A WOMAN'S TOUCH: Women in Design from 1860 to the Present by Isabelle Anscombe

A WOMAN'S TOUCH: Women in Design from 1860 to the Present

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KIRKUS REVIEW

What do the fashionable decorator Elsie de Wolfe and the renowned Bauhaus weaver Anni Albers have in common? Both were women--and by the author's broad definition, ""women in design."" What distinguishes Claire McCardell, designer of innovative sports clothes, from Elsa Schiaparelli, ditto? She was American--and because this patchy wrap-up provides scant American coverage, she's not included. Anscombe, a British writer on art and antiques, wishes to show a number of things that don't quite fit together: that women contributed more to design, since the 1860s Arts-and-Crafts awakening, than has been recognized; that design is the equal of ""art""; that women made it so. Also built in, and at odds with the feminist author's accolades for the self-expression of Elsie de Wolfe, the Vienna decorative ceramicists, and Schiaparelli, is a squishy Marxism happiest with women who worked for the masses by designing utilitarian low-cost items (as some Soviet designers briefly did). . . although it was singular creative personalities like Alexandra Exter, Sonia Delaunay (both Russian ÉmigrÉs), and Sophie Tauber-Arp who blurred the distinction between ""design"" and ""art."" And, at odds with all the foregoing were those women who pursued pure craft, like the ""practical,"" entrepreneurial American potters of the 1890s and the mystic/primitive British weavers and dyers of the 1920s, about whom Anscombe writes most fully and usefully. (They belonged to relatively self-contained, inherently female movements.) But overall these women pursued ""design"" in so many different ways that questions about both women and design need to be more specific and focused. E.g., did women weavers and fabric designers significantly affect 20th-century fabrics, the area they tended to dominate? Undoubtedly. Did women fashion designers, only spottily represented (no discussion of Chanel, no mention of the US, or Italy, or Finland's Marimekko line), differ from men? Quite probably. Are women a force in design in countries other than Britain, where Anscombe decries male rule? Certainly. On a practical basis, the book is not comprehensive or representative. Insofar as it talks about Britain a lot and the US only a little, its value here is limited. And where major figures are concerned--the Glasgow school, the variegated Russians, the Bauhaus--other, better sources exist. (For ground-breaking feminist studies in the area, meanwhile, see Dolores Hayden's The Great Domestic Revolution and Redesigning the American Dream.)

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Viking