Mary Henry was born in Sonoma, California in 1913. After receiving a BFA from the California College of the Arts, Henry won a printmaking contest through Iowa State University, where she was subsequently offered a teaching position. Henry taught in Iowa for several years, before returning to San Francisco where she studied printmaking at the California School of Fine Arts. While her husband served in WWII, Henry worked for Hewlett-Packard drafting engineering drawings and blueprints in an effort to support herself and her daughter. In 1939, Henry attended a lecture by the famed Bauhaus artist László Moholy-Nagy. Henry was so inspired by Moholy-Nagy’s artwork and theories on design that she moved to Chicago to study with him at the Institute of Design, where she received her master’s degree.
After earning her master’s, Henry was offered a teaching position at the Institute of Art in Chicago, the first job the institution offered to a woman. At the same time, Henry was invited to teach in the architecture department at MIT. She ended up declining both positions to follow her husband to Arkansas, where he researched malaria prevention and treatment. It was in Arkansas that Henry won a national kitchen design competition that inspired her to become a licensed interior designer. After divorcing her husband in 1964, Henry returned to California where she ran a bed and breakfast and worked as a painter part-time.