Notes from Vienna: Celebrating women in furniture design

VIENNA – Last month, this column took you to Seestadt here in Austria’s capital for a peek at the future of the home. This week, we head into the center of Vienna’s old town for a look at furniture design’s past. In one of the most progressive cities in the world, a place in which powerful women have often commanded attention and adoration, it shouldn’t surprise to find an exhibit dedicated to celebrating furniture design’s leading women. 

The Möbelmuseum Wien here in Austria’s capital city, also known as the Schönbrunn Furniture Museum, presented a special exhibition in June, “Here We Are! Women in Design 1900 – Today.” Curating important works by approximately 80 women designers, including modernists Eileen Gray, Charlotte Perriand, Lilly Reich and Clara Porset, the exhibition presented a compelling narrative of modernism’s past and at the same time points toward that broad style’s future. Several contemporary female designers also were featured, including Matali Crasset, Faye Toogood, Patricia Urquiola and Julia Lohmann.

By focusing attention on the key women in furniture design, showing forms most of us would recognize, and placing these famed forms into social and historical context, I came away from the experience freshly appreciative of the many influential women in design and of the many challenges they have faced not only to get a seat at the table, but to design, fabricate, manufacture, and sell that seat . . . and the table. 

How to choose a few of the exhibition’s pieces for highlighting here? I can’t promise to be definitive, but I can pass along those of the installation that jumped out to me, that are even now, writing about them, sources of inspiration. I hope they inspire you, as well. 

Lilly Reich

Shown here is what is believed to be Lily Reich’s Bed No. 258 from 1930, a daybed in leather, wood and steel not made commercially until 1964, by Knoll. The Möbelmuseum borrowed the piece for the special exhibition from the Vitra Design Museum, which supplied many of the great pieces on display. 

An architect and designer, Reich had her own design studio before she met and began collaborating with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the mid-1920s and after working at the Wiener Werkstätte with Josef Hoffman, the great modernist designer. She was the first woman on the board of the Deutscher Werkbund, Germany’s association of designers and architects, and she taught at the Bauhaus, the Weimar arts and design school shut down by, ironically in this case, the Third Reich. Lily Reich died just after WWII.

Eileen Gray

Has there been another decade as influential in furniture and the visual arts than the 1920s? Next up we have Eileen Gray, who also collaborated with some of design’s biggest names. I love everything about Gray’s story: She had no formal training in either furniture design or architecture, but became prominent in both and, as a result, a driver of the Modern Movement in architecture in Europe. Irish-born, Gray made her name in art deco before turning to modernism, and you can see elements of both in her occasional table, a piece from the mid-1920s that also showcases art deco’s reliance on symmetry. 

A through line of the exhibit is how multidisciplinary these pioneering women invariably were, leaving legacies in primarily furnishings and architecture, but also in lighting, textiles, ceramics and home décor. 

Charlotte Perriand

My favorite piece in the exhibition, perhaps in the entire museum, was a shelving unit designed by Charlotte Perriand for a student apartment at Cité Universitaire in Paris. This historical note caught my eye because for each of the six summers I taught in Paris, my home was Cité Universitaire, a sprawling university complex in the south of the city that features buildings designed by many of the world’s leading architects. 

The bookshelf’s bright colors appear on panels that, depending on whether they are open or closed, present various configurations and color patterns. Made in 1952 specifically for the Maison de la Tunisie at Cité Universitaire, the bookshelf is on loan from the Vitra Design Museum. 

Perriand had several pieces in the Möbelmuseum exhibition, a testimony to her longevity and her many prominent collaborations, including several with Jean Prouvé and also with Pierre Jeanneret. The bookshelf is a product of both alliances: Prouvé encouraged Perriand to work with metal (the base is lacquered aluminum), while the origin of the piece is a simple wood shelf she designed with Jeanneret in 1940. 

An infuriating back-of-the-baseball-card fact for Perriand is that she applied to work at Le Corbusier’s furniture design studio in Paris in 1927 only to be summarily rejected. “We don’t embroider cushions here,” she was told. She landed the job a month later, however, after Le Corbusier saw one of her pieces. She designed there for more than a decade, and I’ll bet you didn’t know that that pony skin version of the famous Le Corbusier chaise lounge was Perriand’s idea. In fact, she also co-designed the famous lounge with Corbusier in 1928, a contribution history almost always overlooks.

Matali Crasset

Another great decision by the “Here We Are!” curators was to include contemporary furniture designers making a difference right now. French designer Matali Crasset is one of these “influencers,” if you’ll allow that term. Before setting up her own studio in 1998, Crasset worked for Philippe Starck, among others, and as recently as 10 years ago she designed furniture for Ikea that, as best as I can gather, is still in production. 

Crasset is worth a deep dive because, while overused, the term “visionary” aptly applies in her case. She was a graduate of the design school Les Ateliers, and her modular, geometric, modernist world includes furniture, graphic design, installations and architecture. 

From the Möbelmuseum exhibit, shown here is Crasset’s “Extension de générosité” armchair, or “Extension for cosiness.” A fun, whimsical piece that defies convention, the chair re-configures based on the movements of its occupant. This piece also employs lacquered metal. 

Faye Toogood

I like to close out columns with a soft landing, like a ripe pear falling from a tree, so I’ll close out this one with another whimsical piece, this last one from Faye Toogood, an English designer. Like her name, the “Roly Poly” chair is too good to be true, a seating piece designed with pregnant women in mind. 

When was the last time you saw a furniture piece designed with motherhood as a key consideration? Right. Me, either. 

The Roly Poly shell is designed to provide maximum comfort for any body shape, including shapes created by pregnancy, according to the exhibition notes, and if you squint a little, the shape might even remind you of a womb. The polyethylene Roly Poly has been in commercial production at Driade since 2018. I checked online and found one for $2,500. 

So, here they are, in Vienna, female furniture designers we all should celebrate.

Brian Carroll

Brian Carroll covered the international home furnishings industry for 15 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He chairs the Department of Communication at Berry College in Northwest Georgia, where he has been a professor since 2003.

View all posts by Brian Carroll →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to our Newsletter for breaking news, special features and early access to all the industry stories that matter!

Sponsored By: