“ ‘Like a girl in a bikini suit’ and other stories: Herman Miller, Gender, and Race at Mid-Century”
Kristina Wilson, Clark University
This paper examines furniture designs created for the Herman Miller Furniture Company by George Nelson and Charles and Ray Eames in the 1940s and 1950s. In particular, it uses corporate publicity images, alongside contemporaneous texts, to investigate how these objects—fundamentally abstract with their bright colours, industrial materials, and geometric forms—were positioned to address racial and gendered identities in the postwar period. More broadly, this paper seeks to interrogate the methodological issues that arise when we attempt to frame objects that have traditionally been understood as “neutral” through the lenses of race and gender.
“From Cockpits to Cubicles: Ergonomic Design and Difficult Positions in the late Twentieth-century American Office”
Bess Williamson, School of the Art Institute, Chicago
This paper reviews the history of “human factors” or ergonomic design as it moved from World War II military research into the American corporation. From postwar desk and interface design to the much-reviled cubicle, design in this period integrated a range of new data and information about the human body, its needs, and its struggles within the office environment. Through these new arrangements, design often became a proxy for workplace issues such as gender and racial equality, status hierarchy, and personal concerns over health and privacy.
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