Commercial design is driven mainly by the marketplace: products, no matter how artful, are made for customers. In 1900 San Francisco was the state?s demographic and financial center with a population of 342,782 (New York City?s population was 3.5 million). Since the Bay Area was too small a market to support local industrial production housewares were often bought by mail order and luxuries were shipped in from China, Japan and Europe. However, two dramatic events led to market booms which allowed women to flourish as designers and entrepreneurs: the devastation of the1906 San Francisco earthquake and, much later, the economic — and social — upheaval brought about by World War II.
CALIFORNIA?S DESIGNING WOMEN: CREATING THE ART OF THE EVERYDAY 1896-1986
This unprecedented series tells the story of how women in California have made- and continue to make- major contributions to design in America. From the earliest known commercial products by a woman in California - posters by Florence Lundberg of San Francisco in 1896- to Mid-century Modern textiles by Ray Eames, to the first commercially-printed computer-aided graphic, by April Greiman in Los Angeles in 1986, California women have helped shape the look of everyday life in the twentieth century, but their work was often uncredited and unacknowledged. Our aim is to recognize the ground-breaking contribution these women have made to American design.
The powerful earthquake and ensuing conflagration that destroyed much of San Francisco created unexpected opportunities for women designers. After the catastrophe, thousands of housing units had to be replaced, as well as their contents.
The upheaval of the Second World War not only improved the position of women in America, but also allowed them to flourish as designers and entrepreneurs, especially in California. It was there that the arrival of almost three million people between 1942 and 1950 — for work in war-related industries and the subsequent boom — produced an unprecedented market for housewares.
Muriel Coleman and Dorothy Schindele created modern furniture from surplus stocks of metal rods and tubes bent, cut and welded together to form the exposed frames of chairs, desks and shelving, while Greta Magnusson Grossman added the warmth of wood in her Mid-century Modern furniture
In 1957 Ruth Handler began the development of Barbie, envisioning an adult doll that would appeal to a young girl?s desire to become an independent woman. The designers at Mattel balked: Handler thought that ?they were all horrified by the thought of ? [making] a doll with breasts.? Nonetheless, Barbie went on to become the world?s best-selling toy for several decades — 15 million were sold in 2011 alone — and Barbie became the most universally distributed example of California design.
As we proceed toward the 1970s and 80s we highlight designers of?such cutting edge products as Styrofoam surfboards (Cher Pendarvis) and acrylic jewelry (Judith Hendler).?And we close our story with two of the most important developments in graphic design: ?the popularization of super-graphics (Deborah Sussman) and the proliferation of computer-aided graphics (inspired by the pioneering work of April Greiman).
The designers interviewed will include?Marilyn Austin, Renee Firestone, April Greiman Judith Hendler, Ester Hernandez, Nancy Hom, Gere Kavanaugh, Cher Pendarvis, Barbara Stauffacher Solomon,
?and Deborah Sussman. Design experts featured include?Pat Kirkham, Professor of Design History;?Frances Anderton, design and architecture journalist; and Margaret Bach, interior designer.
This open-ended docuseries, with episodes directed by prominent women directors, will bring our story up to the present and into the future.
Ray Eames was born in Sacramento, California, in 1912. In 1929, Ray and her mother moved to New York where Ray studied painting with abstract expressionist Hans Hoffman at the Art Students League. In 1940 she enrolled in the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where she soon became part of the team collaborating on designs by Charles Eames, the head of the Industrial Design Department, and the aspiring architect/designer Eero Saarinen. Ray and Charles were married in 1941 and moved to Los Angeles where she both collaborated with Charles and worked on her own, mainly creating printed textiles and graphic designs (notably covers for Arts & Architecture Magazine).
?The idea of the supergraphics was not that it was just bigger, but that it was bigger than the architecture?as though it had flown over the architecture. And much of the pioneering work [in supergraphics] was done by women in California.?
Deborah Sussman was born in Brooklyn in 1931. She attended Black Mountain College, Bard College and the Institute of Design in Chicago where she specialized in graphic design. In 1953 Charles Eames invited her to join the Eames Office in Santa Monica where she worked on exhibits for IBM, the government of India and the Ford Foundation. In 1957 she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Germany. In 1968 she started her own practice and it was around this time that her work popularized the use of supergraphics, bold motifs integrated into the architecture of indoor and outdoor spaces. The look of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics was defined by Sussman?s playful graphic identity and directional signage. She continued to impact the way people experience places through her more recent work on ?Grand Park? in downtown Los Angeles.
?My husband introduced me to the acrylic: his best friend made windows for airplanes and this created a lot of scrap?so I started making jewelry?it was sort of pioneering?that was before the words recycling and repurposing were in fashion.?
Los Angeles-born artist/designer Judith Hendler had been working with other materials when, ?in about 1977, her future husband Herb Ritts Sr., introduced her to Lucite. Ritts produced furnishings made of surplus Lucite from aircraft construction to accent the furniture that he manufactured for his Los Angeles store and Judith saw its potential for jewelry. Not long after she began making Lucite jewelry in the late 1970s she founded Acri-Gems, Inc. and soon her products were being sold nation-wide in such stores as Bonwit Teller, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale?s and I. Magnin. And in the 1980s her jewelry was worn on several television programs, notably by Joan Collins on ?Dynasty,? one of the top-rated shows at that time.
?I wanted to make clothes. I wasn?t going to look for a rich guy. I was going to go back to school and have a career, and make money myself.?
Greta Magnusson Grossman was already a successful designer of furniture and housewares in her native Sweden when she and her American husband came to Los Angeles in 1942. She went on to incorporate her Scandinavian aesthetic into the mid-century idiom while designing furniture for Glenn of California and lighting for the Ralph O. Smith Manufacturing Company among others.
Edith Kiertzner Heath was born to Danish immigrant parents in Ida Grove, Iowa.
She graduated from Chicago?s Normal College in 1934 while also studying at the Chicago Art Institute and later at the California School of Fine Arts. Starting as a studio potter, she had her first exhibition in 1944 at the Museum of the Palace of the Legion of Honor. She and her husband Brian operated Heath Ceramics in Sausalito, California, from 1949 until 2003, producing distinctive stoneware designs that made her one of America?s preeminent designers of dinnerware and architectural tiles. Her work is in the collections of numerous museums including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of California Design and the Dallas Museum of Art.
?When I came here to California, it was completely different- absolutely completely different. You could do anything you wanted to out here. You just did it! But, you had to be responsible for it, and you had to make it work.? When asked, “What do you like to design?” she replied, “Anything I can get my hands on.”
Gere Kavanaugh, a prolific designer originally from Memphis, Tennessee, has lived and worked in Southern California for most of her professional life. She received a Master?s Degree in design from Cranbrook Academy of Art where she was the only female student in her graduating class. She then worked for General Motors on the interiors of the company?s Tech Center following which she came to Los Angeles to work with the architect Victor Gruen. In 1974 she started her own design firm, Gere Kavanaugh/Design, a multidisciplinary office creating environmental design, interior design, graphic design and new product development. Kavanaugh has designed furniture, dinnerware, lighting, textiles and wallpaper and the interiors of galleries and stores. In the mid-1970s she established Geraldine Fabrics. She has taught at Southern California Institute of Architecture, Otis College of Art and Design and Art Center College of Design.
?In college I built surfboards to work my way through school? I was the only woman at the surfboard factory.?
??they [the male designers] were all horrified by the thought of?[making] a doll with breasts.?
In 1957 Ruth began the development of Barbie, envisioning an adult doll that would appeal to a young girl?s desire to become an independent woman. Ruth Moskowicz Handler was born in Denver to Russian Jewish immigrants. In 1938 she and her husband, Elliot Handler, moved to Los Angeles. Wartime restrictions cut off supplies he used to make acrylic furniture, but after the war the couple?s company Mattel Inc. initially flourished with the sale of 11 million plastic ukuleles. Barbie went on to become the world?s best-selling toy for several decades– 15 million were sold in 2011 alone and the most universally distributed example of California design.
“Sometimes, when I’m very obsessive, nothing can stop me.”
Evelyn Ackerman came to Los Angeles from Detroit with her husband Jerome in 1952. Their company, ERA Industries, produced home furnishings in a modern aesthetic that made them part of Mid-Century Modern California Living. Evelyn reinvigorated the crafts of mosaic and tapestry, creating wall hangings, mosaics for tabletops and architectural facades. Between 1959 and 1971 her work was included in seven of the California Design shows at the Pasadena Museum of Art and in the last California Design Show at the Pacific Design Center in 1976.
?I liked getting into the Web environment because you really had a space and you could move things in space or access information spatially?I never talked to a client about a ?home page??It was like a ?home space?.?
?In the middle of the grape fields there was the Sun Maid logo. I saw it and it just clicked: I was going to unmask that image.?
?I was a California designer. I mean, all my ideas really came from California- from the nature of California, from the lifestyle of California- definitely.?
?I?m not a designer. I?m a revolutionary!?
In creating this series we are drawing upon the three years of research that led to the ground-breaking Museum of California Design exhibition?California?s Designing Women: 1896-1986? — and to the book of the same name — by Bill Stern. Our project is enriched by the original scholarship they were based on. The original footage that we will create for the series will be augmented by lively interviews with a number of designers that were conducted by the Autry Museum when?California?s Designing Women: 1896-1986?was shown there. And our Team includes design experts Pat Kirkham, Professor of Design History; Margaret Bach, interior designer; Barbara Bestor, founding Principal of Bestor Architecture: Judie Rosenman, veteran television producer: Sheila Tepper, radio arts producer and design activist. [[MORE NAMES HERE]] Our vision is to create an ongoing docuseries that will bring our story up to the present and on into the future.
JUDIE GREGG ROSEMAN
IT'S NOT A WRAP YET...
California?s Designing Women: 1896-1986?illuminates what by now should be abundantly apparent: that between 1896 and 1986 women have deserved an equal place both in the design studio and as design entrepreneurs.?But, of course, this story doesn?t end in 1986: the contributions to design made by women in subsequent decades merit the equal attention that we will give them. Right now we are asking you to help us take this important first step in righting a wrong that has gone on for far too long.
P.S. There?s more about?California?s Designing Women?at: mocad.org/cdwarticle/
Part of the Mid-Century Modern section of the?California’s?Designing Women 1896-1986?exhibition at the Autry Museum, Los Angeles, 2013-14.
Photo: Larry Underhill.