The Emerging Designing Woman in Postwar America
In her 1963 manifesto of emergent feminism, The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan identifies the middle class housewife as the “chief customer” of American business, and theorized that it was women’s unmet need for intellectual stimulation, not avarice or keeping-up-with-the- Joneses, that was driving their eager consumerism. She dismisses domestic labor as a non-occupation, a routine of make-work that diverts women from meaningful engagement with the world. Friedan’s point of view assumes that the care of home and family exists in a kind of bizarro world of non-professional work, in which women’s intellect was all but wasted.
Friedan was clearly onto something with regard to domestic boredom and frustration, and for many American women, and indeed for their counterparts around the world, structural sexism in the middle decades of the 20th century capped their potential. (In 1963, women were barred from establishing credit or opening checking accounts without the permission of their fathers or husbands.)
A small group of enterprising women designers, however, saw the domestic sphere and its comforts as a paradoxical but enticing path into the wider world of culture and commerce. Some of the most widely admired design giants of the 20th century were married couples, such as the architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, or the industrial and graphic designers Massimo and Lella Vignelli.
In most cases, the designing husbands loomed large in the public eye, and the designing wives earned short shrift. In recent decades, design scholars present a more complex portrait of some of these working relationships as partnerships of coequals, in which the creativity, focus, business acumen and flair of each spouse contributed to an even greater aesthetic whole.
The most famous of these designing pairs was probably Charles and Ray Eames. In 1957, Charles and Ray appeared together on NBC’s Arlene Francis Home Show to present their iconic Lounge Chair. Introducing the pair, Francis makes no bones about who the star is: “Almost always when there’s a successful man,” she intones, “there is a very interesting and able woman behind him, and a better case could seldom be found than in Ray and Charles Eames.” She then invites “Mrs. Eames” out in front of the camera and asks her how she “helps Charles” design his chairs. Ray gamely replies that among “a million things,” her primary role is to keep “the big idea” of a project in her sights. Later in the clip, Charles makes an effort to position Ray as his equal, explaining to Francis that Ray studied painting in New York City with the abstract painter Hans Hoffmann—a detail which did nothing to steer Francis away from her notion that Ray was essentially Charles’s office helper.
Just over six decades later, designers and architects who happen to be women are so prominent and numerous that we increasingly focus on the substance and originality of their work, and pay less attention to the novelty of their femaleness. Women designers have forged ahead in their studios, shaping, texturing, and styling our surroundings. In the postwar period in the United States and Europe, women designers were a force to be reckoned with, from the design of everyday household goods to high fashion and architecture.
The ceramic designers Eva Zeisel and Edith Heath gave American homeowners modern, colorful
and durable china to set a modern table. Textile designers like Dorothy Liebes and Marianne Strengell made the bold patterns of modernism approachable and cheery for use in upholstery, window treatments and soft furnishings. Florence Knoll, both in partnership with her husband Hans Knoll, and on her own after his untimely death in 1955, directed The Knoll Planning Unit, where she ushered in the sleek look and feel of the corporate office interior as we know it today.
Today’s stars, like the Spanish-born, Italy-based Patricia Urquiola, Dutch designer Hella Jongerius, British designer Faye Toogood, or American designer and architect Jenny Sabin, are the inheritors of decades of increasing recognition for women’s originality and creativity. It may indeed have been true in 1957 that there was a “very interesting and able woman” behind every successful man, and one who keeps track, as Ray Eames said of “a million things.” But it is because mid-20th century designers like Ray and her contemporaries kept their eyes on “the big idea,” not letting sexism interfere with the work they could do in their imperfect historical moments, that today’s visionaries can let their big ideas speak for themselves—with or without an able and interesting man to help keep things organized