by Jerry ElengicalJun 11, 2022
The ‘gender question’ has been and continues to be an active discourse with contradicting and coexisting ideas. In any chosen design discipline, we have to confront the fact that for a while, the craft was fronted by men. Contemporary research and investigation are constantly uncovering individuals that used pseudonyms or presented work credited to their male partners, who at the time were perhaps better known. Two well-known examples of this are the works of French architect and designer Charlotte Perriand, and American artist and designer Ray Eames, which are now recognised and acknowledged in a new light. The exhibition titled Here We Are! Women in Design 1900 – Today at the Vitra Design Museum, Germany highlights numerous such examples and sheds new light on an old discourse.
Presenting women designers from the past 120 years, the exhibition underscores the works of 80 women in design, including designers such as Eileen Gray, Lilly Reich, and Clara Porset, business leaders Florence Knoll and Armi Ratia, and social reformers such as Jane Addams. Presented as a timeline, the exhibition consists of four parts and takes visitors on a journey through the eyes of the women that defined them. The contemporary section is represented by designers such as Matali Crasset, Patricia Urquiola, Julia Lohmann, and the Matri-Archi(tecture) collective.
The first part of the exhibition is more archival and focuses on the development of design in Europe and the United States in around 1900. Famously the era when design emerged as a profession in its own right, was also a time that saw the emancipation of women and an intensification of the suffrage movement. Social reformers such as Jane Addams’ and Louise Brigham’s works would be classified today as ‘Social Design’, which is why it was important to include archive documentation of the movements.
Another important element included in this part of the exhibition was the space that emerging avant-garde academic institutions create for women: notably women trained and taught at the Bauhaus, and the Russian Vkhutemas school since their conception. But as recent discourses suggest, many women who enrolled at these institutes found themselves studying crafts like textiles or ceramics. The exhibition attempts to both celebrate and draw attention to how women were still being urged to undertake more traditional roles. The exhibition, however, also introduces us to a yet undiscovered aspect of design history through the archive found at the Loheland School, which opened in 1919 - the same year as the Bauhaus - but only admitted women.
The exhibition’s second part concentrates on the 1920s to the 1950s, an era that captures the production of work post-WWI and post-WWII. Some of the designers portrayed in this section collaborated closely with their partners to have their work realised, famously including Ray Eames with her husband Charles Eames, and Aino Aalto with Alvar Aalto. The MoMA too recently reassessed their archive of Eames furniture as it was common practice for these designers to credit their male counterparts. Another strong example of this would be Charlotte Perriand, whose furniture designs, created in collaboration with her famous colleague Le Corbusier, have been widely publicised in recent years, with recent solo exhibitions at London’s Design Museum, and a collateral event during the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021.
The third part of the exhibition addresses the period from 1950 to the end of the 1980s. The postmodern experiments created by Italian designers including Nanda Vigo, Gae Aulenti, and Cini Boeri, which include interior design, light design and furniture design, make their presence felt and highlight the shift in design at the time. This coincides with the second wave of feminism that emerged in the 1960s to oppose the conservative post-war ideas being propagated then. The exhibition also presents the work of Galina Balashova who designed the futuristic interiors of the Russian space programme’s orbital modules, while her work continues to gradually be uncovered.
The exhibition’s fourth part brings us to the present day. In addition to the works by established international designers including Inga Sempé, and Ilse Crawford, this part of the exhibition also introduces several initiatives that explore how feminist discourse questions authorship and recognition in design and architecture.
The Matri-Archi(tecture) collective’s Weaving Constellations of Identity is created especially for the exhibition and addresses the personal experience of African and Black designers. This is especially significant, since as we consider the broad exploration of the role of women in 20th and 21st-century design, one would notice that the exhibition looks at an American and European context. While the exhibition addresses the omission of women in history books, a parallel discourse on the influence and cross-pollination of ideas from the post-colonial world perhaps merits another similar examination. This is not to say that the exhibition is in any way lacking in itself, but it rather opens the possibility to add more layers to how we look at the history of design and architecture. As our understanding and definition of gender continues to evolve and move beyond our limited lexicon, we would perhaps have to re-examine the need to postulate a categorization as well.
The exhibition is accompanied by a rich programme of workshops, online talks, and events on the Vitra Campus, and is on view until March 6, 2022.