Homage to Women “Pathmakers” in Art, Craft & Design

What a great time to be a design lover in DC! The Renwick Gallery is preparing its grand reopening after a two-year renovation on Nov. 13 with the kick-a** WONDER exhibit (think wall mosaics made from bugs; ginormous, meandering tree-like sculptures that fill the halls).

But even before then, set your sights on the National Museum for Women in the Arts, which opens a major design exhibition on Oct. 30 (tomorrow, y’all) that celebrates the women who made historic contributions to the evolution of modern design, mainly through craft. We got a peek of it yesterday:


Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft and Design Midcentury to Today starts with a visual bang, featuring the work of the legendary Eva Zeisel, one of the best-known mid-century women artists, who as you can see in this one shot, is famous for her ceramics (the hanging panel is aptly called Belly Button Room Divider, from 1957); furnishings (the fab Resilient Chair is ca. 1948-49); and lighting (next to the “Pathmakers” sign), which she only started designing in 2008 at the age of 102, three years before she died at 105 in 2011.

Zeisel was an outlier, as exhibit curators point out. Because back in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, the main avenues for women to pursue design were almost exclusively through craft. “These women, even in the 50s and 60s, were not very often able to become industrial designers or do furniture work,” museum director Susan Fisher Sterling said. “It was in craft—textiles, ceramics—where they really were able to fulfill the mission of modernism.”

The exhibit opens with the mid-century “Pathmakers” such as Zeisel and rock-star ceramicist Edith Heath, whose original pottery and tableware are also on display. More importantly, we see the influence of lesser-known artists of the time, though their work is no less arresting:

Rut Bryk, Untitled, ca. 1970s; Ceramic

Rut Bryk, Untitled, ca. 1970s; ceramic


Marianne Strengall; rug commissioned by the Aluminum Company of American (Alcoa), 1957

Marianne Strengall; rug commissioned by the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), 1957


The rug is made with 80 percent aluminum!

The rug is made with 80 percent aluminum!


Ruth Asawa, Form Within Form; wire mesh; 1952

Ruth Asawa, Form Within Form; 1952; wire mesh

The exhibition also gives you a behind-the-scenes look at the textile work of Dorothy Liebes, who was a renowned mid-century weaver known for her colorful patterns and non-traditional materials, from leather and bamboo to the synthetic Lurex. She wove custom designs and also created prototypes for mass production. Here, we can see her sample patterns and notes:




The next installations explore the work of contemporary women artists. When paired with their predecessors, you can clearly see the connections.

Michelle Grabner displays a stunning collage of paper weavings (originally inspired by her son’s school projects), yet there’s a remarkable connection between her 2014 creations and Liebes’ grid-like textiles:


And Polly Apfelbaum’s site-specific wall hangings (completed just last year) of silk-velvet panels —patterned with Magic Marker!—were inspired by the 1950 Handweaver’s Pattern Book, which she found in a second-hand shop.




These days, the division is considered to be arbitrary between what’s referred to as “craft” and what used to be the more masculine domaine of “fine arts” (paintings, sculpture). This exhibit proves how meticulous the workmanship is in every medium; it takes no second-place to their cousins in the other genres.

Vivian Beer makes this clear with Anchored Candy No. 7 (2014), which blends the masculine with the feminine—the stiletto heel with the styling of a sports car—extending from what seems to me like a car battery. Are we gaining finally our own power and beauty, extending out from this masculine “block”?


The exhibit concludes with a stunningly modern take on the traditional hand-weaving of countless generations of women who came before us. Hella Jongerius connects porcelain beads with hand-knotted cotton rope for this Knots & Beads Curtain (2015), which was originally designed for the United Nations’ delegates lounge in New York:




(It’s worth noting that Jongerius also designed furniture and textiles for this lounge, also on display here, which echoes the earlier work done in that space by Dorothy Liebes.)

And here is a ghost-like homage to the past, with to weave, to wind, to knot, to knit, to twist, to push, to pack, to press by Anne Wilson in 2010:


The case contains 68 frosted-glass sculptures of traditional knitting and stitching implements, placing “women’s work” on a gorgeous pedestal.

These images represent a fraction of what’s on display at Pathmakers. So when you make your design-minded plans this fall, you NEED to stop here. The exhibit will be open through February 2016.