Political 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

Hella Jongerius, Polder Sofa XL, 2014

Hella Jongerius designs holistically, rather than adopting the “quantity over quality” mindset of many companies. Fusing industry with craft, high-tech with low-tech, and contemporary with traditional, Jongerius creates furniture, ceramics, and textiles. Among her works in Pathmakers is Polder Sofa XL—part of her redesign project for the United Nations Delgates’ Lounge.

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Hella Jongerius making the Knots & Beads Curtain for UN Delegates’ Lounge, 2014. Photo by Markus Jans, Courtesy of Jongeriuslab

Who made it?

Industrial designer Hella Jongerius (b. 1963) graduated from Design Academy Eindhoven (the Netherlands) and has worked with Vitra, IKEA, Cibone, and Nymphenburg Porcelain Manufactory. Following the path of midcentury designer Dorothy Liebes, Jongerius led a team to redesign the UN Delegates’ Lounge in 2013. Believing the desire for newness often leads to thoughtless consumption, Jongerius says, “just the skin can make the new design—that’s also why I find textiles interesting.”

Hella Jongerius (manufactured by Vitra), Polder Sofa XL, polyurethane foam, polyester, and textile, 30 x 1/2 x 115 1/4 x 39 1/2 in.; Photo by Frank Oudeman, courtesy of Vitra

Hella Jongerius (manufactured by Vitra), Polder Sofa XL, polyurethane foam, polyester, and textile, 30 x 1/2 x 115 1/4 x 39 1/2 in.; Photo by Frank Oudeman, courtesy of Vitra

How was it made?  

Jongerius and her team studied the space and preserved some of its iconic Scandinavian designs. With subdued, neutral-colored surroundings, Jongerius chose greens, blues, and reddish browns for the upholstery. Inspired by the horizontal Dutch landscape, the sofa takes its name from the Dutch word “polder”—land reclaimed from the sea. Manufactured by Vitra, Polder Sofa XL features rectangular cushions arranged to offset gaps. With subtle color variations, the cushions are made with high-tech thread and accented by large buttons made of natural materials. The sofa, with a 20,000-porcelain-bead curtain, privacy bubble desks, and rolling chairs, revitalized the lounge for quick, informal meetings between delegates.

Collection connection

In NMWA’s collection, Jackie (India), painted by Andrea Higgins in 2003, also integrates politics and textiles. Based on Jacqueline Kennedy’s iconic outfit worn during her 1961 trip to India, Jackie (India) looks like a magnified fabric swatch. To create this work, part of “The Presidents’ Wives” series, Higgins examined photographs, enlarged the textile, and mimicked the fabric’s stitches by layering painstaking, uniform brushstrokes.

Andrea Higgins, Jackie (India), 2003; Oil on canvas, 24 1/4 x 21 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington DC

Andrea Higgins, Jackie (India), 2003; Oil on canvas, 24 1/4 x 21 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington DC

Inspired by a trip to Indonesia in 1995, Higgins (b. 1970) saw Hindu women weaving stylish clothes in the hopes of attracting gods’ attention. Higgins compared the practice to high-profile first ladies crafting their public images through clothing. The patterns represent the women who wore them and also allude to the social and political climate of the times. Higgins says, “Fabrics are a fundamental aspect of the aesthetics of all societies. . . . My paintings are optical, abstract compositions and at the same time refer to the associations the individual viewer has to the particular fabric.”

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!