Transcript #67 Designing Motherhood

Charlotte Burns
Guests Michelle Millar Fisher and Amber Winick with host Charlotte Burns. Photo by Matthew Magelof

Charlotte Burns: Hello, and welcome to In Other Words, where we cover everything you ever wanted to know about the art world but didn’t know who to ask. I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and today we’ll be talking about a new project called “Designing Motherhood: A Century of Making and Unmaking Babies”. It was conceived by Michelle Millar Fisher, curator of Contemporary Decorative Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Michelle Millar Fisher: When I think about what design and pregnancy, how they’re meeting right now, I actually think it’s in terms of people, pregnant people, being able to help shift legislation

Charlotte Burns: And Amber Winick, a fellow design historian whose writing has appeared in various publications.

Amber Winick: Yes, they have liberated us so much, but designs like this have also oppressed us.

Charlotte Burns: Before we begin, here’s a quick reminder to subscribe to our In Other Words newsletter at art agency And now, onto today’s show.

So, let’s talk a little bit about the project. How did you come up with this?

Michelle Millar Fisher: I was at MoMA as a curatorial assistant about four years ago, and I was [involved] with the really seminal 1934 “Machine Art” exhibition. It seemed to me that if that had been curated by anyone else than Philip Johnson and Alfred Barr, especially perhaps a female curator, it might have had a few different designs in it. One of them that I thought might have been in there—maybe anachronistically because it was designed in the 1950s—was one of the first breast pumps, a very mechanical looking device that was designed in concert with patients at a hospital in Stockholm.

When I suggested that as a possible acquisition, although my mentor at the time, Paola Antonelli, who’s wonderful, was very gung-ho about it, we realized eventually that that’s something that would probably never be acquired into the museum’s collection. That design really didn’t have a space for it.

So I decided that it would be really interesting to have some kind of project that would work in that vein. And Amber was thinking about the very same thing.

Amber Winick: Yes, I started researching maternity wear from the 20th-century, and when Michelle was curating “[Items: Is Fashion Modern?]”, which is the fashion exhibition that MoMA had in—

Michelle Millar Fisher: —2017.

Amber Winick: —2017, we had a lot to talk about, just in terms of the intersection of reproduction and design.

Michelle Millar Fisher: Yeah.

Charlotte Burns: When you were doing that show, “Items”, it was 100 items of clothing?

Michelle Millar Fisher: It was 111 garments and accessories that had a profound impact on the world at global and local levels over the last century. That was our tag line for it really. So maternity wear, was one of the entries.

Charlotte Burns: You found that hard to get on the list, didn’t you? I remember you telling me at some point that you were making the case that maternity wear was a huge design shift in the way that we think about clothing women, and yet it was really difficult for you to make that case.

Michelle Millar Fisher: Absolutely. People have temporary bodies, whether they are bodies that are changed by ill health, by disability, by eating lunch and your body changing shape slightly. And pregnancy, maternity, is one of those times that your body is temporary. There are six million or so pregnant people at any point in time in the US. It seemed like a great group of people who were thinking about design, especially with their clothing.

But the museum was a little resistant at first, and that’s why we called it premaman in the end, instead of maternity. Maternity was thought to be not the most elegant of words. I don’t mind calling it what it is, though. They are clothing designs for maternity.

Charlotte Burns: Why wouldn’t it be an elegant word?

Michelle Millar Fisher: That’s a really good question. That’s really one of the reasons why we’re doing this project. Because we have tried to get this conversation into some of the museums that we’ve worked with and for, some of the publications that we’ve worked with and for, that have fantastic design collections, incredibly forward-thinking curators, and a lot of resources to rethink the ways in which including different narratives and stories comes about. Everyone we know has been given birth to. So, it’s perhaps one of the universal experiences in life. And yet, I think you’d be hard pressed in any major, or indeed sort of general, design collection in the US and beyond, to find not even a comprehensive collection of designs around this—but any.

Charlotte Burns: Anything.

Amber Winick: There’s been a lot of emphasis on trying to make these kinds of designs, and this period of life in general, invisible.

Charlotte Burns: Mm-hmm.

Amber Winick: Social media is hopefully changing that, which is exciting. We found that there’s a really receptive audience to discussing a lot of these objects.

Charlotte Burns: The thing that’s so interesting, you guys both have worked together on your Instagram, I really think it’s one of the best accounts on social media because the stories behind it, the idea of how things came about is fascinating.

The way that the incubator came about because someone took a trip to a zoo. The baby blanket tracks the parallel industrialization of birth in America. The pregnancy test, which is to do with women’s autonomy over their own bodies, essentially. The idea that maternity clothing tracks very closely to political moments: that you see in maternity-wear points at which the body was hidden, and the idea was to be tent-like, and obscured.

Amber Winick: Yep.

Charlotte Burns: And then, after laws became more empowering for women, pregnant women, the clothes became tighter and more form-fitting, and you saw that shift. The Demi Moore moment of the Vanity Fair cover, which was—

Amber Winick: —which was 1991, and then in 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act was passed by President Bill Clinton, and immediately women’s jobs were protected, and they also had the freedom to show off their pregnancies within the workplace and without. And so, you saw the rise of the bodycon style.

Charlotte Burns: That’s so fascinating. I wonder what trend we’re seeing now. Because we’re at a dicey moment in terms of women’s reproductive autonomy, and the support for that. Are you seeing already changes in the design-wear for women?

Amber Winick: Well, again, I feel like the Instagramification of culture is really shifting style right now. I think it’s a sexier moment for pregnancy, and I mean that literally, in terms of revealing, but also just sort of a lifestyle moment.

Charlotte Burns: Mm-hmm.

Amber Winick: Would you agree?

Michelle Millar Fisher: Yeah, if we think about design in its most expanded sense as a system, as well as products, objects, fashion, then Instagram allows people to have solidarity with one another.

When I’m thinking about the way that design and the art world intersects with pregnancy, I think of the case of Nikki Columbus and pregnancy discrimination, and that’s absolutely something that took on a different tone when it got onto social media. Very few arts publications actually covered that at the time. I think Paddy Johnson was one of the only ones.

So, when I think about what design and pregnancy, how they’re meeting right now, I actually think it’s in terms of people, pregnant people, being able to help shift legislation to be able to really, firmly say, you can’t ignore us, and we have voices. We know there are still egregious ways in which workers are not being protected with laws that already exist, not laws that are meant to be made.

Charlotte Burns: And the laws that exist are meager.

Michelle Millar Fisher: Yeah, in the US.

Charlotte Burns: —and that’s probably a generous way of describing them. The US is the only country in the industrialized world that doesn’t have a federally mandated paid maternity leave. It has the least generous benefits of any developed country; the lowest public commitment to any form of caregiving; it has one of the largest gaps in wages between employed men and women; and it has the highest maternal and child mortality rates of any Western industrialized nation, in fact, any developed nation.

It’s the most expensive country on earth to give birth. A standard birth costs more than $32,000. A standard Cesarean would cost more than $50,000. It’s the most expensive country on earth, and despite that, it’s also got the highest mortality rate. So, something in the system structurally isn’t working.

Michelle Millar Fisher: Yeah.

Charlotte Burns: I think that’s one aspect of it, and the other aspect as you’re pointing to is this idea of labor laws. We’re doing a big data study looking at the representation of female artists in US museums, and the international market. Part of that, we’re also including an article in which we’ve looked at this idea of maternity in the art world.

The art world, actually, is really at the sharp end of that wedge because there are certain provisions for women if they have babies now: you have 12 weeks [off work], but those laws are only enactable if a firm is more than a certain amount of years old and if it has a certain amount of employees. So, a lot of art businesses don’t meet the requirements for having to even give anything.

I know that when I was at The Art Newspaper, they were very clear on the fact that they didn’t have to give me a day, although they did in the end because I’d had a different contract. But that was a very unpleasant negotiating experience. It absolutely changed my career, because I felt I couldn’t stay and work for a company that had put me through that incredible stress.

Amber Winick: Then it changes your experience of your child and of caregiving.

Michelle Millar Fisher: Let me bring that back to design as well. Almost every metric for making the world a more sustainable place one of the major ways to do that is to give agency to women and girls. So, if you are designing the workplace for that to be systematically impossible, then yeah, we absolutely have a systemic problem.

Charlotte Burns: What are the most striking takeaways for you both from this project, in terms of the designs?

Amber Winick: We can have a lot of these discussions about these structural factors through the actual designs. Breast pumps, for example, have largely been marketed as a way for working mothers to keep up their supply when they return to their jobs, a way for them to have it all. This marketing has been successful: since the introduction of the Medela breast pump in 1991, the market has quadrupled, and is expected to be worth $3bn in 2022.

Charlotte Burns: Wow.

Amber Winick: Yeah. But it also doesn’t really reflect women’s reality, right? Breast pumps provide a band-aid solution to a much larger systemic problem. Yes, they have liberated us so much, but designs like this have also oppressed us.

Charlotte Burns: No one tells you that it takes so long.


Michelle Millar Fisher: One of the wonderful design histories is that breast pumps were more often tested, and data from them more often gathered, from bovine subjects.

So Einar Egnell in the 1950s was the outlier as a Swedish civil engineer saying, “I should go and work with Sister Maya Kimberg, a sister at the main maternity hospital in Stockholm, to say, okay, how can we make this better? But it’s only very, very recently that that has become really enshrined in corporate culture and industrial design culture.

It’s a very nascent area. I don’t think it often crops up on design curricula. I don’t think students are often, not even pushed towards this, but said, “Look, there’s some really fantastic design innovations that are just waiting to happen.”

I will make a pitch here, actually, for one of the wonderful designs we have on our checklist, Lia, comes out of Philly. They’re two young women who wanted to update the pregnancy test, which is single use plastic, very bad for the environment. So they’ve created a very elegant and economic design that can be flushed away after use and biodegrades, and they’ve been able to come up with $2.6m of venture capital funding, which again, studies have shown it’s difficult to be a woman in those VC rooms, trying to get funding together. But specifically, for products for human reproduction.

Amber Winick: The venture capitalists don’t want to touch this area.

Charlotte Burns: No. There’s something about the squeamishness about bodily fluids that we’ll get onto.

Michelle Millar Fisher: Totally.

Charlotte Burns: It reminds me of a story I read. There was an artist who’d gone back to grad school and they happened to have a breast pump on the table.

Michelle Millar Fisher: Aimee Gilmore.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, and the tutor said, “Why have you got a klaxon on your desk?”


Michelle Millar Fisher: Yeah, and she said, “No, no.” She’s amazing. She went back to school to do her graduate program three months postpartum and folded in a lot of her work around her first daughter, Maya, into her crits and was roundly shunned for doing so a lot of the time. But that’s actually how some of her really beautiful work, the “Milkscapes”, came into being, because she was harried one day in the studio, knocked over one of her breast milk pumping bottles, and it went over a sheet of Mylar, and it made this really beautiful pattern. So she made art of it, as you would, and they’re gorgeous.

Charlotte Burns: So, let’s talk a little bit about some of these stories for some of the objects that you have. I thought that the baby blanket’s really interesting because it’s so ubiquitous; you don’t see it. The success of the baby blanket has something to do with the timing of the baby blanket, because it tells the story of the increasingly industrialized birth practice in the US. In 1940, just over half of births took place in hospitals. In 1950, it was 88% of all births, and now it must be even…

Amber Winick: The figure’s 99%.

Charlotte Burns: 99% now.

Michelle Millar Fisher: 1% of home births.

Amber Winick: That means that 99% of babies receive this blanket when they’re born. If that doesn’t tell you the story of industrialized, and medicalization of, birth, I don’t know what does.

Charlotte Burns: So, tell me a little bit, too, about the pregnancy test. We did a talk in May, and actually the designer of the pregnancy test was in the audience, which was great. You told a story, Michelle, about how the pregnancy test came about.

Michelle Millar Fisher: So, Meg Crane was a wonderful industrial designer in her 20s in the late 1960s, and she worked for a pharmaceutical company called Organon. One day she was walking through the lab, and she asked what was happening on one particular lab bench, and the person that she was with said, “Oh, these are pregnancy tests.”

At the time, you would go to the doctor; you would give a urine sample. That would be taken away to the lab; it could be a two or three-week process. It would come back to you, and then you would find out if you were pregnant or not. So, it didn’t give you a huge amount of agency.

Meg looked at the lab bench and thought that actually people who are pregnant could probably do that at home themselves and decided to pitch that as an idea to the executives in the commercial sector of the company. So, she made a very simple pregnancy test. At the time it had a pipette, a dropper, a little kind of lab bench setup, actually, which would take a couple of hours. It wasn’t the immediate test that you have today, but you could do it at home. She took a very simple off-the-shelf dollar store plastic container.

She put it on the table, and she said, “You know what? I think women can do this themselves.” Unbeknownst to her, the ad executives decided to create their own versions of this and have a conversation about how they could bring this to market. She happened upon the meeting and joined it. She wasn’t really sort of brought into the conversation. And at the meeting an outside advertising agency came in, too.

She looked at the designs on the table, and they had pink and tassels and ribbons, and all of the things that have absolutely nothing to do with pregnancy tests, and the outside ad executive said, “You know what? Actually, I think it’s this one here. Pointed to hers. Her company said, “Oh, this is just meant to be the prototype,” and he said, “No, this is absolutely what we’re meant to go with,” and that became the at home pregnancy test in 1970, 1971 in Canada. Then 1978, 1979 here in the US.

That outside ad executive became Meg’s husband and they had a long career together as a design team here in New York.

Charlotte Burns: There’s something too about the value of objects, which is something we’ve kind of touched upon. The idea we’ve spoken about in the past is that both museums and the markets seek comparables.

Michelle Millar Fisher: Yes.

Charlotte Burns: If you’re trying to pitch for something, it’s easier to point to something else that has been perceived to be valuable, and say, “Well, look, this is like this. It’s a great opportunity.” Whereas with a lot of the design around parenthood, there aren’t that many comparables. You told me, Michelle, that you sort of go to your director and say, “Well, we should buy this,” and you often hear back, “Well, why don’t we let another museum whose collection this would better fit and acquire it.” You think, “well, nobody’s collecting it, so there’s not really a collection that this would fit in.” But Meg Crane’s pregnancy prototype is one of the few things that has actually an auction market, which is interesting. That has sold at auction.

Michelle Millar Fisher: Thank the Lord for the Smithsonian. I think it sold for around $11,000 a couple of years ago. And thank the Lord for the really wonderful auctioneer who took that on.

Charlotte Burns: Cassandra Hutton.

Michelle Millar Fisher: Yes, who works here.

Charlotte Burns: She’s brilliant.

Michelle Millar Fisher: We met her when Meg came here to do the talk, and I think it’s the vision of somebody like Cassandra, and the bravery of someone like Meg, saying, “No, this really should be out there as a design object; it’s part of the history that should be told.”

Amber Winick: It also was so empowering. It’s a perfect example of the rare reversal of the medicalization of pregnancy? It’s giving a woman an agency to take an object into her home and decide for herself whether or not she’s pregnant. The pregnancy test really just changed the nature of the whole entire experience. It was a revolution to just be able to—

Charlotte Burns: —it’s a private moment.

Amber Winick: —yes, it’s a private moment.

Charlotte Burns: It also speaks to the input of those other voices. I remember reading an article in The Guardian about the first calendar that had been found, and it was being studied, and people were saying, “Well, it must be something to do with the moon or the cycles or the spirituality. You know, maybe it was something to do with the astro-plane because it’s 28 days; we don’t understand why.” Then a woman said, “It’s a menstrual calendar.” Nobody in the room had thought of that, because why would you think of that if you were not someone who had to think of that.

Michelle Millar Fisher: Also, Apple, please add it to your health app, which they then did. But, yeah, absolutely.

Charlotte Burns: Exactly. Apple’s phones are too big, and designed for the human hand, by which they mean male human hand.

Michelle Millar Fisher: Apple’s icons and Apple’s graphic user interface was the product of Susan Kare. Everything that we know about the way Apple looks to us today is the product of a female designer, which again, I think is often forgotten.

I often think it goes back to those structures of the workplace. If you don’t have people who represent certain viewpoints there doing the work, if you don’t allow them in, then of course you’re not going to have a really inclusive, thoughtful, well-rounded app or whatever it is you’re designing.

Charlotte Burns: It’s interesting that people are thinking about that more now. And I’m thinking here of the women’s club, The Wing, and what they do that’s so interesting is that everything is catered for women, and the design is very much part of that. They’ve come to the conclusion that most office chairs, desks and tables don’t suit the female body and so they’ve designed all of their furniture for the female form. Everything they do is coming from that perspective, which is radical. And incredibly popular.

Michelle Millar Fisher: Yeah, their childcare. We were just there, and you were noticing that too, Amber, right?

Amber Winick: Yeah, having onsite childcare within a workplace is so radical, and so needed, and so obvious, really.

Michelle Millar Fisher: We think about this, I mean every time we think about this project, we’re talking about design, which is often a rarefied conversation in and of itself. Somewhere like The Wing, which we both love and feel very strongly about, is also a place that’s not accessible to everybody, but it is a model that should be accessible for everybody in terms of having something like onsite childcare, which could completely change the game. So, when we think about The Wing, we also think about places like Walmart, which again, are both a balance of working with a lot.

Charlotte Burns: So, the project, “Designing Motherhood”, what form is it ultimately going to take?

Michelle Millar Fisher: So, we have venues, and we have a book in place. We are so excited, actually, to be partnering with a range of different people and organizations. The exhibition will happen simultaneously at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, which is connected to the National College of Physicians there. It’s a wonderful collection.

Then simultaneously there’s a part of the exhibition that will happen at the Center for Architecture and Design. So, these two brilliant institutions that were very much on board from the start.

Our thought partner for the exhibition is the Maternity Care Coalition in Philadelphia, who for the last 40 years have been working with people who either are identified as or self-identify as living in low income communities, or are people of color, working with them from pregnancy through to the first three years of their infant’s life, figuring out ways in which access to services, designs and systems that would make their lives better can happen. They have been doing tireless work. They’re absolutely amazing as an organization.

So, we really wanted to be able to center this conversation not in a super middle-class version of what it is to design motherhood. We also have to think very carefully about that title because it’s sort of motherhood in air quotes, in a way. It’s not just female-identifying people who are pregnant, who experience pregnancy and birth, who have reproductive decisions related to owning a pair of ovaries or a uterus.

We were excited to partner with these organizations and people in particular because they have expansive and very thoughtful and very intersectional understandings of what this project can be.

Charlotte Burns: When you say that about motherhood, it’s interesting. There was a great book that an art lawyer recommended to me, and it’s by Maggie Nelson, and she talks about-

Michelle Millar Fisher: The Argonauts.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah, The Argonauts, and she talks about the queering of the body, and her partner at the time was undergoing surgery for sex change, and she was pregnant, and both of their bodies were sort of being queered and changing. This idea of temporary bodies that you were discussing I thought was really interesting because I never really read about sort of motherhood in that way.

Michelle Millar Fisher: Yes.

Charlotte Burns: What are your hopes for the project? What do you want it to achieve? What impact would you like it to have?

Michelle Millar Fisher: I hope it’s the start of many other people having this conversation. I hope it’s just a very good beginning. I don’t think it’s going to be comprehensive; it never can be. A curatorial point of view is often—always—deeply idiosyncratic. I think our book will have multiple authors.

Amber Winick: Yeah, I mean it’s exciting to start the conversations around these objects that are so ubiquitous. I’m thinking about the peri bottle or those mesh underpants that you use when you’re immediately postpartum.

Michelle Millar Fisher: But so hidden, Amber.

Charlotte Burns: The idea of things being so hidden is absolutely true. There’s so much that people don’t talk about. I was thinking about this, preparing for this talk, thinking about you both on social media, but also thinking about where we are in the evolution of social media; that there’s a generation of men and women who became influencers on social media when they were late teens, early 20s, and are now, some of them, undergoing this experience of parenthood.

What’s really fascinating is how these influencers are used to living their life so much in public that they have discussed every detail of their fitness business, their wedding, their whatever, now are discussing pregnancy in such open terms. I’m thinking of one person who’s a former dancer turned fitness instructor who recently had a baby, and has been chronicling that on Instagram, including the difficulty she had with breastfeeding.

There’s a kind of community around that. But because she has this large audience, brands are now targeting her, and that’s really interesting too because it’s leading to more innovation in the commercial sphere. So, she was recently trialing a breast pump that’s portable. Doing an exercise class while breast pumping, which is definitely a step forward in terms of the innovation. I thought that was really fascinating, the way that those things kind of come together: commercialism, the public conversation, and the empowerment of the working person.

Michelle Millar Fisher: Yeah, design has never been afraid of commerce. In fact, that’s absolutely part of its world, and so it’s interesting, I mean, design has also never been afraid of warfare and conflict and those types of things. So, the innovation comes from many different places, but it comes from those two in particular: conflict leading to rapid design innovation that then becomes part of the civilian experience. Or the market saying we could use this, and there’s a niche for it, and you can make money out of this.

I see no issue with that. I’m kind of delighted that the conversation comes to the fore. In the US, the difficulty is that it becomes of either healthcare system or a commercial consumer system. When there are healthcare innovations made, I often think, who accesses these?

We come from a place where there’s the NHS, I mean, Nye Bevan is my personal design hero, the man who gave us the NHS.

I do think that it’s an exciting parallelism that you have marketplace driving innovation because you have social media and just greater mass media. But it’s always coming back to questions of access too.

Amber Winick: Yeah. It’s a tricky slope. I don’t know if either of you saw the post that I made about the marketing rules around infant formula. Basically, we have no rules in the United States that limit the ways that infant formula can be marketed. Advertisements don’t necessarily even read as advertisements and are given out—

Free samples in hospitals and pediatricians’ offices; as medicalized brochures, and it really changes the landscape of who breastfeeds that absolutely impacts kind of a racial dynamic as well.

Michelle Millar Fisher: Yep.

Charlotte Burns: Someone explained that to me when a few years into moving here, that the faddishness of what you see as the celebrity culture—that there’s always a new diet, the kind of Goopification of the kind of culinary sphere—that’s to do with federal standards. Whereas in the UK, you have much more government mandates about food safety and what a product needs to be labeled as, all that kind of stuff.

In America, that’s not so much the case, so the base diet is, the affordable diet, is less healthy. So therefore, your health rises in accordance with your income because that’s when you can buy more, you can educate yourself on the better quality of food. Gwyneth Paltrow is this sort of paradigm of that.

That’s to do with the ways in which foods and products are sold in America. So, the wealthier you are, the more you will find out about better food and better stuff, and I think that dynamic is mirrored in childcare and the foods that we feed children.

Well, thank you both so much for coming in today. This has been really interesting, as always, to talk to you both. Is there anything that we didn’t cover that you wanted to get to?

Michelle Millar Fisher: Come see the exhibition next October in Philly. And thank you for having us.

Amber Winick: Yes, thank you so much for having us.

Charlotte Burns: Great, thanks guys.

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