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The Critical Role of Women in Modern Design

MoMA’s highly provocative exhibition makes the case for a bigger version of itself as soon as possible

The title Designing Modern Women in MoMA’s Architecture and Design galleries is deliberately ambiguous. It is about both the active role many women took in modern design, not necessarily as ‘designers’ in the conventional sense, but it also covers the extent to which the concept of the modern woman was developed and reflected by designers. Great examples of the former include a newly acquired and meticulous restored kitchen from the Marseille Unité (1952), attributed here jointly to Charlotte Perriand and Le Corbusier, and a re-creation of Philip Johnson’s bedroom from his New York apartment (1930), described as being by Lilly Reich ‘working out of architect Mies van der Rohe’s Berlin office’ − in other words Reich gets credit for the whole ensemble, and not just the textiles.

Just how revolutionary the iconography of the New Woman could be is illustrated by a deliberately international selection of posters from 1890 to 1938, while a celebration of Glasgow’s Willow Tea Rooms points out how the high oval backs of Mackintosh’s chairs framed the hats of women, now able to be confidently at ease in a public place, but also makes the point that this liberating new world would not have existed without Mackintosh’s female patron, Kate Cranston, who deserves recognition as an active collaborator in the project.


Delia Smith provided the icing on the cake (and the cake itself) for the Rolling Stones’ 1969 masterpiece

In fact the installation is quietly polemical. It is a fundamentally conventional mix of partial room settings, shelves of objects, and bold posters and graphics on the walls. At a glance the fact that every object has been selected to make a specific point about women’s roles is very underplayed. This is not an exhibition simply highlighting an alternative canon of female design heroes. Although it brings together many individuals who have been granted such status through individual shows in recent years (potter Lucie Rie, and Czech designer of plastic toys Libuše Niklová, for instance), it is much more subtle and interesting.

A central exhibition case bears the exhibition title and a list of exclusively female names as a background wallpaper, but section headings and individual object labels don’t hammer the feminist points home hard. It would be possible to wander into the show and only gradually realise that women were getting more representation than is standard. This subversive strategy is very effective, and wittily challenges assumptions.


Curator Juliet Kinchin views modern design ‘as a way of thinking, a way of working, and a way of living’, and the installation is about context, social, economic and political, as well as objects.

In much the same vein as the recent conference on Enid Marx and her contemporaries (held at Compton Verney on 13 September 2013), the exhibition emphasises the role of women as collaborators, and catalysts, forming networks, making introductions and contributing to conversations, and argues for the importance of these types of roles to be recognised as equally crucial to the design process as wielding a pencil.



Inevitably, with so much material, many stories feel half told. Sadly, the show lacks a publication, but an expansive series of blogs is planned. I want to know more about Margaret E Knight, inventor of the flat- bottomed paper bag: her 1871 US patent was one of the first awarded to a woman. And I love the fact that Brownie Wise, a single mother who developed the hostess party model for Tupperware, is included. She ultimately became vice president of the Tupperware company, and her idea gave housewives the chance to earn money independently.

The installation uses a revaluation of the part women have played, internationally, in over a century of design, to raise broad questions about where creativity lies, and to explore very varied forms of collaboration, and in doing that it has a very strong contemporary relevance. The ‘where are we now?’ question raised is not just ‘do women now have an equal role’, but are we fair in considering all the diverse elements of creative input behind complex objects including buildings. I think the curators are overly optimistic in taking at face value Denise Scott Brown’s assertion that her partnership with Robert Venturi is an example of the ‘unravelling of the modernist notion of the single heroic author’, we are still in thrall to that concept. Their proposal that the recognition of woman as equals was facilitated by the ability of Postmodernism to embrace ambiguity and multiple readings,
is also interesting, but not fully convincing.

The best example in the exhibition of a woman with an invisible ‘bit part’ being reinstated is the cover of Let It Bleed, the 1969 album by The Rolling Stones. Delia Smith baked and decorated the cake balanced on the top of the record stack devised by American graphic designer Robert Brownjohn, and here she gets equal credit with him. Is that deserved? Maybe not, but she was certainly complicit in the kitsch concept. (She was asked to come up with something ‘really gaudy and horrible’ and delivered.)

This is a show that looks well mannered, but is highly provocative. It makes the case for a bigger version of itself as soon as possible.


Margeret E Knight’s flat-bottomed paper bag is one of the objects on display in MoMA’s current show highlighting the impact of women on design

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