Student Exhibition Leads Fibers Major to Storied Career with General Motors

May 23, 2023

Student Exhibition leads fibers major to storied career with General Motors

Katherine Sirvio was overjoyed when, as a sophomore at the College for Creative Studies, she was given wall space at the 1990 Student Exhibition. Little did she know that the artwork she displayed would launch an unexpected career in the automotive industry.

“They were all woven pieces with some printing and painting on top,” said Sirvio (’92, Crafts-Fibers). “Most of them had the edge bound with ribbon and, when I hung them, I used really tiny straight pins because I didn’t have money to frame them — it was the typical starving artist scenario.”

All 10 pieces sold the first night of the exhibition. Days later, the buyer — Nancy Cunningham, then Manager of Educational Relations and Communications for General Motors — tracked Sirvio down to ask how she would have framed them if she had been able to do so.

That phone conversation proved to be a pivotal moment in Sirvio’s life: “While we were talking, she said, ‘Do you have any interest in doing an internship at General Motors?’ And I said, ‘What’s General Motors?’”

Although she had never imagined working in the automotive industry, she agreed to an interview — the next day. She rallied her boyfriend (now husband) and friends to pull an all-nighter and help her put together a portfolio. Their efforts paid off — the interview went so well that she learned on the spot that she would receive an offer to intern that summer.

Sirvio was ecstatic. “It was the best thing that could have ever happened to me,” she said.

Although GM had once had an art and color department staffed with degreed designers known as the “damsels of design,” the last damsel had departed more than a decade before. No one was quite sure what to do with Sirvio. So, she decided to take the initiative and lean into the skills she had been learning in her CCS classes, like fabric dying, weaving and screen-printing.

“I was bringing a loom into General Motors and weaving in the Color Studio,” she said. “I brought in a pot of wax, and I would do batik in there. Everybody would come down to see what I was doing because they couldn’t understand how I was going to make that into a fabric that they could put on a car seat.”

She soon showed them by taking the fabric she created on her hand loom to the GM Trim Shop for upholstery. She would also make a repeat painting, like she had learned from Mollie Fletcher in her Silkscreen Design and Rendering class, and work with suppliers to turn the art into fabric. She would then take that fabric to the GM Trim Shop, where it would be sewn onto seats.

When Sirvio’s handiwork that summer caught the interest of suppliers, GM extended her internship to the school year and offered her a job contingent upon her graduation.

From the beginning, Sirvio planned to stay at General Motors her entire career — which ended up being 29 years. Most of that time was spent at GM’s Global Technical Center in Warren, except for when she worked and lived in Korea and Germany.

Even though GM is an enormous company and 1,700 people worked in the design center, “it was like its own little village,” she said. “Everybody knew everybody. It was very much like a family, just like CCS was very much a family. I liked that.”

It was a family she played a role in expanding into a diverse group of artists who collaborated as a team. Sirvio believes her own success helped prompt GM to broaden the educational backgrounds considered during the hiring process, leading to the design team adding footwear, jewelry, interior, fashion and industrial designers.

Although she ended up working on every GM brand, for many years, Sirvio was responsible globally for the Color and Trim Department for Chevrolet. That encompassed the color, texture and finish for interior and exterior parts on the vehicle, including determining what color combinations would be standard on cars or, for the most part, available via special order.

“We did the exterior paints, the chromes on the wheels and around the windows, and any finishes that went on the grills or bumpers,” she said. “In the interior, we designed the carpet and the fabric or leather, the wood paneling or decoration that might go across the instrument panel, the headlining fabric, the textures on the instrument panel and the buttons. If you could touch it, feel it or see it, so did we.”

Sirvio’s recommendations for equipment — such as printers, laser cutters and embroidery machines — allowed her department to operate more efficiently, such as being able print directly on fabric for mock-ups.

“There was lots of stuff that I learned at CCS that helped drive what I was able to accomplish while I was working at General Motors,” she said, noting that CCS now offers an MFA in Color and Materials Design.

Toward the end of her career, Sirvio transitioned to the Cadillac line. Working on the luxury brand “was a major, super fun learning experience” as she was able to explore partnerships with non-automotive companies looking to create new things for the automotive sector with high-end materials, such as all-natural wools and silks.

In 2019, Sirvio retired and moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. She began creating jewelry — which, coincidentally, was what she had originally planned to focus on at CCS all those years ago — that she sells wholesale and at festivals. She is also learning woodturning and woodcarving, exploring oil painting and, in her spare time, working with ceramics.

“It’s funny because now that I’m retired, I’m busier than I was when I was working,” she said, “which is strange, because I quit working because I was too busy.”

Looking back at the 31 years since she graduated from CCS, Sirvio feels like the “luckiest girl in the world” — and it all began with those pieces of artwork hung at the Student Exhibition.

“I didn’t realize the networking opportunities and all of the different functions at CCS were so important to your livelihood and well-being in the future,” she said. “Having that show and being taught how to hang things, or being creative enough to figure it out, was so important, because that was the catalyst that gave me my entire career.”