Rachel Comey's SoHo boutique may not be the most likely place for an art show with a political tinge. But for the fashion designer and her friend, illustrator Leanne Shapton, the unsung history of women in design quickly became an inequality worth making a fuss about—wherever possible. “SEATS: Studies of Furniture Designed by Women” is a pop-up exhibition at the clothing store, conceived after the pair spent several afternoons searching in vain for chairs by female designers to furnish Comey’s recently opened Los Angeles boutique. The failed hunt prompted them to ask why women in industrial design receive so much less recognition than their male counterparts, despite significant and often groundbreaking contributions to the field. After months of informal surveys and correspondence between the two, the resulting art show features 100 works on paper by Shapton, throwing a sensitive spotlight on the diminished heritage of female designers.
Illustrations by Leanne Shapton, based on designs by Cini Boeri, Gae Aulenti, Afra Scarpa, and Nanna Ditzel. Images courtesy of Rachel Comey.
By simplifying and distorting the shapes and textures of products designed by women, Shapton’s illustrations insinuate the distinctively modern qualities of their reference points. Maintaining their status as brief studies, Shapton told The New York Times: “I’m abstracting very deliberately, finding the joy in what I like about these forms.”
Illustrations by Leanne Shapton, based on designs by Florence Knoll. Images courtesy of Rachel Comey.
Shapton’s watercolor-and-ink works evoke the formal qualities of eminent female designers such as Florence Knoll, Eileen Gray, and Charlotte Perriand. But the series also includes lesser-known names, many of whom once designed products in collaboration with Knoll. Among others, Shapton drew inspiration from Danish furniture designer Nanna Ditzel, who designed a pair of rosewood tables for Knoll in 1967, as well as Italian architects Gae Aulenti, Cini Boeri, and Afra Scarpa, who were brought into the fold of Knoll International when the company acquired Gavina SpA, the Italian design firm, in 1969.
The distinct formal elements of Florence Knoll furniture are evoked in the illustrations by Leanne Shapton. Illustrations courtesy of Rachel Comey, images from the Knoll Archive.
“I’m abstracting very deliberately, finding the joy in what I like about these forms.”
The subset of illustrations inspired by the work of Florence Knoll alludes not only to the designer’s original 1954 lounge collection, but also to her directorial position at the helm of Knoll and its Planning Unit during the 1950s and 60s. Shapton’s minimal mark making—done in strokes of black or Knoll red—emphasizes the gridded texture of a Florence Knoll Sofa or the recognizable angle of its cushions. The profiles of a Florence Knoll Lounge Chair, Table Desk, and Coffee Table have been translated in abstract terms, while the iconic curves of Eero Saarinen's 1948 Womb Chair nod to Shu’s instrumental role in forming a constellation of experimental designers at Knoll, many of whom she knew from her time as a student at the Cranbrook Academy of Art.
The colors and contours of a dinner chair by Gae Aulenti (left) and the flexible parts of the Boeri System by Cini Boeri (right) are abstracted in works on paper by Leanne Shapton. Illustrations courtesy of Rachel Comey, images from the Knoll Archive.
Shapton’s wider swathes of color also recall certain iconic designs produced by Knoll International during the 1970s—the thicker components of Cini Boeri’s lounge system or the rounded edges of Gae Aulenti’s 1976 collection. Fastened to the walls of Comey’s clothing store—in which the designer has hosted artists in the past, though never at this scale—as if it were one massive collage, the illustrations in “SEATS” make a joint statement about female contributions to industrial design that is simultaneously lighthearted and serious. Ultimately, it was the difficulty of locating the designs in person that prompted Shapton and Comey to revive them on paper. “I thought, I’ll draw the furniture we wish we had access to, that we wish was as easy to source as the Breuer and Eames chairs that are so ubiquitous now,” Shapton said.
Works from “SEATS” installed on the back wall of Rachel Comey’s store in SoHo.
Images courtesy of Rachel Comey, unless otherwise noted.
“SEATS: Studies of Furniture Designed by Women” is on view at Rachel Comey’s New York boutique at 95 Crosby St until August 17. Individual works are available for purchase.