Sunday 28 September 2014
Meeting Ruth Ansel

Ladies and gentlemen, we proudly present Ruth Ansel, a woman who’s always been at the right place at the right time. Back in the 60’s, when she was just 24, she and Bea Feitler became co-art directors of Harper’s Bazaar. In the 70’s, Ruth was the art director of The New York Times Magazine, in the 80’s, Vanity Fair. Each time, she was the first woman in that position. In recent years, she’s run her own studio – Ruth Ansel Design – designing books like the much-talked about, 20-inch tall monograph on the photographer and artist Peter Beard. Today, Ruth is 70 years old and still working.

Ruth is Grand. Everyone we’ve met has spoken about her with the utmost respect. Ruth is the one we’ve dreamed most about meeting though we hardly dared to think it would ever happen. She’s been known to publish fake e-mail addresses online with the sole purpose of making it harder for people to reach her. A few months ago, we called her up. It was a brief conversation, ending shortly after Ruth sternly told us that she would »look us up«. Several nervous weeks later, we received an e-mail from Ruth in which she praised our work. Throughout our entire career, nothing has been as important as that e-mail. We felt like a door had opened, that we had received an invitation to an important society. Is this what it feels like to be in the »in« crowd?

Ruth Ansel lives in a posh apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In her courtyard a film crew is set to shoot a Disney film starring Nicolas Cage. On our way up to the tenth floor, the elevator man asks us if we’re aware that Cyndi Lauper lives in the house. »You know that song ’Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’?« But we’re focused on a different lady.

Ruth Ansel welcomes us into her large apartment, only to disappear into the kitchen. She’s wearing black clothes, Mary Janes, a big orange watch and a turquoise ring. In the kitchen, she’s arranged a lunch buffet of delicious treats; croissants, smoked fish spread, tasty cheeses and small apples. We fill up our plates and ask if she’s interested in food. »Unfortunately«, she replies, not helping herself to lunch. Above the refrigerator there’s a blackboard in the shape of a cat. On it, Ruth has scribbled a Diana Vreeland quote : »Elegance is refusal.« It’s supposed to keep her from sneaking things out of the fridge.

In 1963, when Ruth Ansel and Bea Feitler were appointed co-art directors of Harper’s Bazaar, the leading fashion magazine of its time, they were met with blatant skepticism by a male-dominated media world. Could two twenty-something females really shoulder such an important role? However, it didn’t take long before the duo had modernized the magazine by infusing it with elements of pop art, street fashion, rock and roll music and film. They chose photographers whose work changed fashion photography forever. Furthermore, the graphic design of Ansel and Feitler set a new standard in magazine design, an updated take on Brodovitch’s revolutionary designs from the 40’s and 50’s.

Ruth Ansel ended up in the magazine world by accident. She was born in the Bronx in the late 1930s. Her father was in the china import business and her mom ran a small lingerie shop. From childhood, Ruth took a great interest in art and movies. Along with her classmate Nina Castelli, daughter of Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend , central figures in the New York art world, she spent a summer in East Hampton at age 15. There, she saw the artist William De Kooning paint his »Woman« series in the downstairs guest bedroom where he was living at the time. Jackson Pollock and Larry Rivers often came by for dinner. Together with the Castelli-Sonnabend family, Ruth went to see her first Balanchine ballet performance as well as Robert Rauschenberg and Picasso exhibitions. It was then her love for art took root.

She graduated from Alfred University earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree majoring in ceramic design but soon realized her career opportunities were limited. After a brief marriage, she escaped to Europe to mend her heart and look for adventure. Her plan was to look for work in different countries and eventually end up in Rome. But after eight months of travel she ran out of money and knew it was time to head home. She felt that, as a young woman, she was never taken seriously in her pursuit of a graphic design career. 

Ruth shows us into the living room. The sun shines in through an open window. On the walls there are pictures we’ve seen in books, like Richard Avedon’s famous Andy Warhol Factory triptych and his portrait of Stravinsky. Some are signed with personal notes to Ruth. Her white Mac is standing on a desk that stretches along a wall. Every now and then, we hear a little »pling« announcing she’s got mail. Ruth asks us to sit down on the large couch, and adds that it’s quite uncomfortable, so we should help ourselves to plush pillows to put behind our backs.

Large bookshelves hold yard upon yard of bookmarked books and magazines. We would love to browse through them all. One of the lower shelves carries all the magazine issues on which Ruth has ever worked. They’re collected in heavy bound volumes. She tells us that she has one copy of each magazine except for the Harper’s Bazaar 1965 April issue – with the legendary cover where model Jean Shrimpton wears a large pink helmet and blinks with one eye if you tilt the magazine.

– Samira Bouabana, Angela Tillman Sperandio, 2010

Preface: Hall of Femmes: Ruth Ansel, 2010
Editor: Ika Johannesson

Buy the book here. Buy the poster here.

Left: Model Jean Shrimpton on the famous cover of Harper's Bazaar April 1965, with the winking eye. Art direction: Ruth Ansel and Bea Feitler. Photo: Richard Avedon. © 2010 The Richard Avedon Foundation. Right: Harper’s Bazaar fold-down cover, August 1966. Art direction: Ruth Ansel and Bea Feitler. Photo: James Moore.

Left: Model Jean Shrimpton on the famous cover of Harper’s Bazaar April 1965, with the winking eye. Art direction: Ruth Ansel and Bea Feitler. Photo: Richard Avedon. © 2010 The Richard Avedon Foundation. Right: Harper’s Bazaar fold-down cover, August 1966. Art direction: Ruth Ansel and Bea Feitler. Photo: James Moore.

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Categories: Ika Johannesson, Preface, Richard Avedon, Ruth Ansel, Yolanda Cuomo

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