Looking back: revisionist takes and historical erasures
In the early decades of the 21st century, the design discipline and its apparatus – museums, schools, exhibitions and events – have displayed a renewed interest in the role of women as part of the discipline. This has contributed to make amends with one of the many lacking aspects in the discipline’s history: the systematic erasure of womens’ presences. This series of essays argues that, for women in design, the newfound place under the spotlight should be less a cause for celebration than an opportunity to bring about systemic, and much needed transformation.Taking advantage of this historical moment, this kind of change can go beyond surface level, significantly impacting the design world and system, and bringing with it outcomes that will benefit not only women, but all those who fight for visibility and equality within the discipline itself.
Within the work that I have developed as part of the curatorial initiative Foreign Legion (co-founded with Matylda Krzykowski in 2018), the 2019 symposium A Woman’s Work was a useful arena where to first reflect on these issues. Held in Dresden in the context of the exhibition Against Invisibility – Designers of the German Workshops Hellerau 1898–1938 (Gegen die Unsichtbarkeit – Designerinnen der Deutschen Werkstätte Hellerau 1898–1938), the symposium looked at the historical material that was presented in the exhibition as a starting point. Against Invisibility presented necessary and important research work around the women designers that were allowed to study and practice as designers in the German Workshops Hellerau, a pedagogical enterprise that preceded the foundation of the Bauhaus and was welcoming to women, treating them as men in their studies and even allowing them to work in product design in the early years of the workshops.
Curated by Klara Nemeckova, the exhibition addressed the lack of representation of female designers in the documentation of the German Workshops Hellerau in its formative years, and presented the forgotten lives and works of eighteen prolific designers in the early 20th century. The research work led by Nemeckova made visible the tragic – and very mundane ways – in which these women designers fell out of history. The example of the German Workshops Hellerau can be applied to many other contexts around the world. Why, we asked at the time, were (these) women written out of history? When looking at how archives, historical records and museum databases work, it becomes clear that women’s work was archived incorrectly. For example, oftentimes attributions were cited using only a last name, and in the case of a couple working together, attribution was automatically given to the male partner. Or for example, if a woman changed her last name after successive marriages, her work can be incorrectly attributed and the links between works developed at different stages of her life lost. Similarly, women themselves have not, traditionally, written themselves into history, nor have others told their stories, effectively including them into historical accounts. Looking at canonical accounts of design history, such as Philipp B. Meggs’ seminal History of Graphic Design, author Briar Levit notes how “he mentions 15 women designers and reproduces work of only nine of them.”1. Briar Levit, “The History Books Often Overlook Women in Design. A New One Seeks to Finally Give Them Their Due,” in AIGA Eye on Design, October 27, 2021. https://eyeondesign.aiga.org/design-historians-often-overlooked-women-in-graphic-design-new-platforms-are-giving-them-their-due/ Pair this with a series of institutional failings around maintaining, exhibiting, acquiring and restoring the estates of women in design, and you have a perfect storm for systemic erasure.
It is easy to list the ways in which such an erasure might be amended in the future, namely ensuring that institutions engage in diligent research, revise false attributions, and actively purchase and display pieces by female designers. But while this points to a future where design history becomes more inclusive, it ignores the massive retroactive work that must be done at all levels – when most museum databases don’t even have a “gender” checkbox, how can we even begin thinking about sorting and locating women’s contributions to the discipline? Institutional change is, of course, at the crux of the matter, but not only in museums – schools, practice, and media, are all important parts of this transformation. During A Women’s Work,2. Libby Sellers, Women Design: Pioneers in architecture, industrial, graphic and digital design from the twentieth century to the present day, Frances Lincoln, 2021. curator and author Libby Sellers, author of Women Design, reminded us that “obviously, there were women practicing design, but it wasn’t really encouraged in institutions until the 1910s or the 1920s.” With a lack of representation and of role models, it was clear that even women who studied design up until the late 20th century could not see themselves represented in design practice, save for rare exceptions, such as Eileen Gray or Ray Eames. The latter, however, worked in collaboration with her husband, and like many other women working in the same way, often took a step back when it came to owning the spotlight.
The problem is also a theoretical one. The canonical works, such as Meggs’ previously mentioned History, hardly include women – but they were also mostly written by men. How many texts by and about women have you read in design school? How many made it to the syllabus? The way in which design history has been shaped by an infatuation with modernism has also contributed to prioritizing architecture, industrial and graphic design as the most important facets of design. In this way, if women historically were not given access to these fields of study, as per Bauhaus tradition,3. Women were famously directed to the textile and ceramics workshops at the Bauhaus, even when many of them aimed to study other disciplines, such as architecture. Some historical accounts point to the fact that the (male) establishment of the time, including Bauhaus director Walter Gropius, were allegedly under the impression that women could not think in three dimensions, their brains working differently and capable of different (read: less complex) things. their work was not documented. Or, if women did navigate these fields, competition was fierce, and their priority wasn’t to inscribe themselves into history. This does not exclude a successful career nor a prolific body of work; it merely signifies an erasure from historical records.
A relevant example lies in the work of Eleonore Peduzzi Riva, who, born in Switzerland, moved to Milan in 1956 to study at the Politecnico. There, she found a fertile environment in postwar Italy, where things could bloom, as she points out: “Lo spirito della ricostruzione era palpabile e contagioso. C’era una grande vitalità e disponibilità a incontrarsi e a immaginare di creare insieme cose nuove. Tutto sembrava essere a portata di mano, e se si aveva un’idea non era troppo difficile trovare il modo di realizzarla.”4. Eleonore Peduzzi Riva, “Il design come conseguenza di interazioni multiple: Francesca Picchi in conversazione con Eleonore Peduzzi Riva, 28 dicembre 2022”, in Schweizer Grand Prix Design 2023, Bundesamt für Kultur, 2023. After her studies, she started an office with her engineer husband, and went on to work for many years with the iconic Italian design manufacturers of the postwar, developing among others the Senza Fine sofa for Zanotta, the Vacuna lamp for Artemide, and the DS600 modular sofa for DeSede. Later on, she was the right hand of Maddalena de Padova for over thirty years. At De Padova, she served as consultant, strategist and art director, effectively shaping the brand and its collaborations. Through her most active years, her work appeared in the pages of specialized magazines, and she was even quoted in The New York Times in their Milan Furniture Fair reviews.5. See, for example, Suzanne Slesin, “Women and Design in Milan”, The New York Times, 15 January 1981; and “The Milan Furniture Fair: Comfortable Classics”,The New York Times, 27 September 1979. After this, her work was all but forgotten, and was only recently rediscovered and distinguished with prizes and media attention.
This series of events is repeated in many other contexts and impacts the careers and recognition of countless other female designers, in a pattern that becomes, sadly, too recognizable. In the case of Swiss graphic designer Rosmarie Tissi, her studies were followed by an apprenticeship with graphic designer Siegfried Odermatt in 1958, with whom she later founded the studio Odermatt & Tissi. Maintaining a partnership while working separately in independent commissions, Tissi went on to become one of the most important female graphic designers of the 20th century. She is mostly known for her strong poster work, but also designed banknotes, visual identities and typefaces, to name a few. She became a member of professional associations such as the AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale), and describes the resistance she faced from older, conservative members. And despite her important work, she lived most of her career in the shadow of Odermatt. Like Peduzzi Riva, Tissi is also fiercely independent and determined to pursue a career on her own terms. Theirs are paths that evince some interesting parallels: both shaped an independent and multilayered path, interacted with important historical periods and generations of designers, and while the first was not actively interested in being inscribed into history, the latter took it upon herself to publish a book that compiles and disseminates her work6. Rosmarie Tissi, Rosmarie Tissi: Graphic Design, Triest Verlag, 2019. It is worthy to mention that the book is currently out of print and despite great interest from the public, no second edition is planned to date. – thus making space for her work, something that had been denied to her during her whole career.
While the stories of Peduzzi Riva and Tissi also speak of a certain moment in design history, namely the postwar years, it is true that design has changed in the 1970s and 1980s, and since then the conversation has broadened. However, it is still rare to find women patrons in design, heading companies or large studios, teaching in design schools. And the issues of visibility and representation remain, even if revisionism starts to become more and more common, contributing to an expanded history of design. In the last decade, multiple books, exhibitions, course have contributed to actively change the discourse around this theme, but no significant changes have come to the surface when it comes to funding policies for research and revisionist takes on history, collection-building and reorganizing in significant design museums, hiring practices in higher education pushing for more women in design education. This means that the ways in which, historically, women have been made invisible are still very much in place. And to tackle those, it will take more than just a few years.
Libby Sellers, Women Design: Pioneers in architecture, industrial, graphic and digital design from the twentieth century to the present day, Frances Lincoln, 2021
Elizabeth Otto, Haunted Bauhaus: Occult Spirituality, Gender Fluidity, Queer Identities, and Radical Politics, The MIT Press, 2019
Briar Levit (ed.), Baseline Shift: Untold Stories of Women in Graphic Design History, Princeton Architectural Press, 2021
Beyerle and Nemeckova 2019
Tulga Beyerle, Klara Nemeckova (eds.), Gegen die Unsichtbarkeit – Designerinnen der Deutschen Werkstätte Hellerau 1898–1938, Hirmer Verlag, 2019.
Rosmarie Tissi, Rosmarie Tissi: Graphic Design, Triest Verlag, 2019
Vera Sacchetti (Lisbon, 1983) is a Basel-based design critic and curator specializing in contemporary design and architecture. She co-founded Foreign Legion with Matylda Krzykowski, a curatorial initiative that has focused on the invisibility of women and minorities in historical and contemporary design. Other themes in her work include sustainability, democracy, and postcolonial futures. Sacchetti teaches at HEAD Geneva, and in 2020 joined the Federal Design Commission of Switzerland.