Dezeen Magazine

"Women were unwelcome in architecture, but male architects couldn't live without them"

Opinion: an exhibition at New York's Museum of Arts and Design about women's role in postwar Modernism highlights the uneasy gender imbalance between craft and industrial design, says Alexandra Lange.

The journalists, artists and curators at the press preview for the Museum of Arts and Design's new exhibition, Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft and Design, Mid-century and Today, were about 90 per cent female – an unusually high percentage, according to the museum's publicist.

But the imbalance seemed about right, in that it reflected the continuing, uneasy, and gendered relationship between people who make things out of yarn, clay or cloth and people who make things out of glass, steel or plastic. The editors of a few blogs seemed unsure whether the contents of the show – four hanging woven-wire sculptures by Ruth Asawa, screen-printed geometric textile designs by Anni Albers, a test panel for the gold-embroidered tapestries for the Ford Foundation by Sheila Hicks, along with work by 39 other artists – even counted as "design" for their purposes.

"In the 1950s and 1960s, an era when painting, sculpture and architecture were dominated by men, women had extensive impact in alternative materials such as textiles, ceramics and metals," reads the wall text.

Starting with the Bauhaus weaving workshop, eventually led by the supremely talented Gunta Stolzl, modern women with visual talent were shunted into creative professions closer to traditional women's work, and many of them found what they made then treated as lesser-than. Half of MAD's collection is work by women, and with this exhibit, curated by Jennifer Scanlan and Ezra Shales, the museum hopes to expand ideas about who, and what, constitutes mid-century design.

The problem of terminology has bedeviled this work from the start. When the Museum of Modern Art first showed fibre art in the 1969 show Wall Hangings, artist Louise Bourgeois wrote, in the magazine Craft Horizons, "the pieces in the show rarely liberate themselves from decoration." Fear of fibre, it seems, lives on.

The irony is that, while women were largely unwelcome in architecture and industrial design as practitioners, male architects and manufacturers found they couldn't live without them. Most of the highlighted mid-century designers worked with architects to bring nature, texture and colour to their hard-edged spaces, and several worked with manufacturers as designers and translators – for publicity purposes – of new styles and materials for a mass audience.

I do wish the exhibit had included photographs of more of the architecturally-scaled works by the featured artists. (At home, you can use Google.) Beyond Hicks there's also ceramicist Edith Heath, whose company made tiles for Roche Dinkeloo's Ford Foundation and Eero Saarinen's Deere & Co. Headquarters; longtime Cranbrook teacher Maija Grotell, whose experiments with enamel glazes can be seen on the Technicolor end walls at Saarinen's General Motors Technical Center; and Finnish ceramicist Rut Bryk, who created a monumental map-like bas relief for Helsinki City Hall.

It wasn't only women whose work was used by architects in this manner. I would argue that Harry Bertoia and Alexander Girard's work provided the same touch of the hand in buildings like the Tech Center cafeteria, or corporate installations for Hallmark and Cummins.

In his New Yorker review of SOM's Manufacturers Hanover Trust, Lewis Mumford noted, of Bertoia's room-spanning bronze screen: "Though [Bertoia's screen] is purely abstract, making no effort at symbolic significance, it humanises these quarters even more effectively than living plants, mainly because it suggests something frail, incomplete, yet unexpected and defiant of rational statement, and thus lovable, a note that is not audible in most of the representative architectural expressions of our time."

Dorothy Liebes, represented at MAD by a series of eye-popping samples (pink and red, pink and purple, orange and chartreuse) and a prototype for the turquoise and gold synthetic theatre curtain she designed for the DuPont Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair, also made room-dividing screens for the United Nations Delegates Lounge in "United Nations blue," cream, silver and copper.

"The screens were vertically flexible and attached to a metal track," writes historian Alexa Griffith Winton in a text to be published in the Journal of Modern American Craft, "enabling them to be pulled open to create up to four small, private 'room' within the open plan interior."

In the Today section of Pathmakers, MAD is exhibiting Hella Jongerius's present-day curtain for the UN Delegates Lounge, of hand-knotted yarn and ceramic beads in cream-on-cream. It's hard not to be nostalgic for the bolder combinations of yesteryear.

Liebes, who began as a high-end designer of custom textiles, also worked with Henry Dreyfuss, Frank Lloyd Wright and Edward Durell Stone on interiors, but also with manufacturers like DuPont and Dow to think of creative ways to use the new synthetic and metal fibres they were developing.

Her collections of wallpapers, sold with her signature as Liebes Weaves, allowed middle-class homeowners to buy a little of her style and established her as someone whose taste consumers could trust. In a sense, Liebes became an industrial designer despite the industry, coming up through craft and not worrying about the difference between craft, design and art.

Two artists appear in both Pathmakers and America Is Hard to See, the inaugural exhibition at Renzo Piano Building Workshop's new Whitney Museum downtown. It's instructive to see how they are presented differently in each venue.

At MAD, Ruth Asawa takes centre stage: four of her woven-wire sculptures greet the visitor at the entrance of the show, dramatically lit to cast sea-creature-like shadows on the floor and wall. Asawa was a Japanese-American artist who picked up the idea of weaving with metal thread from Mexican basket makers, and subsequently studied at Black Mountain College. Though such sculptures have sold, posthumously, for millions, initial reception was mixed.

In 1956, ArtNews wrote, "these are 'domestic' sculptures in a feminine handiwork mode." And yet, the Whitney Museum showed Asawa in a biennial before they used that term, and acquired a piece soon after. Number 1- 1955 is on view in their new building, but very much sidelined: it is hung in front of a window, so it casts no shadows and is easily ignored in favour of the skyline view.

Meanwhile Eva Hesse, an artist who also worked in fibre, among other materials, and was highly aware of the medium's connotations with femininity and softness, has a large piece in the Whitney's minimalist gallery, a spidery corner installation set off by the sharp edges of most of its neighbours.

MAD has Hesse too, a tiny little gridded study of grey cord on a square. It's there to point toward the other, larger work that earned her a place in the art pantheon. Perhaps, in Bourgeois' definition of art as work that "makes great demand on the onlooker" it rates higher, but keeping company with Mary Walker Phillips and Leonore Tawney certainly adds a different shading to interpretations of Hesse's handmade and hanging work.

Pieces like Phillips' 1966 Rocks and Rills, knitted from linen thread and a handful of beach pebbles, are looser and more diaphanous than architecture, but show no less understanding of structure and material experimentation. The space they occupy is often more ephemeral, as screens, curtains and hangings can both act like walls and be swept away. Among the elements that elevates them above everyday crafts is the sense of experiment, with material as well as technique.

As Phillips' 2007 obituary in the New York Times pointed out, "what sprang from [her needles] was like no knitting ever seen. Using techniques that went beyond traditional knit and purl stitches, she created pieces that looked like delicate tapestries or vast expanses of lace, with transparent latticework, open areas and whorled textural patterns. Hung away from the wall and lighted well, her work threw off a dramatic counterpoint of shadows."

Today craft seems to be heading in two directions simultaneously. Handicraft has never been more popular among women – it seems like every third person on Instagram has bought a handloom to ape Hicks or Maryanne Moodie, while companies like Wool and the Gang give you the option of ready-made or knit-your-own trendy, chunky apparel.

There is a renewed interest in personal making that has been nourished by social networks and is now being reabsorbed by mainstream consumer culture, without the politics and made by who-knows-whose hand. Urban Outfitters, which once sold an Anni Albers washer necklace kit, now sells the Magical Thinking Macrame Wall Hanging.

On the flip side, there's the emergence of technological craft, with which architects seem to feel more comfortable and which does turn up on design sites like this one. (The computer defeminises everything.) Here again screens of various types provide a bridge between the hard and the flexible, the wall and the textile.

Petra Blaisse's contributions to many OMA projects (the carpets at the Seattle Public Library, for example) are machine-made textiles that, like Bertoia screens, humanise spaces as a form of permanent nature. The openwork pattern on her curtains for Machado and Silvetti's Chazen Museum nods to the sheers and geometries popular in mid-century designs.

Danish architect Mette Ramsgard Thomsen calls her work "digital crafting," and her 2012 Shadow Play installation demonstrates another way to introduce softness and hanging into built space. In that piece, long curls of pine veneer were bent into loops, connected with copper wire, and sandwiched between two pieces of glass in a storefront. The effect was like a carved screen, but lighter, and far less effort. It could be included in a new MoMA exhibition called Wall Hanging, one far more antiseptic than its 1969 predecessor.

I'll freely admit my preference for the wilder shores of the handmade, irregular and a little too bright. Even if Louise Bourgeois didn't find it challenging enough on first encounter, the continuing gender politics around craft, as well as the difficulty around the classification of the work of people like Albers, Asawa, Bryk, Hicks, Tawney and Phillips, reveal a spikiness that continues to command attention.

Photograph of Lenore Tawney in her Coenties Slip studio, New York, 1958, by David Attie. Image courtesy of the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation.

Alexandra Lange is a New York-based architecture and design critic. She was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard's Graduate School of Design for academic year 2013-2014 and is the author of Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities as well as the e-book The Dot-Com City: Silicon Valley Urbanism