Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Saul Bass, Dieter Rams, Jony Ive. It doesn’t take a genius to note that the design stars of the past century have been mostly men. Here to give female designers their due is MoMA’s Designing Modern Women, 1890-1990, which runs until October. Culled entirely from the museum’s permanent collections, it celebrates the most prominent women of late 19th- and 20th-century-design, from dance pioneer Loïe Fuller to furniture designer Eileen Gray to graphic-design great April Greiman.
Take a closer look at the exhibit, and its celebratory nature becomes complicated. Ray Eames’s work can’t be shown without her husband’s work; Charlotte Perriand’s work is impossible to discuss without talking about Le Corbusier. As Ken Johnson writes in The New York Times, “fascinating questions arise. Are women naturally prone to collaborate, or have they tended to partner up to get ahead in a male-dominated profession that has a limited view of their creative capabilities?”
For ages, women’s role in the arts was relegated to “muse.” Even in an exhibit intended to promote work by women, or women’s influence on 20th-century design, that notion remains. Whether for a Le Corbusier post-war American kitchen, a clothing line, or last year’s much talked about film about a young lesbian relationship, women still serve as the inspiration for creative men.
There are still noteworthy triumphs in the exhibit, like the credit for the humble paper bag design, which, after a disputed history, goes to Margaret E. Knight. A photograph of Patti Smith might have been technically created by a man (Robert Mapplethorpe), but it showcases a woman who designed, directed, and was very much in control of her self-image.
Designing Modern Women, 1890-1990 runs until October 1, 2014, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.