By Erica Schwiegersausen
One day this spring, Rachel Comey and Leanne Shapton were having lunch when it occurred to them that there was a blind spot in their knowledge of midcentury furniture designers: women. Comey, a fashion designer, was looking for chairs for her new store in L.A. She wanted something designed by a woman — which turned out to be a tall order. On a whim, they went to a few nearby furniture dealers in NoLIta. “We were like, ‘What have you got by women?” Shapton recalls. “And they were like: nothing.”
Shapton, an artist and the daughter of an industrial designer, was a little embarrassed by her ignorance. “I have a design background, but beyond, like, Florence Knoll, I couldn’t name five female industrial designers off the top of my head,” she says. And even when Comey found a piece that she liked online, it was difficult, if not impossible, to track down the design in real life. So Shapton came up with another idea: in lieu of the actual pieces, she’d draw the designs by women that they would buy if they could. “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,” she says.
For the next couple of months, Comey and Shapton (who is a T contributor) sent names of designers and pictures of furniture they loved back and forth over emails and texts. “I would ask friends at cocktail parties, ‘Who’s your favorite female industrial designer?’” Shapton says. Then, she started painting sketches of her favorite pieces. “My taste in this stuff is very specific and very subjective, so it wasn’t a survey in any scientific sense — it was more just what I wanted to draw,” she says. She intentionally calls the resulting sketches “studies”: “I’m abstracting very deliberately, finding the joy in what I like about these forms.”
Eventually, Shapton made over 100 sketches — a combination of little paintings on top of postcards of 16th and 17th century furniture, watercolors and paintings on wood panels — which are currently on view at Comey’s SoHo boutique. The exhibition, titled “SEATS: Studies of Furniture Designed by Women,” features Shapton’s abstractions of chairs, lights and tables by female designers, including Lina Bo Bardi, Anna Castelli Ferrieri and Greta Magnusson Grossman.
“It’s fun to educate yourself, especially on design, because it’s like this whole other literacy,” Shapton says. “The other day I was in my friend’s apartment, and she was showing me this chair she picked up at a flea market in Michigan. I was like, ‘Oh! That looks like a Karen Clemmensen!’ It’s fun to recognize the stuff once you have a little crash course in it.”
Here, see seven of Shapton’s favorite designs from the show alongside her sketches — as well as some insight into the female designers behind them.