Ilonka Karasz, a leading personality of the 20th century modern American design
Ilonka Karasz exhibition in the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum
New York 2017–2018

Ilonka Karasz was one of the few American artists, who introduced the modern style in American art in the first decades of the 20th century. She "became one of the foremost promoters and practitioners of modern design in America".1 – states the information brochure about the exhibition on Ilonka Karasz held at the Museum of the American Hungarian Foundation, New Brunswick, NJ 2004–2005. This exhibition was the first that gave honor to her as an American Hungarian immigrant artist by the American Hungarian community.

Although in her time she was a well known and acknowledged designer, for the present generation it is a kind of discovery to get acquainted with her art.2 Following her death in 1981 a new interest turned toward her works first in 1982 the New York gallery Fifty/503 organized a show of her works. However there was a further need for an overview of her versatile art and to give new recognition to her design program as a whole with all the different areas of design she practiced in which became leading artist of the field. Following extensive research the retrospective exhibition of her works was organized by the Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia in 2003–2004.4 Thanks to this fundamental research by Ashley Callahan the curator of the exhibition, the first and until now the only monograph on Ilonka Karasz was published.5

The exhibition by AHF in 2004–2005 was arranged in cooperation with the Georgia Museum of Art, based on their exhibition and research. Now in 2016 the anniversary of Ilonka Karasz's birth made actual the next exhibition by the Cooper Hewitt National Smithsonian Design Museum, New York.

The exhibition attempted to present the new acquisitions of the significant Ilonka Karasz collection of the museum and to highlight the versatility of her art.6 More pictures are accessible at the museum homepage.

This selection of works by Ilonka Karasz represented well her surprisingly many folded delicate art and offered the insight of her aesthetic and creativity. These recent exhibitions bring new perception of her true, inventive and rich art and her unique approach of design.

Born in Hungary

Ilonka Karasz (1896–1981) born in Budapest, emigrated to America in 1913 as an 18 years old young artist. She just finished her studies at the Royal School of Arts and Crafts in Budapest and at this early stage had success having chance for an exhibition in 1912. According to her mother's arrangement who was a widow of a silversmith and who following her husband's death went to America, while the three children (Ilonka, Mariska, Steve) stayed in Hungary to finish their studies.7 That time the Hungarian modern artists had close relationship with the European modern art schools in Vienna and in Berlin, namely with the Wiener Secession and workshop of the Wiener Werkstätte as well as the forerunners of the Bauhaus and with the Bauhaus itself of Berlin. Thus Ilonka Karasz at an early stage of her career got acquainted with them through her education and the contemporary Hungarian modern artists. This experience influenced her choice in the future and oriented her art in the direction of modernism.

Career in the United States

Arriving into the United States llonka Karasz settled in Greenwich Village, Manhattan in the heart of the art community of New York City. She found the connection with groups of artists open for new approaches and experimentations.8 Ilonka Karasz's background and her experience was recognized as a contribution by the members of this group which encouraged her to step further and try new paths for creation. Looking for living and seeking for to fulfill her artistic ambitions over the following decades she explored successfully the challenges in wide variety of design, of more and more areas of design: textile, wallpaper, mural painting, magazine and book covers and jackets, illustrations and decorations for publications, furniture, interiors, lighting, silver and ceramics, toys etc.

At the beginning as a graphic artist she was offered possibilities at the area of advertisement. Soon after she had good opportunities with the advertisement of textile products (at first for the Bonwitt Teller department store) and textile design, even teaching this subject in the Modern Art School in New York. She was brave enough to participate in contests and she won prizes of the sponsor of the Women's Wear daily and gained attention by the textile profession.9 She often worked together with her sister Mariska Karasz10 who became successful and well known in the area of fashion. By the 1920s Ilonka Karasz was registered as one of the best experts of textile design.

In the following years during the 20s and 30s she designed ceramics and silverware as well.

Ilonka Karasz creativity was recognized by other manufacturers too and in the next decades she became successful in further areas of commercial and industrial design. Utilizing her graphic studies and experience started to release wallpaper designs. By the 1950s she became one of the first designers of the field.

At the same time she experimented with interior design at larger scale. Maybe her marriage in 1920 and the process of building their new house in Brewster, NY provided her with initiative and experience to think over details of functions and decorations in a house and the furniture needed – especially the children's room. (She got two children a girl and a boy.) Her furnitures and interiors were presented at various exhibitions (American Design Group 1928, 1929, Macy's exhibition 1928 etc.)

As already mentioned her career covered always growing variety of areas of design with success till the end of the 70s. Her critics appreciate all areas of her art and her new inventions or experimentations. Along with her art they favored her beauty and attractive personality too.

The Book artist

Most areas of her career were discussed and analyzed by critics and experts already during her life and since her death. These areas represent many branches of crafts or industries (textile, furniture, pottery, metal work etc.) and show the relation between art and technology. The production of books and other publications offer the same type of approach to see this area of Ilonka Karasz's activity as the connection in the field of publishing between art and industry (editors and printing offices). The artistic components of the product of publishing of book or other publications (illustrations, decorations, lining, covers and jackets or maps etc.) are registered carefully by the sources and discussed with expertise from the point of view the art separately.11

If we look at these details as part of the larger ensamble of Ilonka Karasz's activity, as her design program in relation with book/publishing industry, we can find common elements but they show again the versatility of her original talent. They also show her expertise in considering the details and at the same time show her capacity to take into consideration the function of the publication, with all its connection with the user (the reader) and also with the content or subject of the book. She understood what this object (the book or publication) offers to its user, the audience. The artistic details: the illustrations, the covers and jackets, the colors, the techniques etc. served these connections and were chosen in function of this purpose.

In an overview of her art in relation with book/publishing industry would need a complete bibliography of her works in this field based on a complete collection. To our knowledge there is no complete collection of books and other publications that includes her works. A research has to survey different library and archival collections in order to identify all items concerned.12 Information can also be found in news and book reviews, interviews, critics and in studies published in newspapers, journals and other periodicals. To make the bibliography complete needs further efforts. However the present stage already provides possibility to register some significant characteristics: the types and function or purpose, the style of her works, the methods used, and of the connections with her whole oeuvre, with the other areas of her design activity.

At first place the chronology of the publications with her artistic contribution helps to follow the intensity of her work at this area in the different periods. This chronology witnesses her interest from the earliest years the 1910s until the end of her active decades, the 1970s.

Her earliest contribution for publications started from 1915 with making illustrations and covers to three magazines M.A.C. Modern Art Collector: monthly collection of modern design, Bruno's Weekly and the Playboy. A portfolio of Art and Satire.13

The editors and groups behind these magazines played important role in Ilonka Karasz's life and formation of her career. All these periodicals had interest and orientation toward modernism and had role in shaping American avant-garde art. Ilonka Karasz herself was the cofounder in 1914 of the Society of Modern Art a group for the circle of European-born-American artists, and the publisher of the M.A.C. According to a contemporary comment the society with its publication M.A.C. Modern American Collector was "an organization whose members were the pioneers of the modern decorative style when the term itself was unknown for the American public". ... Ilonka Karasz "was one of the first American artists to undertake modern design."14

Already at the beginning of the 20s, she was highly evaluated by critics as book illustrator in 1923. That was the year when she reached success with her prints in the book for children titled Picture, Verse and Song. By Mary Carolyn Davies.*15

Since then through the 20s she worked with publishers after each other several times. She prepared lining and wrapper for the book Antiques by Sarah M. Lokwood. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Page, 1925. She also illustrated the book New York not so little and not so old. By Sarah Lokwood. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Page, 1926. She designed maps for The outline of man's knowledge the story of history, science, literature, art, religion, philosophy. By Clement Wood. New York: Lewis Copland Co., 1927. She also designed sheet map Plan de Paris. New York: Washington Square Book Shop, 1927.

The 20s brought for her one of the most important commissions in 1925 the cover designs for the important weekly magazine The New Yorker. According to the research during the following decades she designed 186 cover for the New Yorker.16

There was the next peak of her activity in the area of book design in the 40s and 50s. With very artful illustrations and design was published in 1941 the Astrological calendar for the gardener by Ilonka Karasz, calculation and text by Peter Blaine. New York: American Artist Group, 1941.

In 1941 was published The beautiful people. By William Saroyan.*17 In the next year in 1942 the illustrations and jacket designed by Ilonka Karasz got special recognition.

In 1944 was published the book My unconsidered judgment by Noel F. Bush. Decoration in line by Ilonka Karasz. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1944.

In 1945 two of her books were printed and both got recognitions: the jacket of The world, the flash and father Smith. By Bruce Marshall. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1945*18 was well accepted by experts and also the jacket of the The friendly persuasion. By Jessamyn West. 1945.*19

In 1946 came out The heavenly tenants. By William Maxwell. Pictures by Ilonka Karasz. New York: Parabola Books, c1946, reprint 1992. The illustrations were praised by the New York Times Book Review.20

In 1948 the jacket design of the Time will darken it. By William Maxwell. 1946*21 pulled the attention on the book.

In 1949 The twelve days of Christmas. In pictures by Ilonka Karasz. New York: Harper and Row, 1949 became a sensation in 1950. The whole design: the format, the colors, the illustrations, the cover enchanted the New York Times Book Review.

In 1950 Tell your love By Mary Stolz. New York, 1950 gained attention.

The book of the year. By Peter Fritz. Drawings by Ilonka Karasz. New York: Harper, 1950 was recognized with its rich illustrations again by the New York Times Book Review.22

In 1951 was published for children the Christmas calendar: the days before Christmas. New York: Harper, c1951.

In 1954 Rainbow on the road. By Esther Forbes. Boston. Houghton Mifflin Co.* jacket was worthwhile to reproduce for a book review.23

In 1958 the Merry Christmas, Happy New Year. By Phyllis McGinley. Decorations by Ilonka Karasz. New York: Wiking Press, [c1958] was published with modern illustrations.

In 1961 The Chateau. By William Maxwell. Boston, 1961*24 came out.

The last book known Ancestors. By William Maxwell. New York: Knopf, 1971 was released with jacket designed by Ilonka Karasz in 1971.

The further research probably will add some more works by llonka Karasz to this list.

As regards the function and type of the books and also the audience for whom she illustrated or designed publications, shows a great variety. Among them there are monographs of some area of human knowledge for grownups like the Antiques or Outline of man's knowledge and the Ancestors. She was willing to work for teenagers like the book Tell your love, but she shows special interest and capability to design and decorate children books like the famous The twelve days of Christmas. This English song being a classical one in the American culture became a favorite of every generation. Out of the different publications she liked probably most the calendars or the calendar type books because of the variations of the topic (the periods of the year) offered for the artist. Some follows the symbols of the Zodiac, some others follow the changes of the human activity or changes of nature by seasons and other elements for example the holidays. The Astrological calendar for the gardener represent the highest standard and is prepared for collectors. Some example shows her talent to adjust her art from the most artistic level to the simple and playful style needed for a child like the Christmas calendar: the days before Christmas. This sheet calendar with "windows" to open attempts to teach the child to learn the activities, that is going on before Christmas in a city, in homes and in stores or shops. The drawings in The Book of the year with its rich details are joy for both, grownups and young people, and for people in general and especially for artists.


Most often she worked for magazines, periodicals like M.A.C., Bruno's Weekly, Playboy, Vanity Fair, The Mass, Town and Country, Harpers Bazaar etc. even for the periodical published for American Hungarians the A Nő. Her most important achievement at this area is the covers for The New Yorker.

The style of her works was discussed by critics and art historians in details. From the beginning she was the envoy of the modern style for periodicals, books and other publications. Her debut in the scene of American art started with modern designs. One of her early cover designs published in M.A.C.


This modernity beautifully represented by the cover of the exhibition American Designers Gallery Inc. organized by the Society of Modern Art in 1928 and 1929.

Although her style later has more gentle lines and more movements and precise details in a very original way, this modernity is present throughout her creative years. A good example from 1958 the book for youngsters Merry Christmas, Happy New Year poetry and stories connected with the events of the year. The book presents the modern style for young people. A meaningful simple presentation the beginning of the New Year, one of the many illustrations in the book, shows well her modernity. This style goes on for other illustrations of the book.

The Heavenly tenants (1946) and The twelve days of Christmas (1949) represent her own rich style with full of fantasy. It can be simple and also magnificent. The nature served as great source for her choosing either the subject or forms and lines. It came partly from the childhood in Hungary when the summers were spent in the countryside with the family or the nature around her house in Brewster, NY. An interview made with her and published in the Time in 194825 describes the process how the design for a wallpaper: Ducks and grasses was created "We had a pair of yellow ducks. and the children was chasing them. All I had to do was to put it dawn. Things often come that way, but of course I understood how the blades of grass grew, from having studied them before."26


She was a well liked artist of covers and jackets for books. Editors often ordered jackets from her for their publications. Probably she enjoyed to make them. By the visual art she was able to catch the substance or the spirit of the book in one picture at the same time she was the master of the details. She could find the balance between the two.


There is the fate of the jackets that they are often lost or are deteriorated by use although they carry art works. Luckily sometimes they are saved by photos of newspapers.

The covers of The New Yorker made her known all over the profession and in the circle of the readers as well. These covers are very different from each other. One type shows details of the city life or the countryside and the everyday's activity of the people, others express abstractions, symbols of human knowledge. In the last years the beauties for the eye attracted her mostly from the nature especially in the later years flowers or landscapes meant a kind of relaxation by pictures.27


She prepared black and white beautiful illustrations but she made great many colored illustrations, covers and jackets. She had special skill in choosing colors. The colors of her art are unusual and often appear unusual combinations and unusual delicate shades of them. She liked the bright and striking colors as well. The row of the The New Yorker cowers show an endless fantasy in selecting topics, forms and colors through decades.

She used a variety of techniques and methods in producing her art works for the books and publications for the printing industry. She used linoleum lithography, woodblocks as well and made drawings and paintings for illustrations, decorations, covers and jackets.

As book artist her special merit was, that she found again an area to distribute art for wider circle for the use of the masses.


Her art at the area of books and other publications in relation with publishing industry shows the same versatility as her oeuvre in general, but this area represent a special unit itself and fits into the whole, into her life-work and has connections with the other fields of her art. Although the products of her creative work shows a great variety of her art, the similar ideas and style, forms, techniques and colors are present all over in her artistic oeuvre.

The new revival of interest justifies the concept and evaluation of the first comprehensive research: "IIonka Karasz should not be forgotten. The breadth and success of her career were remarkable. Though she created in innumerable areas of design for close to seven decades her work is united into a cohesive body by the constancy of her basic beliefs and influences. An examination of her designs reveals a strongly individual style and an engaging artistic personality."28

Hungary should join this revival of interest and should discover Ilonka Karasz's art for us.

Ilona Kovács
National Széchényi Library

1 Enchanting Modern: Ilonka Karasz 1896–1981. Exhibition: September 26, 2004 – February 6, 2005. Museum of the American Hungarian Foundation, New Brunswick, NJ. Curators: Patricia L. Fazekas and Ashley Callahan. New Brunswick, NJ: AHF, 2004; See also Egy elfeledett magyar származású művésznő kiállítása New Brunswickban. [Exhibition of a forgotten Hungarian artist in New Brunswick, NJ] In: Artportal 2004.09.20. (2018.05.15.)

2 Blog Hyperallergic. The remarkable and polyglot design legacy of Ilonka Karasz by Lorissa Rinehart (2018.05.15.)

3 Ilonka Karasz: pioneer modernist: May 17 – June 23 [1984]. By Ilonka Karasz, Ralph Cutler, Elaine Greene. New York, NY 1984, Fifty/50 (Gallery.) Source: Worldcat. – According to Ashley Callahan the date is 1982.

4 Enchanting Modern: Ilonka Karasz (1896–1981). November 15 2003 – February 8 2004. [Exhibition. Brochure.] By Ashley Callahan. [Athens, GA]: Georgia Museum of Art, 2003

5 Callahan, Ashley: Enchanting modern: Ilonka Karasz (1896–1981). [Athens, GA]: Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, c2003

6 Ilonka Karasz. Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, New York. Exhibition 2017–2018 (2018.05.13.) The author of this article had the chance to see this exhibition in October 2017. This exhibition encouraged her to give an account for the Vasváry Collection Newsletter is published by the Vasváry Collection of the Somogyi Library (Szeged), Hungary

7 Callahan p. 11.; See also A formák elfeledett mesterei. Ilonka Karasz / Kovács Dániel – [Forgotten masters of the forms. Ilonka Karasz by Daniel Kovacs] (2018. 05.12)

8 Brown, Ashley Dawn: Ilonka Karasz (1896–1981) : twentieth century American designer. Thesis (M.A.) – Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum and Parsons School of Design. 1998. Introduction.

9 Brown p. 13.

10 Callahan, Ashley, curator. Modern threads : fashion and art by Mariska Karasz. Henry D. Center for the Study of the Decorative Arts. January 20 – April 15 2007. Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, GA, 2007

11 See Brown, and also Callahan Chapters Graphic Art p. 47.; Book illustration and book jackets p. 56.; Print making p. 60.

12 The present overview based on the holding of the New York Public Library, Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. Library and Archive (New York), National Széchényi Library (Budapest), Vasváry Collection. Somogyi Library (Szeged), Hungary

13 Callahan p. 27-28.

14 Ilonka Karasz. Biographies of members. In: American Designers Gallery Inc. [Exhibition catalog]. New York, 1928

15 Brown p. 59., Callahan p. 57.; The symbol (*) means the information originates from secondary source

16 Callahan p. 6. Some sources register 1924 as starting date of the covers for The New Yorker. See also Blog Fishink – Ilonka Karasz Design Pionir in the Arts (2018.05.15.); Vincze Miklós: Ismeretlen magyarok: Kárász Ilonka, a XX. század Amerikájának sokoldalú művészzsenije [Unknown Hungarians: Ilonka Karasz the versatile art-genius of the 20th century America by Miklós Vincze] (2018.05.15.)

17 Callachan p. 58.

18 Callahan p. 58. and Amazon (2018.05.15.)

19 Callahan p. 58.

20 Callahan p. 57.

21 Callahan p. 56.

22 Callahan p. 57.

23 The itinerant painter. In: [The New York Times Book Review] January 31, 1954. p. 5. Clipping in the Vasváry Collection. Somogyi Library (Szeged), Hungary

24 Brown p. 185.

25 Ilonka in No Man's Land. In: Time, November 8. 1948. p. 55. Clipping in the Vasváry Collection. Somogyi Library (Szeged), Hungary

26 See Fig. 5.

27 More pictures see (2018.05.15.)

28 Brown p. 75.

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