Designing Women

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“I’VE ALWAYS LOOKED AT MUSEUMS AS PUBLIC SPACES that are very important to the cultural fabric, and I think part of my job is about creating connective tissue.” Sarah Schleuning was talking about her new position as curator of decorative arts and design at the Dallas Museum of Art, where she’s intent on seizing the opportunity provided by a city that’s totally connected to art and design. Women + Design: New Works, running through February 17, 2019, is her first show in Dallas and it demonstrates her commitment to that goal.

Shelfish shelf by Katie Stout, 2017. Dallas Museum of Art, Discretionary Decorative Arts Fund, Joe Kramm photo.

Schleuning has selected work by seven international women designers, focusing on emerging and mid-career talent rather than grande dames. Her concept is that the museum will acquire the pieces, acting as patron as well as supporter of young creative makers; in this way, she says, the institution “will be an incubator of ideas and talent.” Nearly all of the work is functional, even the commissioned headpiece by Dutch designer Iris van Herpen, known for her powerful and fantastical multimedia fashion. The piece was selected for placement in the museum’s contemporary jewelry collection.

Like all good design, the objects generate ideas. You can see this in Genevieve Howard’s paper bracelets encoded with passages from musical scores, literally transforming elements of sound into three-dimensional visual space. On the other hand, Najla El Zein engages with the tactile and sensual components of design with Seduction, a two-part bench made of curving sandstone halves that snuggle together. Faye Toogood’s polished, solid, and almost monumental cups, which she’s entitled Cup/Moon, Cup/Earth, and Cup/Water, play with expectations around function and material. The objects are shaped like drinking vessels, but they’re tall enough to be used as stools; they represent natural and elemental substances, but they’re produced from highly refined composite materials (such as lithium-barium crystal for Water) that Toogood says she “cooks up” using new technologies. Katie Stout draws attention back to the title of the show, Women + Design, with her audaciously funky, almost seven-foot-tall paper pulp Shelfish shelf that can broadly be imagined as the sculptural outline of a woman’s body. What is this clumpy and whimsical object creature telling us with her bubble-gum-colored hat or crown and her arm raised in the air? What does it mean that she’s filled with storage space? Maybe she’s the embodiment of a modern woman object-maker, filled with ideas and ready to break boundaries.