Feminist by Design

Empower spaces with wallcoverings by groundbreaking artists
Black and white image of stylish woman in her 60's wearing oversized accessories, jeans and a t-shirt that says "Judy Chicago".

Above Image: Judy Chicago. Photo by Collier Schorr.

By Linda O’Keeffe

A century ago this year, the passage of the 19th amendment granted women their hard-won constitutional right to vote. But in the early twentieth century, the fine arts were considered alpha disciplines, while the applied arts implied utility, and by association, domesticity. As a result, they were filed away as a subordinate, female activity.

Over time, the line between fine and applied arts has blurred, but it was clearly drawn in the early 1920s when Anni Albers joined the Bauhaus, hoping to study painting. As one of the ‘beautiful sex”—a classification assigned by the school’s founder, Walter Gropius—her options were limited to bookbinding, pottery, and weaving. Albers chose weaving, and transformed, in her words, “limp threads” into vivid, labyrinthine patterns and sculptural tapestries. Her bold, graphic work defied  gender categorization—indeed categorization of any kind—earning her the descriptor textile artist, and ultimately, the status of icon.

In an ongoing collaboration with the Anni and Josef Albers Foundation, London-based studio Christopher Farr Cloth recreates a selection of her classic designs, enabling all of us to infuse our spaces with Albers’ bold, pioneering spirit. The collection is available through De Sousa Hughes.

Patterned fabric hanging from a rod.

Albers developed her Temple pattern in 1956 as a study for panels to be hung in Temple Emanu-El in Dallas. Now screen-printed on Belgian linen by Christopher Farr Cloth, Temple is available in five colorways: Hot Pink, Berry, Smoke, Dark Indigo, and Green. Available through De Sousa Hughes.

Black and white photo of a woman resting head on hand.

Anni Albers

At the beginning of Judy Chicago’s career in the 1960s, being told “you paint like a man” was considered a compliment. But Chicago challenged the male-dominated art world by unapologetically mining her femininity when she sculpted, made pottery, or set to work on a canvas. Her most iconic work, The Dinner Party (1974-79), which debuted in San Francisco in 1979, is a monumental installation celebrating the achievements of women from antiquity to the feminist movement of the 1970s. For over five decades now, Chicago has tirelessly dedicated herself to championing the work of women, and one of her proudest achievements is the first Feminist Art Program, founded at Fresno State College.

Chicago has now brought her visionary eye to a new medium—wall coverings—designed for Paperscape and Kravet. Her two designs, Morning and Evening, move through gradations of luminous color. Chicago notes that early in her career, she took an auto-body painting course where she was the only woman in a class of 250. The technique she mastered—applying layers of lacquer to achieve pristine color fades—came into play when she began creating wall coverings, airbrushing acrylic paint onto canvas. “My goal was to learn to spray paint so I could fuse color and surface,” says Chicago, “but I also gained a greater appreciation of the role of craft, which has influenced my entire career. I brought my decades of spraying to bear on designing the wallpaper, which was an effort to share the beauty of the New Mexico morning and evening skies.”

Chicago comes full circle back to San Francisco next year, when the de Young will present a retrospective of her groundbreaking career.  

Rainbow colored wall with Parsons-style table with flower in a vase in front.

Chicago’s Evening wallpaper reflects her mastery of the medium of spray painting. Available through Kravet.

In the work of artist Jackie Gendel, an associate professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, women take action. Whether shooting arrows or slinging electric guitars in what looks like a Sleater-Kinney duo, her figures are animated by her relaxed, fluid brushwork and confident color relationships—a style she traces back to the late 1990s, when she drew imagery for a feminist teen webzine. Gendel values process, and mixes colors while she applies them to achieve a sense of spontaneity.

Inspired by multidisciplinary artists such as Sonia Delauney and Oscar Schlemmer, who defied pigeonholing as either fine or applied artists, Gendel’s longtime desire to create wallpaper recently came to fruition when she embarked on a collaboration with Peg Norriss, a wall-coverings studio founded by two women—designer Barrie Benson and gallerist Chandra Johnson—available exclusively through Schumacher. Gendel created 50 watercolors as points of departure for the capsule collection of three wallpapers.

The suffrage movement is a constant source of inspiration for her, and each of Gendel’s designs raises up women of different eras. Toile de Femmes follows the visual layout of traditional 18th-century toiles—scenic cameos isolated on a light background—but her imagery celebrates confident contemporary women at play: some are kitted out in 1980s gear, while others participate in a women’s march alongside a team of horses. Fresco-like Golden Age portrays classically inspired, life-size renderings of women—one riding a wild cat—and, like most of her work, draws inspiration from a plethora of artful sources. It references Greek mythology and Egyptian tomb paintings; is an homage to André Derain’s 1930s fauvist landscape L’Age D’Or; and nods toward a midcentury project in which Jean Cocteau “tattooed” the walls of a villa on the French Riviera with an array of oversize imagery.

Closeup of graphic print.
Dining room with graphic wallcovering.

Golden Age is a set of three wall panels, measuring 13.5’ wide x 12’ high in an atypical horizontal repeat. It can be customized for any ceiling height by trimming the top or bottom borders. Available through Schumacher.

Designer smiling for camera.

Jackie Gendel

Two Henry Adams Street, Suite 2M-33
San Francisco, CA 94103