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California's Designing Women, 1896-1986: A Museum of California Design exhibition at the Autry
May Hamilton (United States, 1886–1971) and Vieve Hamilton (United States, 1887–1976), Cosmic, bowl, circa 1936, earthenware. Manufactured by Vernon Kilns (Vernon, California). Private collection. Photo by Peter Brenner.
LOS ANGELES, CA.- The Autry National Center presents California’s Designing Women, 1896–1986, an unprecedented exhibition that honors forty-six women designers and includes more than 200 examples of textiles, ceramics, furniture, lighting, jewelry, clothing, and graphics. These functional and decorative objects—from Arts and Crafts to Art Deco to Mid-century Modern and beyond—exemplify California’s national and international reputation for unrestrained creativity.

Women have long been recognized as practitioners of the decorative arts, but commercial design and fine craft were long considered the province of men. For this exhibition guest curator Bill Stern selected women who were the sole designer of the objects exhibited or were responsible for a clearly defined aspect of them. Featured are women whose designs incorporated the newest styles, materials, and technologies of their time, thus making major contributions to Californian and American design. The exhibition also spotlights designers whose work has been underappreciated and sometimes even anonymous.

Among the stories of the individual designers are Barbara Willis, who started her successful pottery business in the backyard of her parents’ Fairfax area home during World War II while her husband was in the Army Air Force; Muriel Coleman, whose post-war, Mid-century Modern furniture was made in the Bay Area from existing stocks of rebar, metal strips, and rods; and Judith Hendler, who began making acrylic jewelry in Los Angeles out of surplus material from the manufacture of aircraft windshields.

The exhibition opens with hand-cut woodblock printed posters from the late 19th century and closes with one of the first computer-aided graphics from the late 20th century. These technological poles are bridged by works in a gamut of techniques and composed of materials as diverse as wood, leather, paper, abalone, glass, cotton, rattan, copper, steel, silver, acetate, acrylic, and fiberglass—the materials of American daily life forged in California’s vast, welcoming workshop.

Among the women designers in the exhibition are copper workers Elizabeth Eaton Burton and Lillian Palmer, multiple-disciplinarians Ray Eames and Dorothy Thorpe, renowned potters Gertrud Natzler and Beatrice Wood, dinnerware designer Edith Heath, mid-century furniture designer Greta Magnusson Grossman, enamellist Ellamarie Woolley, fashion designer Margit Fellegi, textile and housewares designer Gere Kavanaugh, jewelry designers Arline Fisch and Judith Hendler, and graphic design innovators Deborah Sussman and April Greiman.

The vast majority of the objects in this exhibition are utilitarian. Whether multiples or one-of-a-kind creations, they were intended to be used as household furnishings, personal adornment, sports equipment, or visual communication. The designers who produced these products over a ninety-year period of time are just a few of the numerous women working in California who have made—and who are continuing to make—significant contributions to American design.

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