California’s Designing Women, 1896–1986: A Museum of California Design Exhibition at the Autry
A Museum of California Design Exhibition at the Autry
August 10, 2012–January 6, 2013
Marilyn Kay Austin, floor vase. Architectural Pottery, circa 1962. Photo by Susan Einstein. Image courtesy of Museum of California Design.
“The women featured in this show led the way in California’s extraordinary role in American design,” said Carolyn Brucken, Autry Chief Curator. “The show is a testament to how women designers incorporated bold new ideas and innovative materials and technologies into their work and how their success attested to the ways in which the West, and in particular California, allowed women to imagine new possibilities in their own lives and careers.”
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. 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 nineteenth century and closes with one of the first computer-aided graphics from the late twentieth 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.
The vast majority of the objects in this exhibition are utilitarian. Whether multiples or one-of-a-kind creations, they were intended to be used as household furnishings, personal adornment, sports equipment, or visual communication. The designers who produced these products over a ninety-year period of time are just a few of the numerous women working in California who have made—and who are continuing to make—significant contributions to American design.
This exhibition is sponsored in part by Automobile Club of Southern California, Macy’s, interTrend Communications, and media sponsor KPCC.
About the Autry National Center
The Autry is a museum dedicated to exploring and sharing the stories, experiences, and perceptions of the diverse peoples of the American West, connecting the past to the present to inspire our shared future. The museum presents a wide range of exhibitions and public programs, including lectures, film, theater, festivals, family events, and music, and performs scholarship, research, and educational outreach. The Autry’s collection of more than 500,000 pieces of art and artifacts includes the Southwest Museum of the American Indian Collection, one of the largest and most significant in the United States.
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