Mar 1, 2023

Parall(elles): A History of Women in Design

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts celebrates the role of women creators in the history of design.

Installation photo of ceramic plates on a blue wall by Molly Hatch

Molly Hatch (born in 1978), Ducere, 2022, glazed earthenware, underglaze hand painting. Courtesy of Todd Merrill Studio, New York. Photo MMFA, Jean-François Brière

Parall(elles): A History of Women in Design, on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) now through May 28, 2023, celebrates the contributions of women in the world of design through a rich array of artworks and objects dating from the mid-19th century onwards. Traditional design histories tell a story that is often predominantly male, Western and Eurocentric. In contrast, this exhibition aims to showcase a parallel history, as its title suggests, of the influence Canadian and American women designers have had on the discipline. In the spirit of shedding light on the overlooked and under-recognized work of women in the industry, the MMFA called on a team of all women to bring Parall(elles) to life. 

The exhibition encourages visitors to rethink what the term “design” means. The term is most  associated with the industrial design of mass-produced, professionally designed objects – a field that historically has been inaccessible to most women. In collaboration with the Stewart Program for Modern DesignParall(elles) breaks through that notion by displaying the breadth, complexity and wide-ranging definition of “design” that extends from artisanal craftwork to industrial design. Bringing together nearly 250 works by more than 200 creators from Quebec, Canada and the United States, visitors can see various art forms like ceramics, glass, metalwork, jewellery, textile, consumer products and interior design. Many of these exhibited contemporary works showcase the changing shift towards sustainability, slow design, use of new technologies (e.g., robotics, 3D printing) and object-making as a form of high art. 

Image of a stain glass lamp with a peacock motif

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), designed by Clara Driscoll (1861-1944), Peacock table lamp, about 1905, made by Tiffany Studios, New York. MMFA, purchase, Claire Gohier Fund, gift of Gérald-Henri Vuillien and Christophe Pilaire in honour of being granted Canadian permanent resident status, Ruth Jackson Bequest, gift of the International Friends of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and gift of Joan and Martin Goldfarb. Photo MMFA, Jean-François Brière.

As curator Jennifer Laurent explains, “This exhibition reveals that the vital role these North American women creators have played in the history of design has been perpetually minimized or excluded from the dominant narrative. By shining a light on the gendered nature of design practice, it enables us to draw parallels between certain societal-level prejudices and the course of design history.”

Among the artworks on display, visitors can see vases inspired by the British Arts and Crafts movement and discover the Peacock table lamp, a jewel of design from the early 20th century, inspired by a drawing by Clara Driscoll for Tiffany. 

In the mid-1950s, General Motors’ research indicated that women influenced 70% of automobile purchases. Thus, a group of women were hired to work as designers in its interior design department. Dubbed the “Damsels of Design” by the company’s public relations office, Suzanne E. Vanderbilt, Ruth Glennie, Marjorie Ford Pohlman, Sandra Longyear, Jeanette Linder and Peggy Sauer were front and centre at GM’s Feminine Auto Show of 1958. Designed by Ruth Glennie in 1958, the prototype Fancy Free Corvette is on display in Parall(elles)

Alongside historical creations are local, present-day works by Quebec and Canadian artists such as Lani Adeoye, Marie-Hélène Beaulieu, Maryse Chartrand, Ying Gao and Natasha Thorpe. In the 21st century, the design monocultures that dominated the last 150 years have paved the way for a myriad of styles, materials and techniques – intertwining the realms of art, craft, design, science and technology.

Photograph of a swirling gold metal chair

Lani Adeoye (born in 1989), Lilo chair, 2015. MMFA, in process of acquisition. Photo MMFA, Jean-François Brière

At the heart of the exhibition is a commissioned work by artist Molly Hatch. Intricate and one to turn eyes, it’s a large-scale mosaic composed of 198 hand-painted terracotta plates inspired by an exquisite pseudo-cloisonné enamel vase produced by the Minton Manufactory in England, based on a drawing by Christopher Dresser and a recent MMFA acquisition.

detail image of Molly Hatch's wall installation of decorative plates

Molly Hatch (born in 1978), Ducere (detail), 2022, glazed earthenware, underglaze hand painting. Courtesy of Todd Merrill Studio, New York. Photo MMFA, Jean-François Brière.

Organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in collaboration with the Stewart Program for Modern Design, Parall(elles): A History of Women in Design is on view now through May 28,2023 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. To learn more, visit

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