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October 25, 2021

Here We Are! Women in Design 1900–Today at the Vitra Design Museum aims at rewriting the history of design but bypasses some important questions and occasionally falls into cliché.


“Since I was the only woman in the office, I was entrusted with the design of the interior,” recalled iconic US designer Florence Knoll. But such workplace prejudices arguably did not get in the way of Knoll’s career. She became the most successful furniture design entrepreneur of the twentieth century after taking over from her husband the best-known office furniture manufacturer in the world.

Knoll had studied with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in Chicago. From him she “learned more than from anyone else, and in fewer words,” as she put it. Knoll designed minimalist showrooms, interiors, and furniture that became icons of the day while running a global corporation. Most of the Knoll-brand furniture, however, was actually designed by men. Stereotypes that women are better at textile and interior design, while men dominate architecture and product design, remained persistent.

A new exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, proposes to transcend these clichés. With Here We Are! Women in Design 1900–Today the museum aims to present influential female designers of the past 120 years and in the process write “a new history of design.” According to the exhibition organizers, Viviane Stappmanns, Nina Steinmüller, and Susanne Grane, design today should be “more diverse and unifying.” But the specifics of this remain somewhat unclear. The curatorial pendulum swings back and forth between an overview of female designers and the presentation of explicitly feminist design projects, between highlights of female creative power and a display of all the talent that has remained undiscovered or was wasted in the patriarchal social order.

The show is sponsored by French jewelry maker Cartier, which benefited greatly from the 1920s designs of Jeanne Toussaint—a powerhouse of the Parisian luxury industry. She ran its Département S, whose products were targeted to the progressive, self-confident woman who smokes and uses lipstick.

The exhibition makes some exciting juxtapositions of works by early pioneers Eileen Gray, Charlotte Perriand, Lilly Reich, some of whom already occupy a proud place in design history, and works by contemporary designers such as Julia Lohmann, who researches seaweed as a sustainable material. Lohmann believes in “the power of design when it is socially responsible and sustainable,” for instance lampshades made from strips of algae laser cut, wet stretched, and sewn into shapes. In her work with animal carcasses, however, Lohmann wants to “overcome the gap that people feel when they think about what is on their plate and how it got there.” She has made a blanket from a sheep’s stomach, vessels from animal bones, and porcelain jewelry from mice. Whether leather or algae, Lohmann discovers new materials and gives them a political message: “Meat is murder—and so is leather!”

Here We Are! traces not just the work, but also the working conditions of women in design. When the professional nomenclature “designer” emerged in Europe and the United States around 1900, the ongoing emancipation of women was reflected in new realms. Louise Brigham, for example, a US pioneer of recycled materials in furniture construction, developed modular self-assembly furniture from wooden boxes, born out of necessity and reproducible by anyone. The US designer Elsie de Wolfe, who shaped the new professional field of interior design, aimed at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum. The New Yorker achieved her breakthrough in 1905 with the design of the upscale women’s club The Colony.

After World War I, women became more prevalent in design professions, and less frequently forced into traditional roles. They were allowed to study at the Bauhaus. Gunta Stölzl, who later became head of the Bauhaus weaving mill, was one of the most talented designers there. Her tapestry from 1925 is one of the show’s most astonishing discoveries; it translates the principles of modern interior design into two dimensions using simple means.

One of the most interesting early twentieth-century designer biographies is that of Lilly Reich, who worked with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe starting in 1926, with whom she designed pioneering interiors and exhibitions. She became the first woman on the board of the German Werkbund (craftsmen’s association). The fact that she later sympathized with the idea of ​​a new Bauhaus under Nazi auspices and placed herself in the service of Nazi propaganda, and even later committed herself to the Organization Todt, a civil and military engineering association in Nazi Germany, is not mentioned in the exhibition. For the curators, the protagonists all must be heroes.

Designer couples such as Ray and Charles Eames or Aino and Alvar Aalto seemingly proved a difficult topic for the researchers. “The question of the creative contribution of the individual can only rarely be answered clearly,” as the catalogue essay rightly states. Often the women were working in the shadow of their partners, the “men of genius,” and were seen as mere assistants, but the exhibition shows that they made important contributions to the history of design.

Other female designers created their own creative cosmos. Rei Kawakubo’s avant-garde fashion brand, founded in Tokyo in 1969 and originally only developing women’s collections, was half-jokingly called Comme des Garçons (literally “like boys”). And prescribed gender roles governing women in design continued to atrophy in the 1970s. The European counterpart to pop fashion in Japan was Marimekko. The Finnish textile designer Armi Maria Ratia, cofounder and creative director of the company for many years, stands in the exhibition for a sympathetic Nordic flower power, which served the androgynous zeitgeist with unisex clothing.

The work of Galina Balashova, who for more than twenty years designed all the space capsule and vehicle interiors for the Soviet space program, is also honored. For the Soyuz and Mir programs she created “rooms of weightlessness,” detailed new worlds, from the kitchen table in her home. With earthy colors and Velcro, her creations made the lives and work of the cosmonauts more pleasant and made it easier for them to orient themselves in space.

This mostly brilliant exhibition does become a bit overbearing at times. “A binary gender relationship that connects talent with gender is long gone,” write the curators. Or: “A discussion about gender and marginalization is getting underway at the large educational institutions. Feminist actors question academic elites.” With this rather banal and populist kind of agitation, a superficial feminist sentiment, the exhibition runs the risk of doing a disservice the best female designers of the last century. More nuance, more depth, and fewer clichés might have taken the exhibition to another, perhaps even historically important, level.

Lina Grau is an architect and design restorer based in Strasbourg, France.

Here We Are! Women in Design 1900 – Today September 23, 2021–March 6, 2022 Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany


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