NYSID's Contribution to the War Effort During WWII

During World War II, it seems NYSID’s founder Sherrill Whiton knew that not only would the war would demand a change in the design industry, but NYSID would have to do its part to aid the war effort. One of the more surprising things I found while working in the NYSID archives and looking through course catalogs from the 1940's was a registration form which listed a course in “Mechanical Drafting for War Industries.”  The description read:

In order to fulfill its part in the national emergency the New York School of Interior Decoration has introduced an intensive course to train students for drafting and design work in the machine, arms, and other essential war production organizations.

The course was intended to teach men and women “technical drafting skills for the defense industries” as well as to give instruction to men entering the Army or Navy in “map making, machine drawing, and other special lines of work that are directly adaptable to military and naval activity.”  

It wasn’t the only special course that NYSID developed during WWII – also in the archives is a “Bell Technical Training Course” pamphlet.  You can see from the advertisement (pictured at left) that the course appealed not only to those who wanted to enter the defense industry during the war, but to students looking to acquire mechanical and technical drafting skills for the post-war economy as well. 

The fact that some interior designers used their design and drafting skills during their military service was not a complete surprise. I had seen  references to this in two of NYSID’s other archival collections: The Yale R. Burge Antiques and Interiors Collection and the Sarah Tomerlin Lee Collection. Yale Burge (1917-1972) had a well-known interior design and antiques reproduction firm, Yale R. Burge, Inc., Burge served in World War II with the Royal Air Force, where he created models and maps that were used during the D-Day Invasion of Normandy. Meanwhile, the Sarah Tomerlin Lee Collection, which has materials related to Lee’s career as a magazine editor, advertising executive, and interior designer, also has records related to her husband, Tom Lee. Tom Lee, who, in addition to having a career in design also served in the Air Corps as a Major and with the Office of Strategic Services during WWII.  It seems he employed his design skills in a different way: in 1943 he produced the set and costume designs for a musical produced by the United States Eighth Air Force, titled Skirts  (pictured below).

It is truly fascinating to get a glimpse into how NYSID responded to this particular time in history and how interior designers translated their skills into their military service.   There is so much written about post-war design, the activities of designers during the war years tends to be overlooked, and it’s especially interesting considering how much the industry was about to change in the years after the war.    

NYSID Institutional Archives, New York School of Interior Design, New York, NY, USA
Sarah Tomerlin Lee Collection, New York School of Interior Design, New York, NY, USA
Yale R. Burge Antiques and Interiors Collection, New York School of Interior Design, New York, NY, USA  

Phyllis Greer