The Pathmakers exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design features, or in MAD’s words “celebrates,” notable women working in the fields of art and design. Split between two floors, it features a range of pieces spanning the period from the mid-1900s to the present. As I first walked in, there was no obvious focal point. Few pieces in the exhibit are particularly attention-grabbing. Instead, they wait for the viewer’s eyes to land, and offer rich nuance and detail once that happens. I was surprised at the number of wall hangings, an unusual choice that leaves the traditional museum-goer searching for an entry point. A metallic swoop of a chair by Vivian Beer provides some balance on the contemporary floor, but overall I was initially left wanting something dramatic and demanding.

MAD posits that during the 50s and 60s, men were influencers in the fields of architecture, sculpture, and painting, leaving textiles and ceramics for women. The curation reflects this diversion of creative energy, limelighting mediums that have been considered for their functionality first and foremost, or ignored altogether. These include the ephemeral woven nylons of Kay Sekimachi and a swath of white beaded curtain designed for the UN Delegates’ lounge by Hella Jongerius. While Jongerius’ curtain doubly functions as a partition within the space, I found certain clusters of swatches lacking. The potential size and tactility of textiles gives them drama, but the reliance on color and pattern can get visually tiring. One notable exception is the structural ribbon-like hanging of Olga de Amaral, whose bold colors and thick, crisscrossing strands stand out from some of the more pastel and 2D textiles.

Hanging #57, ca. 1957, Olga de Amaral, Hand spun wool
Hanging #57, ca. 1957, Olga de Amaral, Hand spun wool, 87 x 43 in. (221 x 109.2 cm), Museum of Arts and Design; gift of the Dreyfus Foundation, through the American Craft Council, 1989, Photo by Eva Heyd.

The visual and physical softness of these textile pieces plays into a classifiable, reductive femininity, but there are unexpected riffs on the theme. Translucent glass versions of tools Anne Wilson used in her large-scale installation weavings are on display, in addition to meticulous graph-paper drawings by Lenore Tawney, the fiber artist, revealing her meditations on the flexibility of a straight line. This insight into the creative process is one of the strengths of the exhibit, especially since many of the artists revive near-ancient methods of working with clay, textile, or other mediums. For example, Magdalene Odundo hand-coils and burnishes her vases that are at once prehistoric and futuristic. On the fourth floor, a forest of copper piping topped with mushroom-like showerheads provides a needed rawness, thanks to studio Front Design’s foray into the field of industrial design.

Axor WaterDream / Axor ShowerProducts, 2014
Axor WaterDream / Axor ShowerProducts, 2014
Copper, brass
120 x 240 in. (304.8 x 609.6 cm)
Courtesy of Hansgrohe/Axor

It is difficult to believe that Pathmakers’ emphasis on textiles and household items—lamps, teapots, and chairs—is a result of women’s relegation to the more domestic mediums, especially since the exhibit includes contemporary artists. Unsurprisingly, even within these feminized genres a boldness and artistic courageousness pervades. Two of Vuokko Eskolin Nurmesniemi’s circle dresses employ a graphic minimalism, succeeding equally as art and clothing. On the adjacent wall, a video shows a model swiveling from pose to pose in Gabriel A. Maher’s bisected chair, which was designed to demonstrate the ways body language carries meaning and gender. The androgynous model’s legs open and close, body weight shifting from one side to the other, and it takes a few loops of the video for the movement to become a hypnotic flow, absolved of the power of one posture and the powerlessness of another.

Untitled (circle dress), ca. 1964, Vuokko Eskolin Nurmesniemi
Untitled (circle dress), ca. 1964, Vuokko Eskolin Nurmesniemi, Screen printed cotton, 46 x 46 in. (116.8 x 116.8 cm), Museum of Arts and Design; gift of the American Craft Council, 1990, Photo by Eva Heyd.

One important contribution of Pathmakers is that in addition to highlighting female artists, it also reintroduces mediums that are rarely the focal point of an entire exhibition. This is not as simple as saying that a women-centric exhibit necessarily involves artistic means of expression that are more stereotypically feminine. Rather, shifting the spotlight to female artists is inseparable from recognizing the unconventional places where they made space for themselves, particularly during the mid-century period. A lack of painting and drawing is a marked departure from most exhibits featuring women artists, and having to work a little at a museum-going experience is also refreshing. One exhibit alone drawing attention to women, textiles, ceramics, and metal may not influence the current preoccupations of the art scene, but at bare minimum it pays an overdue homage.

Pathmakers runs through September 30, 2015 at the Museum of Arts and Design.

Photos courtesy: The Museum of Arts and Design