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5 designers who broke the mold

Our homes would not be the same without their innovative furniture and bold decorative concepts.

In Richardson Seating, we pay tribute to all women by highlighting five of the best women designers of the 20th century. We consider them courageous, inspirational, artistically, and industrially talented. But what probably best defines them is their determination to develop a world of their own in an industry ruled by some of the most influential architects and designers of their time. Sometimes relegated to "assistants" or "wives of," they never ceased in their efforts to demonstrate that there were other ways of thinking about interiors, feeling the furniture, or promoting the fusion of various creative disciplines in the same project.

  1. Eileen Grey

It probably paved the way for all the others without intending to. Or maybe she did. Grey was born at the end of the 19th century into a Scottish noble family. In 1900 she traveled to Paris to visit the International Exhibition, and six years later, she settled there permanently. Intellectually restless, she became interested in and perfected Asian lacquer techniques, being a pioneer in adapting them to European use and taste. She traveled to America and North Africa to learn the art of weaving. In 1915 she opened her first workshop to produce modern furniture and was the first designer to work with chrome, preceding Le Corbusier.

An excellent example of this is her famous side table E-1027, which can be seen in this image. Made of tubular steel and glass, it features a handle so that it can be easily transported. He set up an art gallery in Paris seven years later, where he exhibited his furniture and carpets. As if all this were not enough, he began to study architecture under the auspices of the Romanian Jean Badovici, with whom he carried out his main contribution, which would be his own house located in the south of France (in the image above).

Also called E-1027, it embodied his entire decorative and industrial ideology: the furniture had to be practical, versatile, and comfortable, the interiors harmonious and full of contrasts. Thus, the project was characterized by a rich mix of colors, textures, geometric shapes, cold and warm materials, avant-garde, and craftsmanship. Under these premises, he designed several houses and apartments for the French social elite, but World War II cut short his dreams when much of his work was lost due to bombing and looting, so he retired from public life. His career was not recognized again until the 1970s, on the occasion of an auction of several of his works and a retrospective exhibition organized in London. Today, his auxiliary furniture and armchairs, professional standards, and artistic legacy continue to inspire on all levels.

  1. Charlotte Perriand

"We don't embroider cushions here," Le Corbusier told her when she went to his studio to offer to work with him, being a faithful follower of his theories. Shortly after that, the architect offered her a position as furniture manager in his studio after visiting the Salon d'Automne held in Paris and appreciating her project of a bar for the interior of a home, which was her house. Perriand (born 1903) had already been trying for some time to incorporate new materials, such as glass and steel, into furniture design. The architect's demands to address human needs in everything created in his studio led to a miracle. The famous tubular steel furniture now reissued by Cassina arose from the initiative of a young woman to develop open and relaxed spaces with a table for enjoyment that followed the precepts of automobile and aeronautical technology. The fame and transcendence of Le Corbusier did the rest, in a perfect symbiosis between humanism and rationalism.

Perriand was also noted for her liberal ideas. Bold and a lover of natural life, she was also an excellent landscape photographer. After leaving Le Corbusier's studio, she collaborated with Jean Prouvé and the Thonet company and began investigating the possibilities of wood and mountain architecture. In mid-1940, Perriand left Germany-invaded France, and traveled to Japan to work with Junzo Sakakura. They had collaborated in the past, and he invited her to take up the position of artistic advisor to the Japanese Ministry of Industry. Her dedication had a significant impact in terms of design for the country. There, Perriand refined her interpretation of the living experience by fusing Eastern and Western elements, where tradition and modernity connected directly with nature. He began to handle details such as bamboo and leather, applying them to new furniture.

Greta Grossman

Born in Sweden, she apprenticed as a carpenter for furniture manufacturer Kärnans before studying design in Stockholm and setting up her publishing house studio in the capital. She soon moved to the United States after marrying jazz musician Billy Grossman. Shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, she opened a store where she sold Swedish furniture, her lighting designs, and some decorative items. She was a contemporary of Perriand and is best known for her Cobra and Gräshoppa lamps (pictured), now produced by the Danish firm Gubi. For 20 years, Greta was a leading figure in architecture, interior design, and design in California, defining the aesthetics of the time by promoting the Scandinavian way of life, European modernism, and the Bauhaus philosophy. He directed many projects where he prescribed furniture from other designers and developed custom pieces, such as the Series-62 walnut chest of drawers shown in the image.

She became a professor at UCLA, although she devoted the last 30 years of her life exclusively to painting, so she was partly lost until a few years ago. Nevertheless, Grossman's lamps are considered among the most emblematic designs of the mid-twentieth century for combining rigor, avant-garde, and classicism, which has made them timeless pieces.

  1. Ray Eames

Bernice Alexandra, better known as Ray Kaiser Eames, is the only American on this list and probably the most popular. Born in 1912 in California, she studied painting with Hans Hofmann. She immediately attracted attention for her artistic talent, global vision, visual acuity, and photographic memory, virtues not overlooked by architects Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames when Ray entered Cranbrook Academy. He soon began collaborating with both in the development of a molding system for plywood that would change the world of design in form and content and the production and marketing models for furniture at the time.

After marrying Charles in 1941, they continued to work on their own industrial and architectural designs and even on government projects during World War II. Lately, there have been attempts to research the scope of Ray Eames' work on an individual level to understand her contribution better, but her work is almost inextricably linked to that of her husband. The vast majority of the pieces they created are considered contemporary classics, such as the Plastic chair or the Lounge in the image, now produced by Vitra for Europe.

But her influence is not limited to the industrial field. That is perhaps where the scope of Ray's work is best appreciated, in her work as a curator and her involvement in the educational aspects of design. Together they altered our way of seeing the world through multimedia presentations developed in numerous exhibitions for schools, corporations (their collaboration with IBM stands out), or specific events. In addition, they directed some 80 experimental films in which Ray's craftsmanship and chromatic compositions take center stage. This imagination is his most personal legacy. After Charles died in 1978, he devoted much of his time to directing the design studio and meticulously ordering all the projects and products that had been carried out. If today we know so much about their typical trajectory, it is thanks to their level of demand.

  1. Nanna Ditzel

She is probably the least known of the five. Still, her iconic pieces are part of the catalog of significant companies today, such as Georg Jensen, Kvadrat, Fredericia, and the Spanish company Kettal. Born in Copenhagen in 1923, she devoted much time to her training (cabinetmaking, fine arts, and furniture design). She later opened her studio, which she established in 1946 with her partner, Jørgen Ditzel. She worked under her husband's name until he died in 2005. Still, from the beginning, Nanna took the lead, constantly exploring new malleable materials such as fiberglass, basketry, or foam rubber, adapting them to furniture and household items, and textiles. Elliptical formats and organicity are characteristic features of his seating, such as the Trinidad chair (pictured), whose backrest resembles a fan's. His wicker armchairs have served as inspiration since the mid-20th century. The famous outdoor cocoon-type hanging hammock, which she called the Hanging chair, advocated designs by Eero Aarnio and Pierre Paulin in the 1960s and is still an essential reference in garden furniture today.

Perhaps for that reason, the company Kettal reissued 2015 its famous Basket armchair, a basket-like seat supported on a lightweight oak frame that allows multiple positions combining craftsmanship, luxury, and comfort. It won an award at the 1951 Milan Triennale, initiating a major aesthetic revival of wicker furniture.

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