Imagine someone designing and building a table and another person making jewelry. Did you picture a man in the first case and a woman in the second? If so, that’s exactly the kind of gender bias the National Museum of Women in the Arts seeks to rid audiences of with the new exhibition, “Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today.”

It begins in the 1950s, a time when “people were growing tired of the machine aesthetic in modernism and looking for something softer, warmer and more human,” says Jennifer Scanlan, exhibit co-curator. “There was a renewed interest in crafts and the handmade, often associated with the work of women.”

At the time, female artists began working for major design companies and joined the faculty of new crafts departments at art schools across the country, inspiring future generations of furniture-makers and metalsmiths of all genders. Open now, “Pathmakers” features more than 80 works by female artists, crafters and designers.

Polly Apfelbaum, Handweaver’s Pattern Book installation, 2014
Bringing the show back to its origins, New York-based artist Polly Apfelbaum created this work just last year, guided by Marguerite P. Davison’s “A Handweaver’s Pattern Book,” a 1950s publication that championed the importance of handiwork over machines. For this project, Apfelbaum dotted 50 rectangular swaths of fabric with colored dots (by hand, using a plastic punch card as a stencil), each swath denoting a different textile-weaving pattern she found in the book. Much like in the 1950s, today’s artists and designers are taking advantage of a renewed interest in the handmade.

Hella Jongerius (manufactured by Vitra), Polder Sofa XL, 2005
Dutch industrial designer Hella Jongerius created this couch as part of a redesign for the United Nations North Delegates’ Lounge in New York, which opened in 2013. “Jongerius’ studio [also] rewove one of the beaded curtains that covers an enormous window in the Delegates’ Lounge, something you can usually only see if you’re a U.N. delegate,” Scanlan says, adding that Jongerius’ pieces are some of her favorites in the exhibit.

Ruth Asawa holding a ‘form-within-form’ sculpture, 1952
A Japanese-American born in California, Ruth Asawa spent her last years of high school in a World War II internment camp. When the war ended, she went to college to pursue a degree in art education but dropped out, for fear that she would be unable to secure a teaching internship due to racial discrimination. Instead, she became an artist, best known for her ethereal wire sculptures, as well as major public works in her home city of San Francisco. (She’s known there as the “fountain lady.”) Asawa, who died in 2013, was an outspoken lobbyist for art programs for children and helped found the San Francisco School of the Arts, which was renamed in her honor in 2010.


Vivianna Torun Bulow-Hube (manufactured by Georg Jensen), Vivianna Bangle Watch, 1969
Along with influential Americans, “Pathmakers” includes works by a number of Scandinavian artists. “Unlike the rest of Europe and Japan in the ’50s, Scandinavia and the U.S. suffered relatively little damage during WWII, their economies were doing well and industrial design was a flourishing field,” Scanlan says. There was also a similar interest in vernacular craft, and the arts and crafts movements in both regions had lots of women involved. Vivianna Torun Bulow-Hube was a Swedish master silversmith at the time. She created jewelry worn by the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Ingrid Bergman and Billie Holiday.

National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW; through Feb. 28, $8-$10.


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