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?

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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.

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.

Purposeful 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

Ruth Asawa, Untitled (S.407), ca. 1952

A hanging sculpture by Asawa is on view at NMWA, similar to the work that the artist holds in this photograph by her close friend Imogen Cunningham. Made of crocheted copper wire, the work in Pathmakers hangs from above. Asawa’s technique emphasizes the sculpture’s intertwining lines, organic-inspired forms, and transparency.

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Imogen Cunningham, Ruth Holding a Form-Within-Form Sculpture, 1952; © 2015 Imogen Cunningham Trust; © Estate of Ruth Asawa

Who made it?

American artist Ruth Asawa (1926–2013) is renowned for her crocheted-wire sculptures, her public art commissions, and her advocacy for the arts. She was born in Norwalk, in Southern California, and was interned during World War II along with her Japanese-American family. Her interest in art grew during that time, as she learned from Japanese-American artists who were also interned. After her education and her move to San Francisco, she became an advocate for arts education—she helped found the San Francisco School of the Arts, which is now named after her.

How was it made?

After World War II, Asawa attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she met Josef and Anni Albers. Josef Albers encouraged Asawa to experiment with non-traditional materials and artistic processes. Asawa learned the basic technique for these sculptures on a trip to Toluca, Mexico, in 1947, from villagers who crocheted wire baskets. She had a long fascination with hourglass forms—as a young girl in California, she used her feet to draw similar shapes in the sand while riding on the back of her family’s farm equipment. Asawa created a large body of crocheted-wire sculptures, mainly during the 1950s. Some of these works are long and slender, while others are bulbous, and many have layers—“forms-within-forms”—like the one pictured in Cunningham’s photograph.

Collection connection

Frida Baranek, Untitled, 1991; Iron, 44 x 75 x 46 in.; Museum purchase: The Lois Pollard Price Acquisition Fund

Frida Baranek, Untitled, 1991; Iron, 44 x 75 x 46 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; Museum purchase: The Lois Pollard Price Acquisition Fund

In NMWA’s collection, an untitled sculpture by Frida Baranek, created in 1991, also evokes organic forms through an innovative use of metal. In Baranek’s work, a wheel-shape tangle of iron wires is bisected by heavy iron rods, and these weighty materials form a piece that calls to mind a tumbleweed, nest, or bramble.

Baranek, born in Rio de Janeiro in 1961, studied industrial design in London and now lives and works in Brazil and New York. She is part of a generation of sculptors using industrial materials in surprising ways, and the sculpture in NMWA’s collection is characteristic of her use of metal. Her pieces juxtapose chaos and order, are both airy and weighty, and invite viewers to marvel at familiar materials.

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

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.