Patterned Pathmakers

Dynamic women designers and artists from the mid-20th century and today create innovative designs, maintain craft traditions, and incorporate new aesthetics into fine art in Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today, now on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Each week, compare and draw parallels between works on view in Pathmakers and NMWA collection favorites.

On view in Pathmakers

Dorothy Liebes, Prototype Theatre Curtain for DuPont Pavilion

Liebes’s work in Pathmakers represents her skill in fusing natural and synthetic materials into colorful, cutting-edge textiles. Her innovative, custom-designed modern fabrics appealed to prominent architects and her mass-produced designs modernized the textile industry.

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Dorothy Liebes, Prototype theater curtain for DuPont Pavilion, New York World’s Fair, 1964; DuPont Orlon and Fairtex metallic yarn, 99 1/2 x 46 3/4 in.; Museum of Arts and Design; Gift of Dorothy Liebes Design, through the American Craft Council, 1973; Photo by Eva Heyd

Who made it?

Hailed as the “mother of modern weaving,” Dorothy Liebes (1897–1972) taught herself to weave on a small handloom while in college. She began designing textiles in the 1930s and became one of the first American artists to adapt her weaving techniques into mass production. After opening a studio in San Francisco in 1930, Liebes designed custom textiles for leading architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright.

Paving the way for women designers like Hella Jongerius, Liebes was commissioned to design textiles for the United Nations headquarters. The Museum of Modern Art regularly exhibited her work and she received the 1970 American Craft Council Gold Medal.

How was it made?

In the late 1940s and early ’50s, Liebes’s focus shifted from custom weaving to working with industry. She became known for her revolutionary combinations of natural and synthetic materials. Prototype Theatre Curtain for DuPont Pavilion was commissioned during her 20-year relationship with the DuPont chemical company. Liebes helped DuPont promote the image of manufactured fiber by making it look like a familiar natural material. The curtain in Pathmakers is exemplary of Liebes’s trademark combinations of color and industrial materials. A single panel of fabric, the work contains repeating vertical stripes in luminous shades of green and blue and shimmering strands of metallic thread. Through integrating unusual materials, such as sequins and nylon fibers, Liebes created bold, vibrant textiles.

Collection connection

Joana Vasconcelos, Viriato, 2005; Faience dog, handmade cotton crochet, 29 1/2 x 17 3/4 x 15 3/4 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

Joana Vasconcelos, Viriato, 2005; Faience dog, handmade cotton crochet, 29 1/2 x 17 3/4 x 15 3/4 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

In NMWA’s collection, Viriato by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos (b. 1971) also melds consumer culture with craft forms. Named after a first-century leader of Portugal, Viriato consists of a ceramic dog covered in an intricate crocheted cotton yarn—in shades similar to those found in Liebes’s curtain. Eye-catching and unconventional, the needlework obstructs the dog sculpture beneath.

Vasconcelos examines consumer culture through works that cross the boundary between “high” and “low” art. She often envelops everyday items in crocheted or knitted materials. Through integrating a mass-produced, decorative sculpture with traditional crochet, Vasconcelos reveals the conflict between handcrafted and manufactured.

Visit the museum and explore Pathmakers, on view through February 28, 2016.

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant 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.

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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.

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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!