California’s Designing Women at the Autry National Center


Edith Heath United States, 1911–2005 Plate, handmade c. 1946. Vase, handmade, c. 1950.  Dinnerware c. 1948 to c. 1968, manufactured by Heath Ceramics

Dinnerware from Heath Ceramics represents some of the most design-savvy and beautiful objects for the table, and they’re appreciated for possessing a hand-made feeling while being reliably utilitarian. This beloved line of pottery was started by Edith Heath, a Californian with Nordic roots whose ceramic art was deeply influenced by the Japanese aesthetic. Heath attended art school to perfect her craft and went on to create a line of table ware that was discovered by Gumps department stores, growing a company that thrives long after her death in 2005 with popular stores in both San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The story of Heath’s trajectory from talented potter to a successful businesswoman is only part of the greater tale of 46 women who helped to pioneer design in California over the past century, told in the Autry National Center’s show, California’s Designing Women 1896–1986 (on view until January 6, 2013). By creating functional and beautiful design, these artists helped solidify California’s reputation as the locus of design around the world. Whether working in pottery or textiles, furniture or graphic arts, these women created objects that had utilitarian purpose and integrity of design. They created jobs for themselves and often many others, and thus participated in the growth of an increasingly important segment of the California economy – design.

Judith Hendler (United States, born 1942), Lemon Drops, necklace, circa 1984, glass-coated acrylic. Manufactured by Acri-Gems Inc. (Los Angeles). Collection of Judith Hendler. Photo by Mario Almarez

There is Judith Hendler, who recycled scrap Lucite from an airplane window manufacturing company to create strikingly bold jewelry; Jane Bennison, the daughter of the president of the lucrative Vernon Kiln, created gorgeous, sculptural pottery. The work of the creator of the Barbie and Ken dolls is on display, as are furniture and design pieces from the renowned Ray Eames. And Dorothy C. Thorpe’s gorgeous vases and table ware helped her family survive the Great Depression and was sold in what might have been the first pop-up store in The May Co during the holidays.Dorothy Thorpe, photo by Max Munn Autrey circa 1938

The best part of the exhibit is hearing from these women themselves. In many cases, visitors can watch a short interview with the ladies and it’s in these mini-films that the combination of DIY ability and business savvy come to life. The most vivid storytelling comes from a textile designer called Gere Kavanaugh who talks about how working with her hands “is important because it connects you with yourself”. Watching her knit a strange bit of fabric with over sized needles, while she made a case for the contemplative nature of her craft, was the highlight of the exhibit. Don’t we all want our kids to make more things and attain that quieting, deep connection to their creative mind?

Jane Bennison (1913–2001) Hand Bowl Earthenware, circa 1936 Manufactured by Vernon Kilns Photo: Museum of California Design

Showcasing work that spans the history of design from from “Arts and Crafts to Art Deco to Mid-Century Modern and beyond” (according to the exhibition materials), it’s clear that California’s reputation as a thought leader in the field of design owes a great debt to these clever women. From lyrical jewelry to whimsical fabric design to cutting-edge graphics this is a show that will have you running home to lose yourself in some crafting.