The things that make and break our births – the Brooklyn Rail
Michelle Millar Fisher and Amber Winick
Designed by Clanada
Conceiving motherhood: the things that make and break our births
(MIT Press, 2021)
Conceiving motherhood: the things that make and break our births is not just a book – an extensively illustrated 344-page hardcover catalog designed by Clanada (Lana Cavar and Natasha Chandani) – that accompanies a two-part exhibition at the Mütter Museum and the Center for Architecture and Design in Philadelphia. The book is the result of a larger project and a larger movement. It is a “one-of-a-kind exploration of the arc of human reproduction through the prism of architecture and design”. As its editors and chief curators Michelle Millar Fisher and Amber Winick attest, the project Conceive motherhood is long-term and multi-part, reciprocally built on a collaborative foundation that took more than seven years to manifest itself and extends far beyond the limits of the art world.
Designed in partnership with the Maternity Care Coalition (MCC), a social service organization dedicated to the health and well-being of individuals and families who give birth, and with a generous grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, among other donors fund, Designing Motherhood (the largest project) has grown from the mutual benefit of two design historians shared via a public Instagram account (@designingmotherhood), to an award-winning international company that honors the immense impact of designs related to birth on our daily life.
Birth is a universal experience that unites all of humanity; yet each birth is unique. A birth is shaped by its time, place and participants. Various birth permutations within and outside of Anglo-American culture are taken into consideration in Conceive motherhood, which features over 100 designs impacting every step, 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 main sections: reproduction, pregnancy, childbirth and post -partum, each with related subtopics. Academic partner of the project Orkan Telhan, associate professor of emerging design practices at the Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania, kicks off the book with an entry on cell biology. Telhan is one of more than a dozen voices from the fields of art and science introduced in the book to contribute to the first-person entries. Interviews with Loretta Ross on DalkonShield Intrauterine Device Dysfunction and with Dr Flaura Winston on Car Seat Safety are just a few of the other stories that populate this book and represent one of the many ways Conceive motherhood strives for inclusiveness. Overall, the kaleidoscopic portions of the book speak to Fisher and Winick’s goal of examining what lies between “fissures in disciplinary boundaries as well as social mores”, so that individuals and institutions can be more welcoming for such designs in the distant future.
A significant portion of the entryways showcase tangible objects: menstrual cups, calipers, ultrasounds, cesarean curtains, pregnancy pillows, breast pumps, nursing bras, diapers and car seats to name a few. some. They are the hyper-visible icons of the reproductive and childbirth processes seen in hospitals, birthing centers and homes around the world. Other entries are more abstract, referring to the chemical, psychological and emotional works of birth. These include meditations on the pill and Clomid (drugs that in turn prevent and promote conception), pain and bereavement, family leave, and adoption. Conceive motherhood doesn’t hesitate to tackle more sinister and controversial designs like the speculum, which is linked to experimental surgeries on female slaves, as well as more mundane and practical designs like the striped Kuddle-Up hospital blanket candy, which has enveloped many a newborn in the United States since its introduction to the market in the 1950s. In these examples, Conceive motherhood strikes a delicate balance between mourning and celebration, the two poles of the birth spectrum.
The entries touch both on the history of designs – some of which date back to pre-modern times – and their contemporary reinventions. For example, the home pregnancy test was released in 1971. Its simple and elegant packaging is attributed to graphic designer Margaret “Meg” Crane, who recognized the importance of empowering post-war women to control pregnancy. that happens to their body. This sentiment continues in the work of LIA, a startup producing a discreet, biodegradable home pregnancy test that can be flushed down the toilet. Conceive motherhood testifies to design’s ability not only to passively identify, but to actively respond to the needs and wants of users. In doing so, he rightly brings back the legacy of many designers, mostly women and people of color, in the history of design. This recuperative act is about a project that so significantly centers care, a topic that has come increasingly to the fore amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.
All entries from Conceive motherhood are accompanied by at least one image. Dynamic visuals punctuate the sections in multi-page thumbnails featuring archival images or a portfolio of works by a contemporary artist. They are taken from the authors’ family photo albums and from the annals of research institutes. Snapshots of pop culture symbols, such as Lucille Ball from the mid-century American TV show I like lucy, and pioneering black model Grace Jones, are juxtaposed with works of art, including portraits of herself and her family by acclaimed photographer Deb Willis and excerpts from Carmen Winant’s seminal photo book. My birth (2018). These sections give rhythm to the book and readers have a moment to pause and contemplate how birth is performed and interpreted. One of the most illustrative selections documents the work of the MCC itself, namely its MOMobile, an ongoing program that brings prenatal and postpartum care directly into the community to promote the best possible outcomes for those giving birth. and their babies.
Conceive motherhood begins with a reflection on the words mother and mothercover, signaling the limits of such a vocabulary. This is emphasized again in the book, particularly in an entry on male birth, which interviews Thomas Beatie, who identifies as a man and has given birth to four children since 2008. Conceive motherhood never miss an opportunity to advocate for transgender rights, universal health care, paid family leave, expanded postpartum care and racial justice. Another way to convey this is the tone of the entries, much of which is written in first person. Talking directly to the reader about her childless experience or having given birth at home animates the text, making it more accessible to readers.
Above all, Conceive motherhood is self-reflective. As he strives to shatter the parameters in the fields of design, art, science, activism, and politics, he is also keenly aware of the systems that bind them together. The book clearly recognizes how pregnancy and childbirth have been commercialized, through the production and promotion of consumer goods aimed at enhancing but sometimes hampering these experiences. Whether or not one is a laborer, one will find a more comprehensive and empowered approach to sexuality, reproduction and education in Conceive motherhood than in any mass market guide, medical manual or practice. The fact that this information has to be conveyed under the guise of art and design speaks to a deep unease in our society and a lack of substantial support at birth.