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Designing Women

Female designers finally get their due in an exhibition at New York's Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts.


In 1931, Belle Kogan, who had been the only female in her high school mechanical drawing class, opened her own New York City industrial design studio. Specializing in pewter and silver items, the talented Kogan became one of the first industrial designers in America to experiment with plastics and developed a client list that included Red Wing Pottery, Libbey Glass Co. and Dow Chemical Co.

Yet when she made a business trip to a Midwestern electrical appliance manufacturing company, her hosts were shocked. "The engineers decided they couldn't work with a woman," Kogan told a 1939 interviewer, recalling that the company's letter of invitation was addressed to Mr. Bell Kogan. "So I collected my fee of $200 plus expenses and left."

Kogan is one of 221 female designers--many of them pioneers-- whose work is represented in an ambitious exhibition opening Wednesday at New York City's Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts. The center is unveiling "Women Designers in the USA, 1900-2000: Diversity and Difference," a multifaceted exhibit tracing a century's progress of women in the world of design.

As other fields from Hollywood to space exploration have focused on the achievements of women, the center hopes to reclaim women from their generally marginalized role in the history of design and the decorative arts. "We hope it makes a national impact," said project director Pat Kirkham, a senior faculty member at Bard, who has been working on the project for three years.

During the last 100 years, women have produced work in every design field, with textiles, basketry and fashions among the most heralded. And though many of the women represented in the exhibition achieved fame--such as Eva Zeisel, Maria Martinez, Ray Eames, Edith Head and Anne Klein--many others remained obscure.

Today, women are making their marks across the board. The scope of contemporary work in the exhibition embraces Los Angeles designer April Greiman's film "Inventing Flight" (with Dale Herigstad) for the "Century of Flight Exposition" in Dayton, Ohio, Nancy Goslee Power's plans for the Norton Simon Museum Gardens, Jeannine Oppewall's production design for the movie "Pleasantville" and Deborah Sussman's graphics designs for the 1984 Olympics.

"This is the first major exhibition in the United States looking at women designers across the whole field," said Kirkham in an interview. Even before its opening, the exhibition is being lauded as a landmark accomplishment, although some surveys of female designers have been done in Europe.

"It's such a nice concept, I'm wishing we had thought of it," said Maggie Murray, director of museums and galleries at Los Angeles' Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. "In the minds of many people, women just appeared on the working scenes in the last 20 years, and that's not true. There were women pioneers blazing trails at the turn of the century."

"Knowing Pat Kirkham and the significant professionals she has gathered together, I think this will be one of the resources that curators from here on can utilize," said Jo Lauria, assistant curator of decorative arts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "If women aren't cited for what they did and what impact they had, they are lost to memory."

The acceptance of women has shifted and changed over the years, depending on what was deemed appropriate for them to do at any given time," according to Kirkham, an expert on design and gender who also edited the 460-page illustrated book for the exhibit.

Women began the century in occupations considered feminine such as embroidery and china decoration. And the few design patents issued to women early in the century were for domestic items such as meat or vegetables choppers, a kitchen bin and linoleum. And in 1942 when Harvard University admitted women to its Graduate School of Design, it was only "for the duration of the war," Kirkham noted.

"I guess one should not be surprised at how hard it was for women to make their way in the 1930s and '40s, but some of the stories of discrimination just took my breath away," said Kirkham.

The most dramatic change, she said, occurred after the 1970s. "That has to do with the women's movement and wider aspirations, and also the enormous impact of the Arts and Crafts revival, which gave a new validation to traditional women's work."

By the mid-1980s the fashion industry gender gap was being closed by such designers as Donna Karan and Liz Claiborne, and the field was energized by new ethnic diversity was Asian American designers Vivienne Tam, Josie Natori and Vera Wang.

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