Women and design. A pairing often disregarded, frequently side-lined and only accepted over the last 100 years or so (since Bauhaus allowed women to study design), but which since then has held fast over the generations and brought figures of great vision and courage, who broke the rules and pointed to potential new ways forward, back into the spotlight. The design historian and exhibition curator Libby Sellers’ latest book Women Design discusses these extraordinary women, some better known than others. The book is a sort of compendium of past and present twentieth-century female practitioners, whose work, personalities and intelligence have made an indelible mark on the evolution of international design taste and form. They have broken gender stereotyping (like Marianne Brandt), rewritten the rulebook (like Muriel Cooper) or simply done their own thing (like Kazuyo Sejima).
They are designers, architects and artists, whose names may not be familiar, but whose objects, illustrations and designs are instantly recognisable. Take, for instance, Eva Zeisel’s anthropomorphous salt and pepper shakers (Town and Country Salt and Pepper for Redding), Lina Bo Bardi’s Bowl chair for Arper and Lora Lamm’s posters. Trailblazers who have already carved out their own place in history such as Anni Albers, Ray Eames, Lella Vignelli and Zaha Hadid, or young designers like Neri Oxman, born in ’76, who combines biological and scientific research with architecture and art.
So many lives and so many stories seen through different lenses. Some of the entries explore the artists’ paths to recognition; others focus on issues of race, or the impact of politics on design. The author does not just scratch the surface, but explores the existential questions and social struggles these women proudly embraced, and champions the reasons for continuing the fight. Women actually make up three quarters of university design students. This figure falls drastically to less than a quarter when it comes to working in the industry.
“I hope that those I’ve included have the power to incite thought, inspire action and engage meaningful conversations that will continue outside the pages of the book,” says Libby Sellers.