Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Sweden’s Pioneering Women of Design

Exhibition: Kvinnliga pionjärer (Female Pioneers) at Nationalmuseum Design, floor 4 in Kulturhuset Stadsteatern, Sergels Torg, Stockholm.

Centaur with child - decorative relief by Anna Petrus, 1928

Chess set, with pregnant queen chesspiece; by Marie-Louise Idestam-Blomberg, 1927

Water pitchers of electroplated silver; by Sylvia Stave, 1934

Today I attended a curator’s tour of the exhibition Female Pioneers: Swedish Design In-Between the Wars. This intriguing exhibition presents over 150 objects by women who have previously been excluded from Swedish design history, yet who produced a range of striking, iconic pieces in the modernist tradition.

The exhibition is arranged by type: furniture, ceramics, glassware, metal work, and some pieces in the earliest plastic. Glass cases mounted on plywood storage boxes create a wide aisle to walk through, whilst by the gallery windows, banners featuring biographies of some of the women reveal glimpses into their characters. The background of the exhibition is through the windows, the 1950s modernist glass buildings of the city centre.

Two rows of displays with a wide aisle form the exhibition design

Marta Af Ekenstam's biography is represented by an image of a table she designed, since a portrait of her (and several others) could not be found.

Modernist architecture forms the backdrop to the exhibition

The designs are bold, and often feature surprising details: the strong, tall, muscular bodies of women on a neo-classical frieze; the female centaur with her child; a pregnant queen on the wooden chess set. The curator, Maria Perers, gave surprising anecdotes about the designers and their work; Maria also revealed key facts in Swedish history, underlining the women’s working practices and private lives. Most of the women featured in the exhibition were employed by companies as designers or artistic directors at a young age – around 23-25, after completing education – and their careers were short, due to the common practice of leaving work for marriage and childrearing. Moreover, she informed us how difficult it was to research the women designers; in the biographies mounted on the wall, some of them are represented by their work, as their portraits could not be found. They had been forgotten about.

 Maria also mentioned how most of the collection on display was acquired by the museum only recently. During the 1930s until recently, the museum was keen to uphold an image of good taste; so omitted popular styles from the collections, including the colourful ceramics which were made from earthenware rather than porcelain, and were thus cheaper; but were also hand-painted, employing the skill of many women in the factories. Even designs such as the now-classic dinner service ‘Swedish Grace’ by Louise Adelborg were not acquired in their contemporary period. 'Swedish Grace' was first only produced in white – shockingly austere at the time, when the only environment that white plates would be found was in mental asylums.

These ceramics by Ilse Claeson (1930-1935) were only acquired in 2015, as the museum previously did not see them fit for inclusion in the collection.

A fancy dinner setting with personal cigarettes and ashtray (!), glassware by Gerda Strömberg, includes 'Swedish Grace' plates by Louise Adelborg (1920s)

Typically Swedish - 'functionalism' which still epitomises how the country's design ethos is viewed. A serving dish can be a storage container. Electroplated silver, by Silvia Stave, 1934.

The acknowledgement of a museum’s loaded role in shaping, even creating, our idea of history was welcome; and it was wonderful to see this striking selection of modernist classics. The neglect of textile and fashion designs were apparently due to practical restraints; although the curator did tell me that they didn’t want to include textiles as ‘that’s what people always think that women do’. Personally, I query this assumption (so many fashion designers are men!), and moreover disagree with the typical negativity associated with textiles and garments. Nonetheless, I can see the curator’s point, and it is important to celebrate the achievements of this group of female designers in their male-dominated design world; and to give them their rightful place in the design history books.

This exhibition is free, and on until 14 February.
Click here for more information.

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