Women in Design

Class of the Women's Art School, ca. 1900

Women have always been influential voices in design. Working in disciplines as varied as graphic design, product design, and textile design, women designers have greatly enriched their respective fields. However, from the anonymity of domestic craft to traditionally male-dominated fields, such as industrial design and architecture, women have routinely been excluded from the story of design. Equal access to art and design education was a cause championed by Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt, who established the museum of decorative arts that became the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Carrying on that legacy, this Design Topic features a selection of remarkable women in design from the museum’s collection.

Explore women in design below through individual designers, design disciplines, and Cooper Hewitt’s past exhibitions.

Featured Designers

Alice Cordelia Morse

Painting of a woman facing forward in a strong stance holding open a large book, with the words "Occupations of Women and Their Compensation" in bold black letters above her head.

A prominent artist of the Arts and Crafts movement, Alice Cordelia Morse (American, 1863–1961) started her career as a glass painter for the firm of Louis C. Tiffany before returning to The Cooper Union for postgraduate training in art and design. She began designing book covers in the late 1880s and quickly became one of the most sought-after artists in the field.

 

Aliki van der Kruijs

Blanket potraying different shades of the color blue, which are divided into rows with the darker shades on the left and the lighter shades on the right.

Aliki van der Kruijs (Dutch, born 1984) has a studio in The Hague, the Netherlands and works on self-initiated projects, collaborations, and commissions that juxtapose her interdisciplinary background in applied art. Interested in the relationship between humans and nature, she has invented a special technique to record the falling of raindrops on textiles and porcelain.

 

Althea McNish

Vertical columns of vibrant reds, oranges, pinks, and purples cover a long, horizontal textile, with equally vibrant columns of leaf-like ovals overlaid on most of the fabric.

Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Althea McNish (British, 1924–2020) moved to London and studied textile design at the Royal College of Arts. After graduating, she began designing furniture fabrics for Liberty. Known for her unprecedented combinations of patterns and colors, McNish helped introduce the Caribbean aesthetic to an international audience.

April Greiman

Abstract, collage-like poster with [Your Turn, My Turn, 1983] printed in large red letters across the center. Most of the poster is rendered in offset red and blue, giving the effect of a technological glitch.

Trained at the Kansas City Art Institute, April Greiman (American, born 1948) continued her studies at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Basel, Switzerland. Establishing a studio in Los Angeles, California, in 1976, she became the leading figure of the emergent “NEW WAVE” design movement. Greiman’s transmedia approach to design juxtaposes typography, photography, and other elements.

 

Dorothy Liebes

A rectangular woven textile reminiscent of the American flag, with a solid blue rectangle in the upper left corner where the stars usually are and a blue, pink, and green plaid pattern where the stripes would be.

Accomplished weaver Dorothy Wright Liebes (American, 1897-1972) is often credited as a vital part of the California Modernist movement, and was once one of the most well-known designers in the United States. Liebes was a sharp businesswoman who believed mass-produced textiles could reach wider audiences while retaining a handwoven appearance. 

 

Elaine Lustig Cohen

Collage of different images such as statues, photographs, and text of different sizes

After the death of her husband Alvin Lustig, Elaine Lustig Cohen (American, 1927–2016) took the reins of his graphic design business. Retaining his clients, she quickly learned how to run the business and became a successful graphic designer herself. Cohen fulfilled numerous commissions before opening the bookstore and gallery Ex Libris with her second husband, Arthur Cohen.

Eva Zeisel

A four-piece porcelain tea set decorated with highly-detailed depictions of different landmarks in Leningrad and accented with ornate gold designs.

Originally a student of art and traditional ceramics in her native Europe, Eva Zeisel (Hungarian, 1906–2011) enjoyed international success as an industrial designer. Surviving imprisonment in Russia, escaping the Anschluss in Austria, and immigrating to the United States in 1938, she went on to receive numerous accolades throughout her long, groundbreaking career.

Ilonka Karasz

Cover of The New Yorker featuring a drawing of a crowded trolley passing down a people-filled street lined with giant flags. Title text at the top of the image reads [The New Yorker] with smaller text on either side reading [Sept 2. 1939.] and [Price 15 cents].

Ilonka Karasz (Hungarian, 1896–1981) studied art at the Royal Academy of Arts and Crafts in Budapest, where she was one of the first women to be admitted. After immigrating to the United States in 1913, she became an active member of the New York design scene. Working in a variety of mediums, Karasz is well known for her wall coverings and illustrations.

Lanette Scheeline

A sea of large, pumpkin orange poppies, whose petals appear to be blowing in the wind, amidst pale greenish-yellow grass and a black background.

Lanette Scheeline (American, 1910–2001) graduated from the College of Fine Arts at the University of California at Berkeley in 1932. After teaching for a year, she worked for a textile silkscreen factory in San Francisco before establishing her own studio. Scheeline was later noted for her work for the avant-garde wallpaper firm Katzenbach and Warren.

 

Margarethe Fröhlich

Overhead view of a bedroom with a large black area rug, on which sit two armchairs, one tan and one red, facing a large bed with red bedding and a built-in cabinet.

Trained in Germany, Margarethe Fröhlich (Austrian, 1901–1977) worked as an interior designer and model maker in Prague, Czech Republic, until she was displaced by the Nazi regime. Settling in New York City, Fröhlich produced models for designers such as Raymond Loewy before moving on to design education at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College and the Waldorf School.

 

Rebeca Méndez

A brightly colored floral pattern repeats against a vibrant yellow background. The pattern is overlaid on top of a black and white photograph of a potato, along with several lines of mostly redacted, miniscule black text.

In 1996, Rebeca Méndez (Mexican-American, born 1962) opened her eponymous studio, specializing in film and video installations for cultural programs and institutions, collaborations with architects on interior commissions, photography, book design, and public art. Her practice embodies experimentation, collaboration, and creative integrity.

 

Sheila Hicks

Thick, white, cloud-like fabric is wrapped in an uneven, net-like pattern of thin, colorful threads.

Sheila Hicks (American, b. 1934) is one of the most important contemporary textile artists of the 20th and 21st century. After receiving an MFA degree from the Yale School of Art under the tutelage of Josef Albers, Hicks was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to paint in Chile, where she learned to weave from local weavers, beginning her investigation into fiber as an artistic medium that continues today.

Sonia Delaunay

Alternating rectangular sections of red and black lines that have the appearance of piano keys cover a bright white background; the repeating lines and high contrast between the colors has a dizzying effect.

Active primarily in Paris, France, Sonia Delaunay (Ukrainian, 1885–1979) was a modern artist and designer who merged art and everyday life. Her work encompassed a variety of mediums, including textiles. Along with her husband Robert Delaunay, she developed a theory for the vibration of contrasting colors when they are placed side by side.

Suzie Zuzek

Large, lively, many-petaled white flowers bloom out from pea green tendrils of leaves, all set against a black background.

Prolific textile designer Suzie Zuzek (American, 1920-2011) created thousands of eye-catching prints for fashion designer Lilly Pulitzer. The unexpected combination of classic sportswear styling with playful, eclectic patterns defined a uniquely American style. Zuzek’s boundless imagination fueled Pulitzer’s runaway success.

 

Trude Guermonprez

Vertical columns of light golden thread run down the length of a long textile, with vibrant squares of pink, purple, red, and yellow cascading down the columns.

A student of European craft, Trude Guermonprez (German, 1910–1979) played an important role in the American fiber arts movement, particularly during her tenure at the California College of Arts and Crafts. An influential educator, Guermonprez’s Bauhaus-influenced textiles greatly contributed to the development of modernism.

Exhibitions Highlighting Women

Sarah & Eleanor Hewitt: Designing a Modern Museum

On View through October 23, 2022

A chronicle of the lives and contributions of the sisters and how they created The Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration.

Sophia Crownfield: Drawn from Nature

Watercolor study of yellow squash or pumpkin blossoms, with green vines, on white paper
Previously on View: February 4 to July 31, 2022

From the 1890s to the 1920s, Sophia Crownfield designed prints for prominent silk and wallpaper firms in the United States.

Suzie Zuzek for Lilly Pulitzer

Watercolor textile design with full yellow-orange and pink blossoms outlined in black, alternating with cream flowers outlined in the same colors. Black-outlined leaves, colorful small florals, and black patches fill in the design.
Previously on View: June 10, 2021 to January 2, 2022

Zuzek was a staff designer for Key West Hand Print Fabrics, where Lilly Pulitzer sourced most of her fabrics between 1962 and 1985.

Contemporary Muslim Fashions

Previously on View: February 28, 2020 to July 11, 2021

Contemporary Muslim Fashions is the first major museum exhibition to explore the rise of the modest fashion industry.

Rebeca Méndez Selects

In a large room with walls embellished with gilded paint on the decorative ornamentation and a wood inlaid floor, large swatches of fabric of various designs hang over a glass vitrine. An exotic bird with glossy blue feathers and a dramatically long tail is posed standing on a bar and enclosed in a glass vitrine and several large, antique books displayed open. Two large preserved eagles are in another vitrine, lying on their sides. Scroll down to learn more about the exhibition Rebeca Mendez Selects.
Previously on View: October 5 2018 to June 16 2019

Guest curator Rebeca Méndez considers how culture, design, technology, and the natural world have converged throughout history.

Scraps

Previously on View: September 23, 2016 to April 23, 2017

Offering creative approaches to textile waste, this exhibition presents the work of three designers thinking through sustainability.