Blurring Boundaries: Contemporary Design

“Design has had one unwavering role as an agent of change” incorporating new developments—in science, technology, or culture—for the better, says Alice Rawsthorn, design critic for the international edition of the New York Times.

Gabriel Maher, Courtesy of Alwin Poiana

Gabriel Maher, Courtesy of Alwin Poiana

What kind of impact will the gender-queer design discussion continue to have? Can genderless design help move contemporary society and culture toward a more positive, welcoming, and safe environment?

genderless-bathroom1

Genderless bathroom sign

Today, genderless, gender-queer, and gender-fluid identities have an increasing presence in mainstream consciousness. The New York Times stated, “2015 was the year unisex became a trend in fashion”—citing Louis Vuitton’s latest women’s wear ad campaign featuring Jaden Smith as a key example. The article also declares, “gender definitions are as fluid as they have ever been,” but there are also increased “efforts to codify the new reality, be it on bathroom doors or in the language of institutions.”

On January 27, as part of the museum’s Women, Arts, and Social Change initiative, artist Gabriel Ann Maher and Alice Rawsthorn continue the discussion surrounding the question “Can design be genderless?”

Netherlands-based designer Gabriel Ann Maher is one of the contemporary artists represented in the special exhibition Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today, on view at the museum through February 28. Maher will discuss fluid gender identity as an artistic subject. Maher’s video work DE___SIGN examines the ways in which design shapes concepts of “male” and “female” and reveals how gestures, movements, and positions can imply gender norms.

Alice Rawsthorn, Courtesy of The New York Times Company

Alice Rawsthorn, Courtesy of The New York Times Company

Rawsthorn joins Maher for a presentation and discussion. Of Maher’s work, Rawsthorn says, “At a time of renewed interest in feminism and growing awareness of transgenderism, designers are striving to imbue products, graphics, environments and technology with subtler, more eclectic interpretations of gender both in commercial projects and conceptual ones like Maher’s.”

FRESH TALK: Can design be genderless? considers these questions and more on January 27. Attend the event in person or tune in remotely for the live-stream video feed. You can also add your voice on Twitter by using the hashtag #FreshTalk4Change.

—Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell is the public programs coordinator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Now Open: Women Shape Design in “Pathmakers”

NMWA’s latest exhibition, Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today, is now open! Museum staff have been busy transforming the 2nd-floor galleries to display more than 80 objects including furniture, ceramics, textiles and jewelry. The exhibition explores the lasting impact of women artists and designers on midcentury Modernism through making groundbreaking commercial and industrial designs, maintaining craft traditions, and incorporating new aesthetics into fine art.

Pathmakers-1

Guest curator Jennifer Scanlan talks to members during Member Preview Day

In the 1950s and ’60s, an era when painting, sculpture, and architecture were dominated by men, women had considerable impact in alternative materials such as textiles, ceramics, and metals. Pioneers in these fields—including Ruth Asawa, Edith Heath, Sheila Hicks, Karen Karnes, Dorothy Liebes, Alice Kagawa Parrott, Lenore Tawney, and Eva Zeisel—had tremendous influence as designers, artists, and teachers.

Visitors explore prints by Anni Albers and a textile work by Marianne Strengell

Visitors explore prints by Anni Albers and a textile work by Marianne Strengell

Their artistic practices varied widely—some exhibited in New York City galleries, others took part in the regional handicraft scene in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and still others collaborated with corporations such as General Motors. Pathmakers also illustrates parallels between women creating work in the United States and Scandinavia, where craft often served as a pathway to Modernist innovation.

Guest curators Jennifer Scanlan and Ezra Shales also consider contemporary female artists and designers whose work builds upon that of their midcentury counterparts. Polly Apfelbaum and Michelle Grabner are represented by installations centered on woven and knitted patterns, while Anne Wilson’s work focuses on the processes of textile manufacture. Magdalene Odundo and Christine Nofchissey McHorse adapt traditional techniques and absorb influences from global sources. Furniture and fixture designers Vivian Beer, Front Design, and Hella Jongerius have also expanded the repertoire of making, while Gabriel A. Maher looks at the ways gender is constructed by the clothes we wear.

Pathmakers 2

A visitor studies Front’s Axor WaterDream/Axor Shower System

Pathmakers stresses the connections between midcentury and contemporary design and aesthetics,” said NMWA Associate Curator Virginia Treanor. “The installation will encourage the comparison of the modern and contemporary periods in a way that enables close inspection.”

Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today is on view through February 28, 2016. Visit this Sunday for a Free Community Day with a pop-up makerspace and enjoy noon gallery talks every Wednesday!