ONEA watercolor drawing by the Russian Galina Balashova of the interior of the Soyuz spacecraft hangs on the wall, the vinyl-clad, trendy Karelia armchair by Liisi Beckmann shines on a pedestal opposite, vases by the potter Hedwig Bollhagen are in a glass display case, and a few meters away a chest of drawers of the schweiz artist-architect and designer couple Trix and Robert Haussmann.
Visiting the exhibition “Here We Are! Women in Design 1900 – Today” in the Vitra Design Museum creates a kind of curiosity effect, so different is what is displayed. creative work through 120 years of design history.A work that has often been overlooked or mislabeled.
The range ranges from craftsmanship to industrial design, from mass-produced goods to luxury goods; Fashion and architecture are left out, the focus is on product design, and graphic design plays only a secondary role, as the posters for women’s suffrage from the beginning of the 20th century.
There are well-known protagonists in modernism such as Eileen Gray and Charlotte Perriand, entrepreneurs such as Florence Knoll, designers best known as partners of their famous architects such as Ray Eames or Aino Aalto, contemporaries such as the French Matali Crasset or Patricia Urquiola, probably of our time most successful designer.
Jewelry and accessories by Jeanne Toussaint, Cartier’s creative director for decades and responsible for “Département S”, will also be on display. Her accessories, such as cigarette cases or powder packs for her handbag, reflect the reality of life for mobile, modern women in the 1920s.
The exhibition, which was conceived in the spring of 2020 due to the pandemic, arose from the work on the “Atlas des Möbeldesigns” published in November 2019, a basic work on the history of furniture design, which is based on the collection of the Vitra Design Museum.
“During this work, it became clear that female designers are underrepresented in design history. We asked ourselves why we have so few items by female designers in the collection, ”says Viviane Stappmanns. There were about seven men for every woman.
When examining the approximately 20,000 exhibits in the collection, more objects were found than expected, and some designs awarded to either a man or an anonymous designer were found to be designed by women. One such example is the “Steiger Chair” from 1931.
It was designed for the Zett-Haus in Zurich by the architect couple Flora Steiger-Crawford – in 1923 she was the first female architect to graduate from ETH Zurich – and Rudolf Steiger, and the latter applied for a patent at the time. For decades, therefore, the chair was attributed to him. “It was only through Steiger-Crawford’s autobiographical notes published in 2003 that it became known that she was in fact the one who designed the cantilever chair,” says the curator.
The exhibition also shows George Nelson’s famous “Eye Clock”. It goes to his colleague Lucia De Respinis’ account. The now over 90-year-old recently retired from teaching at the acclaimed Pratt Institute in New York. In the Vitra webshop, Nelson is still the sole author.
The closer you look, the more designers you discover
In the case of Eames’, whose design is also produced by Vitra, things are different: Charles and Ray Eames have been named equally as authors of Plastic Chair, Lounge Chair, etc. since the 1990s – a credit to the dedicated grandson Eames Demetrios, who tirelessly emphasizes how symbiotically his grandparents lived and worked.
The more you understand design as a collaborative process involving many eyes and hands, and the more you look behind the big names, the more women you will discover. There are also designers behind seemingly anonymous mass products.
In the collection, for example, the curators encountered service with the very popular black and white “Homemaker” decor from 1956, which adorns typical 1950s furniture. It was marked “anonymous”, but it is now known that the English ceramic designer Enid Seeney is behind the design.
The work of the now 90-year-old Russian Galina Balashova, who as an architect has designed the interiors of Russian spacecraft and stations for over 20 years, is also being discovered. “It has always been important to me that cosmonauts feel comfortable,” she says in an interview with advisory curator Aljona Sokolnikova. She deliberately used colors to facilitate the orientation in weightlessness and invented a system of velcro closures with which cosmonauts could easily fix small objects.
Do women design differently? Curator Viviane Stappmanns has a clear answer: “No. But what you can sometimes observe is that living conditions affect the design. ” Possibly also the other circumstances: Stappmanns mentions as an example the rounded chair with elephant legs “Roly Poly” by Faye Toogood from 2018, which is also the exhibition poster that adorns Its seat shell resembles the shape of a pool. The British designer designed it when she was pregnant – and was inspired by it.
The exhibition “Here We Are! Women in Design 1900 – Today” runs until March 6, 2022 at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein.
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