Women Designers in the USA, 1900-2000: Diversity and Difference

Women Designers in the USA, 1900-2000: Diversity and Difference


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This stunning book celebrates the many contributions women designers have made to American culture over the past century in such fields as textiles, ceramics, graphics, furniture, interiors, metalwork, fashion, and jewelry. It includes designers from the arts and crafts and modernist movements, Native American and African American cultures, the post-World War II era, craft and "ethnic" revivals in the 1970s and 1980s, and the world of today. Many famous designers are discussed, including Eva Zeisel, Maria Martinez, Ray Eames, Florence Knoll, Edith Head, Clare McCardell, Bonnie Cashin, Elsa Peretti, and April Greiman, as well as less well-known designers.

The book features seventeen essays by such eminent scholars as Valerie Steele, Ellen Lupton, Cheryl Buckley, and Edward S. Cooke, Jr. A timeline offers readers a broader context within which to understand the developments discussed in the text, as does Eileen Boris's chapter "Women in the United States, 1900ñ2000: Social Change and Changing Experience." In addition, an essay by Pat Kirkham and Lynne Walker explores such fascinating issues as the differing gendered nature of the various areas of design, training, and education, support networks, "race," class, cultural traditions, and the diverse ways in which women came to be, practiced as, and experienced being designers.

The book is the catalogue for an exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center from November 2000 to January 2001.

About the Author:
Pat Kirkham is professor in the history of design, decorative arts and culture at the Bard Graduate Center.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300087345
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 12/11/2000
Pages: 464
Product dimensions: 9.32(w) x 12.44(h) x 1.48(d)

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Women Designers in the U.S.A, 1900-2000

Diversity and Difference
By Pat Kirkham

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2002 Pat Kirkham
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780300093315

Chapter One


THERE WERE AS MANY WAYS FOR WOMEN TO BECOME DESIGNERS during the course of the twentieth century in America as there were ways for them to practice design. In considering women's identities as designers, Women Designers in the USA, 1900-2000: Diversity and Difference concentrates on professional designers, while recognizing the permeable line between amateur and professional, especially at the beginning of the century. This essay serves to contextualize the chapters that follow and presents an overview of them. The chapters discuss a diversity of design types and media, as well as differences between women in terms of cultural identities, training and education, and practice. They also consider the broad proscriptions on women's design activities alongside new opportunities. Included, where appropriate, are the contributions of women designers to the teaching of design and thereby to the shaping of new generations of designers—men as well as women.

    The gendered nature of work is a common thread running through the chapters, as are the shifting conceptions of what was and was not thoughtappropriate for women to design. The richly textured history resides in the multifaceted ways in which gender intersected with many other factors, including "race," ethnicity, class, training, employment, experience, and individual talents. Given the paucity of prior research on minority ethnic women designers in the United States—with the exception of Native Americans—and the brief to consider a whole century across a range of media, two discrete studies were selected for closer attention. Native American women designers (mostly designer-makers) were chosen largely because of the wide range of existing publications, archives, and collections that represent the tangled, often troubled, relationships between Native Americans, private collectors, institutions, and the federal government throughout the century. African American women designers were chosen not only because documentation is lamentably patchy and many African American design traditions were marginalized, if not denigrated, for most of the century, but also because there was a substantial body of "contextual" material on other areas of African American cultural production.

    This publication contributes to the ongoing efforts, which began with the Women's Movement in the late 1960s, to recover women previously "hidden from history" and to reevaluate their roles and contributions. It is easy to caricature such studies as little more than adding token women to "male" narratives. However, the best feminist scholarship has always gone beyond that—to the broad social context of political and personal issues—and has been at the center of reshaping and rethinking the telling of history. Women Designers in the USA seeks a place in those traditions of feminist scholarship, informed by theory and qualified by women's lived experience. It embraces difference and attempts to explain women's absences from certain activities as well as their participation in others. The intellectual framework within which this publication falls is discussed further in the second part of the essay.


In the twentieth century, a vital enabler of women's access to design in America was systematic design education, available from a broad base of public and private institutions that trained designers for both industrial and hand manufacture. By 1900 design education in America had achieved the basic shape it would hold throughout the century, although it would develop in new, distinctive directions—in the 1930s, for example, through government-funded training programs and "progressive" new art and design institutions; or in the 1970s in feminist art and design programs. In addition to women-only schools of landscape architecture, which flourished earlier in the century, programs in nascent design areas were introduced: industrial design in the 1930s; studio furniture design and making, from the 1960s; and computer graphics in the 1980s and 1990s.

    In the nineteenth century, the expense of importing foreign designs and the understanding that well-designed goods were essential to successful competition in international markets had prioritized industry's and government's goals for a well-trained design workforce. Art classes—especially in drawing (a traditional part of a "lady's" education)—were often open to women in such institutions as the National Academy of Design, New York, which accepted women in 1831. Design education for women, which began in 1848, the year of the first women's rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York, was initially perceived as providing access to respectable employment for single middle-class women, a goal of philanthropists and feminists alike. While the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia promoted the applied arts to a national audience, it inspired higher standards of artistic production in design, craft, and industry, and stimulated and regalvanized design education for women.

    When schools of design were established in America (mainly in the last quarter of the nineteenth century) educators and philanthropists looked to Britain, a leader in international trade, for prototypes. The influential Philadelphia School of Design for Women (founded 1848) and the Massachusetts Normal School of Art (founded 1873) adapted British models of curriculum and teaching materials to American purposes, and key staff were recruited from the Normal School of Design in London. American design schools developed in the climate of struggles for women's rights, which included education, training, and employment, as well as suffrage. Women's involvement with art and design in the late nineteenth century helped them develop organizational skills and confidence that could then be used for suffrage work. However, at least one influential proponent of education for women, Walter Smith, director of the Massachusetts Normal Art School, proposed design education to distract women from political activities:

We have a fancy that our lack of art schools and other institutions where women can learn to employ themselves usefully and profitably at work which is in itself interesting and beautiful, is one of the causes which drives them to so unsex themselves as to seek to engage in men's affairs. Give our American women the same facilities as their European sisters, and they will flock to the studios and let the ballot-box alone.

In the early 1900s to about 1920, when suffrage activity was heating up, women were again encouraged to become involved with the arts as "safe activities."

    Although conceptions of design education for women varied, women's schools of design and philanthropic training programs had at least one thing in common: they were mainly founded by women for women. The first school of design for women, the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, was started by Sarah Worthington Peter in her own drawing room as a philanthropic project—but one that recognized the hard economic facts of single middle-class women's need of training for employment. The New York School of Design for Women was founded by Susan Carter in 1852 and merged in 1859 with the Cooper Institute (now Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art); it became a major design school. The Western Reserve School of Design for Women in Cleveland (founded 1882), which began in the home of Sarah M. Kimball, was established to train designers for industry and flourishes today as an independent coeducational school of art and design (renamed Cleveland School of Art, 1891-1948; now the Cleveland Institute of Art).

    The Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, which promoted American interests, included a separate Woman's Building. The catalogue indicates the scope and success of design training for women to that point. Virtually all areas of the applied arts were represented, and most were referred to as "modern" in style: stained glass and glass mosaics, woodcarying, wallpaper, textiles, embroidery, designs for jewelry and metalwork. bookbinding, illustration and cover design, china painting, lace, and applied and decorative painting. The catalogue also revealed women's own ambitions in design: the "main object" of applied arts exhibitions from the contributor's point of view "was to obtain rightful recognition of her work." Women's increasing access to training and their professionalism are evidenced by the many women designers represented in exhibits mounted by individual firms. Tiffany's Glass and Decorating Company, for example. showed thirty-nine pieces by women designers, including twenty sketches for glass windows by Grace deLuze, Lydia F. Emmet, and Agnes Northrop (fig. I-I). Emmet also designed the seal of the Board of Women Managers of New York, which was used on official stationery and display caption cards.

    The Woman's Building itself was designed by a young woman architect, Sophia Hayden. Candace Wheeler, a leader of the Arts and Crafts movement and head of the design and interior decoration firm, Associated Artists (figs. 1-2 and 1-3), received the plum commission of designing the library (fig. 1-4), which was marked as a "feminine" space not only by its type (a Ladies' Reading Room) and the design language of its furnishings and interior decoration, but by its contents—including portrait busts of notable women by women sculptors and a grand allegorical ceiling painted by Wheeler's daughter, Dora Wheeler Keith. The alcovelike side rooms contained statistics relating to women's employment, thus emphasizing the social and economic importance of design work for women.

    At the Chicago exposition generally and in the Woman's Building specifically, design exhibits were separated by "race" as well as by gender and viewed from a perspective that remained current well into the twentieth century and combined liberal reform, paternalism, and social Darwinism with assumptions of white supremacy. Native American basket makers Kittie Coates and Emma Reeves were present at the fair's "Iroquois Camp"; in the Woman's Building, an "Afro-American Exhibit" was organized by the sole black woman on New York State's Board of Women Managers, the tireless J. Imogen Howard. While featuring the craft skills of African American women, especially in needlework and other handmade textiles, the exhibits forcefully demonstrated the exclusion of African American women from professional and commercial design and from formal design training. Unlike their more privileged, white middle-class counterparts, they generally lacked academic credentials. There were no firms exhibiting their work or hiring them as name designers (see chapter 4). In contrast, today one in eight female university graduates is African American—many from art and design programs. Nevertheless, although education and training have been among the best tools for women's advancement, that alone did not guarantee progress or acceptance in the design world for women of color.

    By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Arts and Crafts movement, then at its peak, emphasized the importance of everyday "commonplace" objects. It extolled the unity and equality of all arts and challenged the inferior status of design (and designers) in the hierarchy of the arts. Design and the decorative arts were depicted as suitable work for respectable women, and the Arts and Crafts movement both constituted and stimulated educational programs. Specialist schools of design for women, private women's colleges, and philanthropic classes and facilities for working-class women and girls all taught art and design, often along Arts and Crafts lines. In the early twentieth century, the most design-oriented women's liberal arts college was the H. Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans (founded 1886), which taught undergraduate and graduate courses in design, and operated a commercial pottery—the Newcomb Pottery. Newcomb students exercised their skills in ceramic decoration and sold their pots. In other workshops they aspired to professional standards in bookbinding from 1913, jewelry, and metalwork in the 1920s and 1930s—products that represented the rethinking of women's roles as well as the renewal of southern cultural and regional identity in the protracted post-Civil War period.

    Philanthropic organizations and their training facilities were by nature less highly structured and less comprehensive in their programs than design schools and design courses at colleges. However, they were capable of providing training and opportunities for work and sales in craft-based industries, which offered an economic lifeline to many women. Organizations such as the Saturday Evening Girls Club (1906-42) in Boston provided paid employment and training as well as leisure pursuits for immigrant working-class girls and women. The traditionally "feminine" crafts of embroidery and lace-making became vehicles for social amelioration and assimilation through some of these groups, such as the Sybil Carter Indian Lace Association (founded in 1890, the same year as the infamous massacre of Native Americans by United States troops near Wounded Knee Creek), which, unlike similar organizations for Native Americans, prioritized the production of marketable goods over craft preservation.

    After 1900, new women-only design schools resulted in response to women's exclusion from professional training in the fiercely contested male-dominated areas of architecture and landscape architecture. The Lowthorpe School of Landscape Gardening for Women (founded 1901; fig. 1-5) and the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women (founded 1910) reflected the growing importance of this field for women, as well as their problematic access to professional training. The door to women's admission to education in landscape architecture had been pried open only to be slammed shut at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but it was the exclusion of women from Harvard's School of Landscape Architecture that directly led to setting up the Cambridge School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture for Women (1915-42). At the same time, the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, under the direction of Harriet Sartain (fig. 1-6), had strong links to industry and continued to prepare designers for commercial employment. By 1925 its graduates occupied a wide range of jobs thought appropriate to women, from fashion design and illustration to interior decoration. Today, as Moore College of Art and Design, it maintains its high standards, while remaining the only all-female school of art and design to grant degrees in the United States.

    Although women-only design schools preceded coeducational ones, the direction of twentieth-century design education soon became strongly coeducational. By 1925, the overwhelming majority of "over sixty art schools and more than a hundred colleges and universities and countless other and less reliable organizations offering courses of all sorts in one or more of the [art and design] subjects" were coeducational. Boston, Providence, New York, and Chicago were (and are) home to a group of remarkably robust coeducational art and design schools: the Massachusetts Normal Art School in Boston (founded 1873; from 1959, the Massachusetts College of Art; fig. 1-7); Rhode Island School of Design in Providence (founded 1877); Pratt Institute, Brooklyn (founded 1887); and Parsons School of Design, New York (founded 1896). Leading museum-linked institutions include the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (founded 1869); Art Academy of Cincinnati (1869-present; a museum school 1887—1998); and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which offered classes in the decorative arts from 1884. Design schools on the West Coast were mainly a twentieth-century phenomenon. In the 1970s, the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) was a prime site of feminist art and design education (see pp. 77-78), but in its earlier years as the Chouinard School of Art, founded by Mrs. Nelbert Chouinard in 1921, some of Hollywood's most prominent costume designers studied there, including Edith Head, Elois Jenssen, and Irene Conley (known as Renie).

    Universities that offered "mechanical" or "industrial arts" in addition to liberal arts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century set the stage for the major role universities would play in later twentieth century design education, producing a wide range of specialist design students at undergraduate and graduate level. The Land Grant Acts (1862 and 1890) endowed institutions of higher education in order to establish programs in design-related subjects. Julia Morgan (architect-designer), Bertha Stenge (quilter), Dorothy Liebes (textile designer), and Gail Fredell (furniture maker and architect-designer) were among those who studied at the University of California, Berkeley, a leading Land Grant institution. Universities particularly "responded to the need for professionally trained ceramicists." Potters Mary Chase Perry (Stratton), Elizabeth Overbeck, and Adelaide Alsop Robineau (fig. 1-7a) all studied and worked at the New York School for Clay-Working and Ceramics (now New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University), which also includes Betty Woodman and many other of today's leading ceramists among its graduates.

    In education a distinctive feature of the twentieth century was federal government funding for design teaching and training through the Federal Art Project (FAP, begun in 1935) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which was part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal—the wide-ranging response to severe unemployment and social dislocation during the Depression. The textile designer and artist Ruth Reeves, with others, established the Design Laboratory, a federally funded school of industrial design in New York City for (re)training designers for industry. She also conceived, piloted, and briefly headed (as National Coordinator) the WPA Index of Design, which recorded American decorative and applied arts from the colonial period to the late nineteenth century. Although the images were produced mainly by fine artists rather than designers, the rhetoric of the Index's administrators challenged the distinctions between (useful) handicrafts and (creative) arts and promoted early American material culture as an educational tool and a source for design practice and national unity. However, the categorization (and dismissal from the Index) of Native American design and artifacts as "ethnography" weakened the claims of the Index to represent the design past of all Americans.

    Other WPA/FAP programs affected design training, notably in African American institutions such as Howard University, Tuskegee Institute, and the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), which set up government-funded ceramics programs, along with other imaginative institutional partnerships. WPA Community Arts Centers were established in African American neighborhoods to provide free instruction for students and work for art and design teachers. The prototype was the highly successful Harlem Community Art Center (1937-42), which offered classes in design and craft, as well as fine arts, to 1,500 students. Although the integrated staff included men and women, at its core were women, mostly African American: Augusta Savage (its first director and a leading art and design educator), Gwendolyn Bennett (painter and Savage's successor), Louise E. Jefferson (textiles), Octavia Clark (costume design), Sarah West (metal crafts), and Selma Burke (sculpture).

    In spite of the WPA/FAP's unprecedented achievements, full gender equality was not a goal of government policy or programs, and the Federal Art Project did little fundamentally to challenge or alter hierarchies of "race," gender, or the arts. In terms of practice, mural painting, printmaking, and ceramics were developed, but the hierarchy of the arts was left virtually intact. The marginality of women designers in WPA/FAP programs was further compounded by the broader marginalization of women in a period characterized by "a stagnant women's movement, a widespread rejection of feminist claims and a renewed attack on wage-earning women." The undisputed importance of the period, and of the New Deal itself, for positive social change and welfare reform must be set against "the ideology of female dependent and male provider [which] remained strong even as women gained access to paid employment." Government patronage of the arts, which the New Deal programs initiated on a large scale, survives most significantly today in the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency established in 1965.

    Although throughout the twentieth century Native Americans continued their traditions of passing on craft skills from one generation to another, from 1900 the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs became involved in the preservation of Native American arts and crafts; "for the first time, the government-supported Indian program at the Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia, included training in beadwork, basketry, and pottery." Basketry became part of the curriculum at government schools, while quilting, although introduced by European Americans later became an expressive cultural form for Native Americans.

    Having lost much of their traditional lands through wars and acts of Congress, "most Indians were living in extreme poverty on marginal lands ... in a worse state psychologically, physically, and economically than they had ever been before." For many the 1920s were the nadir of Native American experience. In the early 1930s, in the harshest days of the Depression, the federal government looked sanguinely to the applied arts for the economic and social regeneration of Native Americans. Under the Treasury Department's Public Works of Art Project, a New Deal program established in 1933, Native American students of arts and crafts participated in the decoration of new schools, hospitals, and community centers for Native Americans. Although the government failed to develop a freestanding program specifically tailored to Native American conditions, Bureau of Indian Affairs policy during the New Deal recognized the cultural value and richness of Native American arts and crafts and redoubled its efforts to teach the crafts, looking somewhat overoptimistically to a craft revival in its schools. Many of today's younger Native American designers, such as Wendy Ponca, acquired their skills by combining cultural experience with formal craft training at a Native American high school and undergraduate and graduate study in American design schools (in Ponca's case, the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, Kansas City Art Institute, and Parsons School of Design, respectively).


Excerpted from Women Designers in the U.S.A, 1900-2000 by Pat Kirkham Copyright © 2002 by Pat Kirkham. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

PREFACE Pat Kirkham14
PROLOGUE: American Women in the Twentieth Century
CONTEXT LINE Complied by Pat Kirkham and Sara A. Lichtman25
1. Women Designers in the USA, 1900-2000: DIVERSITY AND
DIFFERENCE Pat Kirkham and Lynne Walker49
4. "Three Strikes Against Me": AFRICAN AMERICAN
WOMEN DESIGNERS Pat Kirkham and Shauna Stallworth123
5. "Wellpaying Self Support": WOMEN TEXTILE
DESIGNERS IN THE USA Mary Schoeser and Whitney Blausen145
6. Tradition and Transformation: WOMEN QUILT DESIGNERS
Jacqueline M. Atkins167
8. WOMEN JEWELRY DESIGNERS Toni Greenbaum and Pat Kirkham201
9. WOMEN METALSMITHS Jeannine Falino223
DESIGNERS Deborah Nadoolman Landis and Pat Kirkham247
Ella Howard and EricSetliff269
12. Women Furniture Makers: FROM DECORATIVE DESIGNERS TO
STUDIO MAKERS Edward S. Cooke Jr291
1900—1950 Pat Kirkham and Penny Sparke305
1950-2000 Judith B. Gura317
15. "Quietly Fine"/ Quietly Subversive: WOMEN
16. Colophon: WOMEN GRAPHIC DESIGNERS Ellen Lupton363

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