With Its Exhibition Add to the Cake, Foreign Legion Calls for Inclusion

The curators take on the subject of gender inequity in design history and contemporary practice, in a show staged at Kunstgewerbemuseum Dresden.

A timeline outlining some achievements of women in design, produced as part of the new exhibition Add to the Cake with artwork by Raby Florance Fofana and graphic design by Andrea Anner. Courtesy Klemens Renner for Foreign Legion

The cliché that “history is written by the victors” might be best used when describing the canon of design history. Since emerging out of the Industrial Revolution, the discipline’s most documented figures have predominantly been men. While many might be aware of designers like Morris, Le Corbusier, Loewy, Sottsass, Starck, Yoshioka, and Wanders, few female names have made it into the history books.

But these omissions rarely reflect the actual quality, innovation, contribution, or influence of female design practitioners, appearing instead to stem from the long-held and systemic belief that women are incapable of the same creative feats as men. In the past few years, seminal talents like Charlotte Perriand, Ray Eames, and Anni Albers have finally received the posthumous recognition they deserve. But with gender inequity still prevalent in the industry, has this recent push been enough to inspire change in how we look back at history and address the present? What role can cultural institutions and research-based initiatives play in doing so?

Presented at the Kunstgewerbemuseum Dresden (Museum of Applied Arts Dresden), Add to the Cake is an unusual exhibition, a provocation of sorts that seeks to dig deeper. Mounted by respected design curators and writers Matylda Krzykowski and Vera Sacchetti, the multifaceted show takes a different stance on the issue by analyzing the conditions of the past to propose a more inclusive rather than divisive future for the discipline.

Launched as the pair’s first initiative under the umbrella of the new curatorial think tank, the exhibition stems out of A Woman’s Work, a conference held at the museum this January. The symposium brought together a group of local and international design-minded practitioners, scientists, authors, critics, and curators—including respected gallerist Libby Sellers, top journalist Alice Rawsthorn, and prolific designer Katrin Greiling—who discussed a range of topics related to the invisibility of women in design history. Moving from a debate about how best to retell history to the question of who or what should ultimately take on the task, the conference concluded with a discussion about how to reform structures that exist now.

“What became very clear to us during the symposium is that the same reasons why women were made invisible 100 years ago are still common today,” Sacchetti explained. “Female historians are rare, and women have rarely written history. And so there has been a lack of women to admire. It has always been about studying the work of men, being inspired by men. Therefore, if you don’t have role models, it’s hard to see yourself as a teacher, a business leader, or a successful designer. Women have always had to work two or three times as hard to get recognition.”

The new exhibition stems out of A Woman’s Work, a conference by Foreign Legion held at Japanisches Palais in Dresden this January. Courtesy Klemens Renner for Foreign Legion

True to their signature approach and implementation of design as an agent for activism and rethinking tradition, the conference was organized to reflect the nature and treatment of the topic at hand. “We physically subverted the stage-and-audience model by creating a set design centered around a table—one at which everyone had a seat and could participate,” Sacchetti adds. This holistic approach carried through into the programming and curation of the subsequent Add to the Cake exhibition, which opened in July.

“The most repeated statement at the symposium was that we need to add to the canon of design history,” says Krzykowski. “One of the speakers—curator and writer Amelie Klein—sent out an email in which she talked about the typology of a cake as an unpacked metaphor, the idea that if a cake contains more layers, it becomes more interesting. For us, it signifies the idea of supplementing or building on design history. It’s not about erasing the history of male practitioners, but saying that women should have equal footing in terms of recognition, visibility, and respect.”

On view until Sunday, November 3, the Add to the Cake exhibition collects and develops topics that were first discussed during the A Woman’s Work symposium in the context of other reference materials and commissioned projects developed by female creatives. While a report, books, photos, and other forms of documentation recap the event, the exhibition offers up a set of proposals for why institutions did not contribute to the visibility of women in the past 100 years, and what they could do to rectify this endemic oversight. Among these conclusions was the inability to track female designers because they changed their names after getting married, or could no longer work because they got married. Until recently, museum databases rarely catalogued historical talents based on their gender.

The curators have created a timeline in the exhibition that tracks the creative output of women designers in the past and present, and speculates as to what might happen in the future. Throughout the run of the show, performative moments seek to solidify key findings and express the concept of collaborative work, which has often been an important aspect of feminist historiography.

Krzykowski and Sacchetti also commissioned pairs of designers to develop speculative projects based on a set of guidelines they formulated for how people should work cooperatively. These proofs-of-concept address various aspects of the past, present, and future of female design practice. Developed by Swiss furniture company Vitra’s senior design researcher Chrissie Muhr and Berlin-based South Korean graphic designer Ji Hee Lee, the For Your Information initiative is a not-for-profit, periodic newsletter that aggregates articles written about women creatives. This project is one of a few that will continue to evolve, a prospect Krzykowski and Sacchetti see as integral to their mission.

“For us, it’s the difference of curating an exhibition that works as a catalyst for further ideation and conversation rather than where static ideas go to die,” Sacchetti concludes. “The projects were commissioned to have three dimensions: within the exhibition, within the museum, and outside its walls.”

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Categories: Arts + Culture