By Ilja Meijer, MA Design Cultures, Vrije Universiteit
From 3 to 5 October 2016 a diverse group of academics and non-academics, architects and designers, historians and practitioners, and everything in between gathered at the ZRC SAZU atrium of the Slovenia France Stele Institute of Art History in Ljubljana. They were invited for a conference organized by the large-scale project MOMOWO – Women’s Creativity since the Modern Movement, funded by the European Union’s Creative Culture Programme. This project aims to draw attention to the achievements of women in design, architecture, engineering and related fields, that have been ‘hidden from history’. Much of women’s works and accomplishments in history are still unknown today. This is certainly true as concerns the general public but – perhaps more surprisingly – it is equally true for many students, scholars, and design professionals. Besides some monographs or female gender anthologies, women’s work is rarely represented in dominant text books and surveys about design and architecture.
For this conference, papers about women and subjects from the period 1946 to 1968 were to be presented within the format of a workshop-conference. VU University was represented by dr. Marjan Groot as part of the scientific committee of the MoMoWo project and Ilja Meijer as one of the participants; she gave a paper on Dutch women interior designers between 1945 and 1960. The lectures were thematically clustered and after each round of presentations was ample room for group discussion. The presented papers will be peer reviewed and published in an e-book, expected to be published next year, shortly after the e-book of the first conference will be online. The Ljubljana historical workshop-conference is the second in a series of three: the first was organized in Leiden in 2015 and the third will take place in Oviedo, Spain, in early October 2017.
Given the different backgrounds of all participants, the subjects were of a wide variety. A Croatian group consisting of designers and an art historian showed their online database of important women designers that had worked and lived in Croatia. A similar result, but through a different approach, is the project Un dia una arquitecta which posts a biography of one female architect, each day for a year. Both initiatives received much appreciation from the other participants. On the conference site itself was a small but highly informative exhibition about female pioneers in Slovenia.
Many historians chose to highlight the life and work of one (or several) specific architects. There was a paper on Elena Luzzatto Valentini from Italy, Marion Tournon Branly and Eliane Castelnau Tastemain from France, and Vera Cirkovic from former Yugoslavia. The discussed designers included the Dutch/Belgian Elisabeth de Lestrieux, garden designer Juta Krulc and textile designer Stanka Knez, both from Slovenia. A special and very inspiring guest on the second conference day was Prof. dr. Darinka Battelino, the first woman in former Yugoslavia who obtained a civil engineering doctoral degree and who told us about her practice in the male domain of engineering.
Other approaches reflected on the historiography – that is the omission of women in dominant publications – magazines, developments in specific cities and countries, or other specific issues. Examples include the female contribution in the restoration of Slovenian cultural heritage, the admittance of women into architecture studies at the University of Ljubljana and the analysis of a fictional novel written by architect Allison Margaret Smithson, A portrait of female mind as a young girl (1966).
One of the conclusions of the conference was that gathering information about women designers, architects and engineers was a great first step but this was also considered as ‘preaching to your own choir’. Key is to spread this information to people who are not already interested in female creators, women’s history and gender issues; to make sure that besides or instead of a separate history of women in architecture and design, these women should be included in the general discourse and creation of dominant histories. Another observation was that the work of many women was underrepresented in literature so far because many credits were given to their husbands or the men with whom they collaborated.
For more information about the activities of MOMOWO: http://www.momowo.eu/