11 May 2022 -

Hidden Histories: Gender in Design interview: Dr Alexandra Chiriac

Session six of our Hidden Histories: Gender in Design seminar series looks at collaboration and collective practice. Ahead of her paper on M. H. Maxy and Mela Brun-Maxy, Dr Alexandra Chiriac, a Leonard A. Lauder Postdoctoral Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, tells our Ambassador Alexandra Banister more about her research.

To attend the seminar on Thursday 12th May, please register for free via Eventbrite.

Follow Dr Chiriac on Instagram and Twitter: @arthistorynomad

What is your background and how did you develop an interest in design history?

During my Master’s in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London my tutor suggested I write a paper on Sonia Delaunay. I read everything about her and was very struck by Delaunay’s bold statement: “If painting has become part of our lives, it is because women have been wearing it!” I became very interested in the place of design within histories of modern art and continued to work on this topic for my PhD at the University of St Andrews. I focused on avant-garde artists in Eastern Europe and because I could not choose, I ended up working on both interior design and stage design!

What does your research focus on?

My research investigates intersections between avant-garde art, design, and performance during the 1920s and 1930s. My first monograph entitled Performing Modernism: A Jewish Avant-Garde in Bucharest will be published this summer with De Gruyter. It focuses on the beginnings of modern interior design and scenography in Romania, and how these fields were shaped by information that circulated through transnational avant-garde networks. One of my discoveries was the importance of the now mostly forgotten Reimann School, a German design institution, to design education and commercial design practices across Europe and the United States. In Romania, it was even more influential than the Bauhaus and served as the model for Bucharest’s first modern design institution.

Your talk is part of a wider seminar series on Hidden Histories: Gender in Design, how does this apply to your work?

My talk will highlight the career of Mela Brun-Maxy, who opened the first modern design showroom in Bucharest in 1926. When I began my research, the commonly held view was that her husband, the well-known avant-garde artist M.H. Maxy, was the innovator in this field. By piecing together archival sources, I was able to show that Mela Brun-Maxy was the creator of this venture and that her labour and financial contribution have been obscured by historical narratives. So, the question of what is hidden/revealed in histories of art and design is a longstanding preoccupation for me. More broadly, I’m interested in exploring and exposing how modernism has often been theorised through a gendered lens that posits a simple, streamlined aesthetic as indicative of (masculine) authenticity, while the decorative is construed as a site of (feminine) excess and dissimulation.

M. H. Maxy, Set design for The Sentimental Mannequin, c. 1926, Romanian National Art Museum

Please tell us about an interesting piece of design you have discovered as part of your research.

During my research, I was trying to find a connecting strand between M. H. Maxy’s work in commercial design and his interest in theatre. I came across a theatre set he made in 1926 that brought a modern design showroom to the stage, complete with modernist merchandise and a shop sign advertising ‘the latest fashions’. The geometric objects on display on stage were very similar to the items available for sale in Mela Brun-Maxy’s design showroom, made by M.H. Maxy and his avant-garde peers. M.H. Maxy was very interested in new developments in commercial display and shop window design, so he took the opportunity to test out new ideas on stage. At the same time, he created a sort of advertorial for Mela Brun-Maxy’s showroom, introducing the theatre-going public to the allure of the new interior.


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