Furniture design students carrying projects to the studio at the Rhode Island School of Design, where 68 percent of the students are female.
Published: March 6, 2011, New York Times
LONDON — It started a month ago when I was asked to compile a list of 20 designers who will influence design in the next decade with Paola Antonelli, senior design curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. After weeks of emailing ideas to and fro, the list was nearing completion and we scoured it for possible omissions.
One worry was whether we had included designers from enough disciplines, especially the new ones, that will be increasingly important in the future. Another concern was geography. Were there too many designers from Western Europe and North America? And not enough from emerging design centers in Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America? Though we soon realized that we didn’t need to worry about one issue, which has traditionally bedeviled such lists. There was no shortage of women.
Our list was equally balanced between the sexes. No surprise there, you may think. Why should the gender split in design be different to the rest of the global population? But it has been. How many female designers do you see in design history books? Not many.
Design has been a man’s world since the Industrial Revolution. Even in the 20th century, the few successful women tended to work with male collaborators, who usually overshadowed them. Take Lilly Reich, the principal designer of most of the furniture routinely attributed to Mies Van Der Rohe. Or Charlotte Perriand, who was relegated to a similar supporting role with Le Corbusierand her lover Edouard Jeanneret. The same fate befell Ray Eames, wife of the more famous Charles.
Have things changed? Yes and no. One significant shift is in numbers. Most top design schools now have a majority of female students — 68 percent at the Rhode Island School of Design in the United States and 54 percent at Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands. Women also outnumber men in many professional organizations, including the American Institute of Graphic Arts, where they have done so for 15 years.
Another advance is that female designers are no longer overshadowed by male partners. Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby of Dunne & Raby are treated as equals, as are Nipa Doshi and Jonathan Levien of Doshi Levien. There are also examples of couples working under the woman’s name, rather than the man’s, as Wieki Somers and Dylan van den Berg do at Studio Wieki Somers. A few women designers have even secured influential roles with powerful manufacturers, including Hella Jongerius at Vitra and Patricia Urquiola at Moroso.
But most of the designers who win commissions from those companies are male. The same applies to the AIGA’s highest profile members. The only woman except Ms. Jongerius among the 22 designers or design teams to be listed on Vitra’s Web site for designing its office furniture is Ray Eames, who died in 1988.
Why do so few women reach the top of design? 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. The graphic designer Paula Scher once described this as the “Why did I get the woman?” syndrome.
“There’s no question that design has been a boys’ club, I am still often the only female around the table,” said Ilse Crawford, founder of the Studioilse design group and a head tutor at Eindhoven. “As in all professions, it’s the hours you put in during your 30s and 40s that really propel you forward. Design projects run on tight, often changeable timelines. It is not a 9-to-5 job. If women have children and unless they are in super-supportive relationships, they are on the back foot here.”
Such obstacles are as boringly intractable in design as everywhere else. So why are there so many women on Ms. Antonelli’s and my list? Was it solely because, consciously or not, we wanted to support younger women? Possibly, although there are also encouraging signs that female designers may fare better in future.
One is that more women are becoming gatekeepers as they rise to powerful positions in other industries. They may be more open to commissioning female designers, as, in fairness, may the next generation of male gatekeepers.
Another factor is that design is expanding into new areas in response to advances in science and technology and social and economic changes. Historically women have thrived on new turf where there are no male custodians and they are free to invent their own ways of working, as Muriel Cooper did as a pioneer of digital design during the 1970s and 1980s.
As our list is focused on the future, many of our chosen designers work in these fledgling fields. Had we stuck to traditional areas, such as graphics or product design, the gender balance may have been different. Our choices include lots of smart men, but also women, like Neri Oxman and Daisy Ginsberg, who are working on the frontier of design and science, and the pioneering social designers Hilary Cottam and Emily Pilloton.
A defining quality of these new disciplines — and the evolution of older ones — is collaboration, both between individuals and by fusing elements of different fields, something that women tend to do well. “I am personally very inspired by Julia Kristeva and other feminist critical theorists, who are all about creativity at the margins and combining leftover things in different ways,” Ms. Cottam said. “In my case, that’s design, political theory and new forms of business.”
Equally encouraging is that although most of the female designers over the age of 35 with whom I discussed this issue endorsed Ms. Crawford’s “boys’ club” theory (for the record, every male designer looked blank) some younger ones did not.
“I have honestly never consciously felt that being female was an advantage or disadvantage within design,” Ms. Pilloton, 29, said. “Does that make me sound like an unaware spoiled brat reaping the benefits of what former generations endured?” Not necessarily. Isn’t it what her predecessors wanted?
A version of this article appeared in print on March 7, 2011, in The International Herald Tribune.