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The Female Voice in Modern Design
1950 – 2000

Carpenters Workshop Gallery New York, 693 Fifth Avenue NY 10022
20th April – 3rd July 2022

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“Needlework is the natural work of women; it should be the only work for women, it is work that does not take her away from the home and does not distance her from the cradle and the hearth.”
— Gio Ponti, Domus, 1939

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, women were the minority in the profession of design, struggling to express their creative voice within a male-dominated territory, even when making revolutionary contributions, and when standing at the forefront of experimentation and innovation. Engaged mainly in skills traditionally considered ‘feminine’ – pottery, silversmithing, textiles – only a small percentage of cutting-edge, zeitgeist furniture and lighting which came to challenge boundaries and to open the path of modern design was done by professional women designers. Much of this body of work has been attributed to male designers until recently. Despite the significant gender imbalance and struggle for freedom, the triumph of the significant minority has shined throughout that era.

This exhibition comes to celebrate the superb achievements, skills, and contributions of European female designers throughout five formative decades that came to shape modern design from the postwar years until the end of the century. It focuses on individual professional talents, their considerable and victorious accomplishments, and their lasting impact on the story of modern design. The aim of this exhibition is twofold: first to outline the contribution of female designers to avant-garde design, and second, to examine their place in the larger context of design and history.



In the 1950s, modern design flourished thanks to economic prosperity, technological revolution in materials and production, and an optimistic and naïve faith in the power of modernism to create a better world. Many high-profile design products of the decade were chic and elegant, presenting a new face of modernity. Some demonstrated the power of the machine to produce standardized luxury and style, while others revealed how artisanal production adapted to new ideas and vocabularies. Such design symbolized the remarkable recovery after the Second World War and the emergence of a consumer society.

In a decade dominated by patriotism and nationalism, each country had its own distinctive and localized design language. As a whole, 50s furniture and lighting were fresh, full of vitality, and rejected historical styles. Pieces with simple lines, straight edges or biomorphic forms, minimal hardware, and pure shapes were all conceived with the idea of affordable, low-cost design in mind.

The glamorization of mid-century design, as portrayed in magazines, advertisements, television shows, and movies created a modernist fantasy that rarely acknowledged the off-camera reality of women in the 50s. Once men returned from the War and reentered the workforce, many women left or were pushed out of their jobs expected to dedicate themselves to motherhood. In addition to maintaining their domestic roles, women did work professionally as designers, many were involved in areas such as straw weaving, textile design, and making ceramics for lighting. Those who created cutting-edge furniture and lighting tended to work with male partners/husbands: Luisa Paris worked with Ico Parisi, Cini Boeri with Gio Ponti, Franca Helg with Franco Albini, Vera Székely with Pierre Székely and André Borderie, and Nanna Ditzel with Jorgen Ditzel. These types of collaborations often left the contributions and successes of women designers in the shadows. Yes, while the abilities and talents of women designers in the 50s were constantly questioned and ignored, they produced innovative and groundbreaking designs.

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“I could say that the instinct is translated by the rhythm, the intelligence, by the affabulation which is grafted to it, voluntary or not, and the sensuality in the modelling. A model must, when one touches it, give satisfaction to the finger, it must not be hit, the hand must judge as much as the eye.”

— Line Vautrin, Art et Industries in 1948



The 1960s was a revolutionary decade that saw the birth of the Civil Rights Movement, the student protests movement, the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, the women’s movement and Feminist Activism, the gay rights movement, the environmental movement, and the hippie movement. Just as these movements all questioned traditions and establishments, so did the art, design, and architectural streams of the decade: Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism, Conceptual Art, Utopian Architecture, and Feminist Art. Modernism was challenged by groups proposing “radical design” and “anti-design,” approaching design as an instrument of socio-political-cultural critique and writing manifestoes. It was a time of freedom and free expression, resulting in brightly colored furnishings and crude forms that were divorced from historical precedents.

Unconventional materials, experimental fabrications, and innovative production technologies came to dominate furniture design: cardboard, cold-cure flexible polyurethane foams, molded plastic, glass fiber moldings, synthetic resin, and inflatable plastic. These materials allowed for new and unorthodox vocabularies with strong visual impacts and narratives. Structures previously made of wood or metal were completely revolutionized, stylistically, and many conventions were abandoned. Chairs no longer looked like they ever did, as they were designed to allow the user flexibility and reclining options.

No other object captures the position of women in design and society in the 60s more than Gaetano Pesce’s “Donna Chair.” Launched in 1969 by C&B Italia, its powerful form—a curvy female body connected to a spherical ottoman representing a prisoner’s ball and chain— was designed by a man. While it was a stylish decade in fashion and women were featured in the context of liberation, female designers were left behind the progress of the decade. Their activity was often in male-female partnerships that obscured their contributions or attributed their designs to their male partners. Similar to the previous decade, partnerships with male designers promised more commercial success and continuity, but women did not receive adequate credit. Vuokko Hillevi Lilian Nurmesmiemi partnered with Antti Nurmesniemi, Franca Stagi with Cesare Leonardi, Jacqueline Lecoq with Antoine Philippon, and Janine Abraham with Dirk Jan Rol. Despite these obstacles, female designers created iconic/notable designs that are celebrated and well-recognized today.

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“I don’t like the word furniture. People do not need my pieces to be furniture, to use as a place to put plates or blankets or whatever.”

— Maria Pergay, The New York Times in 2010



The 1970s saw the second wave of modernism. Designers were heavily influenced by the politics, art movements, technological innovations, and significant events of the decade; such as the 1973 oil crisis, postmodernism, the radical design movement, disco culture, and the Space Age. As production of designer-to-consumer goods slowed, determined and courageous designers in the 70s experimented with couture design. The persistent demand for luxury furniture allowed designers to create a new narrative and sophisticated furnishings in small editions for chic interiors.

Stylistically, the decade was characterized by exaggerations and extremes, super minimalism on the one hand, and playfulness, kitsch, and historical eclecticism on the other; bright bold colors, but also neutrals; rattan and bamboo alongside Plexiglas and stainless steel. A love of synthetic materials—Lucite, vinyl, polyurethane, synthetic textiles, plastic, faux fur—coexisted with an appreciation for the gleaming surfaces of polished chromes, smoked glass, and shiny marbles. Yet the rough surfaces of Brutalism, a design style at its height in the 70s, were also favored. Homes of the decade were relaxed and glamourous, furnished with low chunky sculptural pieces. Furnishings had a central role in transforming spaces of the decade with their distinctive looks, extraordinary shapes, large size, and radical forms.

The Women’s liberation movement of the 70s brought an entire generation of women to create a strong mark on the design industry with work that engaged directly with issues and technological advances of the period. Key design events of the period demonstrate that women were relegated to a secondary role within the design world. In a landmark 1972 exhibition at MoMA that celebrated the development of Italy as the mecca of modern design, Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, curated by architect Emilio Ambasz, only one female designer, Gae Aulenti, was included. The various radical design collectives formed in Italy during the decade—Archizoom, Superstudio, UFO, Gruppo Strum, Group 9999—had no founding female members. Despite being remembered as the decade of Wonder Woman, a television series that ran from 1975 to 1979 and empowered a generation of women, in the world of design and architecture women remained in the shadows. Among the successful voices were Cini Boeri; Gabriella Crespi; Pia Guidetti Crippa; Trix Haussmann; Louise Nevelson; Nanda Vigo; Afra Scarpa; Lella Vignelli; and Maria Pergay.

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“My creations are meant to bring mankind closer to the universe.”

— Gabriella Crespi, Domus in 2018



The distinct visual vocabulary of the 1980s was informed by both the rediscovery of historical movements, such as the Wiener Werkstätte and Art Deco, and by breaking with traditional conventions. The neo-Punk fascination with graffiti, the Postmodernist love for bold patterns and vibrant textures and colors, decorated and rough surfaces, exaggerated proportions, and ornamental excess were all a part of the complex and eclectic typology of the 1980s design. Designers sought to embrace the kitsch, which had been deemed unacceptable before and brought radical shapes and intense colors into the mainstream taste. These concepts were incorporated into the full scope of the design projection, from the modern urban fabric to contemporary architecture, to tabletop and consumer goods.

The emergence of the “star-designer” was the quintessential phenomenon of the decade—enabled thanks to patrons, corporations, and high rates of consumption. It resulted in the creation of mega-corporate architecture, trophy hotels, and luxury products by such star-designers as Philippe Starck, Richard Meier, and Enzo Mari. This shift coincided with the birth of the design editing firm, which through connecting architects and designers with craft workshops, produced luxury objects. Cleto Munari, Sawaya & Moroni, Alessi, and Memphis Group in Italy; Néotu and XO in France; Anthologie Quartett in Germany; Akaba in Spain; Swid Powell in New York, were all firms responsible for high-end designer-oriented trophy projects. After decades of being disregarded, in the 1980s crafts were revived and rediscovered by designers.

However, in this changing environment women, still received few design opportunities and remained the minority in the field. As a result, all high-profile designers and architects of the decade were men. Memphis Group, a firm that had come to define much of the decade, had only three female designers amongst its members. In 1980, design firm Alessi launched its experimental and highly publicized benchmark program “Piazza,” commissioning eleven architects to create tea and coffee services, but not one woman was invited to participate. Gae Aulenti continued to produce striking industrial designs. Elisabeth Garouste spent the decade working with her partner Mattia Bonetti creating romantic, whimsical, and unconventional objects that pioneered the design/art market. Paola Navone joined the radical group Alchimia, founded and led by Alessandro Mendini, Ettore Sottsass Jr., and Andrea Branzi. Anna Castelli Ferrieri partnered with her husband Giulio Castelli and, together, they founded the furniture company Kartell; Sabine Charoy created lamps in the new Minimalist mode.

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“Create an atmosphere that is fantastical and dreamy. We are surrounded by high tech, and I desire to pull us out of that.”

— Élisabeth Garouste, Architectural Digest in 2020



Political, cultural, and historical shifts of the 90s had left their trace on the design culture and intellectual expression of the decade. The countries left by the dissolved Soviet Union were on a quest for independent cultural identity. The Berlin Wall pulled down, the end of the Cold War, the rise of consumerism, the foundation of the European Union, the economic recession in the Netherlands, the rise of globalization, the increased faith in sustainability, and an awareness of resources were all-powerful agents of change. A new infrastructure was constructed by designers, galleries, cultural institutions, and schools, allowing and advancing the rise of the star-designer.

While Postmodernism as a movement had come to its end in the 1980s, the radical design of the 1990s followed some of its essential principles: storytelling; conceptual and intellectual design; decoration; craftsmanship; nostalgia; and personal expression, giving the last push to modernism into the margins. The rise of the design-art movement sought to blur the boundaries between art, design, and craft, cementing the notion that concept, storytelling, and craft came before function. The Design Academy Eindhoven became a hub for the new conceptual design; among its alumni, the founders of Droog Design turned the Netherlands into a major design center. The members of the influential group advocated the notion of design crafted of ready-made, daily products, and found objects.

In this landscape, designers began working independently of industry and powerful manufacturers. With expressions that were more intuitive and less rationalist, female designers had evolved as a force in the world of design. The design gallery was a new phenomenon, offering a new platform for a radical contemporary design that was produced in small editions, allowing female designers to evolve in their studios. Female designers were no longer a part of partnerships or collectives but were successful on their own. The Dutch designer Hella Jongerius championed the notion that design is equal to art; Zaha Hadid who received her earliest architecture commissions in the 1990s turned to design furniture for manufacturers in limited editions; Ayala Serfaty had shifted her creative efforts from art to design. The 90s opened opportunities for female designers who started their professional way and forged into successful careers in the 2000s.

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“As a woman in architecture, you’re always an outsider. It’s okay, I like being on the edge.”

— Zaha Hadid, The Financial Times in 2015

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