Despite decades of the feminist movement and increasing participation of women in the workforce, women in architecture and design still seem to be suffering from a lack of promotion and, consequently, public awareness.
“Whenever people would talk to me about design, they’d always ask about the men,” said Bill Stern, executive director of the Museum of California Design. Enter two exhibitions in Los Angeles that together form a compelling narrative of women in West Coast design over the last century.
Curated by Stern, California's Designing Women, 1896–1986 at the Autry National Center of the American West lays the historical foundation for women in design in the past century. Beginning with Florence Lundborg’s hand-cut woodblock-printed posters from the 1890s, the exhibit presents over 200 objects: textiles, ceramics, furniture, lighting, jewelry, clothing, and graphics, created by California women designers, many of whom are being shown for the first time.
An exhibit of this scope could easily be overwhelming, but Stern’s loosely chronological presentation is instead enlightening. California’s Designing Women represents five years of meticulous research. Stern scoured art markets, galleries, and even friends’ homes for prime samples, such as a $95,000 Gertrud Natzler vase.
More than just beautiful objects, the pieces serve as proof that the California pioneering spirit that inspired experimentation and leaps in technology also influenced women to break out of traditional gender roles. Among them are Judith Hendler, who turned surplus acrylic used in aircraft windshields into an audacious line of jewelry most famously worn by Joan Collins in the TV show Dynasty; Cher Pendarvis, who not only rode the waves, but also made them by crafting surfboards out of polyurethane and fiberglass instead of heavy wood; and April Greiman, a pioneer in computer-aided design whose fold-out issue of Design Quarterly caps off the exhibition.
Jordan Ancel, Susan einstein
The Architecture and Design Museum’s third annual Come In exhibition, Les Femmes, picks up where California’s Designing Women leaves off—in the present. Unlike the Autry exhibit, Les Femmes, which closed in early September, was less historical survey, more free-flowing conversation.
Works by 25 female designers were presented on the floor, on the walls, and over the ceiling. No space was left untouched, even ambient lighting provided a chance to experiment as with Linda Taalman’s subtle pink light installation overhead. Given full freedom over their contributions, the designers in the show covered all the bases from political statement to just plain fun.
Designer Petrula Vrontikis’s Brides=Maids juxtaposed blissful bridal images with symbols of domestic drudgery like irons and cookware. Architect Doris Sung referenced tightening corsets in her outdoor sculptures made out of thermobimetal that contracts and expands according to ambient heat. Inspired by baking implements, artist Tanya Aguiniga turned the usual domestic role in on itself by wielding a cake decorator to create a swirling and churning texture treatment for an otherwise boring, flat wall. Paper and scissors are artist Rebecca Niederlander‘s chosen weapons. In The Devil’s Workshop, Niederlander built a sculptural paper installation that crawls up toward the ceiling.
Others chose to take gender out of the conversation and instead focus on the more-encompassing environmental question. A strange machine of tubes, vacuums, and pink and blue liquid mysteriously stands on the far end, blurring the line between organic and man-made. A work by Alison Petty Ragguette looked almost human one minute, mechanical the next, begging the question, “How far should we go to explore technology at nature’s expense?” Fashioning a waterfall of water bottles, architects at Minarc shed light on humanity’s continual disruption of nature’s water cycles.
Amid these serious questions were moments of levity. Architecture practice Design, Bitches, in collaboration with photographer Meiko Takechi Arquillos, designed a photo booth complete with props to recreate design’s most iconic shots: Think of the Eameses on a motorcycle. Installation artist Jennifer Wolf quite literally waved a pink flag, attaching huge textiles—dyed red and pink from cochineal insect extract—to the museum’s posts to turn the small Wilshire space into a ship ready to set sail for destinations unknown.
These two complementary exhibitions show us that women have always been part of design history, most even working at its cutting edge. The challenge now is to keep their names in design books, not just as women who design, but simply as designers who pushed the envelope and succeeded.