Women In Design – Mary Blair

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In this blog series, we shine a light on women trailblazers in the design industry – women who have earned a Wikipedia page (or are likely to very soon). You might not know them by name, but definitely by their work and influence on the design world as a whole.   

Mary Blair was an impactful artist and animator who brought fairytales to life through dreamy concept art and color styling. She introduced Modernism to Disney’s animation studio, helping to create the artistic style for films such as Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan. Thanks to Blair, the visuals of these stories resonate across generations.  

Mary Blair grew up in Texas in the early 1900s before moving to California in the early 20s, where she would attend San Jose State University. During her education, she was recognized as a bright, emerging talent, and was awarded a scholarship to Chouinard Art Institute. Here, she honed her watercolor and color styling skills and met her husband Lee Blair, a fellow artist who would also go on to work at Disney.  

After graduation, Blair’s talent soared early on in her career. She quickly became known for the unique color styles of her designs, earning the attention of both the art community and animation studios. She became a professional animator at Metro-Goldyn-Mayer. As her distinct style developed, she was welcomed to join the prestigious California Water-Color Society. Her watercolors impressed Walt Disney, and she joined Disney’s animation studios as an art supervisor and color stylist. Walt Disney said that Blair “knew about colors he had never heard of before”.  

Blair had a major influence on Disney’s animation, but she faced challenges in her efforts. Despite having the respect of Walt Disney, her other supervisors were quick to dismiss her work as overly abstract and too colorful. In a time where animation studios were dominated by men, she had to fight to push through her ideas, disregarding jealous resentment from her male colleagues. Her determination led to the modernization of the studio’s art style, and her imagination is present in many of Disney’s most iconic films of the time. Her concept art set the foundation for the style that has become associated with a sense of comfortable nostalgia to people who grew up with these classics on their screens. 

In addition to her accomplishments at professional animation studios, Blair was also a successful freelance designer. She illustrated several Little Golden Books with beautiful, whimsical drawings.  

While she was freelancing, Walt Disney reached out to her again, asking if she would help design a new attraction that would eventually find fame at Disneyland, “It’s a Small World”. She also created stunning murals that are showcased throughout Disney’s parks.  

Mary Blair’s innovative influence on animation is undeniable. The worlds she designed through her artwork made children believe in magic, while bringing modern art to the screen. She was posthumously honored for her effect on the art of animation by being inducted into the Disney Legends hall of fame. To learn more about Blair, visit the website presented by her nieces, magicofmaryblair.com.

“Her most distinctive factor is that she is kind of showing us her soul…she puts herself into her art work and it transcends the greatest of the Disney movies.”

Michael Giaimo 

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