MoMA spotlights modern design by women
The 20th century began with the women’s suffrage movement in full swing worldwide. Women marched, women voted, and women worked, for the first time, in the same rooms and the same roles as men. Rosie’s riveting opened whole new worlds of possibilities. Coco designed. Georgia painted. Gloria published. Bella ran and won. Janis sang. And, as always, women, in quiet rooms or international museums, around the world, created.
The Museum of Modern Art’s Design galleries are presenting, through September 21st, Designing Modern Women, 1890–1990, an exhibition devoted to the work of women designers of the 20th century. Calling the countless known and unknown female forces of creativity of the previous century the “muses of modernity,” the curators have selected a wide range of fascinating objects from MoMA’s permanent collection that highlights the ways women’s work shaped the modern world.
The exhibition focuses on the years from 1890 to 1990 and brings hundreds of objects to the spotlights of the galleries to tell a story of 100 years of women’s design. Spurred by newfound possibilities, women flocked to art schools and studied painting, sculpture, architecture, metalsmithing, jewelry making, fashion, advertising and design. Examples of all these, and many that combine and cross disciplines, can be seen in the exhibition. There are presentations of plate and cup designs that are simple and elegant, rock and roll posters that are edgy and raw, whimsical lights, functional chairs, and even a display focusing on Loie Fuller, a dancer who caused a sensation in Paris in the early 1900s. Grabbing attention away from Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein and their gang was no easy task, but Loie Fuller did just that. She danced in a spectacle of flowing robes lit by colored stage lights, in an apparition that recalled the dervishes and presaged Martha Graham.
Many of the works on exhibit bridge the realms of functionality and art. This was a major theme of the era. The arts and crafts movement, and later the Bauhaus, sought to bring art into daily life, and specifically into the home. A 1952 kitchen designed by Charlotte Perriand and Le Corbusier, is on view, as is Lilly Reich’s 1931 design for an Apartment for a Single Person. It featured a fold-away kitchen, that opened into a sink with shelves, burners, cabinets and a kettle hook. One of Eileen Gray’s iconic round glass and chrome tables is also on view.
There are several pieces that bring out the magical inspiration and fertilization that often exists between wives and husbands who are creating simultaneously and often collaboratively. Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald were one such couple. The exhibition presents rooms designed by the pair. Though Mackintosh became world famous, he said, “Margaret has genius. I have only talent.”
Anni Albers’ elegant geometric designs in fabric echoed many of the same technical and intellectual themes as did the work of her famous husband Josef Albers. Anni’s work is not as easy to find or see in museums, partly because she worked in textiles, often relegated to craft or decorative arts status. But her careful, formal abstractions are worthy of attention, and the choice of material opens a whole separate level of meaning and thinking.
The exhibition also focuses on the synergies made possible in a world where women were important patrons of the arts. Women of the cultural and intellectual elite, like the Cone sisters, asserted great influence on the art of the 20th century. But so did average women, with their hands on the purse strings. The enormous growth of the consumer created a golden age of advertising that brought new possibilities and new creative frontiers to conquer.
In the section of the exhibition focused on recent decades, rock and roll advertising made by women makes a powerful statement. Bonnie Maclean created graphics for the Fillmore Auditorium, in the 1960s. Her poster for The Doors is a classic of psychedelic pop. Lorraine Schneider’s 1967 War Is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things became a rallying cry in the anti-war movement. Patti Smith, artist, musician, poet, author, and other things too many to enumerate, is presented in the section titled Punk To Postmodernism, 1970–1990, along with other works of design and art from those decades, bringing the exhibition to a powerful close.
We live in a world half made by women. So, while it might seem either moot or woefully inadequate to mount an exhibition of the obvious, at the same time, the under-representation of women artists in museums remains a tremendous oversight.
Not all artists write manifestos. Many, many more exert quieter influences. Anything that heightens awareness of the role of women in design, or just gives a chance to see work by these important artists and designers firsthand is worthy of a show and a visit.