Secret pioneers: Vitra Design Museum shows women in design culture

The video “Semiotics of the Kitchen” produced by American artist Martha Rosler in 1975 lasts six minutes. Anyone who has seen the film will from now on look at each kitchen with different eyes. As in a dark and evil version of “Sesame Street”, Rosler put on an apron (A for “Apron”) and spelled a kitchen alphabet for T (for “Mørner”, ie “meat Mørner”). The artist presents various kitchen utensils with a cool gesture. Whether it’s a fork, knife, ladle or a hamburger press – in their hands they suddenly look like combat instruments. Section: Cutting and Shocking Weapons. The underlying message is clear: there is no liberation without struggle. No revolution without women.

One encounters Rosler’s artwork about halfway through the tour of the exhibition “Here We Are! Women in Design 1900 – Today” at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein. Between the overwhelming variety of design objects and historical documents, the black-and-white video acts as a contrast on the small screen, which helps to focus on the theme of this exhibition, curated by Viviane Stappmanns, Nina Steinmüller and Susanne Graner. With works by around 80 designers from the age of 120, the comprehensive show advocates a more inclusive form of design history and wants to provide a “position statement for a socially highly topical topic”.

Without struggle, there is no liberation. No revolution without women

The show’s historic arc begins with the graphics of the Western European women’s rights movement that fought for women’s suffrage around 1900, and ends with the famous 2017 ‘Women’s March on Washington’, where many of the protesters wore so. pink “pussy hats,” an initiative of Jayna Zweiman and Krista Suh, an architect and screenwriter from Los Angeles. Current discourses on material issues and ecology, surveillance capitalism, and collective design practices are illustrated in selected projects. In between it is about liberation and education, modernity, minimalism and luxury or design in socialism. About the Russian architect Galina Balashova, born in 1931, who practically designed the interior of the Soviet spaceships on her own in the 1960s and 1970s, and to whom the German Museum of Architecture in Frankfurt dedicated a show in 2015.

In general, the desire to experiment and a latent futurism run through the excellent exhibition as an underlying thematic thread. For example, when the Berlin-Paris design collective Bless, consisting of Desiree Heiss and Ines Kaag, presented a range of work sports equipment around 2016, no one could have guessed how radical living, work, family and sport would be in their own four. walls in the wake of the pandemic would be clamped together. The hybrid objects of furniture and exercise bikes from the Bless series “Worker’s Delight” seem so visionary today because they foresaw our present and probably the near future.

Berenice Abbott photographed designer Eileen Gray in 1927.

(Photo: National Museum of Ireland)

A separate room is dedicated to the western pioneers of modernism from the 1920s to the 1950s, some of which are already firmly canonized: here, for example, is the elegant, minimalist dressing room that Irish designer and architect Eileen Gray (1878-1976) once wore designed for his own Villa Tempe a Pailla on the Côte d’Azur.

Aino Aalto, Bölgeblick glasserie, 1932

Still in production today: Aino Aalto’s glass series “Bölgeblick” from 1932.

(Photo: Andreas Suetterlin)

The Finn Aino Marsio-Aalto (1894-1949) was one of the co-founders of the furniture company Artek in 1935, which she also led as chief designer and manager. The robust and inexpensive “Bölgeblick” glass service series, designed by Aalto in the early 1930s and made of partially colored pressed glass, is still in production today. The name of the American entrepreneur, designer and architect Florence Knoll Basset (1917-2019) was synonymous with tasteful furniture culture in the early 1960s. Even the news magazine Hamburg The mirror dedicated a cover story to the entrepreneur in April 1960.

Clara Porset with model of a table, approx.  1952

Furniture designer and interior designer Clara Porset with a model of a table, around 1952.

(Photo: Elizabeth Timberman)

Furniture designer and interior designer Clara Porset (1895-1981) was born in Cuba and studied at the legendary Black Mountain College in North Carolina in the mid-thirties. She settled in Mexico for political reasons. In its designs, Porset turned against “sterile formalism” and reinterpreted a traditional Mexican chair type, “Butaque,” with a sloping backrest and low seat.

Ray and Charles Eames La Chaise, 1948

Ray and Charles Eames’ 1948 “La Chaise”.

(Photo: Jürgen Hans)

The famous “La Chaise” seat sculpture, developed by the American designer couple Ray (1912-1988) and Charles Eames (1907-1978) in the late 1940s as a reference to a sculpture by the sculptor Gaston Lachaise, also exudes beauty and humor. . In 1948, Eames submitted a prototype for a design award for low-cost design offered by the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The museum later issued a press release in which Charles Eames alone was mentioned as the author and much appreciated.

What women achieve in design and architecture is still often kept secret or swept under the rug

A look at the statistics of the Pritzker Prize, donated in 1979 and worth $ 100,000, show that the discriminatory concealment and trivialization of women’s achievements in design and architecture has in fact been awarded to this day. Zaha Hadid (1950-2016) was the first woman to receive the award in 2004. When Robert Venturi received the award in 1991, his office partner and wife Denise Scott Brown were also denied recognition for the work they had done together. The committee owes her “a Pritzker inclusion ceremony,” Scott Brown explained in 2013. “Let’s honor the idea of ​​collaborative creativity.” The architect recently celebrated his 90th birthday.

Cini Boeri, Tomu Katayanagi Ghost, 1987

Spectacular: The “Ghost” chair by Cini Boeri and Tomu Katayanagi from 1987.

(Photo: Juergen Hans / Vitra Design Museum)

Designers such as the Italians Cini Boeri (1924-2020) and Gae Aulenti (1927-2012), who were successful in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, both of whom graduated from the influential engineer Politecnico di Milano in the early 1950s, “did not” necessarily have objects and rooms specially designed for women “, writes the British architect and author Jane Hall in the introduction to the image anthology, she has written” Woman Made “, which has just been published by London Phaidon publishing house. They were, according to Hall, “not interested in defending unique (and often male) design geniuses”. Female designers are sometimes criticized, which their male colleagues should never listen to. For Cini Boeri, who is represented in the exhibition with her spectacular “Ghost” chair, which is made of only one continuous piece of glass of 12 millimeters thick, and which she developed together with Tomu Katayanagi, always has an extra as standard in the houses she has designed the space as a “space for individual reflection,” for example, she was attacked as a “adulterer”. Boeri always responded calmly to such accusations, defending the independence she built into architecture: “It was important for me to be able to choose and not be forced to be together.”

A critical assessment of one’s own collection practice takes place in the Vitra Design Museum’s exhibition depot. In the permanent presentation, the proportion of objects designed by women or in whose design women were involved was increased. This is part of a thematic focus for the year to promote the study of women’s role in furniture design. Otherwise, the following applies: Even very well-designed pots and pans are not only good for cooking or for design exhibitions. You can also take them to the next demonstration as silencers.

“Here we are! Women in design 1900 – today”, Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein. Until March 6, 2022, information at design-museum.de. The anthology “Woman Made. Great Woman Designers” by Jane Hall is published by London’s Phaidon Verlag (approx. 50 euros).

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