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The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2021

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OCT 2021 Issue
Art Books

Designing Motherhood: Things That Make and Break Our Births

Through the lens of design, this book offers a more comprehensive and empowered approach to sexuality, procreation, and rearing than any mass-market guide, medical textbook, or doctor’s office.

Michelle Millar Fisher and Amber Winick
Designed by Clanada
Designing Motherhood: Things That Make and Break Our Births
(MIT Press, 2021)

​​Designing Motherhood: Things That Make and Break Our Births is not just a book—a 344-page copiously illustrated hardcover catalogue designed by Clanada (Lana Cavar and Natasha Chandani)—that accompanies a two-part exhibition at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum and the Center for Architecture and Design. The book results from a larger project and a larger movement. It is a “first-of-its-kind exploration of the arc of human reproduction through the lens of architecture and design.” As its editors and lead curators Michelle Millar Fisher and Amber Winick attest, the project Designing Motherhood is long-term and multi-part, built reciprocally upon a foundation of collaboration that took over seven years to manifest and spans far beyond the confines of the art world.

Courtesy MIT Press.
Courtesy MIT Press.

Conceived in partnership with the Maternity Care Coalition (MCC), a social service organization devoted to the health and well-being of birthing persons and families, and with a generous grant from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, among other funders, Designing Motherhood (the larger project) grew from the mutual interest of two design historians shared through a public Instagram account (@designingmotherhood), to an award-winning international endeavor that honors the immense impact of birth-related designs on our everyday lives.

Birth is a universal experience uniting all humankind; yet every birth is unique. A birth is shaped by its time, place, and participants. Various permutations of birth within and outside Anglo-American culture are taken into consideration in Designing Motherhood, which showcases over 100 designs impacting every stage from preconception to delivery and beyond. The book is organized like a dictionary. After short introductory texts by Erica Çhidi of the sexual and reproductive health platform LOOM, design critic Alexandra Lange, and editors Fisher and Winick, it is divided into four overarching sections: reproduction, pregnancy, birth, and postpartum, each with related subtopics. Orkan Telhan, Associate Professor of Emerging Design Practices at the Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania, an academic partner of the project, kicks off the book with an entry on cell biology. Telhan is one of over a dozen voices from the fields of art and science brought into the book to contribute first-person entries. Interviews with Loretta Ross on the malfunction of the DalkonShield intrauterine device, and with Dr. Flaura Winston on the safety of car seats are just some of the other stories that populate this book and represent one of the many ways Designing Motherhood strives for inclusivity. All together, the kaleidoscopic parts of the book speak to Fisher and Winick’s aim to consider what falls between the “cracks of disciplinary boundaries as well as social mores,” so that individuals and institutions alike may be more welcoming to such designs in the not too distant future.

A significant portion of the entries highlights tangible objects: menstrual cups, stirrups, sonograms, C-section curtains, pregnancy pillows, breast pumps, nursing bras, diapers, and car seats to name just a few. They are the hyper-visible icons of the reproductive and birthing processes seen in hospitals, birth centers, and homes around the world. Other entries are more abstract, referencing the chemical, psychological, and emotional labors of birth. These include meditations on the pill and Clomid (medications that, alternatively, prevent and promote conception), pain and grief, family leave, and adoption. Designing Motherhood does not shy away from tackling the more sinister and controversial designs like the speculum, which is linked to experimental surgeries on enslaved women, as well as the more mundane and practical designs like the candy-striped Kuddle-Up hospital blanket, which has wrapped many a newborn in the United States since its introduction to the market in the 1950s. In these examples, Designing Motherhood strikes a delicate balance between mourning and celebration—the two poles of birth’s spectrum.

The entries touch upon both the histories of the designs—some of which date to pre-modern times—and their contemporary reinventions. For example, the home pregnancy test was released in 1971. Its sleek, straightforward packaging is attributed to graphic designer Margaret “Meg” Crane, who recognized the importance of empowering postwar women in controlling what happens to their bodies. This sentiment is carried on in the work of LIA, a startup producing a discreet, biodegradable home pregnancy test that can be flushed down the toilet. Designing Motherhood is a testament to the ability of design to not just passively identify, but actively respond to needs and desires of users. In doing so, it rightfully restores the legacies of many makers, predominantly women and people of color, in the history of design. This recuperative act is apropos of a project that so significantly centers care, a subject that has been increasingly foregrounded in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

All the entries in Designing Motherhood are accompanied by at least one image. Dynamic visuals punctuate the sections in multiple-page vignettes containing archival images or a portfolio of works by a contemporary artist. They are culled from the authors’ family photo albums and annals of research institutions. Snapshots of pop culture symbols, such as Lucille Ball from the mid-century American television show I Love Lucy, and the pioneering Black supermodel Grace Jones, are juxtaposed to works of fine art, including portraits of herself and her family by the celebrated photographer Deb Willis and excerpts from Carmen Winant’s seminal photobook My Birth (2018). These sections give the book rhythm, and readers a moment to pause and contemplate how birth is performed and interpreted. One of the most illustrative selections documents the work of MCC itself, namely its MOMobile, an ongoing program that brings prenatal and postpartum care directly into the community so as to foster the best possible outcomes for birthing persons and their babies.

Designing Motherhood begins with a reflection on the words mother and motherhood, signaling the limitations of such vocabulary. This is reemphasized across the book, specifically in an entry on masculine birth, which interviews Thomas Beatie, who identifies as male and has given birth to four children since 2008. Designing Motherhood never misses an opportunity to pointedly advocate for transgender rights, universal health care, paid family leave, expanded postpartum care, and racial justice. Another way this is conveyed is through the tone of the entries—a good portion of which are written in the first person. Speaking directly to the reader about one’s experience being childfree or having a home birth enlivens the text, making it more accessible to readers.

Most of all, Designing Motherhood is self-reflexive. While it strives to break parameters in the fields of design, art, science, activism, and policy, it also is acutely aware of the systems that bind them. The book clearly acknowledges how pregnancy and birth have been commercialized, through the production and promotion of consumer goods aimed at enhancing yet sometimes hindering these experiences. Whether or not a birthing person, one will find a more comprehensive and empowered approach to sexuality, procreation, and rearing in Designing Motherhood than in any mass-market guide, medical textbook, or doctor’s office. The fact that this information must be conveyed through the guise of art and design points to our society’s deep-seated discomfort with and lack of substantial support for birth.

Contributor

Ksenia Nouril

Ksenia Nouril is the Jensen Bryan Curator at The Print Center, a non-profit institution in Philadelphia dedicated to expanding the understanding of photography and printmaking as vital contemporary arts. She previously has worked at The Museum of Modern Art, Bruce Museum, and Zimmerli Art Museum. She holds a BA in Art History and Slavic Studies from New York University and a PhD in Art History from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

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The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2021

All Issues