Designing Modern Women 1890–1990

New York

10 October 2013

"Defying social conventions and exploring disciplines traditionally dominated by men, women played a fundamental role in spreading ideas about modern art and in pioneering new attitudes about modern design," reads a part of the wall text at the start of MoMA’s latest design exhibition Designing Modern Women.

The period covered is 1890 to 1990 and the idea is to re-write design history with a feminist slant. It is a noble and necessary cause. Women have traditionally been at the margins of histories of visual culture beyond the last 20 years, even though they have been present passively as objects of a male gaze when depicted in art. A poster in the exhibition made by the Guerilla Girls in 1989, a group of female artists and activists, points out that only 5 per cent of the artists represented at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art were female, while 80 per cent of subjects were women.

It is a shocking record and one that this exhibition rightly aims to set straight in the context of design. Yet in an exhibition aimed at liberating women from the shackles of femininity, it is surprising to see such a profusion of domestic objects made by women within the exhibits: Karin Schou Andersen's flatware, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky's pouring bins, and Lucy Rie's ceramics to name just three.

While the objects themselves may be impressive, it is difficult to see how they – and objects like inflatable plastic toys, resin dinnerware, necklaces of various materials, flat bottomed paper bags and textiles with geometric patterns – defy social conventions because they were designed by women. If it is possible to speak of objects as being gendered through social engineering, many of the objects in the show conform to rather than defy socially imposed stereotypes of femininity. 

Many of the most iconic objects included in this exhibition, which have set the tone for modern design, were designed in collusion with men. The male designers in question were not working in the shadow of their female partners, but rather as part of well-known partnerships. The Ray in Charles and Ray Eames and the Denise in the Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown partnership, for example, have certainly been present in the history of design as we know it. In other instances female designers paired up with male designers to make one off items or groups of items. One is the so-called Post War Kitchen from Le Corbusier’s famous apartment building Unité d’Habitation in Marseille. Designed by Charlotte Perriand with Le Corbusier in the 1950s, the unit on show at MoMA today was covered with six layers of paint when it was acquired because it had been used for half a century.

The objects themselves are fascinating, although such male-female duos highlight the fact that female designers were more likely than not celebrated as being a half of a male-female team rather than on their own merit. To suggest that by teaming up with prominent designers such as Le Corbusier women like Charlotte Perriand defied the social conventions attached to their sex unduly idealises the role of women in a male-dominated field. The exhibition commentary builds a zealous narrative of women’s contribution to modern design when, in fact, there were still serious limitations on their ability to be taken seriously as solo designers.

Marianne Brandt, for instance, whose beautiful Bauhaus teapot and table clock appear in the show, was a rare example of a female pioneer who came to be one of Germany’s most celebrated industrial designers in the 1930s. But, as the design critic Alice Rawsthorn has previously argued, Brandt's success was the exception rather than the rule; her talent aided by the greater-than-usual freedom that female students at the Bauhaus' metal workshops enjoyed under the radical Hungarian professor Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. For every Brandt, there were multiple female designers whose options were severely limited by their gender.

While a show focussed on female designers is refreshing and long overdue, and the objects displayed are often sophisticated and sublime, it should not be forgotten that women's ability to shape design history has been limited by social constraints and conventions. The lack of reflexivity and criticality in the exhibition about the degree to which women really can be said to have played a fundamental part in shaping ideas about modern design is surprising.