Parall(elles) at the MMFA:
A History of Women in Design
The important contribution of women to the world of design over the past 150 years
February 21, 2023
Organized in collaboration with the Stewart Program for Modern Design, the exhibition Parall(elles), at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) until May 28, 2023, celebrates the important contribution of women to the world of design through a rich body of work and objects dating from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day, examines the reasons for their historical under-representation, and offers an in-depth reflection on the nature of design.
This exhibition was born out of the Stewart Program for Modern Design’s Women in Design initiative
The MMFA collection of decorative arts owes its richness in part to its merger with the collection of the Musée des arts décoratifs in 2000. While a significant portion of these works still lived under the roof of the latter, born of the visionary philanthropy of David and Liliane Stewart, the MMFA served to illuminate the history of modern design through the exhibitions Design 1935-1965: What Was Modern (1993-1994), then The Pleasure of the Object: A New Look at the Decorative Arts of the Twentieth Century (1997), and Messengers of Modernism: Artistic Jewelry in the United States from 1940 to 1960 (1998).
All of these exhibitions featured work by women designers, including Ray Eames, Dorothy Hafner and Margaret De Patta, to name a few. But these creations were absorbed into a narrative largely dominated by great designers, all men, whose achievements form the history of modern design as we know it, a history traditionally limited to the industrial production of everyday consumer goods.
However, there is another history of design, this one written in the feminine, but which requires that the very definition of design be questioned and expanded. As its title indicates, the exhibition Parall(elles): A History of Women in Design explores this aspect of design as it has developed in North America, from its beginnings at the end of the 19th century under the influence of the British Arts and Crafts movement to the pluralism of contemporary design, where today’s major issues are reflected.
This exhibition was born out of the Stewart Program for Modern Design’s Women in Design initiative, led by David A. Hanks, which takes the form of a website exploring the joint collections of the MBAM and the Stewart Program through the lens of women’s design.
The Women in Design initiative became the exhibition Parall(elles): A History of Women in Design under the impetus of Jennifer Laurent, Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the MMFA. Starting with the vast collections of the MMFA and the Stewart Program, but looking beyond these works to include in her project objects that were missing but essential to the point she wanted to develop, she succeeded in composing a narrative of this other history that does justice to its complexity and admirable quality.
The Parall(elles) exhibition is part of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ efforts to give women artists and designers – whose remarkable contribution has been neglected or even ignored for too long – the fundamental place they deserve. – Stéphane Aquin, Executive Director
Parall(elles) highlights the importance and complexity of American and Canadian women’s design work by presenting the social, political and personal issues that have shaped their experience over time.
The exhibition considers the intersectionality of gender, identity, race, culture, and social class to foster a better understanding of these women’s achievements. It documents the early training and career opportunities available to them, traces the changing status of the craft, and shows the influence of women’s emancipation movements on their practice.
In addition to revisiting the traditional definitions of the term “design”, the Parall(elles) exhibition invites us to discover a universe of breathtaking beauty and virtuosity.
A new look at North American design over the past 150 years
Bringing together nearly 250 works and objects, the Parall(elles) exhibition adopts a broader definition of design ranging from craftsmanship to industrial design and including ceramics, glass, silverware, jewelry, textiles, furniture, consumer products, graphics, fashion and interior design.
‘The exhibition considers the intersectionality of gender, identity, race, culture, and social class.’
One-third of the objects presented come from the MBAM collection, one of the most important design collections in North America. The exhibition also benefits from numerous loans from the Stewart Program for Modern Design, private collections and some thirty Canadian and American museum institutions.
Among the pieces on display are remarkable vases from the Arts and Crafts movement; a Tiffany lamp – a true gem of early 20th century design – based on a design by Clara Driscoll; a chrome-plated tubular steel desk by Jeannette Meunier Biéler, a rare example of the Bauhaus’ influence on Canadian design; the sculptural Museum coffee set by Hungarian-American designer Eva Zeisel; and a collection of jewelry and evening wear that reflect women’s entry into the world of fashion and jewelry during the interwar years.
The public will also be able to admire the unique prototype of the Fancy Free Corvette, designed by Ruth Glennie for General Motors in 1958, as well as numerous modernist objects and furniture, including original editions of the iconic LCW chair by Charles and Ray Eames and the Spindle wall clock by Lucia DeRespinis.
The influence of women’s experience and the fluidity between art, craft, and design expressed in women’s work from the 1970s onward are represented in works by Judy Chicago, Sonya Clark, Madeleine Dansereau, Mary Lee Hu, Carolyn L. Mazloomi, Faith Ringgold, Joyce J. Scott, and Cindy Sherman, to name a few.
The exhibition also showcases the work of local artists and designers from Quebec and Canada, including Lani Adeoye, Eliza Au, Marie-Hélène Beaulieu, Maryse Chartrand, Chifen Cheng, Ying Gao, Zoë Mowat, Anastasia Radevich, Shay Salehi and Natasha Thorpe.
Many contemporary creations also attest to the interest in sustainability, responsible design, additive manufacturing, new technologies – from robotics to 3D printing – and object making as a noble art form, which have marked the production of the last twenty years.
A monumental work by Molly Hatch
A gigantic mosaic of 198 hand-painted terra cotta plates by designer Molly Hatch dominates the grand staircase of the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion. For this commission from the MBAM, the American artist was inspired by an exceptional glazed porcelain vase from the Minton Factory (design by Christopher Dresser) recently acquired by the Museum.
The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated bilingual catalog published by the MMFA. Presented in a pink or orange acrylic glass box, it includes an essay by Jennifer Laurent, Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the MMFA, on the evolution of women in design, and 70 colour reproductions of works and objects. The book’s graphic design is the work of Charlie Proulx.
On sale exclusively at the MBAM Boutique-Librairie. Museum Members receive a 10% discount on the purchase price.
Credits and curatorship
An exhibition organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in collaboration with the Stewart Program for Modern Design. Curated by Jennifer Laurent, Curator of Decorative Arts and Design, MMFA.
The MMFA would like to thank the patrons of the exhibition, Lucie Bouthillette, Sarah Ivory-Stewart, Monique Parent, Julia Reitman, the Schulich Foundation and Alysia Yip-Hoi, as well as the donors of the Cercle Forces Femmes de la Fondation du MBAM.
Featured image: Ruth Glennie (1929-2018) for General Motors, Fancy Free Corvette, 1958. Collection of Jürgen Reimer, Germany. Photo General Motors LLCOther recent articles
The MMFA is one of Canada’s most visited museums. The Museum’s original temporary exhibitions combine various artistic disciplines – fine arts, music, film, fashion and design – and are exported around the world. Its rich encyclopedic collection, distributed among five pavilions, includes international art, world cultures, decorative arts and design, and Quebec and Canadian art. mmfa.qc.ca