The Autry National Center presents California’s Designing Women, 1896–1986, an exhibition that honors forty-six women designers and includes more than 200 examples of textiles, ceramics, furniture, lighting, jewelry, clothing, and graphics. These functional and decorative objects—from Arts and Crafts to Art Deco to midcentury modern and beyond—exemplify California’s national and international reputation for unrestrained creativity. It opens today and will run through January 6, 2013.
“It is truly remarkable to see the vast amount of influence California women designers had on the look of everyday life as they brought their ideas, ingenuity, and bold concepts into the American home,” said Daniel Finley, Autry President and CEO. “Through times of scarcity, war, and prosperity, women designers adapted their work and materials to fit the needs of the public in fascinating and original ways.”
Women have long been recognized as practitioners of the decorative arts, but commercial design and fine craft were long considered the province of men. For this exhibition guest curator Bill Stern selected women who were the sole designer of the objects exhibited or were responsible for a clearly defined aspect of them. Featured are women whose designs incorporated the newest styles, materials, and technologies of their time, thus making major contributions to Californian and American design. The exhibition also spotlights designers whose work has been underappreciated and sometimes even anonymous.
“As you will see, the stories of the individual designers are true California stories,” said Stern. Among them are Barbara Willis, who started her successful pottery business in the backyard of her parents’ Fairfax area home during World War II while her husband was in the Army Air Force; Muriel Coleman, whose post-war, Mid-century Modern furniture was made in the Bay Area from existing stocks of rebar, metal strips, and rods; and Judith Hendler, who began making acrylic jewelry in Los Angeles out of surplus material from the manufacture of aircraft windshields.
Stern says that he was “inspired to curate this exhibition by California’s distinctive role as America’s cultural frontier, whose spirited bursts of population growth allowed talented and ambitious women the opportunity to break out of the stereotype of mere decorators and develop their aesthetic and entrepreneurial gifts to their maximum potential.” He adds that “unlike more structured environments, women in California have been more likely to control the process of product creation from conception to design to production. They’ve also been able to take advantage of the special possibilities California has offered for the re-purposing of materials produced by such local industries as construction, aircraft manufacture, and even plumbing.”
The exhibition opens with hand-cut woodblock printed posters from the late 19th century and closes with one of the first computer-aided graphics from the late 20th century. These technological poles are bridged by works in a gamut of techniques and composed of materials as diverse as wood, leather, paper, abalone, glass, cotton, rattan, copper, steel, silver, acetate, acrylic, and fiberglass—the materials of American daily life forged in California’s vast, welcoming workshop.
Among the women designers in the exhibition are copper workers Elizabeth Eaton Burton and Lillian Palmer, multiple-disciplinarians Ray Eames and Dorothy Thorpe, renowned potters Gertrud Natzler and Beatrice Wood, dinnerware designer Edith Heath, mid-century furniture designer Greta Magnusson Grossman, enamellist Ellamarie Woolley, fashion designer Margit Fellegi, textile and housewares designer Gere Kavanaugh, jewelry designers Arline Fisch and Judith Hendler, and graphic design innovators Deborah Sussman and April Greiman.
This exhibition is sponsored in part by Automobile Club of Southern California, Macy’s, interTrend, and media sponsor KPCC.