All-women firm design interiors for luxury ocean liner

14 August, 2023

By Wendy Maltman

I'm often surprised by the unexpected things that catch my attention when I visit an exhibition. Recently I took the opportunity to revisit the Ocean Liners: Speed and Style exhibition at V&A Dundee.

As a graphic designer I loved seeing the vintage posters and promotional catalogues capturing a period in time when these great ocean liners where the way to travel. Displays of elegant fashion, oppulent interiors and graceful dinner services really set the scene. And I loved watching the old film clips which gave a great insight to life at sea.

Prominent designers of the age produced sculptures, paintings, interiors, posters, luggage, ceramics and furniture. But in amongst all the credited designers, I was surprised to read about Dorothy Marckwald, "a partner in the all-women firm employed to design the interiors" of the SS United States.

I could hardly wait to get home to investigate further...

Now, I think it's pretty special to have an all-female team in 2019. The design sector, and many others, are still very much male dominated. But incredibly, Dorothy and her partners Anne Urquhart and Miriam Smyth were truly ahead of their time when they received one of the biggest commissions in shipbuilding history to design the interiors for the SS America in 1938! The work included designs for 23 public rooms, 395 state rooms, and eight luxury suites. It was said to have been one of the most beautifully decorated liners of its time.

In 1952 the team were again commissioned to design the interiors of the SS United States. Extensive use of aluminium in its construction meant it was the fastest and largest passenger ship ever built at the time. Using innovative new materials such as aluminium, fibreglass and Dynel, Marckwald and Urquhart created designs that were lightweight and fireproof.

In three years they completed the interiors for 26 public rooms, 674 state rooms and 20 luxury suites. Colour schemes were chosen to limit seasickness, and furniture was designed to fit to its assigned location. Its fresh modern design was a hit with the celebrities of the day including Salvador Dali, Walt Disney and Marilyn Monroe!

And so, after reading about Dorothy and her all-female design team, I am inspired and even more determined to lead my team to great things in 2019. Perhaps in 70 years time there may be another designer inspired by an exhibition of our work!

Find out more about Dorothy Marckwald at and

Photo: Anne Urquhart, left, Dorothy Marckwald, right. Photo by Wilbur Pippin.

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