Brilliant but invisible: 20th century women designers

Olga Mosina
Feb 13 · 6 min read
Anni Albers’s textile designs from the Tate Modern exhibition

From Hidden Figures at NASA to the untold genius of Hedy Lamarr, popular culture is taking a moment to look back and unearth the crucial, uncredited contributions of great women in history. Even the recent history of the 20th century design is filled with unacknowledged talents whose work was often miscredited or overshadowed by the male-dominated world they lived in. This winter, three exceptionally well-curated exhibitions spanning from Oakland to London put women in the spotlight, reassessing their legacy, or finally recognizing their status as co-creators of important pieces of work.

Tate Modern held the first major exhibition of modernist textile designer Anni Albers’s work in the UK. Emotional “Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde” at the Barbican looked at Modernism in art and design through the lens of intimate relationships and uncovered a number of women who had collaborated on well-known works but had not received credit for them. Closer to home, “The World of Charles and Ray Eames” at the Oakland Museum of California continued to fight the old gender-biased narrative and did their best to portray Ray Eames as an equal partner in one of the most powerful design duos of the 20th century.

Happy, sad or tragic stories of women designers revealed a multitude of reasons why many talented women had been missing from the mainstream history of design.

Anni Albers

German Anni Albers was denied entry to the architecture and stained glass workshops at Bauhaus, the famed German art and design school which touted its commitment to social egalitarianism. Albers wanted “a real job” but instead, like many other female students, was steered towards weaving, which was deemed more suitable for women. “I went into weaving unenthusiastically, as merely the least objectionable choice, but gradually threads caught my imagination”, she later said. Anni Albers went on to have a prolific and successful career as a textile designer: she taught at the avant-garde Black Mountain College with her husband Josef Albers, created commissioned works, developed popular designs for Knoll, wrote influential books, and had a solo exhibition at MoMA in 1949. Tate Modern curators consider her one of the leading innovators of 20th-century modernist abstraction. Yet, despite a prolific career, extensive experimentation and a profound influence on textiles Albers didn’t achieve the level of fame that some of her male Bauhaus contemporaries enjoyed, perhaps because textiles were never held in as high regard as architecture or industrial design — either at Bauhaus or in a popular discourse. And I cannot but wonder what her legacy would be like if Bauhaus discrimination hadn’t held her back.

Ray Eames

By now, Ray Eames seems to have a firmly established reputation as an equal partner of the influential American design duo. It wasn’t always the case during her lifetime, however. Ray and Charles Eames were married in 1941 and together they established a design office in Los Angeles, collaborating on furniture, architecture, photography, film, and graphic design. Charles was an architect and Ray was an artist with a successful track record before the marriage: she was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists group and had one of her paintings in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Today, it is universally acknowledged that Ray brought an eye for detail, form and color, and an artful playfulness to the Eames designs, and the body of work would not be the same without her.

Yet, their mid-century contemporaries did not treat them as equal partners. The 1946 exhibition at MoMA was titled “New Furniture Designed by Charles Eames”, with no mention of Ray (or any other designer from the Eames office). And at the 1956 Arlene Francis Home Show (a cringe-worthy video clip is included at the exhibition) Ray was introduced as “a very interesting and able woman” BEHIND a successful man. The Eames office designers, who were interviewed for the 2011 “Eames: The Architect and The Painter” documentary, recall how hurt and enraged Ray was on occasions when it was assumed it was only Charles’s business or Charles’s designs. Ray’s contribution to the 20th century design started getting acknowledgment only towards the end of her life, and I am inclined to think that her surviving Charles by 10 years and spending time on finishing projects, publishing books and organizing archives, played a role.

Aino Aalto

Perhaps the untimely death of Aino Aalto at the age of 54 in 1949 is one of the reasons this Finnish designer and architect is largely missing from the popular design history. Another reason is certainly the fact that, like Ray Eames, Aino collaborated on most projects with her architect husband Alvar Aalto, with whom she set up a joint architectural office and later the Artek design company. Many projects were signed by the company, not any one individual, which makes it harder to determine who did what.

Aino Aalto is mainly credited for her clean-lined, ergonomic glassware, still in production. But as a trained architect, graduating from the Institute of Technology in Helsinki in 1920, she did much more than that. Aino was a design director and later a managing director at Artek, and “really it was Aino who ran the business while simultaneously looking after the children and making occasional pieces”, asserted the Barbican exhibition guide. “Women Design” book by Libbi Sellers has more examples of Aino’s work for which she has not been universally credited, such as “the most beautiful staircase in the world”, in the words of Alvar Aalto, designed for their functionalism masterpiece Viipuri (Vyborg) Library. I had a fortune to tour the library a few years ago and admired the smart design and the beautiful organic handrail, yet I do not recall any mention of Aino Aalto.

Lilly Reich

Another iconic design, which the Barbican exhibited as a co-creation, is the famous Barcelona chair and, in fact, the whole cutting-edge German Pavillon for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition, for which the chair was designed. The Barbican attributed these works to both Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich and reminded us that Reich was an established interior designer by the time she met Mies van der Rohe in 1925 and that she was commissioned to be Artistic Director of the German Pavillon. Reich’s name is still missing from a lot of sources, including the website of the Barcelona chair’s manufacturer. Sellers’s book quotes Albert Pfeiffer, vice president of Knoll, as saying, “Mies did not fully develop any contemporary furniture successfully before or after his collaboration with Reich”.

The difficulty of attributing co-creations was in Reich’s case exacerbated by tragic historic events. While Mies van der Rohe moved to the US before the war and continued a successful architectural career, Reich stayed in Germany. Her studio was bombed during World War II and she was sent to a forced labor camp. Lilly Reich died just two years after the war, in 1947, and so had little chance to re-establish herself artistically.

The three exhibitions were particularly eye-opening to me with regard to the number of talented, forward-thinking, qualified women who have been completely sidelined or excluded from the history of art and design. Sexism, contemporary prejudices, gender bias in media, and the tumultuous history of the 20th century have all played a role. Has museum curation been gender-biased as well? Perhaps so. And it looks like the increasing number of museums around the world are trying to address the issue: my newsfeed is full of upcoming exhibitions of ‘hidden’ and ‘forgotten’ women artists, and promises of seeing the ‘largest retrospective ever held’ (just check out the 2019 exhibition calendar at Tate Modern). Bringing forgotten women out of the shadows gives me hope of many astonishing discoveries to follow, but more importantly, of a more complete and gender-balanced history of the 20th century art and design. If we can find equality in the past, then maybe we can create a world where women of the 21st century are capable of even grander designs?

Olga Mosina

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I love travel, design, food and wine. I publish travel stories in my local newspaper and design stories here on Medium. Follow me @ParticularlyNice on Instagram