Gurdjieff International Review

Ilonka Karasz Nyland

Paul Kane


hen, in 1913, at the age of seventeen, Ilonka Karasz arrived in New York City from Hungary, she was already an accomplished designer, having been the first woman to be admitted to the Royal School of Arts and Crafts in Budapest. By 1921, now living in Greenwich Village, she was featured in Vanity Fair—along with Willa Cather, Edna St. Vincent Millay and other prominent women—as someone who had “Achieved the Highest Distinction in the Arts.” She went on to have a celebrated career as a prolific and esteemed artist and designer, known especially for her work in textiles, wallpapers, furniture and furnishings, as well as book covers and illustrations, including 186 covers for The New Yorker magazine (the second most of any artist). Of late, there has been a revival of interest in her work, with shows, articles, and a scholarly monograph.[1] A web search will yield scores of images and references, with most commentary focusing on her affiliations with Modern artistic and cultural movements. What is rarely mentioned or obvious is that Ilonka Karasz was deeply involved with the ideas of Gurdjieff, from 1924 to the end of her life, spending time at the Prieuré at Fontainebleau-Avon; taking an active part in Orage’s group in New York; and establishing, with her husband Willem Nyland and others, the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York. Much is known about her work as an artist, but what of her work in the Gurdjieff sense?

I first met Mrs. Nyland (for so she was known to members of both Willem Nyland’s group and the Gurdjieff Foundation) late in her life, in 1974, when I was one of several people attending to the maintenance of the Nylands’ extensive home in Brewster, NY (a house and grounds we simply referred to as “Brewster”). She was, by then, almost a mythic character, and certainly thought to be a daunting one, especially if she spotted you doing something clumsy or careless. Indeed, she was not slow to correct you. Many a person learned how to use a broom properly so as not to raise the dust you were sweeping. After the death of Mr. Nyland in 1975, I was asked to live at Brewster as a caretaker for a period of months, beginning in the spring of 1976. During that time, I came to know Mrs. Nyland as a warm and charismatic person, with a delightful sense of humor, though still an individual to be reckoned with. Before long, though, it became obvious to Mrs. Nyland’s daughter, Carola, and son, Eric, that she should be moved to Warwick, where she could be looked after more closely, as her health was declining and her physical needs more demanding. Subsequently, in 1979, we prepared Mr. Nyland’s house, “Firefly,” for her, and I and my wife, Tina, lived there with her until shortly before she was relocated to a house Carola had built nearby. In 1981, Ilonka Karasz died in that house.

It was in the summer of 1920, at Woodstock, NY, that Ilonka Karasz met Willem Nyland; they were married on October 6 of that year.[2] In 1924, while Mr. Nyland was earning a doctorate in chemistry from Columbia University, A. R. Orage—who had been sent by Gurdjieff to establish groups in the U.S.—was introduced to Mrs. Nyland, who then introduced him to her husband. The Nylands joined Orage’s New York group and met Gurdjieff on his first visit to the U.S. For the next twenty-five years, the Nylands remained in contact with Gurdjieff, initially through Orage but then independently. In 1929 they traveled to Paris to spend time at the Prieuré and returned in 1931, having lived for two years in between in Java (an experience that influenced Mrs. Nyland’s subsequent design work). They followed Gurdjieff back to New York and reestablished themselves among the core group that was studying Gurdjieff’s ideas. Once the Second World War ended, the Nylands were the first from the New York group to visit Gurdjieff in Paris.

After Gurdjieff’s death in 1949, they both became Trustees of the Gurdjieff Foundation and ran groups there separately (and not as a couple, which was more common). Those who attended Mrs. Nyland’s early meetings say they were notable for their discipline and rigor. There would be a semi-circle of sixteen or more people in two rows facing her, as she sat upright before them, filling her space with her presence and the firm conviction that what they were undertaking was vitally important. Although she could seem stern, there was no doubting her dedication to helping others.

Ilonka Karasz maintained a studio in New York (featured in House Beautiful in August of 1928), in addition to the one in Brewster. She continued her prolific output as a designer throughout this period, and also had her two children, Carola (1932–2014)—one of the “Calves,” as Gurdjieff called the female children of his American followers—and Eric (1936–1980). The house at Brewster, where the family lived, was itself a testament to her inspired and inspiring artistry; William Maxwell called it “ravishingly beautiful.”[3] To those of us who spent time there, it seemed a magical place in an enchanting landscape.

For students who learned to work through the method taught by Willem Nyland, a teacher was someone who explained in detail both the theory and practice of Gurdjieff’s ideas and who embodied the tenets of that philosophy in his own being and behavior. With Mrs. Nyland, it was different: she didn’t expound the ideas or answer our questions directly; she taught by example and often indirectly with a comment or an aside. She once told me that Gurdjieff used to walk around the Prieuré saying aloud, “Roses, roses!” and then, under his breath, “Thorns, thorns!” Similarly, you had to be very attentive around her to catch her subtlety. If you weren’t, then her comments could be devastatingly blunt. This helped give rise to her reputation for severity and seriousness; one word that often recurs in people’s remembrances is ‘formidable.’ But above all there was her aliveness and vibrant character which elicited admiration and affection from many people, whether they be in Work—like A. R. Orage and Jeanne de Salzmann—or in the professional world—such as William Maxwell and Brendan Gill at The New Yorker.

In 1956, the Design Group Inc. was founded by Ilonka Karasz.[4] It was essentially a guild of designers and craftsmen brought together to explore design in a wide range of mediums. While not ostensibly a vehicle for teaching Work, it was nonetheless pursued within the context of Work, as many of the participants were connected with the Foundation. The Design Group was a commercial enterprise and held shows and promoted its products, selling from a shop at 130 ½ East Sixty-fifth Street in New York. More “esoteric” was the course Mrs. Nyland taught for ten years on Form and Color at the Foundation’s estate at Armonk, where she emphasized cultivating attention and presence.