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"WE WANTED TO VISUALIZE FEMINIST history and sociology in an accessible, serious but humorous and entertaining way," says Ellen Lupton, curator of "Mechanical Brides: Women and Machines From Home to Office," a small but fascinating exhibit seen at New York's Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design last year, and currently found at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles through May 28. The show (there's an accompanying book published by Princeton Architectural Press) examines the design and advertising evolution of four objects that, for the better part of their histories, were aimed primarily at women: the telephone, the washing machine, the iron and, for the working woman, the typewriter. While the design of the object itself may speak volumes, especially when its design evolution can be traced over decades, as it can at "Mechanical Brides," the accompanying advertising is often a far richer text. "Advertising gives voice to the object," says Lupton. "It helps determine who uses the object, and how. And beyond that, in subtle ways advertising affects the design of the object." The Duchampian title of the exhibit has its roots in the "Dadaist artists who first saw the erotic, destructive and absurdist elements in the machine," she says. "Later, Marshall McLuhan, in his book 'The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Modern Man,' used the phrase to describe the American consumer, whom he saw as a mass-produced, mechanized object."

Indeed, despite the kitsch and camp elements that are delightfully pervasive throughout the show, all is not fun and games-the objects and ads resonate with potentially disturbing prefeminist cultural implications that mark women's former domestic enslavement and workplace servitude. The

29-year-old Lupton, who holds a BFA in graphic design from New York's

Cooper Union and has been curator of the school's design gallery for seven years, offers typewriter advertising of the '20s and '30s as a case in point. The ads not only reflect the relationships between men and women of the time but also serve as a statement about the hierarchy of the workplace. "Although typewriters have traditionally been identified with women-i.e., clerical workers-the ads of that era were directed more at the male boss," she says. "Many of these implied that one way to get more efficient work from the female employees-thus making the male more money-is to boost their morale." In a 1936 Royal ad, a large photo of a smiling secretary, headlined, 'A million dollar smile,' dwarfs the product shot below. "Other ads don't feature typewriters at all," Lupton adds.

"Instead, we see women in overcoats and pumps happily walking in various urban spaces. These ads were designed to appeal to women workers who are presented as people out in the world."

The telephone is a fine example of how the emotional content of an ostensibly neutral man-made object can evolve through its advertising:

"In the '20s," Lupton says, "the phone-outside the office-was perceived and advertised as a home management tool, making it possible for a wife to call the doctor or the grocer. In the '30s it became a leisure tool for women to communicate with other women. The ads appealed to the stereotype of women as gossips. In the '50s, phone advertising focused on the erotic elements of the phone itself, although post cards of a much earlier era emphasized the phone's sexual component.

"In one ad for shampoo,"Lupton continues, "a woman is in a bubble bath talking on the phone. In an ad for Listerine, a woman waits at the phone to be called by her boyfriend. The assumption is he's not calling because of her breath, but the ad points to the propriety of the day-women waiting passively to be called."

In perhaps one of the best-known commercials of the '60s, for Maidenform, the phone becomes the central symbol of the eroticized woman in the eroticized workplace. A female voiceover announces, "I dreamed I went to work in my Maidenform bra," and "there she is at her office desk wearing only a bullet bra and skirt, chatting on a pink or powder blue phone, surrounded by pastel-colored typewriters," says Lupton. "It becomes the idealized work environment."

A familiar theme of the exhibit is how women of the '50s and '60s expressed familial and especially marital devotion through domestic service. Besides the designer gown-clad woman sandwiched between her new washer and dryer, there's potent bridal imagery-young women in white beaming at their grooms and at their new appliances. "Brides were seen as the ultimate consumers," says Lupton, "and because brides were new and glamorous-and supposedly all women wanted to be brides-their appearance alongside the appliances gave the objects a certain cachet."

Lupton's favorite ad of the era, for the 1950 Sunbeam Coffeemaster, features a manicured hand pouring coffee into a cup; reflected in the chromium brilliance of the auto-everything pot is the complacent husband, newspaper in hand. "The electric coffee pot is, of course, a time saver," notes Lupton, "but the real message here is that the woman is using the appliance to complete her side of the marital contract."

Thankfully, appliance ads are radically different today. "Bridal imagery, outside of bridal magazines, is virtually nonexistent," Lupton says. "And now we see men doing housework and using [what were once 'women's'] appliances, which, interestingly, are neutral-colored, not pastel. It's tongue in cheek. It's hip.

"Advertising is not an activist industry," she believes. "It has to play to existing assumptions and public predispositions. That's not to say it can't stimulate emotions-look how advertising has made minorities more visible-but it can't create them out of whole cloth." Despite some new advertising stereotypes, like the all-purpose wife-mommy-executive superwoman, Lupton feels that for the most part advertisers' treatment of women today is more realistic than ever. "You now see women over 20, and the image of women is less idealized. Even in a publication like McCall's, a bastion of the full-time home-maker, the ads talk to women who work outside the home."

The look of the ads that sell domestic products, however, is not changing much, in Lupton's opinion. "Their purpose is to reinforce brand identity, as opposed to imparting new ideas," says the author of "The Bathroom, the Kitchen and the Aesthetics of Waste." "I believe they could be more innovative." Among the ads that do break the old cycle is a 1993 Whirlpool campaign from DMB&B/New York. "The washing machine is used by the whole family, but equally important, the photography has a candid and spontaneous look. It's shot in b&w and suggests a documentary featuring real people."

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