BY Alice Rawsthorn in Opinion | 16 DEC 14
Featured in
Issue 168

By Design

Is the design world still a boys’ club?

BY Alice Rawsthorn in Opinion | 16 DEC 14

Charlotte Perriand, Nuage cabinet, 2012, first developed 1952–56. Courtesy: Cassina

When Gertrud Arndt quit her job in an architect’s office in 1923 to take up a scholarship at an art and design school whose prospectus promised to welcome ‘any person of good repute, without regard to age or sex’, she had high hopes of studying architecture. Instead, she was told to join the weaving workshop, as were most of the other women intent on studying design at the Bauhaus. Those who refused were encouraged to join the ceramics course on the grounds that it, too, was suitably ‘feminine’.

Nor was the Bauhaus alone in perpetuating gender stereotypes. A few years after Arndt’s arrival, the young designer Charlotte Perriand asked Le Corbusier for a job in his architectural studio only to be rebuffed with a curt: ‘We don’t embroider cushions here.’ Decades later, the viewers of a 1956 episode of the US television show Home watched a mortified Ray Eames join her husband Charles on air after being introduced by the (female) presenter with: ‘This is Mrs Eames and she’s going to tell us how she helps Charles design these chairs.’

No wonder that so many design history books are stuffed with references to men – and mostly white men, though that is another story. Things have improved. A number of women designers are now acknowledged as being among the leaders in their fields: Hella Jongerius in industrial design, Irma Boom in graphics and Hilary Cottam in social design. Other women have bagged the prestigious design prizes, professorships and museum shows that once seemed to be reserved for men. Yet the most visible and commercially successful designers are still overwhelmingly male, even though female students have been in the majority at most US and European design schools for more than two decades. And I have yet to meet a woman designer, successful or otherwise, who has not suffered from similar misogynistic slights and impediments to those that beset Arndt, Eames and Perriand all those years ago.

Gertrud Arndt, pattern swatch for a blanket, made at the Bauhaus Dessau textile workshop, c.1927. Courtesy: Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin, and DACS, London

Not that women are spared such obstacles in other fields, but female designers have had – and continue to have – an unusually tough time. Nor are they the only victims of design’s gender bias. The rest of us suffer, too. If you believe that design plays an important part in organizing our lives and in defining the objects, imagery and spaces that fill them, it stands to reason that we need designers of the highest calibre. But we will not get them unless they come from every area of society, not just from one gender. Why is design such a ‘boys’ club’? And how much longer will the gender politics of a discipline that should, in theory, be open and eclectic remain so archaic given the surge of interest in feminism and transgenderism?

Women have, of course, practiced design throughout history, albeit largely in the unconscious roles of ‘accidental designers’, who produced doughtier tools or deadlier weapons on the ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ principle of instinctive design ingenuity. Their work was rarely acknowledged, nor was that of the men who designed on the same intuitive basis. Until the 20th century, only a tiny number of women were allowed to work as professional designers, and even they would have been unlikely to have done so without the benefit of wealth and social connections.

Take Lady Elizabeth Templetown, the most successful of the London socialites who persuaded the industrialist Josiah Wedgwood to allow them to decorate his pots during the late 1700s, when dabbling in ceramic design was regarded as a fashionable feminine accomplishment, together with playing the piano and needlepoint. Wedgwood may well have been swayed by Templetown’s promotional flair rather than her design skills, but some of her patterns, mostly twee domestic scenes, became bestsellers. Equally privileged were the cousins Agnes and Rhoda Garrett, who claimed to be London’s first female ‘art decorators’, or interior designers, a century later. Talented and determined though they were, the Garretts were helped immeasurably by the financial support of Agnes’s father, a prosperous coal and corn merchant, and by commissions from her sisters, who included the women’s suffrage campaigner Millicent Fawcett and the pioneering doctor Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

Similarly, the first women to fulfill their architectural ambitions were mostly able to do so by building on their own land using their own money, as Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham and Lady Anne Clifford did on their families’ estates in the 17th century. Likewise, the heiress Sarah Losh designed and built churches, housing and schools on her property in the village of Wreay during the mid-1800s, much as George Eliot’s protagonist, Dorothea Brooke, hoped to do with her plan to construct ‘good cottages’ for her uncle’s tenants in Middlemarch (1874). Even in the 20th century, as gifted a designer as Eileen Gray struggled to secure commissions. She was only able to sustain her career thanks to the private income that also financed the construction of the houses she designed for herself. Perriand was a rare exception in being one of the very few women from modest origins – her father was a tailor and her mother a dressmaker – to succeed in establishing herself as a designer and, later, an architect.

Yet even Perriand owed her success partly to male patronage, thanks to her affair with Le Corbusier’s cousin and chief collaborator, Pierre Jeanneret. The same can be said of other prominent female designers of the early and mid-20th century, who were the wives or lovers of famous male practitioners: as Marion Dorn was to Edward McKnight Kauffer, Lilly Reich to Mies van der Rohe and Ray to Charles Eames. Often their achievements were confused with their partner’s or attributed to nepotism – and frequently both. So few women were employed as designers in the US during the late-1950s that when Harley Earl, the head of design at General Motors (GM), hired nine females to work alongside the scores of men in the company’s design team, their presence was deemed so unusual that they were given a special name: the ‘Damsels of Design’. No one would have dreamt of giving male designers a nickname. Why bother, when they were so ubiquitous?

Neri Oxman, Daphnë, 3D printed prosthetic knee socket, 2012, produced by Stratasys. Courtesy: Neri Oxman; photograph: Yoram Reshef for Stratasys

Earl’s motivation was pragmatic, not political. By then, two out of five drivers in the US were female, and GM’s researchers had noted that they were far from happy with the styling and functionality of their cars, which were designed by, and for, men. Decades later, feminist design theorists were still deploring the ‘gendering’ of objects and images by the men who continued to commission most design projects and to dominate the design teams that developed them, imbuing the results with their own values and ignoring women’s needs, or fobbing them off with clumsy clichés. Take the first trainers to be designed specifically for women, which were introduced in the late 1970s and styled to reflect their names, ‘Princess’ and ‘Lady Jane’, as opposed to ‘Revenge Plus’ and ‘Warrior’ for the male equivalents, according to Christine Boydell’s essay in the 1996 book The Gendered Object.

By the early 21st century, female designers were becoming more numerous and, gradually, more influential. Not that they have been spared the problems and prejudices faced by women in other spheres: from sexist abuse and petty humiliations, such as being mistaken for interns or ignored by clients who insist on addressing their male colleagues, to practical challenges, such as struggling to balance their professional and personal responsibilities or discovering that a man with similar credentials is being paid more for doing the same job. Likewise, teachers in design schools report that even their most promising female students tend to suffer from low self-esteem and other entitlement issues that have haunted women through the ages.

Yet there are more and more exceptions. Boom, Cottam, Jongerius and other accomplished female designers act as inspiring role models for younger women. Some mixed-gender design duos have chosen to work under the woman’s name rather than the man’s: as Wieki Somers and her partner, Dylan van den Berg, do at Studio Wieki Somers in Rotterdam. The accomplishments of once-neglected female designers from the past are now celebrated in exhibitions, such as the recent ‘Female Bauhaus’ shows (including one devoted to Arndt) at the Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin, and last spring’s retrospective of the work of the pioneering software designer Muriel Cooper at the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery in New York. The gender politics of design are also explored in the books and debates organized by advocacy groups including Hall of Femmes and the recently formed international Gender Design Network.

Even so, women still seem to struggle in established areas of design – industrial design especially – probably because a designer’s prospects in those fields are determined by the mostly male powerbrokers, who dispense prestigious commissions. Jongerius is, so far, the only woman to have broken into the elite group of leading industrial designers. Her work has already proved decisive in encouraging a greater emphasis on the subtleties of texture, colour and symbolism in mass-market products, as has that of other influential female designers, including Ilse Crawford in interiors and Frith Kerr in graphics.

Studio Frith, book design for Michael Clark, 2011. Courtesy: Studio Frith and Violette Editions, London

Tellingly, women have made more rapid progress in newer design disciplines, where there are no male gatekeepers to prevent them from assuming leadership roles, just as there were none to impede Cooper in the fledgling field of software design during the 1970s and ’80s. Other women have since picked up her mantle, including Lisa Strausfeld, who was one of Cooper’s students. Similarly, Cottam is hailed as a pioneer of the increasingly popular practice of social design – which uses the design process to address social and political problems – together with the design activist Emily Pilloton. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Neri Oxman are at the forefront of experimentation in design’s relationship with technology, as is Poonam Bir Kasturi in sustainable design. Julia Lohmann and Christien Meindertsma are among the women who are driving the development of conceptual design as a medium of critiquing material culture.

Given the speed of advances in science and technology, and the growing acceptance of the design process as a possible solution to an increasingly expansive range of economic, political and environmental challenges, other new disciplines should surface in the future. They may well be more accessible to female designers, who should also benefit from the liberating impact of digital technology on design practice. The possibility of raising investment from crowd funding, publicising work on social media and selling it online is enabling a new generation of designer-entrepreneurs to pursue their own objectives by operating independently. Empowering though this has been for men, it has proved even more liberating for women by allowing them to devise new ways of working, free from the constraints of old boys’ networks.

One of the most compelling challenges for those designers, whatever their gender, is to explore the potential of rapidly developing digital production technologies, such as 3D printing, which will enable the rest of us to participate in the design process by personalizing the outcome. By doing so, we may also escape the misogynistic design solutions that so incensed the feminist critics of gendered objects in the late 20th century. Adroit though such critiques were then, they seem quaintly outdated at a time when interpretations of gender identity are becoming ever more fluid and refined. Digital manufacturing is so fast and precise that it can be programmed to develop individual objects in accordance with the needs and wishes of the people who will use them. The gendering of those objects will be determined by their users, each of whom can decide how to express the nuances of their chosen gender identity through them, rather than by the powerbrokers who have sustained design’s ‘boys’ club’ for so long.

Alice Rawsthorn is the author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life (2013) and Design as an Attitude (2018). She lives in London, UK.