The newness of California, and the state’s periodic bursts of population growth, afforded unprecedented opportunities for women to participate in the creation and production of design, one of the principal engines of California’s dynamic economy, now the sixth largest in the world. As California’s extraordinary role in American design is receiving the recognition it has long deserved, California’s Designing Women, 1896–1986 acknowledges the work of more than fifty of the women who, as designers and entrepreneurs, helped make that distinction possible.
Women have long been recognized as practitioners of the decorative arts, but commercial design and fine craft, which are the focus of California’s Designing Women, 1896–1986, were long considered the province of men. This unprecedented exhibition honors female designers who made major contributions to Californian and American design by incorporating into their work the newest styles, materials, and technologies of their time—often influenced by California’s unique confluence of cultures, among them Indigenous American, Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican. Many of its approximately 240 examples of textiles, ceramics, furniture, lighting, tapestries, jewelry, clothing, and graphics are being exhibited for the first time.
These functional and decorative objects, which span almost a century of design movements—from Arts and Crafts to Art Deco to Mid-Century Modern and beyond—exemplify California’s national and international reputation for unrestrained creativity. The exhibition opens with hand-cut, wood-block printed posters and closes with one of the first computer-aided graphics. In between these technological poles are works created from a gamut of materials, including wood, abalone, glass, cotton, steel, silver, acetate, acrylic, and fiberglass, materials of American daily life forged in California’s vast, welcoming workshop