Have you noticed there continues to be a fixation on nostalgia? Should we continue to blame it on Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner or is this merely a cyclical flow resulting from our humanly drive for something new to think about? I suppose it doesn’t matter what’s causing the backward glace in design that makes it a trend worth noting, as the hits just keep on coming! Case in point is the exhibition Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft and Design, Midcentury and Today at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), which celebrates the contribution of women to postwar visual cultures and explores their intertwined legacies.
Who are these material girls? There are 42 of them—a who’s who of design giants that include Ruth Asawa, Anni Albers, Edith Heath, Sheila Hicks, Dorothy Liebes, Lenore Tawney, Margaret Tafoya, Eva Zeisel, Polly Apfelbaum, Vivian Beer, Front Design, Michelle Grabner, Magdalene Odundo, and Hella Jongerius. If you are in New York City for the New York Design Center’s “What’s New and What’s Next” event, trek uptown just a tad because the exhibition closes on September 30th and you’ll be sad you missed it if you don’t make it by the storied Columbus Circle locale.
The curators at MAD have brought more than 100 works together, a mix of experimentations in materials that includes textiles, ceramics and metals. “Pathmakers places women at the center of the midcentury modernist narrative and makes a powerful case for the importance of craft and design media as professional pathways,” said Glenn Adamson, the museum’s Nanette L. Laitman Director.
The museum is founded by a woman, Adamson noted, adding, “and with half of its collection representing works by female artists, MAD continues to champion the inclusion of women in the narrative of art and design history, along with other groups that have traditionally been marginalized.”
It’s no secret to women that our gender knows how to embrace experimentation in the face of discriminatory times but it’s one thing to say it and quite another to see it so artistically displayed. European émigrés such as Anni Albers and Maija Grotell broaden the scope of the exhibition to prove global significance in the feminine design legacy of that time.
Scandinavian designers Rut Bryk, Vuokko Nurmesniemi and Vivianna Torun Bülow-Hübe illustrate how there were ample parallels between their region and the United States at the time. Torun, as Bülow-Hübe was known, was such a splendid silversmith it’s no wonder her designs have stood the test of time.
A wide selection of Eva Zeisel’s designs from her personal collection and archives are on view, including some of her most rare pieces, such as the Bellybutton room divider—a prototype that never went into production.
The piece shows her sense of humor, which is also apparent in the video above produced by Ted Talk to celebrate her 75-year career. “Industrial designers want to make novel things,” she remarks, adding that innovation isn’t a part of the aim of her work. Isn’t it ironic that few designers are known to have contributed to innovation more resolutely than she did? “I’m actually consumed with the playful search for beauty,” she added. And the design world is the better for that quest, which ended with her passing in 2011.
Another outstanding work in the exhibition is a portion of Hella Jongerius’ redesign of the United Nations Delegates’ Lounge that includes a replica of the curtain of ceramic beads covering the two-story window at the west end.
Because of security restrictions at the United Nations, the element that is installed in the lounge is not as originally conceived. The exhibited curtain, re-created especially for Pathmakers, was hand-knotted in her studio to represent the design as Jongerius intended it.
A design team with an edgier point of view included in the show is Front Studio, whose Axor WaterDream shower is on view. The serpentine configuration of copper and brass piping is as playful as utilitarian objects come, a take on design for which the women are famous.
Also being exhibited is Gabriel A. Maher’s DE___SIGN. The video investigates the ways in which design reinforces, and often even helps shape, the concepts of “male” and “female.” The series of Maher’s collaborations with dancers and other performers looks at stereotypically male and female posture and clothing.
“We aim to expand the historical view of the postwar period,” remarked the exhibition curator Jennifer Scanlan, “to showcase important artists and designers, and to introduce names that have been overlooked.
It’s remarkable to see images like the one below, which shows fiber artist Lenore Tawney weaving in her New York studio the year I was born!
Here’s to creative women everywhere: may we all stay resilient and inspired regardless of the genre we have chosen as ours (or the one that has chosen us)!
A few footnotes:
The museum shop always has excellent goodies that relate to their exhibitions, which makes this a wonderful place to shop for design. If you can’t make it to the exhibition, you can shop from MAD’s online store.
There is a wonderful piece about Jongerius from earlier this year on Dezeen. She’s calling for a “new holistic approach to design” and it is well worth a read.
The Handweaver’s Pattern Book installation, which was originally hung at Clifton Benevento in New York City in 2014, is also included in the exhibition. It’s a colorful “portrait” of hand-weavers’ patterns by Polly Apfelbaum, noted most recently for her carpets and rug designs. This led me to the actual book titled A Handweavers’ Pattern Book that inspired the series and I must say it’s fascinating to see over 200 patterns featured in one book with diagrams and notes about their origins. It’s a terrific resource for a design library.
And lastly, Front Design installed a mesmerizing interactive lightshow in the Botanical garden in Milan (above) that’s fascinating to watch if you have a few minutes.
Text of The Playful Search for Beauty © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon Henry is an author, poet and journalist based in New York City. Books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns. She also produces The Diary of an Improvateur and is a columnist on Architizer.