Women Interrupted: the untold stories of women in design and architecture.
In researching my first book on smart homes I ended up uncovering a lot of women’s work. Work that wasn’t very well documented. Work that was largely forgotten. Then through my work travels, I kept visiting homes, museums, galleries where I would find out more about other forgotten or lesser known women in design and architecture.
A problem of focus
Lucia Moholy, who was neither a student nor a teacher at the Bauhaus, is having a bit of a moment. People realised Walter Gropius (the first of 3 directors of the Bauhaus school of art in Germany) had lied to her about her photographic plates which he took to America and used to promote the Bauhaus in the 1950s in exhibitions across the US. She always signed the back of her prints, he started doing the same, using her plates. They were friends and she’d been married to Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, one of the Bauhaus masters so he had no other reasons to lie other than believing he could get away with it. The other reason could be that her photography isn’t stylistically that exciting compared to many at the time and much of her work was closer to documentary and catalog making. What Walter Gropius did was unforgivable but it doesn’t necessarily make her a great talent. It makes him an asshole. And that’s complicated to talk about during the 100 year anniversary of the Bauhaus. Even the recent Royal Academy lecture on Lucia Moholy’s work didn’t quite go far enough in its critique of Gropius. He robbed her of the ability to be judged on her own merit, instead, she is now framed as a victim. More about Lucia Moholy.
The same could be said of Charlotte Perriand whose work now on show at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. Newly married and aged 24, she started working in Le Corbusier’s studio creating interiors and furniture. But if you squint and look at who was working around her, you see that her work is entirely derivative of Mart Stam, Eileen Gray, Marcel Breuer, the Eames, Aalto who designed more interesting pieces and much earlier. And there lies a problem with museums and design. When we insist on focusing on one designer in a show, we ignore what else is going on or we distort reality to suit the ‘genuis’ rhetoric. In fact, the Paris show is uncomfortable, full of Le Corbusier and Leger’s work, as if hers was too weak to hold up on its own. It makes you wonder, if the show had just featured her work, what would we think? Eileen Gray’s influence on Charlotte Perriand is undeniable but there is no mention of her. Gray was 47 when she designed E-1027 (a far superior project in terms of interiors than anything ever done by anyone since) and Perriand was just out of uni. Why can’t we talk about role models, mentoring, admirers in Perriand’s work and life? Is it because she worked for Le Corbusier who by all accounts hated Gray (to the point of painting fescos on her house without her consent). Eventually you can tell she had enough of Le Corbu and went off to do her own thing, spending some time in Asia, designing bamboo furniture, ski resorts in Europe, other things than machine-age interiors. She probably found that more satisfying but even then, she lags behind others and that’s not entirely acknowledged.
Married to the ego
Many (not all) modernist architects who married and worked with their wives (who were also sometimes architects) made damn sure you never thought of their wives as contributing to their careers and work. Examples include Inge Scholl (1917–1998), Margaret (Church) Lubetkin (?-1978) Charlotte Gray (?-1995) and Mary Jane Long (1938–2018).
Margaret Church was ‘a radical young architecture student [and] the granddaughter of a founder of the Tate & Lyle sugar group’ and married to Berthold Lubetkin. He was responsible for some of the earliest application of European modernist architecture in the UK, especially around Hampstead Heath. He started the Tecton Group with fellow AA graduates but even though she appears in the group photos, she’s credited as nothing more than ‘a young architect working in the Tecton office’. Then there’s the furniture they both designed in their penthouse at Highpoint I (see photo above). They eventually moved to Gloucestershire where they ran a farm. They even hosted some of the animals of the London Zoo during WWII and retired in the Cotswolds after Berthold abandoned the contract to design the ‘new town’ of Peterlee. How could an obviously talented architect go unnoticed? If the husband is loud and angry enough, she might have had no choice. But that’s not reason enough not to investigate the collaboration.
Charlotte Gray suffered the same treatment as Margaret Church. Married to Michael Bunney, they both designed a beautiful modernist home in Hampstead at 13 Downshire Hill (next door to Lee Miller & Roland Penrose, on the same block as Erno Goldfinger’s and a few blocks away from Wells Coates’ Isokon building). Charlotte Gray is described in her husband’s obituary:
Mr. Bunney met his future wife when they were both students at the Architectural Association School and they set up a part-time practice together in London prior to the war in 1935. […]He established an architect’s practice in Kendal with his wife, Charlotte, in 1948, which they ran until retirement in 1972. Mrs. Bunney died in 1995. […] Mr. and Mrs. Bunney also undertook a market gardening business, with part-time assistance, at their home, Hwith, between 1950 to 1959, producing soft fruits and vegetables for sale locally.
She sounds amazing and resourceful. I would love to know more about her but her life isn’t worthy of note compared to his apparently. The AA published a book in 2017 celebrating 100 years of female students so that’s next on my reading list.
Mary Jane Long’s obituary was published in The Guardian which hints at her influence. However, when you go into the British Library (which I do for research), only her husband is described on the plaque about the building even though she made a career out of designing libraries and cultural institutions. It’s exhausting uncovering this stuff but it isn’t surprising is it?
Women with power
Then there’s Marie-Laure de Noailles (née Bischoffsheim) (1902–1970) whose fame I hope will rise to the level of Peggy Guggenheim’s. Rich in her own right, married to the equally rich Charles de Noailles, she dated Jean Cocteau for a while as a young woman (don’t ask how young). He introduced her to Picasso, so she bought some of his pieces. They commissioned the uber talented Robert Mallet-Stevens (over Le Corbusier) to build their home in Hyeres on the French Riviera and had Man Ray use it for his films. They even paid for Salvador Dali’s home in Figueres. She was also a fantastic painter and if you go to La Villa Noailles, her set of plates and paintings are there, hung amongst her peers who we remember more. Is it because she had money, or because she was married to someone who had money that we haven’t bothered to investigate her talents? A book about their life was published last year under strange circumstances so can only be ordered from France.
Finally, there was Inge Scholl who started the Ulm School of Design with her husband graphic designer Otl Aicher & architect Max Bill. If you go through some of the books on Ulm you realise how important she was. That her and Otl ran the precursor to the school as an adult education program. That she did all the paperwork, fundraising, eventually convincing the American government to give them Marshall Plan funding to run the school (on the condition they offered journalism and media classes). Without her, the school wouldn’t exist. But paperwork isn’t real work in the design world as we continue to ignore the realities of commercial success. So her Wikipedia page remains to this day insulting at best.
Rewriting design history is important
Just as there are many women behind the men we think of most, there are also the other men. The men who died too young (like Robert Mallet Stevens). The men who taught or worked at a time when photography hadn’t been commercialised (like Josef Hoffmann). The friends, colleagues, the communities of artists, the financiers, the galleries, the museums. It’s too easy to say ‘here’s a teapot, isn’t it great?’ instead of ‘it’s complicated’ but I think we can take a bit more complication in our explanation of design history. I think we can have complicated conversations about women and how they related to the machismo around them, what they had to do to survive, what they couldn’t carry on doing. We have to be able to weave these interesting stories into the stories of pots, pans, kettles, tables, buildings and the fabric of what we think of as everyday life. It’ll make for better stories and more engaging debates but it’ll also bring humanity to the whole sector. The ubermensch is dead, why can’t we kill the uber-designer too?