Celebrating Women in Design at MoMA

Sandra Bertrand


“Designing Modern Women 1890-1990,” The Museum of Modern Art’s current exhibit from their third floor design department, begs the question of what came first—the chicken or the egg.  Is modern woman an independent spirit, totally responsible for her own evolution?  Or is she a willing, sometimes unwitting product of the collective consciousness?  Defining not only who she is but what drives her is a question that has inspired and intrigued designers the world over, and MOMA has gathered some of the most talented interpreters over the last century who took on the challenge. 

One of the first items to greet the eye is Eileen Gray’s adjustable table, a chrome-plated tubular steel and glass table whose conception is timeless—this elegant table has not only weathered the decades but jumpstarted home design into the 21st century.  Another sample of Gray’s aesthetic is a screen of horizontal rows and panels constructed of lacquered wood and metal rods—lacquered furnishing were a keystone of this designer’s style.  A photo in profile of Gray (1879-1976) is reminiscent of the writer Djuna Barnes, exhibiting the same elegance in her coif and public character as her contemporary. 

Another exhibit from this period is a Lady’s Bedroom from 1930 by Lily Reich, who worked primarily out of Mies van der Rohe’s Berlin office.  Designed as part of a home project for architect Philip Johnson, a photograph provided reveals silk curtains for the windows to counter the cold industrial feel.  But the minimalist single bed, however sleek in its day, appears as comfortable as a standard issue army cot.


Chairs emerge in this exhibit as favored objects—wedding style and substance together in a single form.   Finnish designer Aino Aalto (1894-1949) is represented by a child’s chair of bent plywood and laminated birch.  There’s a functionality and delicacy that’s apparent in all of her work.  In one of the handsome display cases for tableware and other ornamental pieces, a mold-blown glass vase from 1936 by Aalto demonstrates her artistry was not limited to furniture design alone.  American-born Eva Zeisel ‘s orange folding chair from 1948 is a fanciful entry, whose wavy curves seem to exemplify the feminine touch.  Another contender is an inviting lounge chair in teak plywood by Danish designer Greta Jalk.  

Almost all of the distinctive women designers in the show focused their talents in the direction of home decor.  After all, what is more personal than a favored chair or teacup?  Nevertheless, it’s impossible to navigate this important exhibit without being aware of how many talented women were squeezed into a niche of domesticity in their assignments. French designer Charlotte Perriand shared the limelight with the famed architect Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret when her revolving armchair was introduced in 1929 at the Salon d’Automne in Paris.  There are other collaborations, where women worked alongside their male counterparts either out of necessity or in a conjugal or friendly spirit.  Charles and Ray Eames and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown are two such partnerships. 

Perriand describes her first encounter with Le Corbusier in her 1998 autobiography, Une Vie de Creation:  “He glanced quickly through my drawings. ‘We don’t embroider cushions here,’ he replied and showed me the door.”  (Label-readers will be well-rewarded throughout the exhibit by a helpful plexiglass panel which is placed low to the floor with photos, illustrations and insightful descriptions.) A little while later, the architect hired her to work in his furniture department, where she produced among other examples, the padded red leather and chrome chair on display.  What we will perhaps never know in the growing rise of Perriand’s star, is how much she contributed to that 1929 award-winning armchair and how often her creative survival depended on her willingness to share billing. 


The apparent willingness to be a team player resulted in Le Corbusier giving Perriand an entire kitchen to design.  Wall notes tell us that it would embody “principles of efficiency, hygiene and standardization” and its overall utility would allow women’s lives to be forever changed.  The 1950 kitchen on display may hold limited surprise for today’s viewer, but was once part of an apartment in the Unite d’Habitation, a Modernist residential building in Marseille, France.  The dimensions are modest but its configuration allows for two people to share the cooking preparations without tripping over one another in the process.  An interesting side note is that the hanging metal pots and pans were designed by architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable in 1958.  Overall, the display on view has been carefully assembled and gives us a helpful peek into the history of perhaps the most important room in a household.   

The descriptions provided elicit some interesting personal responses to how all this modernity would affect the average woman.  MOMA curator Elizabeth Mock was quoted in 1946 as saying that “we’ve sacrificed space to equipment, convenience to meaningless streamlining, ease and cheer to pseudoscientific planning.”  A life-size chart by Henry Dreyfuss, “Josephine Anthropometric Chart” from a publication entitled The Measure of Man: Human Factors in Design informs us that a work surface should be designed at a height of 36” for the average woman, who we are also told tips the scales at 134.8 pounds.  Could this be the kind of pseudoscientific planning to which Mock was referring? 


Visitors should be encouraged to linger over the well-lit display cases so as not to miss the elegance and beauty of Eva Zeisel’s dinnerware and other stunning examples as well.  The first translucent china to be produced in the United States and part of a MOMA exhibition in 1946, Zeisel’s ware proves functionality can be achieved with as much grace and fluidity as a Brancusi sculpture.  There’s a deceptively effortless line from her cup handles to the spout of her teapot.

 If we’re to believe this exhibit is really about designing the modern woman over a century, then the generous display of posters throughout the exhibit reveals a great deal about how the advertisers, theatre and record producers, filmmakers and purveyors  of the public consciousness portrayed half of the human race.  Poster-lovers will undoubtedly delight in the image of Loie Fuller at the Folies Bergere, that free-spirited dancer of the Gilded Age captured by Jacques Cheret.  Medea, an uncompromising spirit if there ever was one, is depicted in an art nouveau masterpiece for the theatre by Adolph Muche.  Herbert Mater is presented by a 1943 photolithograph advertising winter holidays in Switzerland.  The young woman exudes health with a capital “H” with her gleaming skin and snow-white smile.  And Olivetti 1934 by Xanti Schaninsky shows an alluring blonde woman in a wide-brimmed hat, posed over a crimson typewriter.  The message seems to be saying you can type and still keep your sex-appeal.  

A Pop and Plastics section of the exhibit gives us the psychedelic artistry of Bonnie Maclean.  An American poster artist born in 1949, she was responsible for many of the iconic images from the San Francisco Fillmore days.  Deciphering main acts like The Yardbirds and The Doors or Mother Earth through the dizzying swirls of her typographic designs is quite the challenge.  Her work is every bit as memorable as David Byrd’s creations for Fillmore East’s impresario Bill Graham in the late ‘60s.   On a different note, Italian designer Cini Boeri’s 1966 polymer and aluminum frame suitcase is a standout item that entices the eye even if it wouldn’t pass inspection today as a carry-on item. 


The final Punk to Postmodernism section (1970-1990) pulls no punches with an image by Robert Mapplethorpe of Patti Smith in her confrontational white shirt and sport coat and a totally unpredictable and surreal collage by Linder (Linda Sterling) for United Artists Records of a woman whose head is replaced by a clothing iron and two open lipstick red mouths for breasts. 

Given the show’s primary concentration on our living spaces—our private lives as opposed to the hustle and bustle of the outside world—it’s a small leap to see how women were perceived, especially through the earlier decades. 

Granted, the overall exhibit with works by over 60 women, organized by Juliet Kinchin, curator and Luke Baker, curatorial assistant in the department of architecture and design, allows for easy if sometimes confused mobility.  With items arranged chronologically, the decades sail by comfortably enough, but the panoply of furnishings, display cabinets and shelving  with everything from sample toys to serving ware makes it difficult at times to know what to focus on first.  But that‘s a minor issue.

Who is this modern woman anyway?  It’s a tall if worthy order to expect viewers to solve such a complex issue after such a journey.  After all, the question is still ripe and evolving 24 years after the exhibit’s 1990 cutoff date.  The artists and cultural diagnosticians who try to define the elusive entity known as “woman” will likely continue their efforts.  But one thing’s for certain.  Women themselves are sure to have a major say in their future design.


“Designing Modern Women: 1890 – 1990” will be on exhibit at MoMA through October 5, 2014.


Author Bio:

Sandra Bertrand is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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