My Mentor: Derek Ostergard (1952-2023)

We first met in 1999; I was a new PhD student at the Bard Graduate Center specializing in the studies of design history and he was the founding Dean, having co-founded with Susan Soros in 1991. He was a renowned curator, writer, and leading expert of an international acclaim. I clearly remember walking into his office to present him with my proposed subject for the dissertation: Hotel Design in British Mandate Palestine. Immediately we discovered that we shared the same favorite book—Austrian writer Stefan Zweig’s memoire The World of Yesterday, which recalls the golden age of Viennese culture. We are both in love with this era when Vienna was the center of art and culture, just before the First World War. It was the beginning of a great friendship which lasted through the years until he passed away yesterday.

Derek Ostergard (1952-2023) was an accomplished historian who published extensively on furniture, architecture, glass, porcelain, and jewelry. Among his notable books are studies on bentwood, Art Deco, Geroge Nakashima, Swedish Glass, jewelry, Carolo Mollino, KPM and Sevres Porcelain, and cast iron. I used to occasionally ask him how he was able to accomplish so much, but he never answered. He was a true intellectual and we shared a love for German culture and George Nakashima (he curated the groundbreaking exhibition of 1990 George Nakashima: Full Circle), and design theory. We loved sharing stories about our travels throughout Europe’s metropolises—discovering architecture, art, and design, and meeting our colleagues who showed us the inside realities of those cities.

He was my mentor, and I did not make any professional decisions without consulting him because Derek gave me the best advices which would come to shape much of my career. He was a great supporter, but also my critic. He used to get angry with me when I would slip up and refrain from authentic criticism in my writings; he often said, “criticism has disappeared from the world.” He always encouraged me to learn from primary sources and to visit libraries; the Cooper Hewitt and the Avery Library at Columbia were his favorites. He attended all of my talks, religiously read my blog, and our monthly lunches were always filled with inspiration and anticipation. Derek was one of the most passionate people I have ever met. It was hard to convince him to go to openings because he had little interest in mingling and always preferred to devote as much time as he could to research, to reading, to discovery. His last passion was digging into German periodicals of the turn of the 20th cewntury. But he loved learning from me about contemporary culture, as he was inquisitive and always eager for knowledge.  

He was so young, just turned 71 on May 5th, that it is hard to believe that he is no longer with us. There is so much that he did not get to accomplish. He dreamt of going to Egypt to explore the Vallery of the Kings; to go to Jerusalm. He began writing three books: On the Playing Fields of Privilege: the Residential Work of Delano & Aldrich, 1903-1941; The Lost Citadel: The Rise and Fall ofNew York’s Silk Stocking District, 1900-1941, examining the seismic shift in use along Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue as they were transformed from the city’s preeminent residential districts to the city’s most important commercial sectors – triggering a financial battle which involved members of the Astor, the Vanderbilt, the Baker, Rockefeller and Whitney families; and The third, entitled, Along the Golden Mile: The Fifth Avenue Jewelers and the Rise of an American Aesthetic, 1914-1941; these books will never see light. I will miss the voice and presence of Derek Ostergard, who was one of my favorite people.

3 thoughts on “My Mentor: Derek Ostergard (1952-2023)”

  1. Ursula Ilse-Neuman

    Derek Ostergard was the most inspiring professor I ever had – I felt very lucky that he became my thesis advisor at Cooper Hewitt where he guided my work on Karl Friedrich Schinkel and the 18th century console tables in the Wittelsbach court– two German topics that interested us both.
    Derek generously shared his vast knowledge — his intellectual integrity and great enthusiasm enriched my professional life tremendously. I am incredibly sad as I write this too brief remembrance of the mentor we both admired.
    I will always regret never seeing him again after my return from Israel.
    Thank you, Daniella, for writing this essential tribute.
    Ursula Ilse-Neuman

  2. What lovely memories. Derek was an inspiration to so many, and a wonderful, loyal friend. How fortunate you are to have encountered him during those early BGC days. What Susan and Derek succeed in getting off the ground lives on, going from strength to strength.

  3. A wonderful tribute to Derek. He will be sorely missed. I met him when we were in our 20’s and he always was interested and wanted one to explore their potential. Derek was a great friend.

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