Published: January 23, 2001
Women Designers in the USA:
NEW YORK CITY – Three years ago, looking forward to the end of the Twentieth Century, the Bard Graduate Center began planning a major exhibition devoted to “Women Designers in the USA, 1900-2000: Diversity and Difference.” The brilliantly conceived show, which runs through February 25, covers miles of artistic ground from the personal creativity of pieced quilts and Native American baskets to professional pursuits such as architecture and Hollywood costume design.
The graduate center’s founder and director, Dr Susan Weber Soros, entrusted the execution of the project to Bard professor Pat Kirkham, who also edited the comprehensive volume which accompanies the show. Kirkham has taught design history for the last 30 years in England and the United States with furniture and interior design two important areas of interest. For many years, the organizer also has researched the interrelationship of gender and design, adding to her credentials for the job.
While many institutions have offered exhibition on Twentieth Century design during the last year, Bard felt the need to emphasize the activity of women in the field during the last hundred years and decided to present an overall view of the field, rather than just concentrate on one particular area. Kirkham drew on her own experience in teaching design history and then collaborated with a lengthy list of specialist colleagues to produce this comprehensive picture. She emphasizes, “This opportunity to collaborate with other people has been very exciting.”
The curator continues, “I themed it a bit, but basically the material in the exhibition is presented chronologically to give people a sense of the progress of the century.” For example, two of the five sections of time are “Designing Modernities: circa 1918-1945,” during which women artist became champions of the new modern design aesthetic, and “Designing the ‘American Dream’: 1945-1980,” a period when up-to-date fashion and furnishings became affordable to everyone. Exhibits from this latter era include Greta von Nessen’s aluminum “Anywhere” lamp, 1952, and a red wool Bonnie Cashin suit from 1964. It is noteworthy that the recent “Bonnie Cashin, Practical Dreamer” exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology (September 19, 2000-January 6, 2001) was a research project by one of Kirkham’s PhD students, who co-curated that show.
While the exhibition has been seen by thousands of visitors since it began November 15, 2000, it is the accompanying reference, also titled Women Designers in the USA, 1900-2000: Diversity and Difference, that will have a long term impact on the field. With 400 color illustrations, a full bibliography, and extensive timeline, the reference is a must-have book for the study of Twentieth Century art history.
The book takes a slightly different approach to designing women than the chronological march of the exhibition, by focusing on broad specialties such as interior, landscape, industrial, or costume design. Important contributions in areas rarely integrated into this overall theme till now are the chapters “‘Three Strikes Against Me’: African American Women Designers” by Pat Kirkham and Shauna Stallworth and “The Sacred Hoop: Native American Women Designers” by Pamela Kladzyk.
Looking more closely at the second of these, the chapter of Native American design is further divided into basketry, textiles, pottery, regalia, beadwork, and quilting. Pueblo blackware is represented by the well-known work of Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso, a Santa Clara vase by Margaret Tafoya, circa 1945-1960, and a stunning 1999 creation with dramatic ribbed swirls by contemporary Santa Clara potter Nancy Youngblood Lugo.
While the volume certainly presents many objects, the primary emphasis is on the women who made them. The story of Anna Wagner Keichline of Bellfonte, Pa. is one of many interesting short biographies, which recall a time when “woman” was not an everyday adjective before “designer.” At age 14, she was already winning prizes for furniture made in a workshop set up by her supportive parents. Her photo appeared in a 1903 Philadelphia Inquirer article with the caption “May Devote Life to Industrial Art.”
After study at Cornell, Keichline became the first woman listed as an architect in Pennsylvania and went on to design buildings and create innovative solutions for design problems throughout the home. In their chapter “In a Man’s World”: Women Industrial Designers, Ella Howard and Eric Setliff explain her important influence on modern kitchen design: “Keichline proposed glass-doored cabinets, easily accessible shelving, ample surface for food preparation, and the side-by-side arrangement of four stove burners (either gas or electric) for greater ease of use.”
As splendid as the book’s photographs may be, nothing beats seeing the material firsthand, and readers are urged to view the exhibition during its remaining weeks on display in January and February. Pat Kirkham has been very gratified by the response so far of show visitors, excited by the wealth of information presented on the accomplishments of woman designers in the last century. “A lot of people say they feel very inspired,” she notes. “One designer told me she wanted to go home and do more work.”
More than a catalogue, Women Designers in the USA, 1900-2000: Diversity and Difference, published by the Yale University Press in association with Bard, presents a collection of 17 essays by eminent scholars exploring the influence of women in design during the Twentieth Century. The volume includes chapters on the Arts and Crafts Movement, Native American artists, textiles, quilts, the fashion world, and interior design. Also available is a special Fall 2000 issue of the BGC journal, Studies in the Decorative Arts, devoted to articles and book reviews related to the exhibition.
This important exhibition has been accompanied by a broad variety of special events including films and lectures on special topics such as Florence Knoll Bassett, Eva Zeisel, and African-American Women Designers. For program information, call the BGC education office at 201/501-3013 CQ.
The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts is at 18 West 86th Street. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday 11 am to 5 pm, Thursday 11 am to 8 pm. For information: 212-501-3000 CQ or www.bgc.bard.edu.
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