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Design Advice From The Women Of Mid-Century Modernism

"What works good is better than what looks good, because what works good lasts," Ray Eames once said.

  • <p>Edith Head was the most prolific costume designer in Hollywood, with 35 Oscar nominations and eight wins--more than any other woman.</p>
  • <p>Head designed Audrey Hepburn's iconic look in <em>Breakfast at Tiffany's</em> and Grace Kelly's in Hitchcock's <em>To Catch a Thief</em>.</p>
  • <p>The graphic designer and artist Elaine Lustig Cohen said, "My gender may have been an issue for other designers, but not for my clients."</p>
  • <p>The artist Yayoi Kusama is famous for her love of polka dots. She said, "Earth, moon, and sun all represent dots; a single particle among billions."</p>
  • <p>Sister Corita Kent was the head of the art department at Immaculate Heart College in LA, where she created colorful, geometric silk screen prints.</p>
  • <p>Sister Corita Kent's prints often included a spiritual twist on advertising slogans.</p>
  • <p>Mary Blair was an animator at Disney who worked on classics like <em>Cinderella</em>, <em>Alice in Wonderland</em>, and <em>Peter Pan</em>.</p>
  • <p>Blair was also the driving creative force behind Disneyland's famous ride, It's A Small World.</p>
  • <p>The artist Ruth Asawa survived a Japanese internment camp and fought racial prejudice to create her most famous works, woven wire sculptures.</p>
  • 01 /09

    Edith Head was the most prolific costume designer in Hollywood, with 35 Oscar nominations and eight wins--more than any other woman.

  • 02 /09

    Head designed Audrey Hepburn's iconic look in Breakfast at Tiffany's and Grace Kelly's in Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief.

  • 03 /09

    The graphic designer and artist Elaine Lustig Cohen said, "My gender may have been an issue for other designers, but not for my clients."

  • 04 /09

    The artist Yayoi Kusama is famous for her love of polka dots. She said, "Earth, moon, and sun all represent dots; a single particle among billions."

  • 05 /09

    Sister Corita Kent was the head of the art department at Immaculate Heart College in LA, where she created colorful, geometric silk screen prints.

  • 06 /09

    Sister Corita Kent's prints often included a spiritual twist on advertising slogans.

  • 07 /09

    Mary Blair was an animator at Disney who worked on classics like Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan.

  • 08 /09

    Blair was also the driving creative force behind Disneyland's famous ride, It's A Small World.

  • 09 /09

    The artist Ruth Asawa survived a Japanese internment camp and fought racial prejudice to create her most famous works, woven wire sculptures.

The mid-20th century was filled with luminaries in design and the visual arts—Eero Saarinen, Richard Neutra, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock—and the most well-known figures are mostly men. But this is starting to change, with exhibitions and articles beginning to celebrate the accomplishments of mid-century women.

The book Mid-Century Modern Women in the Visual Arts, for one, highlights the work of 25 groundbreaking female designers and artists from that era, sharing their advice through quirky, colorful illustrations by Ellen Surrey.

The painter Bridget Riley—depicted in the book in her preferred blacks and whites—believed that "focusing isn't just an optical ability, it is also a mental one." The designer Ray Eames—illustrated lounging in one of her classic chair designs—advised, "what works good is better than what looks good, because what works good lasts." "Go against the rules or ignore the rules. That's what invention is about," said the artist Helen Frankenthaler, who's portrayed amidst the swirls of color on her canvas.

And that's what many of these women did. From Coco Chanel to Frida Kahlo to Florence Knoll, these women pursued their art regardless of the prejudice they faced in the male-dominated fields of art, design, architecture, media, and fashion. Their advice remains just as valuable today.

[All Images: © 2016 Ellen Surrey/Gloria Fowler/Ammo Books]

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