Designing Motherhood: A Visceral Design Guide to the Material Culture of Reproduction
by Kate Burnett Budzyn
Pregnancy pillows, exam stirrups, nursing bras, pantyliners: the stuff of design? In their new book—based on a years-long multiplatform project in partnership with Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition—Michelle Millar Fisher and Amber Winick assure us that the “things that make and break our births” are eminently worthy of consideration as designed objects.
The experiences of pregnancy, contraception, menstruation, breastfeeding, and child rearing both shape and are shaped by their material accoutrements. Birth control packaging or breast pumps may not be exactly decorative, but they are material presences whose form and function punctuate our interior worlds (both bodily and spatially). “Such objects, spaces, and ideas define life and death and the parameters of autonomy over body and mind,” the authors write in the introduction. “They should occupy a central place in the canons of visual culture. They should be among the most well-considered design solutions.” Yet while things like IUDs and speculums profoundly affect everyday lives, they have received virtually no attention by museums and the design world—until now.
Three IUDs shown at the Mütter Museum’s Designing Motherhood exhibition, open through May 2022. The Dalkon Shield (far left) intrauterine device was used in the early 1970s and 1980s and produced by the A.H. Robins Company in the US. It caused an array of severe injuries, including pelvic infection, infertility, unintended pregnancy, and death. Eventually the US Food and Drug Administration banned the device. Image courtesy the Mütter Museum.
The Designing Motherhood project includes the @designingmotherhood Instagram account, as well as a small but compelling exhibition at the Mütter Museum, open through May 2022, along with a program series and oral history documentation. The book, published by MIT Press, is the centerpiece of the project. Printed on frosting-pink pages and in blood-red ink, it reclaims the visual language of “feminine” products and offers readers an aesthetically considered vade mecum of objects and practices that shape reproductive experiences.
The revelation here is that the way these things look, feel, and function is not a given but, rather, the product of active decisions—decisions that for most of the history of medicine have been taken away from women. Holding the book in one’s hands, one starts to feel these objects—so variously intimate and traumatic, familiar, and disturbing—morph in that way that skilled curation allows for: they begin to become seeable rather than invisible. This is what design exhibitions and catalogs are for: showing us the things that define us as humans, giving us the space to consider them on their own terms. When baby carriers and pregnancy tests are revealed as choices rather than inevitable utilitarian tools, power dynamics begin to shift. The people who live with and through these objects begin to become shareholders, owners, interpreters, and witnesses rather than patients.
Millar Fisher, Winick, and their many contributors and collaborators think expansively and inclusively about what constitutes motherhood, making the project relevant not just to those who are immediately involved in the biological processes of creating children. “Motherhood is myriad,” they write. This is a catalog that anyone who has a uterus—or has come from one—is likely to find both edifying and deeply nourishing—an Our Body, Ourselves for the design world.
Kate Burnett Budzyn is a contributing writer for The Decorative Arts Trust Bulletin. She researches historic clothing and textiles and is the book review editor at Winterthur Portfolio.
About The Decorative Arts Trust Bulletin
Formerly known as the "blog,” the Bulletin features new research and scholarship, travelogues, book reviews, and museum and gallery exhibitions. The Bulletin complements The Magazine of the Decorative Arts Trust, our biannual members publication.