The history of industrial design has been fundamentally, and for a century, the recount of Western good work done by men. The discipline entered the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the early 1930s, when the center was not yet five years old. As a result of the industrial revolution, design united ingenuity and calculation, technology and pragmatism. This more organizational than mechanical aspect was fertile ground for female invention, which added good sense and practicality. Even so, the entry of the authors into the temple of contemporary art was uneven. When the Finnish Alvar Aalto received recognition from the institution in 1938, his partner, the architect Aino Marsio, was erased. Neither Aalto nor Marsio herself protested.
It happened like this: although Finland was one of the few countries where women were able to study architecture in the 19th century, and Aino Marsio graduated from the University of Helsinki in 1920 – before Alvar Aalto did – the architect was unable to open a studio own due to the social restrictions of the moment (remember that in Spain a woman could not have her own bank account until well into the seventies). Alvar did. And he gave a job to the fellow student with whom he would end up associating. And getting married. If one visits what was their home-studio on Riihitie Street in Helsinki (designed by both in 1934), one finds that Aino had the best location, next to the window. Together they founded the company Artek (art and technique) to produce the birch wood furniture with which they wanted to warm up modernity. She ran that company until she died prematurely, of cancer, in 1949.
Already in 1932 Aino Aalto had achieved second place in the competition called by the Karhula company – today Iittala – to devise functional and decorative tableware. It was inspired by the effect of a stone falling on water. The concentric circles draw plates with a handcrafted feel and appearance that, however, are industrially produced. They are still manufactured today. Six years after that contest, MoMA honored his projects without including Aino in the title of the show, or in the posters, or in the credits. Only in the chronology, at the end of the catalog, does his name appear together with a date “1925: Marries Aino Marsio. Since then they have carried out all the projects together ”. Another six years later, with Aino dead, the museum rectified and in the Design for Use exhibition signed some of the furniture previously attributed to Alvar Aalto to his now-defunct partner Aino.
Despite the fact that in MoMA’s first industrial design shows the manufacturer got more credit than the product’s author, at the Bauhaus exhibition held a year after Aino Aalto was neglected, the museum exhibited several female designers. Beyond some of those creators, such as Anni Albers or Marianne Brandt – who managed to enter, and stand out, in the metal department signing lamps and her famous teapot (1925) -, the historian Jane Hall stands out in her book Woman Made, Great Women Designers (Phaidon) to other Bauhasian women, such as the ceramist Margarete Heymann-Löbestein – who founded her own workshop to produce tableware – or the cabinetmaker Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who taught Czech children in the Theresienstadt concentration camp and ended up dying in Auschwitz. Despite the fact that, as a consequence of World War I, there were almost as many women as men in the German school, there, too, female students were encouraged to study textiles over architecture. And only Gunta Stölzl got to be a teacher.
For decades we have not been able to see the injustice that silenced, also in design, the unrecognized work of so many women. Like Aino Aalto, the American Ray Eames was also left out of MoMA’s recognition when in 1946 the museum unequivocally titled New Furniture Designed by Charles Eames. Today the legacy of that exhibition has been corrected in the museum’s archives. Only the facsimile copy of the press document and the title itself, of course, reveal the error.
But the way of reading the design that his historiography chose not only alienated women. Although Bauhaus tubular furniture had an industrial look, it was handcrafted. And crafts were also marginalized by history. As if design equates to thought. In Luis Barragán’s house, not even the guides talk about the Cuban designer Clara Porset, who devised almost all the architect’s furniture and certainly furnished his house. In the Philippines, Mercedes Ched Berenguer-Topacio – who founded the first Association of Interior Designers in her country – studied architecture “because there were too many women in the queue to enroll in art,” says Hall. Trained in Manila and in the United States, she rethought the local artisan contribution in a global world. “The skill of craftsmanship forces us to return to a way of working that rejects the speed and even the globalization in which modernity derived,” explains Hall. The French Charlotte Perriand knew how to see it. She was a pioneer in seeking inspiration in Japanese crafts. Today Rossana Hu with her Lan sofa and Nada Debs with her Summerland screen rescue that broader look.
Hall challenges the inclusion / exclusion system of the history of industrial design with a question: how many designers would recognize the writer of children’s stories Beatrix Potter as a source of inspiration? For British architect Alison Smithson, the Peter Rabbit mouse house, and its kitchen full of pots, represented the appropriation of design, the truth of its use in family life. The design should be practical and aesthetic, but it also builds a place that shows life.
In 1926, three decades before Smithson questioned modern cleanliness, the first Austrian architect, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, rationalized work in the Frankfurt kitchen. She was not an expert cook – Hall says she got the information by asking friends what would make her life in the kitchen easier – but she did come up with a method to organize washing, preparation, cooking or storage without losing space or wasting time. Today her Frankfurt kitchen is considered feminist because it improves the lives of everyone: men and women. In the 1930s, more than 10,000 German public houses had Frankfurt kitchens. Shütte ended up fleeing Nazism and refused to be decorated by her city so as not to erase that past.
Designs that do not waste an inch of warehouse signed by women have been a constant. With a single product, the Uten.Silo storage wall (now distributed by the Vitra brand), Dorothee Becker founded a company that she ran until 1989. Her feat was overshadowed by the brilliance of the lamps designed by her famous husband, Ingo Maurer. The Italian Anna Castelli Ferrieri also devised some mythical objects, such as the Componibili Modular Storage System. Married to the chemical engineer Giulio Castelli, the two founded Kartell, a pioneering company in innovation with ABS plastics. It was 1967 when, when presenting her system, she said: “The future belongs to plastic.” They were different times; the brightness, the color and the design spoke then of an irreverent modernity. And women have not only worried about ordering: the Dutch Hella Jongerius, for example, turned her Polder sofa into a transformable room.
Despite her ability to unite pragmatism and imagination, many designers saw the fact of being a woman as a professional disadvantage. It is difficult to have heard of Franca Helg, Luisa Aiani or Emma Schweinberger. However, their husbands may sound more familiar: Franco Albini, Ico Parisi or Ernesto Gismondi. Hall believes that female designers were more widely recognized when their partner was not working in the field. Perhaps that is why those who came to triumph in architecture did so radically. After working with Gio Ponti and Marco Zanuso, the architect Cini Boeri designed houses with separate rooms. She was accused of promoting divorce. Like Boeri, the Spanish architect Patricia Urquiola was also slow to open a solo studio. He was 40 when it was decided. In less than a decade, she achieved worldwide fame and today she is the only woman in the design group advising Apple.
But female authorship was not always radical. Hall explains that, working for the Libbey glass company, American Freda Diamond managed to match her salary to that of men. How? It was a best seller. Life magazine presented her as a “designer for everyone, capable of softening the avant-garde, giving designs a closer look” and, therefore, more conservative and commercial.
As with great history, design is also a chronicle of exclusion, not only of the authors, but also of non-Western crafts and creators. A feminist — that is, egalitarian — history would put what has been considered minor, even marginal, in perspective; It would reconsider values and other priorities, and expand the potential, achievements and ambition of design.