Among a healthy-sized group of reporters, photographers and other members of the press, five fashionable female artists turned up for the media preview of “California's Designing Women, 1896-1986” at the Autry National Center last Wednesday. Even though everyone had nametags, the lady designers didn't need any — their artful accessories and youthful exuberance were enough to let us know they were there for their designs.
Marilyn Kay Austin, Gere Kavanaugh, Judith Hendler, Deborah Sussman and April Greiman are among the 46 artists whose work is featured in “California's Designing Women,” curated by Bill Stern, executive director at the Museum of California Design. Dressed in a relaxed linen ecru suit with a desert-motif tie and butterscotch saddle shoes, Stern himself was the picture of elegance, making the rest of us long for the days when people made some kind of effort to look good before leaving the house. The group reminded us of the West Coast version of Advanced Style, a fashion blog focusing on the older generation.
Fashion is an important component of “California's Designing Women,” which puts women's roles in context within the history of California design. Along with print, lighting, furniture and product designs, the show highlights clothing design, too. There's a display of swimsuit fashions with two wool bathing suits from the early 20th century, along with swimwear designed by Mary Ann Deweese (1913-1993), right next to a fringed black bikini and animal-print “scandal suit” by Margit Fellegi (1903-1975).
Barbie-doll designers Ruth Handler (1916-2002) and John W. “Jack” Ryan (1926-91) worked with Mattel Inc. in El Segundo, where Charlotte Johnson (1917-97) designed Barbie's “American Airlines Stewardess” uniform and her “Miss Astronaut” getup in the mid-1960s.
For anyone who loved or missed LACMA's “California Design, 1930-1965” exhibit, “California's Designing Women” is a closer look at the driving force behind the California aesthetic (not surprising, considering Bill Stern was also a consulting curator for the LACMA show). “Women in California have been more likely to control the process of product creation, from conception to design to production,” he observes. “They've also been able to take advantage of the special possibilities California has offered for the repurposing of materials produced by such local industries as construction, aircraft manufacture and even plumbing.”
This early DIY-meets-assemblage technique is evident in Judith Hendler's one-of-a-kind jewelry, which she fashions out of nonbiodegradable surplus acrylic initially used to make aircraft windshields. “I'm the original recycler,” she says. Stern asked her to be part of show after he found her working at a thrift store.
Meanwhile, textile and housewares designer Gere Kavanaugh caught the curator's eye at a party when she wore a coat she designed, which is now part of the show, too. She also designed clever pop-up chairs and fabric inspired by her early years walking to school through the Memphis Zoo.
Renowned designer Deborah Sussman showed off her multicolored fingernails against a painted backdrop from one of her bold graphics. Among many other projects, Sussman-Prejza, a firm that Sussman runs with husband Paul Prejza, designed the “identity, signage, wayfinding and pageantry” of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Sussman painted her fingernails to illustrate how the 2012 London Olympics are using the same color scheme as the palette from the '84 Olympics.
In 1976, April Greiman moved to Los Angeles, where she launched her own practice, Made in Space, before serving as chair of visual communications at CalArts from 1992-94. Greiman was among the first to use the computer in order to make graphics like Does It Make Sense?, a fold-out poster published in Design Quarterly #133 (1986). That's Greiman herself in the poster.
The adorable Marilyn Kay Austin was the first female staff designer at Architectural Pottery, where she helped create large-scale ceramics in the early 1960s. Later, she designed plumbing products for American Standard. “I never got to design a toilet,” she laments. The blue vase is from curator Stern's own collection. So, did Austin get to keep any of the earthenware she designed?
“I have seconds,” she says, meaning she got to keep the ones they couldn't sell.