Everything you thought you knew about “feminine design” is wrong


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What does a piece of furniture designed by a woman look like? Whatever stereotypes you can think of, a new book is here to break them.

[Photo: courtesy Phaidon]

Phaidon has just published his most comprehensive book on creative women ever. Woman Made: Great Creative Women brings together more than 240 women and their contributions to the design world from the mid-19th century to the present day, including products designed under lockdown last year. Featuring everyone from modern design icons like the late Zaha Hadid to little-known personalities like Filipino interior designer Mercedes “Ched” Berenguer-Topacio, the book presents a multi-faceted definition of design where the gender may be a common denominator, but it is not the defining characteristic.

Women represent more than half of designers today, but in 2019, they held only 11% of management positions in the field of design. Woman made is part of a recent movement to recognize the role women have played and continue to play in shaping the world we live in. In the design sphere, which has been disproportionately dominated by men, this suggests that feminine design is less about a look or style, and more about design with a purpose, be it social, cultural or environmental.

Jane hall [Photo: courtesy Phaidon]

With products ranging from furniture and textiles to housewares and lighting, the book chronicles a range of products designed specifically for the home, a place loaded with gender stereotypes for centuries. “The home is a contested space that is often framed by genre,” says author Jane Hall, a founding member of the award-winning London-based architecture collective, Assemble. Woman made tackles this stereotype head-on by using the house as a catalyst to explore the essential roles of women in design throughout the 20th century. In the early 1900s, she says, the home was the center of domestic life. Then, as women around the world gained the right to vote, they took on a greater role in society and the home became a more vibrant space.

For Hall, the house has often been a “showroom” for everything from efficiency and hygiene to living together. In 1926, for example, Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky designed the now iconic kitchen of Frankfurt. Considered a forerunner of modern cooking, it featured an electric stove, a window over the sink, and plenty of built-in storage. “It did not emancipate women from the role they had [in the kitchen], but he tried to make them more effective, ”says Hall. “It’s oddly anti-feminist, but for once someone was thinking about women’s lives.”

[Photo: courtesy Phaidon]

Women have not only helped shape Western homes, they have also influenced domestic spaces around the world. And Woman made highlights designers, and their creations, from all over the world. In the Philippines, Berenguer-Topacio was one of the country’s first interior designers in the 1950s and ran a successful furniture business for over 50 years (her Klismos chair used locally sourced woven cane) . In Abu Dhabi, Baghdad-born designer Rand Abdul Jabbar promotes traditional craftsmanship that is not dominated by Western influence. Her sculptural series of Forma furniture from 2015 highlights the endangered craftsmanship of traditional dhows (a type of sailboat) and was made in collaboration with local boat builders.

[Photo: courtesy Phaidon]

Over the past century, women designers have been at the forefront of innovation, pushing the boundaries with new materials and techniques. One of the oldest pieces of furniture highlighted in the book is Eileen Gray’s Bibendum chair, dating from 1926. One of the newer pieces is the Sport sofa, which Monling Lee of the Jumbo design studio designed. last year during the lockdown. A lot has changed between the two. In the 1920s, designers like Belle Kogan of Russian descent (often called the godmother of industrial design in the United States) worked with metal and used modern techniques. In the 1960s, it all became about plastic. “Most of them had patents,” says Hall.

[Photo: courtesy Phaidon]

In recent years, women have also led the charge when it comes to sustainability. “Today, people are interested in a return to the craft,” says Hall, who noticed a strong desire to design affordable products with traditional skills using industrial technology. “All the people I’ve talked to, who are in their 20s to 30s, are really interested in materiality, and think about climate and consumption, and I think that’s a real problem for designers.” , she said, noting the tension between “doing stuff” and balancing that with limited resources and sustainability.

Whatever the era, not a single product on display looks or feels particularly “feminine”. Forget about curvy details and pink undertones. “The idea of ​​the feminine aesthetic is quite problematic,” says Hall. The common thread here is not gender, it is what she calls a ‘feminist design methodology’, which can be defined as a holistic effort to design products that are sustainable, rooted in cultural traditions and accessible to all. . Hall names Danish industrial designer Karin Schou Andersen, whose 1979 cutlery collection was developed to support a range of individual impairments from sports injuries to arthritis.

Ultimately, the book is less about making women more visible and more about making marginalized identities more visible through design. Maybe women excel at this precisely because they have been marginalized for so long. Independently, Woman made seeks to prove, once and for all, that the world we live in is resolutely made up of women.

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