Pola Stout was born Josefine Pola Weinbach, daughter of Schulem and Betty Eliasiewicz (Tune) Weinbach, on January 8, 1902. She was born in Stryj, a city that was then part of Austria-Hungary and was later part of Poland. As a child she befriended dressmakers and used the scraps from their cutting tables to fashion clothing for her dolls, which she displayed in a window facing the street. She was unable to persuade her parents to let her pursue a career in art; instead, she was sent to the University of Lemberg to study philosophy. In addition to her coursework there she worked for a milliner, and saved enough money to run away to Vienna. On the day of her arrival she arranged to study at the Kunstgewerbe Schule (now the University of Applied Arts Vienna) with Josef Hoffmann. To save money for tuition, she slept on a park bench for her first six weeks in the Austrian capital.
During her four years of study at the Kunstgewerbe Schule, Pola Weinbach designed textiles for the Wiener Werkstätte and worked for Sigmund Freud, repairing a Gobelin tapestry. She then lived in Paris, working at a fabric house that supplied haute couture, and then moved to Berlin. On December 28, 1925, she married Wolfgang Hoffmann, Josef Hoffmann's son, who was on his way to New York to work as an assistant to architect-designer Joseph Urban. The couple immigrated to the United States, and after nine months with Urban they formed their own independent design partnership with offices on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Their first years in America were difficult; Wolfgang worked in a machine shop, and Pola made lampshades and women's hats.
Commissions began with two art house cinemas in New York—the St. George Playhouse in Brooklyn (1927) and the Little Carnegie Playhouse in Manhattan (1928). Located only a few steps east of Carnegie Hall, the Little Carnegie was an intimate modernist theater in contrast to the opulent movie palaces then in vogue. In addition to the main auditorium, the unique layout included an art gallery, bridge room, ping-pong room and a lounge and dance floor. Demolished in 1982, the venue was prized by sophisticated New Yorkers for its austere silver-and-black interior and its dedication to international film.
Less known today than some of their industrial design colleagues who were more adept at self-promotion, Wolfgang and Pola Hoffmann were among the immigrants who made significant contributions to the development of American modernism and the American Modern design aesthetic in the early 20th century. In 1928 they were among the 14 architects and designers who founded the American Designers' Gallery—"devoted exclusively to showing objects and interiors for practical use"—and they were among those who established the American Union of Decorative Artists and Craftsmen, the most ambitious professional design group of the era. In 1930, AUDAC exhibited furnishings and decorative arts at the Grand Central Palace in five model rooms, one designed by the Hoffmanns. In 1931 they contributed an office interior to a large and important exhibition by AUDAC members, organized by Wolfgang Hoffmann and Kem Weber at the Brooklyn Museum.
The Hoffmanns often made opportunities to exhibit their work, and created contemporary American furnishings and interiors for shops, restaurants, and private clients including Mrs. Otto C. Sommerich and Helena Rubinstein. Pola Hoffmann's interior design commissions included the New York apartment of Charles J. Liebman and the still-extant Weiler Building (1928) at 407 South Warren Street, Syracuse, New York. The Madison Avenue shop of Rena Rosenthal carried their line of accessories—pewter cigarette holders and ashtrays, and desk sets in natural woods and pewter—which was praised by The New Yorker: "These pleasant utilitarian features are totally unadorned; their line and proportion, both of which are a joy to behold, are all they have by way of ornamentation, and it's plenty."
"It would indeed be progress, if through mass production there would be an output of commodities that bore a simple directness of design," Pola Hoffmann said in a 1931 interview. "By choosing only those things that are simple, we derive greater satisfaction from them—we do not tire of them so quickly. … Only those furnishings should be purchased that we feel are necessary, that serve a utilitarian purpose. The more simple and practical the furniture and accessories, the less work is required to keep them clean. This is equally true for clothes."
In late 1931, writer Lewis Gannett and his wife Ruth (previously married to designer Egmont Arens) took Wolfgang and Pola Hoffmann with them when they visited author Rex Stout, who was building a modernist concrete-and-steel house of his own design on a hill between Brewster, New York, and Danbury, Connecticut. The marriages of the Stouts and the Hoffmanns were troubled, and both ended the following year. Pola Hoffmann and Rex Stout were married on December 21, 1932, in a civil ceremony at his home, High Meadow. She became a naturalized citizen of the U.S. in 1936.
After her second marriage Pola Stout was an influential textile designer, one of a select group that pioneered a craft weaving revival in the 1930s. Her large, light-filled workroom was in the east wing of the second floor of High Meadow. She had two daughters and a harmonious, productive household with Rex Stout. The New York Times noted that "while she is spinning yarns in one wing of their hill-top farmhouse, he is spinning his yarns about Nero Wolfe in another."
High Meadow Loom supplied the top fashion houses in New York City and created collections for Dunhill and Otterburn in Great Britain. Although Stout had begun her textile design career by creating hand-loomed fabrics for special garments and individual patrons, she found the greatest satisfaction in planning designs that were executed on power looms.
From 1940 to 1945 Stout was head of a division within Botany Worsted Mills called Pola Stout Fabrics; she was the first woman to receive such an opportunity in the American woolen industry. In 1946 she incorporated, with offices in New York City. Underwritten by eight manufacturers, she leased space in Philadelphia for a textile mill of her own that she operated from 1946 to 1954. In 1948, Pola Stout Inc. employed a staff of 17 weavers and produced 2,000 yards of fine fabric per week. She later created collections for J. P. Stevens & Company (1958–59) and was a designer-consultant for the Ames Textile Corporation.
"Mass production methods in the American clothing industry make it possible for everyone to dress fashionably and attractively," she said. "My own feeling is that mass taste is potentially more stable than the taste of people who love fashion for its own sake—and can afford it. The average woman, I have found, is honest, simple, and unassuming in her taste, and I feel it is the responsibility of the designer to take more interest in her basic needs."
Stout designed correlated woolens in three different weights, with colors and patterns that matched or pleasantly contrasted. Each piece in a wardrobe could be worn with another: a suit purchased one year would harmonize with a coat purchased the next season, and with a dress or jacket purchased the next. Based on quality, beauty, durability and classic styling, the simple plan built an enduring wardrobe that expressed the owner's personality. Pola Stout fabrics were sold by the yard in fine stores including B. Altman and Company, which in 1942 created a new department devoted exclusively to Stout's line of Botany Perennials. In that collection and its successor, Botany Annuals, Stout applied the scientific discipline of the Ostwald color system to her own similar system.
"Her exquisitely beautiful woolens are a thrilling sight," wrote the Chicago Tribune. "She weaves with the skill of a composer of symphonies, with the imagination of an artist trying to capture a misty blue morning haze, and with the integrity of a completely honest person. All are reflected in her incomparable fabrics, the very breath of the American scene and way of life. … Her soft tones in checks or the bold stripes and plaids are what make American clothes the tops of any in the world."
Stout created fabric collections for name designers including Elizabeth Hawes, Muriel King, Mainbocher, Jo Copeland, Christian Dior, Edith Head, Norman Norell, Clare Potter, Edward Molyneux, Valentina, Philip Mangone, Vincent Monte-Sano, Pauline Trigère, Zuckerman & Kraus and Irene. She often worked with Adrian, in a famous collaboration that began in the 1940s.
"In his quest to use unique textiles," wrote the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Adrian frequently incorporated those of designer Pola Stout, whose fabrics often featured blocks and stripes of color. Adrian found Stout's geometric patterns well-suited to his pieced garments where he employed a favorite technique of manipulating striped fabrics to make them serve a dual purpose, as structure and as ornament." Stout also created a collection of sheer wools, some in subtle dark plaids and harlequin diamonds, that Adrian used for menswear.
After visiting Hyde Park in 1940, Stout had a navy-and-ivory plaid woolen shirt made for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who wore it during the war. In July 1949, Eleanor Roosevelt interviewed Stout on her radio program. That autumn and on later occasions, Stout sent the former First Lady a collection of fabrics she designed and wove especially for her, with suggestions for her dressmaker.
In 1957, Bennington College presented the first comprehensive exhibit of Stout's textiles—a selection of hand-loomed fabrics, power-loomed fabrics made in her Philadelphia mill and in Great Britain, examples of yarns, portfolios of coordinated fabrics, and photographs of clothing made from Pola Stout textiles by noted American designers. In remarks prepared for the opening of the exhibit, art historian Alexander Dorner introduced Stout as one of the most important pioneers in the field of applied arts.
Other solo exhibitions of Stout's work were presented at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art and at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where Stout was an acting lecturer and consultant.
Stout was executor of Rex Stout's literary estate after her husband's death in October 1975. In her later years she partially completed a major project, composing a collection of 50 plaids, one for each of the United States. By 1981 she had moved from High Meadow to Stamford, Connecticut. She died October 12, 1984, aged 82, following a heart attack.