When I lived in London my next door neighbour in trendy Islington was a rather plain middle aged woman. We were never on more than nodding terms and I had no idea who or what she was. I later discovered she was a graphic designer. But not any old graphic designer; she had designed, among other things, all the signage for Gatwick airport and all the UK motorway signs. Who’d have thought it? My point is that here was an unprepossessing woman who was at the top of her field. No flashy office, no team of assistants, no glossy books on her work – just a drawing board in the front room of her small terraced house.
The current exhibition of women designers, of all types, establishes that women are every bit as original and competent as any their male counterparts. And why shouldn’t they be? So why are there few, if any, architects that are mentioned in the same breath as Frank Lloyd Wright and why no furniture designers believed to be the equal of, say, Charles Eames, Gerrit Rietveld or Phillipe Stark? OK, Florence Knoll, but who else?
With HERE WE ARE! Women in Design 1900 – Today the Kunsthal draws very strong parallels between woman’s emancipation, both political and social, and their acceptance and progress in commercial art and design. Starting with posters from the early 20th century promoting and announcing Suffragette events and taking us through the next 120 years, we see lots of design elements which are usually thought of as “female” preserves – ceramics and textiles, for example. But what is perhaps surprising for the layman is the incredible furniture designed by women, as well as some of the architectural projects.
As I said, parallels are drawn between the progress of female design and their political struggles as well, especially with the birth of Feminism in the 1970s. Another thing we discovered is that there was nothing new about this. The 1873 World Fair in Vienna dedicated a lot of space to women artists. In 1898 The National Exhibition of Woman’s Labour was held in Holland to commemorate the coronation of Queen Wilhelmina.
Creative women have always been suppressed by men – think Rodin keeping his equally talented assistant/muse/model Camille Claudel well away from the limejight and who has ever heard of Mozart’s equally (or more) talented sister, Nannerl? And what about Fanny Hensel (nee Mendelssohn)? The list goes on.
The excuse men have always used to suppress creative women is that any investment of time or money in them would be wasted because at some point they would drop everything and go off and have babies – more likely they were afraid of the competition.
This is an important, well presented and well thought-out exhibition which entitles women to say I told you so and men to feel a little embarrassed. Michael Hasted 28th June 2022
HERE WE ARE! Women in Design 1900 – Today continues at Kunsthal in Rotterdam until 30th October