The Designed by Women Project

Designed by Women, a website being developed by the Stewart Program, focuses on designs by women across the globe. The world of industrial design has always been the purview of men, and the world of objects for the home has seemingly been divided into male creators and female consumers. With this new website, leading voices in the design community challenge our assumptions about design by presenting pioneering designs by women from 1930 to the present.Through images, biographies, interviews, curatorial essays and comparison studies, Designed by Women provides insight into the remarkable careers and viewpoints of these designers. The microsite was launched in 2020 with selections from the extensive Stewart Collection. It provides a preview of the full website which will be launched in 2021 and will be continuously broadened to build a major resource for the work of women designers.

Initial support for the Designed by Women project has been received from:
Council on Canadian American Relations
Birks Family Foundation
The Drummond Foundation

 Project team 

A team of experts has been assembled to carry out this ambitious project: Jeannine Falino, former Curator, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Penny Sparke, Professor of Design History at Kingston University, London; Pat Kirkham, Professor of Design History at Kingston University, London; Jennifer Laurent, Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; David A. Hanks, Curator, Stewart Program for Modern Design; and Joanne Lefebvre, Head of Paprika graphic design, Montreal.

Greta (Margareta) von Nessen, Anywhere Lamp, 1951
Matali Crasset & Pierre Hermé, Essentiel de Pâtisserie Cake Plate, 2010
Maija Isola, Lokki (Seagull) Textile, 1961
Grete Jalk, Side Chair, 1963
Sophie Cook, Pod and Teardrop Bottles, 2003
Eva Zeisel, Town & Country Pitchers, c. 1945

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Women have been makers from time immemorial, whether weaving baskets and cloth, or making pottery or jewelry. Recognition from within the Western canon, however, was slow until a combination of societal change and scholarship over the last fifty years began to reverse this trend. The works of twentieth-century artists and designers such as Eileen Gray and Ray Eames are featured in museums, books, and the marketplace today, but their presence still pales in comparison to that of men. Whether considered from a national or global perspective, women face a continuing gender gap in the arts. Recognition, advancement, and compensation continues to lag that of men, and women of color work hardest of all in their struggle for acceptance and recognition

The Designed by Women project is intended to bring greater visibility to the contributions of women from around the world and active in a range of visual expressions. It features works of art made or designed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with a focus on objects from the mid-twentieth century to the present. Examples are drawn from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Stewart Collection of Modern Design, both formed under the leadership of philanthropist Liliane Stewart for the purpose of elevating women’s achievements in the arts. Plans are underway to expand this acclaimed collection from its present white, Western focus into one with a global perspective.

For centuries, women’s activities and responsibilities revolved around the household. It was not until the 1890s that members of middle and upper class began to enjoy greater independence from the home.  This new generation was described as that of the New Woman, characterized superficially for their propensity to ride bicycles or smoke, but essentially because they were actively leading their own lives. Their rising talents could be found in the murals, a “Model Kitchen” and an “Inventions Room” displayed in the Women’s Building of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago; the building itself was designed by Chilean-born American Sophia Hayden, the first woman to graduate from the school of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Women’s Building was the first international platform to promote women’s achievements in the visual arts, even if at a distance from that of men. 

Many turned to the arts as socially sanctioned pursuits that left them free to create and even earn money. Some took classes, established studios, and joined art organizations. They exhibited china painting, jewelry, silver, pottery, and textiles of their own design and fabrication. While some of these activities can be considered purely avocational, others saw in them a means to another end: professionalism. As college-level art departments grew in number, more began to consider art, design, and art education as viable career goals. 

This was the case for British ceramic designer Clarice Cliff, who was inspired by her aunt, a hand painter for a local pottery company. An early stint as a decorator along with night classes at the Burslem School of Art led to her career as a designer of ceramic forms bearing richly-colored abstract and stylized designs. At her peak, Cliff also employed as many as 70 decorators, many of them women.  

When industrial design emerged as a professional discipline during the 1920s and 1930s, women began to make their mark in this arena but nevertheless struggled with male clients and manufacturers in a field unaccustomed to them. The Cranbrook Academy of Art (est. 1932) fostered women designers in part because of the women who taught there, including furniture designer Lisa (Pipsan) Saarinen and her mother Loja Saarinen, who led the weaving and textile design department. One of Cranbrook’s most successful female graduates was Florence Schust Knoll, whose residential and corporate designs furniture are a hallmark of midcentury modernism. Similar to Knoll was Cranbrook graduate Ray Eames. Both women married men in their field, which had the contradictory effect of enabling their early careers while obscuring their individual talents. Working as a pair, the Eameses combined technological advances in molded fiberglass and steam-bent plywood with a modernist aesthetic to create some of the most enduring furnishings of their generation. Emigres to the United States like Greta Magnussen-Grossman and Eva Zeisel made major contributions to postwar designs. Swedish-born Grossman created Bauhaus-inflected furniture and lighting for clients who visited her Rodeo Drive showroom. Zeisel, who was born and educated in Hungary, brought a biomorphic aesthetic to ceramic designs in collaboration with leading manufacturers. 

By the 1960s and 1970s, women artists and designers had emerged as a talented, if still underrepresented international body. Some, like Maija Isola of Finland, created hundreds of bold and colorful textile patterns for Marimekko, an international fashion and interior furnishings company. The Brazilian architect and designer Anna Maria Niemeyer worked with her father Oscar Niemeyer on civic architecture and furniture for Brasilia, the federal capital. Along with her father she designed the “Alta” chair and ottoman whose bold, curved steel frame supports a deep upholstered seat and back. Italian-born Lella Vignelli and her husband Massimo Vignelli were architects and designers who emigrated to the United States. Working as Vignelli Associates, they created corporate graphic identities, packaging, furniture, glassware and tableware, much of it in a reductive, elegant, and colorful style. 

Toward the end of the twentieth century, women designers and artists began to embrace an even greater diversity of materials and forms. Plastics, for instance, had long been used in industrial design, but advances in flexibility, malleability, and transparency led to a renewed interest in the medium. Made into stacking boxes, wastebaskets, furniture, jewelry, and much more, it attracted designers from around the globe, including Laurene Boym, Matali Crasset, Monika Mulder, and Ionna Vautrin.  

As graduates of the many art and design programs available worldwide, today’s women are taking a greater role in shaping the look and feel of modern life. They have benefited from the implosion of modernism which had been hostile to the decorative in design, long derided as “feminine.” Some disciplines, like textiles, jewelry, and fashion, continue to be weighted toward women, while film, architecture, and industrial design are often seen as a male domain, but the situation is fluid and encouraging. Most troubling is the fact that women of color are shockingly absent from the scene, with only incremental changes to show for the last hundred years. 

More women than ever are heading up their own firms, the best-known of these being the Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid. Front Design, originally composed of four Dutch designers, infuse their work with excitement based upon movement, process, and surprise. Other independent designers like Johanna Grawunder add luster to design firms with their own innovative forms. For every woman heading or contributing to a major firm, there are dozens more who work contractually or within the academic arena. One of them is Czech artist Eva Zeisel, who designs for industry while teaching and making jewelry.  

Twenty-first century design is now a truly international affair thanks in part to the internet, which at a keystroke can transport ideas and images around the globe. This has boded well for women who can share their work online using this horizontal playing field. While their numbers have grown, they still remain a minority, and many labor without the recognition or remuneration of their male peers. Nevertheless, the trend continues to improve, with bold and accomplished work making the case that women designers are here to stay.

Jeannine Falino, former Curator, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston