Women de­sign

Women have al­ways been a sig­nif­i­cant part of the de­sign pro­fes­sion –as prac­ti­tion­ers, com­men­ta­tors, ed­u­ca­tors and com­mis­sion­ers, says de­sign his­to­rian, Lib by Sellers.

Project Calm - - Contents -

We of­ten cel­e­brate the pi­o­neer­ing crafts­men and gentle­men in­dus­tri­al­ists of the nine­teenth cen­tury, the found­ing fore­fa­thers of in­ter­na­tional de­sign in­sti­tu­tions and mu­se­ums, the el­der states­men of ar­chi­tec­ture and the post-war mae­stros, and rightly so, too – their con­tri­bu­tions were un­de­ni­ably re­mark­able. How­ever, this pre­dom­i­nantly male, white, west­ern- and eu­ro­cen­tric nar­ra­tive is hugely lack­ing. Women and mi­nori­ties in de­sign have for too long been rel­e­gated to the sub­cat­e­gories of their dis­ci­plines.

We might ask whether, in a time when the di­a­logue has turned to gen­der neu­tral­ity, a dis­cus­sion of women in de­sign is still valid? Ab­so­lutely! An un­der­stand­ing of gen­der as a cul­tural con­struct, rather than a bi­o­log­i­cal or nat­u­ral fact, opens the dis­cus­sion of how th­ese gen­dered cul­tures have im­pacted upon the de­sign in­dus­try and why a gen­der­less fu­ture for de­sign – one based on merit rather than the iden­ti­fied sex of its cre­ators – is an ad­mirably rich yet nu­anced goal.

Whereas in the eigh­teenth cen­tury, women stu­dents and prac­ti­tion­ers were not per­mit­ted en­try into art and de­sign in­sti­tu­tions, their in­creas­ing ac­cess into de­sign in the late nine­teenth cen­tury re­flected the chang­ing at­ti­tudes to­wards women in so­ci­ety as a whole. Steps were slow at the start of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, but as the era pro­gressed and ex­pe­ri­enced the con­se­quences of two World Wars, fol­lowed by the rel­a­tive suc­cess of the women’s lib­er­a­tion move­ment, those steps to­wards equal­ity in the in­dus­try be­gan to has­ten.

Ris­ing num­bers of in­clu­sive ed­u­ca­tion pro­grammes es­tab­lished by move­ments and in­sti­tu­tions such as the Arts and Crafts move­ment in late nine­teenth- cen­tury Bri­tain, the Weiner Werk­stätte of the early 1900s, and the Bauhaus school of in­ter­war Ger­many, ac­tively en­cour­aged women into the pro­fes­sion. De­spite their stated com­mit­ment to egal­i­tar­i­an­ism, how­ever, each of th­ese schools failed to break with con­ven­tion and, in ef­fect, ended up re­in­forc­ing in­equal­ity by gen­der. The many rea­sons why are as nu­anced as the schools them­selves. The sit­u­a­tion in the US, how­ever, was far more pro­gres­sive, with many in­sti­tu­tions and phil­an­thropic train­ing pro­grammes founded by women, for women. Among th­ese, the Philadel­phia School of De­sign for Women (founded in 1848) and the New York School of

De­sign for Women, which merged with the Cooper In­sti­tute in 1859, be­came key in­flu­encers in train­ing de­sign­ers for in­dus­try. Ac­cess into th­ese ed­u­ca­tional hot houses was not al­ways a given. While most his­to­ries of de­sign are about white men, the con­tri­bu­tion of ar­chi­tects and de­sign­ers of colour is a com­pelling story wait­ing to be told.

Even those who over­came the ob­sta­cles of ed­u­ca­tion or found al­ter­na­tive routes through were some­times pre­sented with yet an­other prej­u­dice – the cri­tique of am­a­teurism. Le Cor­bus­ier’s of­ten- quoted and dis­mis­sive re­sponse to a work­place re­quest by the French de­signer Char­lotte Per­riand (1903–1999) – “We don’t em­broi­der cush­ions in my ate­lier” – is an ex­am­ple of the kind of crip­pling slight many women suf­fered.

When ask­ing why so few women reach the top of de­sign, the in­flu­en­tial de­sign critic and au­thor Alice Raw­sthorn noted, “The short an­swer is the same lack of self-be­lief and en­ti­tle­ment that dogs them in ev­ery other pro­fes­sion, com­bined with op­po­si­tion from those who com­mis­sion the ma­jor­ity of de­sign projects, most of whom are men.” Span­ish de­signer Pa­tri­cia Urquiola de­scribes how her own prej­u­dices ini­tially pre­vented her from break­ing out on her own and es­tab­lish­ing her stu­dio. Urquiola’s can­did con­fes­sion re­flects the mantra of Face­book CEO Sh­eryl Sand­berg, who claims through her book, Lean In (2013), “We’re hold­ing our­selves back by not rais­ing our hands, and by pulling back when we should be lean­ing in.” As with the ex­pe­ri­ences of both Zaha Ha­did and Denise Scott Brown, even those who reached the apex of their pro­fes­sion did not al­ways re­ceive the credit they de­served. There is, how­ever, a light at the end of tun­nel. As Raw­sthorn iden­ti­fies, “His­tor­i­cally women have thrived on new turf where there are no male cus­to­di­ans and they are free to in­vent their own ways of work­ing.” Her per­cep­tion of de­sign’s ex­pan­sion into new ar­eas, in re­sponse to ad­vances in sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy and so­cial and eco­nomic changes, will not just pos­i­tively ben­e­fit women, but is be­ing driven by them.

“I do not have many de­sires. This is very mas­cu­line. Of­ten de­sires trans­form them­selves into frus­tra­tion.” AR­CHI­TECT AND DE­SIGNER PA­TRI­CIA URQUIOLA, BORN 1961

“I am sure that, as a woman, I can do a very good sky­scraper.” AR­CHI­TECT DAME ZAHA MO­HAM­MAD HA­DID, 1950-2016

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Taken from Women De­sign by Libby Sellers. You can or­der a copy at the spe­cial price of £15 (rrp.£20) with free UK p& p by call­ing 01903 828503 quot­ing ref QPG 501.

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