Originally, the elective aimed at the analysis of drawings as a methodology for historical research, an approach that has consistently been proposed by Zeinstra in the last few academic years. However, this time a common fascination, among students, towards drawings by female architects brought the chance to undertake a more collective research. One that would specifically look at unrepresented, forgotten and unacknowledged architects and designers, with particular attention to their perspective drawings. Seven students looked at drawings from seven architects, including their life, context and work: Marion Mahony Griffin (1871-1961); Dorothy Draper (1889-1969); Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (1897-2000); Ray Eames (1912-1988); Jean Bodman Fletcher (1915-1965); Florence Knoll (1917-2019) and Anne Tyng (1920-2011).
As we decided to review such a significant effort, attempting to give it a longer life than the two-week-long display at the library, we talked to Ani Dosheva, who participated in the exhibition with her research on Dorothy Draper. In her words, the choice of the perspective aimed at “treating the drawing as a view”, into the visionary ideas of unrepresented architects, as well as into their mind, aspirations, and personalities. The perspective, therefore, became a consistent subject of analysis by all seven students, and as a starting point for a range of analyses and investigations into the context in which the drawings were created. In Ani’s view, such consistency, but also limitation to one own’s freedom to research by their own rules, allowed for a more rigorous, precise and explicit approach to feminist history. Nonetheless, such precision comes to the surface in the exhibition, which offers the possibility to compare histories, as well as to learn from them.
Writing women's history - a review
The exhibition’s primary message is on the inequality of representation in recorded history. When we look at an architectural drawing we imagine, almost by default, that it is drawn by a male hand. But the exhibit fills the gap where drawings historically attributed to the work of male starchitects, were in fact drawn by women, or the body of work of amazing female designers was deemed almost completely irrelevant for history of architecture and design. This tells something about the power of those who are writing history and the impact of their decisions.
Talking with Ani, we learned that, as is often the case with any attempt to fill in the gap of women’s history, the access to original materials was scarce and the few hand drawings that were to be found often were so badly documented that it was hard to tell what they were of. As Ani investigated a drawing of Dorothy Draper, she was looking at work of an American designer with a celebrity status during her time. Draper was the most famous interior designer, the first one to make it into business with so much success. She was the top of New York, yet we have never heard of her. The lack of well-recorded drawings might come from the fact that her work was not recorded by outsiders as it was the case with her male contemporaries, while Draper as a businesswoman had no time nor space to record it meticulously herself.
The drawing investigated by Ani was key, not only in the context of Dorothy Draper’s work, but also in the history of design and technology. The evolution of aeroplanes into a commercial transport business called for a strong promotion campaign that would project an image of a quick, comfortable, and safe way to travel. Therefore, Draper was employed as her reputation and her branded name would convey that message. Coming from high society, it was common for women to decorate at the time, and she knew how to brand herself by writing books and targeting the right audience. And this is something that Ani wanted to bring to light, as did her course mates with the other female figures presented in the exhibition. Seeing the range of drawings throughout the twentieth century in Europe and the US, promotes the female figure in the architecture and design of that time.
However, as mentioned by our interviewee, the exhibition and theses’ focus on the drawing embedded so strongly in the past, left little space to investigate the impacts on the contemporary world of design. While, personally, I believe that writing women’s history is equally as crucial as addressing bias issues in the now, the focus on deconstructing a drawing sets certain limits to the interpretation. The methodology of the course started as an attempt to read history through drawings that were previously not analysed. It was in the process of it that everyone involved was fascinated by the fact that the drawings they chose, were all created by women, and hence the drawers became the protagonists rather than the drawings. In the context of our education and practice we can question what the best method is, but what we can learn from the exhibit is that the recording of history will change in time, and we can apply these new lessons in how we record the contemporary.