This artwork-in-progress brings together several interrogations of constraints surrounding the womb’s overly simplistic cultural and social identity and argues that this limited understanding is harmful to humanity, perpetuating ignorance and social pathologies that prevent increased knowledge of the womb and impair women's healthcare. By refashioning the iconic architect-designed mid-century modern Womb Chair into a space and object that represents a womb’s textured and aggregative life, one that is diseased and often traumatized by its own biological processes, this artwork offers viewers and participants a representation of the womb unconstrained by social pathologies and cultural mores. In this form, the womb may utter truths and magnify invisible histories; in essence, the womb speaks.
The womb is an organ, a biological marvel that moves through 450+ menstrual cycles during a human lifetime. These cyclic operations also make the womb the most disease ridden organ in the body. The unique cellular composition of the uterus provides an optimal environment for conception and gestation; but this type of tissue also makes the womb a site of prolific growths and scarring: tensile fibroids, lesions, cysts, and adhesions. Each menstrual cycle is an opportunity for irregular tissue production, whether from a disease like endometriosis or simply the everyday life of the womb.
Despite the dynamic and resilient character of the uterus in the bodies of over 50% of the world’s population, the womb’s identity in medicine and popular culture primarily reflects its associations with sex and pregnancy. This limited characterization diminishes the womb’s identity and its mobility as an operative force in culture with dangerous effects. There remains no medical specialty devoted to the womb’s unique biology or the menstrual cycle, despite shockingly high numbers of pelvic inflammatory disease worldwide. Thus, the womb’s limited characterization as a static and passive site of titillation and reproductive duty perpetuates ignorance as well as sexist and misogynist oppression. The social constraints surrounding the womb also serve to constrain those who have wombs.
The Womb Chair (1948), designed by Eero Saarinen for Knoll, is likely the most well-known work in the field of architecture that references the human womb. A cultural icon of midcentury modern design, Saarinen’s chair was routinely employed as a power prop in male spaces. The chair was used repeatedly, for example, in Playboy’s “Bachelor Pads,” commissioned architect-designed residential plans that were promoted as seduction spaces for American men. In the context of highly sexualized male space, Saarinen’s Womb Chair functioned as a passive trophy of titillation and the playboy’s predatory successes. The chair amidst this performance of masculinity represented compliant sexual conquest.
Saarinen’s Womb Chair also figured in Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover in May 1959. In the image, Rockwell presented another “bachelor,” a father avoiding church with his family on Easter. The father slumps, hiding in a gray Womb Chair while his family walks behind. Again, the Chair functions as a static space of male privilege by physically supporting a father’s evasion from domestic and reproductive labor. Also compliant, the chair in this scene offers privileged male repose.
This project reclaims the Womb Chair from its narrow associations with sexual compliance and male repose. Contrasting with the industrial identity of the manufactured object, the project employs repeating sets of hand sewn felted wool structures and embroidery to refashion its form and surfaces. These structures--based on textile typologies produced by women over centuries-- work together to recast, retool, and re-render the womb as a uterus in biological operation through space and time, combatting the cliched passivity of the chair’s current static presentation. More specifically, the chair’s layered red textiles, articulated stitching, and re-forming explore themes of encroachment--by the disease endometriosis and by society. As an object, the new chair will be an aggregative sewn sculpture of embroidered and felt-formed tissue, scarring, cysts, adhesions, and fibroids. In its refashioning, this Womb Chair articulates a typically invisible uterine narrative, one of struggle with decades of disease, communicating a range of womb experiences including pain, violence, and loss. The womb ceases to be a space of compliance, titillation and repose, and instead becomes a site of resilience and complex narrative and memory. In this form, the Womb Chair may resist patriarchal constraint and speak.
The refashioned chair will offer a space of struggling repose, a seat that only offers comfort for a moment before requiring adjustment by the occupant. Visitors will remain in semi-constant motion, reflecting the experience of those who suffer from pelvic inflammatory disease and, more broadly, women in society--always in a constant situation of adjustment through accommodation and resistance.
Playboy cover, Jan 1958
Saturday Evening Post, May 1959
“Playboy’s Progress” Map, a narrative about the seduction of a woman in a bachelor pad, Playboy, May 1954.
Publications on the project
Kirin Joya Makker, Abbey Frederick & E. Ainsley Rhodes (2022) A Clamoring Revolt: Restaging, Reseeing, and Reteaching the Womb Chair, Art Journal, 81:1, 44-61.
Kirin Joya Makker (2021) Womb Chair Speaks, Feminist Studies, 47:3, 627-651.
Kirin Makker, Womb Chair Speaks, American Studies Association Annual Meeting 2021.
Selected Bibliography for the project
Adamson, Glenn. CRAFT READER. [S.l.]: BLOOMSBURY VISUAL ARTS, 2018.
Adams/1995) “The Eichler Home: Intention and Experience in Postwar Suburbia”
Ahrentzen/2003) “The Space between the Studs: Feminism and Architecture”
Angier, Natalie. Woman: An Intimate Geography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
Bryan-Wilson, Julia. Fray: Art + Textile Politics. 2017. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=1463654>.
Buszek, Maria Elena. Extra/Ordinary Craft and Contemporary Art. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
Corbett, Sarah. How to Be a Craftivist: The Art of Gentle Protest. 2018.
Doyle and Forehand, “Fabricating Architecture: Digital Feminist Practice” Avery Review25 (Sept 2017)
Fariello,“Making and Naming: the Lexicon of Studio Craft,” in Extra/ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art, ed. Maria Elena Buszek (2011)
“Form and Innovation: The Furniture of Eero Saarinen.” The Modernism Magazine 10 no. 1 (2007): 78-90.
Foucault, Michel. 1975. “Panopticism.” In The People, Place, and Space Reader, edited by Gieseking, Jen J., W. Mangold, C. Katz, S. Low, S. Saegert, 327-329. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Geraldine Pratt and Victoria Rosner. 2012. “Introduction: The Global and the Intimate.” In The People, Place, and Space Reader, edited by Gieseking, Jen J., W. Mangold, C. Katz, S. Low, S. Saegert, 345-349. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Gibson-Graham, J.K. 1996. “How Do We Get Out of This Capitalist Place?” In The People, Place, and Space Reader, edited by Gieseking, Jen J., W. Mangold, C. Katz, S. Low, S. Saegert, 382-385. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Harris, Dianne. Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
Frampton, “Rappel A L’Ordre: The Case for the Tectonic,” (from Labor, Work and Architecture, 2002)
Harlow, Siobán D., and Sara A. Ephross. “Epidemiology of Menstruation and Its Relevance to Womens Health.” Epidemiologic Reviews, vol. 17, no. 2, 1995, pp. 265–286., doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.epirev.a036193.
Hayden, Dolores. 1980 “What Would a NonSexist City Look Like?: Speculations on Housing, Housing, Urban Design and Human Work”
Jhumka Gupta, “Endometriosis, Social Pathologies, and Public Health,” The Blog, March 21, 2016, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/jhumka-gupta/endometriosis-social-pathologies-and-public-health_b_9464942.html.
Katz, Cindi. 2001. “On the Grounds of Globalization: A Topography for Feminist Political Engagement.” In The People, Place, and Space Reader, edited by Gieseking, Jen J., W. Mangold, C. Katz, S. Low, S. Saegert, 350-354. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Leslie, Esther. "Walter Benjamin: Traces of Craft." Journal of Design History 11, no. 1 (1998): 5-13. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1316160.
MATRIX/1984), selections from Making Space: Women and the Man Made Environment
Osgerby, Bill. “The Bachelor Pad as Cultural Icon: Masculinity, Consumption and Interior Design in American Men’s Magazines, 1930-65.” Journal of Design History 18, no. 1 (2005): 99-113.
Morris, “Some Notes on the Phenomenology of Making: The Search for the Motivated” (1970 Art Forum)
Nezhat, Camran, et al. “Endometriosis: Ancient Disease, Ancient Treatments.” Fertility and Sterility, vol. 98, no. 6, 2012, doi:10.1016/j.fertnstert.2012.08.001.
Owen, Paula “Fabrication and Encounter: When Content is a Verb,” in Extraordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art, ed. Maria Elena Buszek (2011)
Pallasmaa, Juhani. 1999. “Toward an Architecture of Humility: On the Value of Experience.” In The People, Place, and Space Reader, edited by Gieseking, Jen J., W. Mangold, C. Katz, S. Low, S. Saegert, 330-333. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Parker, “’The Creation of the Femininity,’” From The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine” (1984)
Rupprecht, Caroline. Womb Fantasies. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2013.
Preciado, Beatriz. Pornotopia: An Essay on Playboy's Architecture and Biopolitics.” New York, N.Y: Zone Books, 2014.
Schuldenfrei, Robin. Atomic Dwelling: Anxiety, Domesticity, and Postwar Architecture. Abingdon, Oxon, England: Routledge, 2012.
Shelby Doyle and Leslie Forehand. “Fabricating Architecture: Digital Craft as Feminist Practice.” The Avery Review, no. 25 (2017). 1-10. https://averyreview.com/issues/25/fabricating-architecture
“Shifting Perspectives: Optics for Revealing Change and Reworking Space.” In The People, Place, and Space Reader, edited by Gieseking, Jen J., W. Mangold, C. Katz, S. Low, S. Saegert, 323-325. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Stratigakos, Despina. Where Are the Women Architects? Princeton University ; Princeton, New Jersey, 2016.
Stratigakos, Despina. “Unforgetting Women Architects: From the Pritzker to Wikipedia,” Places Journal, April 2016. Accessed 09 Aug 2018. https://doi.org/10.22269/130603
Stratigakos, Despina, “Architecture Prizes and the Boys’ Club.” In Where Are the Women Architects? Princeton University ; Princeton, New Jersey, 2016. 50-64.
“The Spatial Imagination.” In The People, Place, and Space Reader, edited by Gieseking, Jen J., W. Mangold, C. Katz, S. Low, S. Saegert, 357-359. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Wilson, Kristina. “Like A ‘Girl in a Bikini Suit’ and Other Stories: The Herman Miller Furniture Company, Gender and Race at Mid-Century.” Journal of Design History 28, no. 2 (2015): 161-181.
Weisman, Rendell, Friedan, Spain, et.al./2000) selections from Gender, Space and Architecture
Walker/Aug 16, 2017 in Curbed, “Mansplaining the city: why are men driving the conversation about the future of our neighborhoods? https://www.curbed.com/2017/8/16/16151000/mansplain-gentrification-define-richard-florida-saskia-sassen