Mid-century modern, the umbrella term for architecture, furniture and graphic design of the mid-30s to mid-60s, is having a moment—quite literally, everyone and their mother is obsessed with Eames chairs and anything that involves the word “deco.” But a quick Google search of famed designers reveals a list that skews largely male. It’s no secret that in design as in art as in the rest of human achievements, the so-called fairer sex tends to get passed over for its pants-wearing, beard-sporting contemporaries. Here’s proof that ladies are just as adept at creating iconic designs as they are at scouring thrift stores and eBay for the perfect egg chair.
If you know one name of mid-century design, it’s probably Eames. Unfortunately, the Eames you’re thinking of is most likely Charles Eames, not his equally if not more talented wife, Ray. The design duo introduced the world to the eponymous lounge chair that revolutionized the world of furniture—you know a chair is more than just a chair when it’s exhibited at MoMA. And though Charles himself once admitted, “Anything I can do, Ray can do better,” his wife and partner is often relegated to the status of his helper and assistant (Ray Eames has only 42 works and 19 exhibitions at MoMa to Charles’ 92 and 46).
A pioneer of modernism in architecture, Gray was born in Ireland but worked in France for the better part of her life. She is perhaps best known for the E-1027 villa in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France, an ocean-side home near the Italian border, designed entirely by Gray. A “manifesto both for its architecture and for the fixed and free-standing furniture,” the house is a testament to Gray’s vision and attention to detail.
The villa, derelict from a turbulent history that involves unwanted sexy murals painted by a naked Le Corbusier, a bruised male ego, a morphine addict, a murder and some drunk Italian soldiers, has recently been restored and is open for viewing by appointment.
Gray’s second claim to fame is the Bibendum armchair, which she claimed was her the feminist response to Le Corbusier’s Grand Confort. In true French style, the donut-meets-caterpillar shape was inspired neither of those things but by something much more chic: the Michelin Man.
Florence Knoll Bassett
At 101, Florence Knoll Bassett is a true vintage. After studying at some of the world’s most hallowed halls of art, architecture and design (Cranbrook Academy of Art, Illinois Institute of Technology, London’s Architectural Association), Knoll Bassett joined the elite furniture company Knoll in 1943. As the creative force behind the company, she created nearly a third of Knoll’s coveted designs and spearheaded the in-house interior design studio and the textiles studio before ascending to President.
In the spirit of her Bauhaus predecessors, she practiced the philosophy of “total design,” taking into account the entire environment, from the detailing on the tile to the structure of the building, in her designs. While her relationship to her work was refreshingly ego-free—she famously quipped that her creations were the humble “meat and potatoes” of commercial projects—she also knew her own value: “I am not a decorator,” Knoll Bassett asserted in a 1964 New York Times profile. Though she has long been retired, she will always be remembered for her role in redefining the corporate interior.
After being rejected from Le Corbusier’s studio for sexist reasons, instead of sulking at the injustice, Perriand did what any 24-year-old girl would do: she renovated a room in her own apartment and showed it at the 1927 Salon d’Automne. Bar sous le toît (Bar under the roof) won her a spot in the legendary studio, where she went on to create designs that could contribute to a better society—a lofty goal for a table, perhaps, but one that guided her design ethos over the course of her life.
Not content to merely bask in complacency after her early success, Perriand also spent six years in Japan as an advisor to the Ministry of Trade and Industry. The Eastern tradition found its way into her work through the traditional bamboo processing techniques that she applied to modern furniture design, lending warmth to designs largely comprised of cold, hard materials like steel and glass.
Perriand got the chance to live out her humanist vision by designing prototype kitchens for the Unité d’Habitation, a housing project in Marseille and a UNESCO World Heritage site, and even the U.N.’s League of Nations building in Geneva.
If your budget skews more Ikea than Chairish, never fear: you can still infuse your home with a little mid-century modern magic, courtesy of this Finnish architect and designer. Aino Aalto is best known for her glasswork, which has been ripped off—ahem, used as inspiration—by the Scandi home furnishing giant.
While her husband and partner Alvar Aalto ended up receiving credit for much of her work (sound familiar?), she could truly do it all—small-scale buildings, interiors and furniture. Together, they were a pioneering force in Finnish design and architecture, embracing new styles like Functionalism.
Photos via Herman Miller, ArchDaily, Aram, Knoll, Nova68