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February 9, 2023

Celebrating the Legacy of Women Designers

Molly Hatch (born in 1978), Ducere, 2022. Courtesy of Todd Merrill Studio, New York. Photo MMFA, Jean-François Brière

On view from February 18 to May 28, 2023, the exhibition Parall(elles): A History of Women in Design celebrates the instrumental and all too often overlooked role women have played in the world of design through an outstanding corpus of objects dating from the mid-19th century to today.

Jennifer Laurent. Photo Jean-François Brière

Jennifer Laurent

Curator of Decorative Arts and Design
Mary Dailey Desmarais. Photo Stéphanie Badini

Mary-Dailey Desmarais

Chief Curator

Emmanuelle Christen

Head of Editorial Production and Content Development

Parall(elles) presents viewers with a wide-ranging definition of “design” that extends from artisanal craftwork to industrial design and includes ceramics, glass, metalwork, jewellery, textiles, furniture, consumer products, graphics, fashion and interior design. The exhibition thus proposes an alternative reading of the history of design – a parallel history – that serves to impress the exceptional influence of women designers on mainstream consciousness.

Women and the Arts and Crafts movement

Women achieved their first entrée into design professions at the end of the 19th century, facilitated by the influence of the British Arts and Crafts movement. Inspired by the socially progressive writings of theorist and critic John Ruskin, and founded by designer, writer and activist William Morris, the movement emerged as a reaction against the damaging effects of machine-based production on social conditions and the quality of manufactured goods. Preaching the equality of all the arts, the movement called into question the so-called lesser status of craft-based design. Practices once labelled “feminine,” “domestic” or “women’s work” – particularly textile arts, such as embroidery and weaving – became accepted areas of professional design. At the same time, the establishment of specialized design schools opened up access to education and technical training in this field, which allowed a select group of women to engage in professional careers as working designers.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, men participated in all aspects of public life, while women were limited to the narrow confines of domestic life. The practice of design was inevitably governed by similar principles of sexual division. Despite this fact, a number of talented women forged a place for themselves in the professional world, where they became successful designers and entrepreneurs. A leader of the Arts and Crafts movement and one of the first women to work in the field of interior decoration, Candace Wheeler designed textiles and promoted women’s training in various craft-based media. Fellow trailblazer Clara Driscoll was hired as the head of the women’s glass-cutting department at Tiffany Studios in 1892. She designed many of Tiffany’s mosaics and office items and is today credited for the design of more than thirty of the company’s most admired lampshades, including that of the well-known Peacock table lamp.


In 1880, Maria Longworth Nichols Storer established the Rookwood Pottery Company in Cincinnati, Ohio, which went on to become the largest and longest-lasting art pottery studio in the United States. Elsewhere, women gradually began to practise small-scale metalworking, creating a range of jewellery and decorative objects. Amidst this historically male-dominated trade, Marie Zimmermann, Clara Barck Welles and Mary Catherine Knight ran professional studios, and Montreal-born lighting designer and metalworker Elizabeth Eleanor D’Arcy Gaw became a partner at Dirk Van Erp Studios, where she designed and made their iconic hammered copper lamps.

The interwar period: Shifting attitudes and new opportunities

A major focus of first-wave feminism in Canada and the United States, which lasted from the mid-19th into the early 20th century, was on obtaining basic legal rights for women. Gradually, the movement led to more progressive attitudes towards women working outside of the domestic sphere. During World War I, they were called upon to replace the men who had left their employment and education to serve their countries overseas. As gender boundaries around work began to loosen, women were able to access employment in certain design professions. The war made it possible for many young and adult women to pursue various forms of practical design education that would otherwise have been closed to them.

In the years that followed, women increasingly pursued careers in the fields of interior, textile and fashion design. By the end of World War I, Elsie de Wolfe had already established her reputation as the “mother of modern interior decoration.” In Canada, Minerva Elliot launched a decorating business in 1925, quickly becoming known for her decoration of homes in Toronto’s upscale neighbourhoods. Although little is known about the full extent of her output, Montreal interior decorator Jeannette Meunier Biéler’s tubular metal and glass desk that she designed for her family home reflects her unique take on the Modernist design trends coming out of Europe at the time.


During the interwar years, industrial design was largely male-dominated. Nevertheless, a handful of talented women managed to play a prominent role in its nascency. Russian-born Belle Kogan opened her New York studio in 1931, designing a range of products from silver hostess wares and Bakelite® jewellery to electric alarm clocks and flip-top lighters for companies like Zippo, among others. Meanwhile, another important pioneer in the field, Hungarian-born industrial designer Ilonka Karasz, created distinctive modern designs and experimented with new manufacturing processes.


A number of other émigré women were integral to the advancement of design education during these years, particularly in weaving and ceramics. When, in 1933, Anni and Josef Albers were invited to develop the visual arts curriculum for Black Mountain College, a prestigious liberal arts school in North Carolina, Anni founded the weaving workshop, teaching textile design through the lens of progressive Bauhaus ideals. At the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Finnish-born Loja Saarinen, wife of architect and Cranbrook director Eliel Saarinen, ran the weaving and textile department. In Montreal, Danish-born Karen Bulow taught hand-weaving at the Canadian Handicrafts Guild and from her downtown studio. Later, she established a weaving program in Pangnirtung, a small village on Baffin Island.

The postwar boom: From industrial design to craft

In many ways, the story of women’s employment during World War I was repeated during World War II in Canada and the United States. With ever-growing orders for war materials and staggering numbers of men fighting overseas, women were once again key to resolving wartime labour shortages, proving beyond a doubt they had the skills, strength and ability to perform “men’s work.” Nevertheless, most were laid off as orders for war materials waned and men returned home. Mounting social and cultural pressures further impeded women from pursuing professional careers.

Ruth Glennie (1929-2018) for General Motors, Fancy Free Corvette, 1958. Collection of Jürgen Reimer, Germany. Photo General Motors LLC

Despite the abrupt return to patriarchal gender norms following World War II, the number of women entering design professions continued to grow. In the mid-1950s, when research conducted by General Motors indicated that women influenced 70% of automobile purchases, the company hired a group of women to work as designers in its interior design department. Dubbed the “Damsels of Design,” Suzanne E. Vanderbilt, Ruth Glennie, Marjorie Ford Pohlman, Sandra Longyear, Jeanette Linder and Peggy Sauer were front and centre at GM’s Feminine Auto Show, in 1958. Of the ten models presented, the only surviving prototype is Glennie’s Fancy Free Corvette. In addition to its silver-olive exterior, interchangeable interior treatments, contoured seats and ample storage space, Glennie’s design was the first to feature retractable seatbelts.1

A steady rise in consumerism following the war led to a growing market for domestic products. Although women remained few and far between in the predominantly masculine world of mainstream modernism, many of their works began to be known in the early 1950s, thanks to their inclusion in MoMA’s Good Design program – a series of biannual exhibitions and awards that celebrated home furnishings and everyday items. Over the five-year period that the program ran, furniture by Florence Knoll, Ray Eames and Greta Magnusson-Grossman, ceramics by Eva Zeisel, lighting by Greta von Nessen, glassware by Freda Diamond, and textiles by Dorothy Liebes, Noémi Raymond and Eszter Haraszty were all exhibited alongside works designed by men.

Still, glaring inequalities persisted, particularly when it came to husband-and-wife teams, such as Charles and Ray Eames. When the couple was invited to show their furniture at the MoMA in 1946, the presentation was billed as the first “one-man” furniture exhibition and titled New Furniture Designed by Charles Eames.

Feminisms, Postmodernism and pluralism

In the 1970s, artists and designers alike began turning to traditional forms of “feminine” and “domestic” craft as a means of reclaiming their own histories and expressing the female experience. This led to the unprecedented creation of a wide range of hybrid works that blurred the lines between art, craft and design. Faith Ringgold, for example, combined fabric and painting in her “story quilts” – hand-painted tableaus that recounted powerful narratives about Black history and identity.


Emboldened by Postmodernism’s embrace of the decorative arts, women designers in a multitude of fields used pattern, decoration and the painted surface as a feminist strategy during this period. In ceramics, Betty Woodman’s painterly use of colour, Dorothy Hafner’s exuberantly patterned porcelain and Roseline Delisle’s dynamic geometric motifs all reaffirmed ceramic traditions historically associated with women. Similarly, the early studio furniture designed and made by Wendy Maruyama, one of the first women to enroll in a Master of Fine Arts program in furniture making in the United States, combined ideologies of feminism and traditional craft, paving the way for paint and applied decoration to appear on natural wood.

Architecture and design team Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi are often credited with the reintroduction of decoration into contemporary industrial furniture. Their iconic Queen Anne chair with “Grandmother’s Tablecloth” pattern features the flattened bent plywood silhouette of a traditional 18th-century chair covered in a colourful all-over floral pattern borrowed from a mass-produced tablecloth. Although the design was a collaboration between the husband-and-wife team, credit was given to Venturi alone. Despite the advances made by women during this period, their proper recognition within design partnerships remained elusive.2

Designing the 21st century

Today, generations of women live in a world that has undergone rapid social change, characterized by a palpable shift towards increasingly liberal attitudes, as well as more inclusive approaches with respect to race and ethnicity. Although we have come a long way, glaring inequalities persist. Women remain a minority in many areas of design, and only a small number occupy leading positions in the field. Still, there is reason to be optimistic for the future, as design continues to evolve and expand into new and uncharted areas. A broad range of methodologies and contexts of fabrication characterize women’s design practices as they draw on various disciplines such as science and technology in order to develop alternatives to the unhealthy and unsustainable materials.


While we cannot always redress the inequalities of the past, we can, going forward, find ways to highlight women’s contributions to the world of design. In showcasing the immense legacy of women in this field, Parall(elles) presents an inclusive reading of design history in the hope that women’s story be duly recognized as an integral and essential part of the broader narrative.

1 Phil Patton, “Fancy Free,” Corvette Quarterly (November 2008).
2 Denise Scott Brown recounted with wit and candour the many slights she encountered throughout her career in an influential essay (based on a lecture given in 1974): “Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture,” in Ellen Perry Berkeley and Matilda McQuaid (eds.) Architecture: A Place for Women (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989). It fostered new discourses surrounding the issue of women’s marginalization in the design professions.


Parall(elles): A History of Women in Design
February 18 – May 28, 2023
Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion – Level 2

Credits and curatorial team
An exhibition organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in collaboration with the Stewart Program for Modern Design.

It is presented by Hydro-Québec and was made possible thanks to the Terra Foundation for American Art. The MMFA wishes to underscore the collaboration of its partner Hatch and the support of Tourisme Montréal. It further thanks the exhibition’s patrons, Lucie Bouthillette, Sarah Ivory-Stewart, Monique Parent, Julia Reitman, the Schulich Foundation and Alysia Yip-Hoi, and the donors to the MMFA Foundation’s Women of Influence Circle.

The MMFA acknowledges the invaluable contribution of its official sponsor, Denalt Paints, and its media partners Bell, La Presse and the Montreal Gazette. Parall(elles) was funded in part by the Government of Quebec, the Canada Council for the Arts and the Conseil des arts de Montréal.

The MMFA’s major exhibitions receive funding from the Paul G. Desmarais Fund and from the donors to the Angel, President’s, Elite, Prestige and Ambassadors’ Circles of the MMFA Foundation.

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