Architect Nathalie de Blois passed from this world a few days ago on July 22, at the age of 92. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know about her. Playing a man’s game, she worked for the powerhouse architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s. She, along with her much-better-known mentor and work partner Gordon Bunshaft, designed the famous Lever House in 1960, a bright star in the firmament of midcentury architecture. She also played a significant design role in the Pepsi-Cola Corporation World Headquarters and Union Carbide Corporation Headquarters. There’s a great New York Times article (see link below) that places her in the context of her Mad Men world, a major talent with minimum exposure, a team player who stayed in the office and ate sandwiches while her colleagues entertained clients at men’s clubs during the long, two-martini lunch hours of the time period. Obviously, she was not invited to attend those lunches. Gordon Bunshaft had the piggish audacity to tell her that he hated the color green, and if she wanted to accompany him to a client meeting for the International Arrivals Building at Idlewild Airport, she would have to go home and change her dress. She did it. Those were the rules. When she was pregnant with one of her sons, Bunshaft also told her not to come to a party for a building opening unless she’d had her baby. Whether he was fearful that she’d go into labor during the festivities, or he was just uncomfortable with her baby belly, who knows? It’s probably a testament to her talent that she wasn’t let go from SOM on some flimsy excuse just for being pregnant.
Her father was an engineer, and she got a design-and-construction bag of genetic goodies from him. More importantly, she got encouragement. I firmly believe that a woman’s confidence and behavior in the world is largely determined by the level of faith and support that her father offers. Nathalie’s father supplied a firm foundation. Even though she admitted, in a late-life interview, that her feelings were hurt by male colleagues, she never stopped working or believing in the value she brought to the profession.
The New York Times quotes Nathaniel A. Owings, a founding partner of SOM, in his autobiography, The Spaces In Between: An Architect’s Journey: “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.”
Read the New York Times article:
A more extensive interview for the Chicago Architects Oral History project: 15893