The great female figures in the history of design

Some very talented women have left their mark on the history of design in the 20th century. However, they were paid less than their male counterparts, even less rewarded, too few of them achieved the notoriety they deserved during their lifetime. An injustice that experts and other curators are trying to repair curators are trying to repair. The proof is in the retrospectives devoted to Charlotte Perriand in 2005-2006, and more recently to Eileen Gray in 2013, by one of the most one of the most influential cultural institutions in the field of contemporary art, the art, the Centre Pompidou

Looking at the pivotal periods the history of design, there have always been innovative and from the Bauhaus era to the 1980s, through the development of the development of industrial design after the Second World War. This article looks back at the great female figures in the history of design, and those lesser known, often wrongly so.

One of the first great female figures in the history of design was Eileen Gray (1878-1976). Born in Enniscorthy in the south of Ireland, Eileen Gray was determined to pursue a career in art and gave up her marriage with the intention of entering art school. She entered the Slade School of Fine Art in London, then decided to go and live in Paris alone. In 1902 she exhibited a watercolour at the Grand Palais, then a painting in 1905 for the Salon de la Société des artistes français. She gradually moved into arts and crafts and in 1910 opened a workshop with the Japanese-born, naturalized French master lacquerer and sculptor, Senzo Sugawara. She began exhibiting decorative panels, combining lacquer and rare woods, geometric abstractions and Japanese-inspired motifs.

Eileen Gray, portrait by Berenice Abbott, circa 1925. Courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland.

The early 1920s marked a turning point in Eileen Gray’s career. She became aware of the Dutch avant-garde De Stijl movement and Marcel Breuer ‘s early steel tube designs, which led her to abandon the Art Deco style. She then began to design furniture. Along with Marcel Breuer, René Herbst, Charlotte Perriand and Gerrit Rietveld(design-market link), she was one of the precursors of tubular steel furniture. Then came the great project of her career: from 1926 to 1929, she built the villa E 1027 with her partner, the Romanian architect Jean Badovici, which is considered one of the masterpieces of modern architecture of the time. She collaborated with Badovici on the structure of the house, and also designed all the furniture.

Dressing table, 1926-1929, design by Eileen Gray © Mnam-Cci © Dist. RMN-GP. A total artist, if Eileen Gray began her career as a painter, she went on to design furniture and demonstrated her capacity for innovation in designing functional furniture.
Villa E 1027 (E for Eileen, 10 for Jean’s J, the 10th letter of the alphabet, 2 for Badovici’s B, 7 for Gray’s G), construction: 1929. Architecture and design: Jean Badovici & Eileen Gray, interior design and furniture: Eileen Gray. Self-taught in the field of architecture, Eileen Gray took 3 years to build the plans for the project with Jean Badovici. The villa is located in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in the Alpes-Maritimes.
Villa E 1027, view of the living room. In the foreground you can see the Transat and Bibendum armchairs and the Centimeter carpet designed by Eileen Gray
Villa E 1027, view of the alcove in the main room, with the headboard, pillow cabinet and book stand restored to their original condition and the Marine rug. Furniture designed entirely by Eileen Gray © Manuel Bougot
Transat armchair, designed by Eileen Gray, 1926-1929. A piece made for the Villa. Wood, metal and synthetic leather. Its name is a direct reference to the folding chairs installed on the decks of transatlantic ships. Mnam-Cci/Jean-Claude Planchet. Dist. RMN-GP

She was one of the great figures of the Bauhaus School (1919-1933) and invented modern tapestry. Anni Albers (1899-1994) remains relatively unknown. Born into the Berlin bourgeoisie, she enrolled at the Hamburg School of Applied Arts, which she left unsatisfied to try her hand at the Bauhaus(design-market link) in 1922. The woman who was still called Annie Fleischmann first tried her hand at wood and metal workshops, but reluctantly had to switch to textiles because she suffered from a neurological disorder, Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. Inspired by the colour courses of the painter Paul Klee (1879-1940), Albers realised the objectives of the Bauhaus by designing tapestries halfway between the piece of furniture and the painting, between the single piece and the multiple. She turned weaving into an avant-garde art form in which a powerful language of colour and abstract motifs was developed.

Anni Albers, wall tapestry, 1926. Silk and cotton. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.© 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London
Anni Albers, rug, 1959, wool. Inspired by a trip to Mexico with her husband, the painter Josef Albers, she was inspired by the pre-Columbian artistic expression found in this rug. Anni Albers became a source of inspiration for many artists. Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London.

Among the pioneers of design is of course Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999). Noticed in the 1920s by Le Corbusier, she collaborated for 10 years (1927-1937) with the brilliant Swiss architect and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret to design the interior furniture for the buildings designed by the two architects. This is how she came up with the famous Chaise Longue model LC4, also known as the ” Chaise Longue Le Corbusier “. But Charlotte Perriand is much more than this shortcut. Close to the European, Japanese and Brazilian avant-gardes, she led an intense career for 75 years, creating rational and elegant furniture, carrying out numerous interior fittings for some of the most audacious projects of their time, and even devoting almost 20 years of her life (1967-1989) to the design of the “Les Arcs” resort.

Chaise Longue LC4, design Charlotte Perriand, 1928. For its time, this was a revolutionary seat because it was made with a bent metal structure, but above all it was very technical and functional because it allowed for continuous adjustment to fit the shape of the body. To design it, Charlotte Perriand was inspired by aviation catalogues and worked on car body techniques. Initially launched by Thonet, it is the Italian company Casssina which has been publishing the chair exclusively since 1965.

LC7 swivel chair designed by Charlotte Perriand in 1927 and unjustly signed Le Corbusier. A piece considered a design classic and reissued exclusively by the Italian company Cassina. The structure of the LC7 swivel chair is made of robust stainless steel. Clean, elegant lines in the spirit of the Bauhaus
View of the exhibition “Le monde nouveau de Charlotte Perriand” organised at the Fondation Louis Vuitton (2019-2020). In theforeground, reconstruction of the exhibition of 31 March 1955 entitled “Proposition d’une synthèse des arts, Paris 1955. Le Corbusier, Fernand Léger, Charlotte Perriand”. The iconic triangular coffee table “Mexique 527” (Charlotte Perriand, 1952) and a modular storage bookcase can be seen here
View of the exhibition “Charlotte Perriand’s New World” organised at the Fondation Louis Vuitton (2019-2020). Presentation of various pieces of furniture made by Charlotte Perriand
View of the exhibition “Le monde nouveau de Charlotte Perriand” organised at the Fondation Louis Vuitton (2019-2020). Bookcase 526 Nuage, design Charlotte Perriand. A popular piece of furniture for vintage design enthusiasts that allows for a combination of various elements (stand, shelf, cheek, doors and drawers) with different materials (wood, metal and aluminium).
In 1948, the Eames created a seat that was elevated to an art form. The Chair is a real sculpture that allows you to adopt different positions, from sitting to reclining, passing through various intermediaries suitable for reading for example.
An aesthetic manifesto of organic design, the Eames were inspired to design their extraordinary seat by the sculpture “Floating figure” by the French-born American artist Gaston Lachaise (1882-1935).
Eames Lounge Chair (European version), also known as Lounge Chair 670 and its Ottoman 671 footrest. To make this model, the Eames worked for years on the moulded plywood technique. This mythical chair has been produced since 1956 by the American firm Herman Miller for the American market. In Europe, Vitra bought the licence in 1984 and continues to produce this timeless design classic today.
Lounge Chair 670, back view. 3 moulded plywood shells make up the chair, veneered with rosewood or rosewood for a superb finish. A must for vintage design!

A name that resonates in the history of post-war design and still does today: Knoll. Florence Knoll (1917-2019), presided from 1955 to 1965 over the destiny of the very famous American furniture and office equipment publisher Knoll, founded in 1938 by her future husband, Hans Knoll. Considered by some to be the “founding mother of technological design”, Florence Knoll, along with her husband, imposed a “Knoll” style that blended interior architecture, design, production, textiles and graphic design in office furnishings. A gifted student of the German designer and architect Mies van der Rohe, she worked with Walter Gropius (1883-1969) and Marcel Breuer (1902-1981). She was responsible for many pieces of furniture characterised by elegant and functional design

Parallel” armchair, design by Florence Knoll for Knoll International, 1959. Together with her husband, Florence Knoll collaborated with the best designers in the second half of the 1940s: Eero Saarinen, Pierre Jeanneret, Mies van der Rohe, and later Isamu Noguchi and Harry Bertoia.
Sofa with side table, Florence Knoll design, 1960s.
Oval marble dining table, Florence Knoll design for Knoll International, circa 1970.

In addition to these five great female figures of modern and contemporary design, it is worth mentioning, for the sake of completeness, the German designer and interior architect Lilly Reich (1885-1947), who worked for many years with Mies van der Rohe. Eino Aalto née Marsio (1894-1949) was not just the wife of… and did not just design glasses (the Bölgeblick line of tableware for Iittala). Together with her husband, Alvar Aalto (1898-1916, married in 1924), one of Finland’s most famous architects and designers, she designed not only buildings but also interior surfaces, furniture, lamps, furnishings and glassware from the 1920s onwards. In 1935, the Aalto’s, together with Maire Gullichsen and Nils-Gustav Hahl, founded Artek, a company that sold lighting and furniture designed by the Aalto’s, and which still exists (owned by Vitra since 2013)

In 1929, for the Barcelona International Exhibition, the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe commissioned Lilly Reich to design and supervise the various exhibition pavilions, including the famous German Pavilion. A symbol of modern architecture at the time, it was built using innovative construction principles and rather luxurious materials and has since been rebuilt identically. A masterpiece in the history of architecture for which Reich’s artistic contribution has been unfairly erased. This is thefirst collaborative work of Reich and Mies, and the beginning of their association.
Villa Tugendhat, completed in 1930, and located in Brno, Czech Republic. A symbol of the international style in the modern movement in architecture as it developed in Europe during the 1920s, it is a well-known building in architectural history. As a close collaborator of Mies van der Rohe, Lilly Reich was actively involved in its creation.
View of the Paimio Sanatorium (Finland), an iconic architectural achievement by Alvar Aalto and Aino Aalto from 1929 to 1933. The building is considered by many to be one of the couple’s major works.
View of a room in the Paimio Sanatorium. Aino and her husband Alvar designed all the furnishings and fittings for the sanatorium. Some of the furniture, such as the Paimio armchair shown here, is still produced by the firm Artek.
A legendary armchair, the “Paimio”, 1932. With its organic shape, flowing lines and volumes, and made of natural materials, this armchair was designed to offer sanatorium patients an ideal position.

Italy is a great country for design and has also seen the emergence ofleading designers and visual artists, including Anna Ferrieri (1918-2006), artistic director of Kartell from 1976 to 1987, Lina Bo Bardi (1914-1992), Gae Aulenti (1927-2012) and Afra Scarpa (1937-2011). On the Scandinavian side, we should mention the Swedish designer Greta Grossman (1906-1999), who created the Grasshopper and Cobra lamps. Finally, the Englishwoman Lucienne Day (1917-2010), wife of designer Robin Day, was one of the most influential textile designers of the 1950s and 1960s.

Componibili” modular system, 2 shelves, round. Design: Anna Ferrieri for Kartell, 1967. An ingenious system of modular elements (the individual elements fit together) in round or square form and still produced by Kartell
Pipistrello” lamp, 24-carat gold-plated model. Design: Gae Aulenti for the Italian publisher Martinelli Lucce. Created in 1965, the “Pipistrello” is an icon of contemporary design with its organic shape. The diffuser is in opal white methacrylate. Mythical and exhibited in major museums around the world..
Grasshopper (Gräshoppa) floor lamp, design: Greta Magnusson Grossman, 1947. A unique and instantly recognisable silhouette, with its tripod, backward sloping stem and articulated head. It has been reissued since 2011 by the Danish publisher Gubi

To read about the recognition of women in design history:

  • The Voice of Women by Libby Sellers, Pyramyd Edition
  • Women Designers: A Century of Design by Marion Vignal, Editions Aubanel

François Boutard