So iconic and prevailing are the male influences on modern 20th century designer furniture, with the likes of Mies Van Der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Marcel Breuer and Arne Jacobsen, that most of us are completely unaware of the female contribution to contemporary furniture design during this time. Unless studied in depth, you would be forgiven for thinking that female contemporary furniture designers were all but non-existent.
To dispel this myth, we can look at the work of several outstanding female contemporary furniture designers – Eileen Gray is one such woman. Throughout her career, which started around 1913, she had many strings to her bow, mastering many crafts, styles and mediums. Her creative designer furniture reflected her vibrant personality, though her style changed as she progressed. Her inviting Bibendum armchair, designed around 1920 for a milliner, is one of the most identifiable pieces of designer furniture from the 20th century. Its back and side arm rests are one, formed from two semi-circular padded tubes, upholstered in soft full grain leather. This is stitched onto a round padded cushion and upholstered in the same plain coloured leather. No frame is visible until this point – when the polished, chromium plated, stainless steel tubing, used as support, comes into evidence. Gray named this iconic piece of designer furniture Bibendum, through an alleged inspiration taken from the Michelin tyre promotional character.
Florence Knoll, formerly Florence Schust, played quite a substantial role in creating illustrious and modernist designer furniture too. Her husband, Hans Knoll, listened to her ideas and reasoning and also began focusing on furniture and interior design, as she suggested – his architectural business had taken a downturn due to the war.
Knoll firmly believed that architects could adapt their background, craft and skill to furniture design. This was evident in her groundbreaking achievements. The sublime and minimalist Knoll Lounge collection, designed in 1954, irrefutably belongs in the pantheon of designer furniture from the modernist movement. With its sleek straight lines, each perfectly square unit was produced in a leather option with leather-covered buttons, or fabric without buttons. With an exposed tubular heavy-gauge steel base and legs available in brushed or polished chrome, this timeless and charismatic collection included a chair, a sofa and a bench, the latter two pieces both crafted in 2-seater and 3-seater options. They were all exemplary and classic pieces of true designer furniture and 20th century perfectionism.
Given the social changes that were about to occur at this time, these two talented ladies, as well as a few others such as Lilly Reich and Ray Eames, represented women in the work place at its best – achieving names for themselves as renowned architects of designer furniture, as well as garnering respect in a very male dominated business. They aptly demonstrated that there was more to women than just home-making and bringing up children and paved the way for future female designers and in general, women in the workplace.