Female textile designers in St. Louis Modern

By | January 30, 2016

Pipsan Saarinen Swanson was a gifted designer who worked in a variety of media, ranging from furniture to textiles to glass.

A wide variety of works from female textile designers such as Dorothy Wright Liebes, Edna Vogel, Maija Isola, Pipsan Saarinen, and more are presented in St. Louis Modern. In the exhibition catalogue, curator Genevieve Cortinovis describes the impact that these women had textile design, experimentation, and exhibition in the mid-20th century.

As with murals and other decorative elements of the modern era, modern textiles—from nubby woven plaids to exuberantly printed cottons—brought color and vibrancy to modern interiors, in addition to providing warmth, privacy, and texture to environments that were often characterized by expansive windows and smooth materials.

Textiles were a key—and, occasionally, the headline—component of national traveling exhibitions on modern design, many of which came to St. Louis in the midcentury(1). And because these textiles could be inexpensively produced at home or in small studios, without complicated machinery, they presented artists and designers across the nation an accessible and versatile medium in which to explore new ideas, particularly women.

Indeed, the field of modern textiles in St. Louis was dominated by women, working on both looms and printing tables. Formally trained and full of ambition, many of the city’s homegrown talents established small companies of their own, providing unique, frequently bespoke textiles for domestic and commercial spaces.

Smoke Rings

Pipsan Saarinen Swanson; Smoke Rings; Collection of Cranbrook Art Museum, CAM 1999.5; Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Saarinen Swanson; Photograph by R. H. Hensleigh and Tim Thayer, courtesy of Cranbrook Art Museum

(1) For further discussion of modern design exhibitions in the midcentury, see the author’s “From Museum to Market: Postwar Design in St. Louis,” in the St. Louis Modern catalogue.