Honoring Women’s Creativity

By the

January 18, 2001

Recognizing the importance of women’s contribution to American visual culture is the basis for “Women Designers in the USA, 1900-2000: Diversity and Difference,” currently on exhibit at The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture in New York City.

Far from the limiting realm of “high art,” including paintings and sculptures which are only for display, the notion of “design” can be far more encompassing in its scope. Everyday we use items that have to be designed; that spiffy Gillette razor in your shower didn’t just pop out of the assembly line on a whim. Design goes hand in hand with popular culture, as design fosters the objects, ideas and concepts which shape how a society perceives itself. Far from inconsequential, the design of common objects such as clothing, textiles, furniture and even plastic razors all influence the direction of popular culture.

Design is often the artistic details in everyday life that we take for granted. A Picasso painting in a museum is singled out and examined time and again. Design for wallpaper, a chair, architectural plans and jewelry are usually overlooked. These are the works of art that become so integrated into popular culture; they reflect back on us in a way nothing else can.

Women’s place in the world of design has often been forgotten or ignored. As design is a driving force behind trends and cultural self-definition, female voices have usually been kept from wielding their influence. But as this extensive exhibit reveals, women have been putting their creative ideas into practice for over a century, in almost every imaginable realm of the design world. The fact that these works were executed by women breaking into a traditionally male-dominated market increases their historical importance. This show brings together women’s work from all sorts of design projects, either on their own or for companies. There is everything from a hand-sewn Southern debutante ball dress to the design for the interior of a car door to architectural plans for the World Financial Center.

By dividing the works into five sections organized by both chronology and theme, the exhibit offers more than just an overview of women’s work in design. In text and arrangement, the curators attempt to answer some of the questions such an exhibit raises, such as women’s changing role in the workforce, minority women’s experience and the problems faced by women who juggle multiple roles. What is most engaging about this exhibit is the forced realization that women have been in the workforce, visible or not, for much longer than common knowledge would like to admit.

Some pieces are not a surprise; others expose the unheralded breadth of women’s contributions. A poster championing “Votes for Women” is easily placed in women’s twentieth century history. But elaborate book covers, beaux-arts interiors, cocktail sets and an ultrasound machine; such items are not commonly attributed to women’s ingenuity. This show is a crucial step in listening for the subtle text of those voices.

The show eagerly offers context in which the visitor can place the works. On each of the main floors of the show, an appropriate timeline of historical women’s events are posted. Each year displays a small image of one of the show’s pieces, as well as text and pictures pertaining to the year. Not only are the obvious milestones included, such as the 1920 amendment to the Constitution allowing women the right to vote, but the less celebrated as well. The accomplishments of such pioneering women as Isadora Duncan, Wendy Wasserstein, Virginia Apgar and even the 1999 US Women’s Soccer team are included in the lengthy rapsheet.

But the heart of the exhibit is the strength of the works. What validates the show, for better or for worse, is that a visitor might easily forget that every piece is credited with a woman’s name. There are some which bear the stereotyped mark of a woman’s hand, such as a 1970s poster parading the female symbol, but the majority could be stripped of their name labels and argued for authorship from either sex. This show is a matter-of-fact reclaiming of women’s ongoing contribution to the world of design, not an angry demonstration. The pieces speak for themselves.

This ambitious survey of images, material culture and text provides a solid basis for appreciating the constructed world around us. The twentieth century saw some of the most dramatic changes in human history, especially for women, and this is apparent in the historical context offered and the exhibit itself. Both the silent and demanding voices which progressed through the world of design are on display here, and offer an alternative approach to understanding the cultural ramifications of a century’s history.

The show is on display until Februay 25, 2001; for more information visit www.bgc.bard.edu.

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