Women Designers in the USA, 1900–2000: Diversity and Difference
November 15, 2000 – April 8, 2001
The Bard Graduate Center decided to mark the year 2000, and its seventh year as a specialized center for the study of the decorative arts, design, and culture, by undertaking a research project about women designers working in the United States during the years 1900–2000—a century labeled by some "The American Century" and by others "The Women's Century." Ambitious in scope, the project aimed to survey all fields of design, not just those currently fashionable, and to give full voice to the experiences and achievements of women of diverse ethnicities, including African-American and Native American as well as European American designers.
By setting women in the foreground, the project intended to counter their marginalization within the history of design and the decorative arts. The broad scope of the project allowed for comparisons between the different areas of design; it also signaled the BGC's commitment to giving equal consideration to all aspects of design—from ceramics to cinema, from furniture to fashion, from interiors to industrial products, and from gardens to graphics.
Project director Dr. Pat Kirkham, a senior faculty member at the BGC, is a distinguished international scholar who has written widely on design, film, gender, and culture. The exhibition and book were the result of a groundbreaking research project on which BGC students, past and present, worked with Dr. Kirkham. Together with a special issue of the BGC journal, Studies in the Decorative Arts, devoted to the same topic, the book and exhibition constituted a major revision and augmentation of the history of women designers in the United States in the 20th century.
The exhibition featured approximately 220 items (one per designer)—primarily objects, but also designs and film extracts—by women working from the earliest years of the century through the year 2000. It was the first time that examples from the whole range of women's multifarious contributions to this rich aspect of American material culture were brought together. Culled from a wide variety of private and public collections, the exhibition celebrated and showcased the achievements of women designers.
The items in the exhibition varied from wallpaper, garden, book, poster, pottery, textile, and jewelry designs of 1900s and 1910s to a scintillating outfit worn by Miss Piggy of the Muppets (designed by Polly Smith) and Timex's latest watch for women athletes (designed by Judith Reichel Riley with Kirsti Karapawich and Susie Watson).
Famous designers—Ruth Reeves, Adelaide Robineau, Eva Zeisel, Nampeyo, Maria Martinez, Ray Eames, Florence Knoll, Edith Head, Dorothy Liebes, Clare McCardell, Bonnie Cashin, Lella Vignelli, Elsa Peretti, Donna Karan, and Maya Lin—were represented, but attention was also paid to less well-known women such as Agnes Northrop, Natacha Rambova, Nancy McClelland, Jayne Van Alstyne, Lucia DeRespinis, Anne Lowe, Dorothy Jeakins, Nancy Youngblood Lugo, Anna Rachel Russell Jones, and Ruth Carter.
The exhibition opened with a contextual section, including a timeline placing women's design history within a wider social and cultural context and an image bank indicating the diversity of articles designed by women during the century. Thereafter the exhibition was organized on a broadly chronological basis, to give visitors a sense of change, and according to five main themes: Survivals, Revivals, Traditions, and Change (ca. 1900–35); Design Modernities (ca. 1915–50); Designing the American Dream (ca. 1950–80); "Revivals" and Redefinitions (ca. 1975–90); and 1990–2000 and Beyond.
The accompanying catalogue, Women Designers in the USA, 1900–2000: Diversity and Difference, was published by Yale University Press in association with the BGC. The appearance of the book in itself reflected the increased role of women in design: they typeface is by Zuzana Licko; the cover by Carol Carson; and the timeline by Deborah Sussman, Jennifer Stoller, and Ana LLorente-Thurik of Sussman/Prezja. The book design is by Ellen Lupton and Patrick Seymour.
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