Joan Basso Pensack

Home Is Where the Art Is

Joan Basso Pensack, Apparel Design ’51, is still going strong

by Jonathan Vatner

Most nonagenarians stopped working long ago. Not Joni Pensack. At 90, the former fashion designer now sells her illustrations.

Quarantining with her son and daughter-in-law in Charleston, South Carolina, during the first months of the pandemic, Pensack was feeling cooped up and restless. On walks, she sketched interesting buildings—the coffee shop, the library, and lots of houses. When she returned home to Florida, her friends saw her new portfolio and hired her to draw their homes. She takes many photographs, then sketches impressionistically in pencil and highlights in ink. Sometimes she adds colored pencil or watercolor.

“I always wanted to be an architect,” Pensack says. “In high school I applied for a mechanical drawing class, but it was considered a boys’ class, so they wouldn’t let me take it.”

Her talent took her in a different direction. Though she had no fashion design experience, her adviser helped her get a scholarship to FIT. An internship with Coty Award–winning children’s wear designer Helen Lee at Youngland Dresses launched her in the industry.

Within a few years, she had designed girls’ and women’s apparel for Sacony (not to be confused with the running-shoe company), Chubbettes, Ketti Madison, Suzy Brooks, and Gail Berk.

“Switching around was the only way to get ahead,” Pensack says. “Nobody really checked your resume.”

When her children were young, she and her husband opened a clothing store in Highland Park, New Jersey, called The Spot for Children. She loved decorating the windows but disliked working on the weekends. So, after her third child was born, she went back into the studio, designing for Kute Kiddies Coats. After setting up a snowsuit division for Gelmart and designing high-end apparel for boys at Casual Time, she retired in 1985 as design director at Quiltex, where she had been creating licensed collections featuring Beatrix Potter characters and Paddington Bear.

Nowadays, she takes commissions to draw homes, illustrations that homeowners print on Christmas cards or change-of-address announcements. Real estate brokers give them as client gifts. Her illustrations were also selected for a juried art show at her country club. And she has no plans to stop.“I managed to put a lot into life,” Pensack says. “My kids say they’ve heard of Grandma Moses—now there’s Grandma Joni.”