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