. Esperdy 2017 makes use of all of this material in an up-to-date and easily accessible profile of the architect and her work.
Adams, Nicholas. “Natalie de Blois Interview.” Casabella 69 (April 2005): 104–109.
The interviewer, architectural historian, and SOM scholar Nicholas Adams focuses on de Blois’s role in the design of the Terrace Plaza and the corporate headquarters of Emhart, Union Carbide, and Pepsi-Cola. He is especially interested in her working relationship with partners Gordon Bunshaft and Bruce Graham and queries de Blois about development and process in the New York and Chicago offices. Published in Italian in a widely circulated design magazine.
Blum, Betty J. “Oral History of Natalie de Blois.” Chicago: Chicago Architects Oral History Project, 2004.
This transcript is a comprehensive and personal account of the architect’s career based on nine hours of interviews. The conversation ranges from de Blois’s upbringing and education to her experiences with sexism and gender discrimination. She discusses her major projects at SOM in New York and Chicago and her working relationships with Gordon Bunshaft and Bruce Graham. Equally important are de Blois’s recollections of her time in Texas as a designer and educator.
de Blois, Natalie, and Nicholas Adams. “Timeline of Projects.” SOM Journal 4 (2006): 158–159.
In 2005, Adams worked with de Blois to prepare an authoritative list of SOM projects on which she worked. The list is chronological and includes the name of the partner in charge of each project and details about de Blois’s specific contributions. Her role as “senior designer” is indicated when applicable. Notably, the list includes lesser-known SOM projects and those with which de Blois’s name is not frequently associated.
de Blois, Natalie, and Françoise Bollack. “Three Modern Architects: A Conversation with Natalie de Blois.” New York: Architectural League of New York, 29 October 1987.
In an hour-long conversation, de Blois presents her major projects (including Terrace Plaza, Lever House, Istanbul Hilton, Connecticut General, Pepsi-Cola, and Emhart), and she and Bollack discuss programming, massing, materials, and siting. They also focus on urbanism and how people experience cities, with de Blois noting that for her style was always secondary to these larger concerns. A digitized version of the audio recording is available on the Architectural League website.
Dunlap, David. “An Architect Whose Work Stood Out, Even If She Did Not.” New York Times, 31 July 2013.
The paper’s leading real estate writer places design credit, professional invisibility, and explicit sexism at the heart of this obituary, especially when describing de Blois’s relationship with Bunshaft. Dunlap explains for a general audience the significance of her work on the buildings that defined postwar Park Avenue and mid-century architectural sophistication, and also notes that, beginning in the late 1970s, de Blois gradually attained the reputation she deserved.
Esperdy, Gabrielle. “Natalie Griffon de Blois.” In Pioneering Women of Architecture. Edited by Mary McLeod and Victoria Rosner. New York: Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, 2017.
This peer-reviewed online essay is a good introduction to de Blois’s life and work, covering her education and early career, her work at SOM, and the final phase of her career in Texas. Usefully, it includes separate lists of the names and dates of her major projects, awards and honors, and the firms where she was employed. Well-illustrated with reliable references.
Kamin, Blair. “Natalie de Blois, Pioneering Architect at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.” Chicago Tribune, 30 July 2013.
In this obituary, the architecture critic reflects on de Blois’s career, with a special focus on her years in Chicago and her position as a female pioneer in a male-dominated profession. Kamin notes how these intersected when de Blois became a founding member of Chicago Women in Architecture and a role model for younger architects. While praising her work in New York, Kamin situates de Blois in her adopted city, mentioning the neighborhoods and buildings in which she lived.
Mertins, Detlef. “Interview with Natalie de Blois.” SOM Journal 4 (2006): 132–157.
In this interview, de Blois discusses in great detail her role in the design of the Terrace Plaza and Istanbul Hilton hotels and the Connecticut General and Pepsi-Cola headquarters. She also reflects on the publicity she received when she was working on Union Carbide, including an appearance on To Tell the Truth and in Fortune magazine. An abbreviated version of the interview was published on online in Medium in 2015.
Paine, Judith. “Natalie de Blois.” In Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective. Edited by Susanna Torre, 112–114. New York: Whitney Library of Design, 1977.
In this companion volume to an important Brooklyn Museum exhibition on women in architecture in the United States (see Torre 1977, cited under Architecture Profession), de Blois is one of three 20th-century practitioners to be individually profiled. Paine provides a brisk discussion of de Blois’s background and an incisive assessment of the invisibility of her significant contributions to major SOM projects, five of which are illustrated. This is the first published overview of de Blois’s career.
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