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Book Club

Women Design
In Conversation with Libby Sellers
13.04.23

Book Club is an opportunity for design discourse – news, views and reviews from the world of publishing in conversation with our favourite design authors, commentators and provocateurs.

Libby Sellers is a design historian, independent curator and writer based in London. She was former senior curator of London’s Design Museum and previously supported emerging design through her eponymous gallery. In 2014, Libby was honoured by the British Women of the Year awards as a Woman of Achievement in the Arts, and in 2018, published Women Design — a survey of the most dynamic female designers from the last 100 years, which has informed lectures, talks and articles on gender diversity in design ever since.

Featuring 21 women designers, from design greats Eileen Gray and Lilly Reich to contemporary trailblazers Hella Jongerius and Patricia Urquiola, Women Design offers a rare glimpse into the working worlds of some of the most influential forces in contemporary design – a perspective that is too often overlooked in historic narratives. Libby’s engaging storytelling, accompanied by a curation of archival imagery, celebrates the profound influence of women in shaping and enhancing design culture throughout history — as practitioners, commentators, educators, and commissioners.

NHO Founder and Director, Neil Hugh Kenna, recently sat down with Libby to discuss Women Design: Pioneers from the Twentieth Century to Today. This is their conversation.

Portrait courtesy of Libby Sellers.

NHK: Hi Libby. We’re delighted you could join us to discuss your book, Women Design, which our team keenly read in celebration of International Women’s Day in March. What sparked your interest in covering this subject, and how did your research findings shape the book’s trajectory?

LS: Thanks for the invitation and for selecting Women Design. It was an absolute privilege to delve into the lives of these women. While there are some familiar names, I hope that there were also several new stories – or nuanced interpretations – that shed some light on hitherto unknown practitioners and the changes they brought, and still bring, to the industry. Women Design grew out of a series of conversations, prompted by the international women’s marches, the UK’s 2018 centenary celebrations of the suffragettes, the-then upcoming centenary of the Bauhaus — one of the first European schools to encourage female student applications — and the international calls to eradicate gender disparity across all industries.

Bauhaus Dessau, opened in 1919.
Photograph by Nate Robert.

“The issue of gender imbalance is not unique to the design industry, yet it is particularly at odds with an industry that predicates itself on liberal and forward-thinking ideals.” — Libby Sellers

NHK: In the book’s introduction, Alice Rawsthorn observes that “historically, women have thrived on new turf where there are no male custodians, and they are free to invent their own ways of working.” How are the possibilities for change, growth and expansion in design becoming increasingly optimistic for women? Is there an opportunity to redefine disciplines ‘established’ by men, to reinvent engrained gender dynamics?

LS: The issue of gender imbalance is not unique to the design industry, yet it is particularly at odds with an industry that predicates itself on liberal and forward-thinking ideals. A lot of progress has been made in 100 years for all marginalised groups, not just for women in the workplace, at both a legislative and practical level. But there is still much to do before equality is achieved. It is worrying that, in the UK, design and technology are being cut from the national curriculum in favour of core academic subjects. Obviously, students need a balance, yet by deliberately squeezing creativity out of children’s learning there is little hope that the next generation will know that they can, let alone want to, seek a career in the creative industries. The pipeline will be cut off or, at worse, restricted to a privileged minority. Education, access, and mentoring are key to encouraging inclusivity.

NHK: Historically, women’s achievements have been far less visible than those of their male counterparts. How did the tenacity of designers, such as Althea McNish, Muriel Cooper, Zaha Hadid and Denise Scott Brown, among others, increase the visibility of women designers, and what lessons can be learnt to alleviate gender marginalisation in contemporary design culture?

LS: As with most industries, often the main barrier holding women back in design is a lack of confidence. Success has as much to do with confidence as it does with competence. So yes – tenacity and self-belief were, and remain, vital. But women were not even permitted to formally study design until the early decades of the twentieth century. And in certain countries, restrictions were imposed on married women’s employment until well into the mid-century. For example, US company law in the late 1960s forbade Lella Vignelli from holding a position in the same firm as her husband, Massimo. Instead, Lella had to contend with working from behind the scenes in a freelance consultancy role. Inevitably this had a major impact on the disparity between genders – both in terms of access and their visibility. With each new exhibition, publication, conference, and so on, we learn of more female practitioners whose legacy and reputations were overshadowed. The lessons to be learned are (a) make some noise and (b) demand equality. It sounds righteous but is easily achievable. For example, when accepting an invitation to pitch, speak, exhibit or publish, enquire after the representational proportion of the others being asked to contribute. If the figures sit uncomfortably, demand change or don’t do it.

Massimo and Lella Vignelli.
Photograph by Fred R. Conrad.

Stacking Dinnerware by Massimo and Lella Vignelli, designed in 1964.
Photography courtesy of MoMA.

“With each new exhibition, publication, conference, and so on, we learn of more female practitioners whose legacy and reputations were overshadowed. The lessons to be learned are (a) make some noise and (b) demand equality.” – Libby Sellers

NHK: In your reflections on the work of architect Kazuyo Sejima, parallels are drawn between her subtle character and her architecture, which is discerning of its time and place. Similarly, the work of Hella Jongerius seeks to make industrially produced design more human and personal, namely through her thoughtful approach to colour. How can women designers harness their sensitivities, curiosities, and unique ways of experiencing the world to strengthen creative disciplines more broadly?

LS: I don’t believe there are particular or specific vision, style, or approach that women bring to the creative industries, but I do identify shared qualities within my own generation. I think contemporary designers have broken the monocultures established in the twentieth century. Instead of designing for industry, they are designing for people. They acknowledge all the messiness in the world around us and try, through their designs, to offer solutions rather than ideological statements.

Hella Jongerius.
Photograph by Laura Fiorio.

Noon colour catchers at Breathing Colour by Hella Jongerius, the Design Museum London.
Photograph courtesy of Smow.

Colour Vases and examples of colour research at Breathing Colour by Hella Jongerius, the Design Museum London.
Photograph courtesy of Smow.

NHK: Assumptions about Ray Eames’ role as a support person, rather than an equal collaborator, to her husband Charles are echoed in many female and male partnerships throughout history, and sadly, often still today. Though women have long held equal footing in collaborative partnerships, public perception continues to lag. What more can be done to ensure the creative contributions of women are acknowledged and suitably credited in contemporary practice?

LS: Rebalance the equation. Correct history. Demand change. There’s the incredulous story from as recent as 2014 when Patty Hopkins, co-founder of Hopkins Architects, was controversially photoshopped out of an image with her husband Michael Hopkins during the promotion of a BBC documentary, The Brits who Built the Modern World. It caused outrage. Rightly so.

Charles and Ray Eames, with their iconic fibreglass chairs.
Photograph courtesy of Artek.

“Rebalance the equation. Correct history. Demand change.” — Libby Sellers

NHK: Zaha Hadid succinctly summarised the prejudices she faced in her career: “I’m a woman, which is a problem for some people. I’m a foreigner, another big problem. And I do work that is not normative. Not what they expect. Together it becomes difficult.” Meanwhile, Patricia Urquiola was challenged with her own prejudices, perceiving her own gender as a barrier, largely due to a lack of female role models in her early career. How are societal changes liberating contemporary designers and what impact do you expect this will have on future design discourse?

LS: It’s a good question. Zaha originally refused to be described as a female architect. She later accepted the gendered title as realised the power she had as a role model. As I found in researching the book and choosing contemporary examples, there are many women who would prefer not to be described as a female designer. They believe focussing on their gender would ultimately detract from the conversation about the quality of their work. It is a valid concern, but the design industry was and largely remains a deeply patriarchal one. It is only when there is a truly level field that we can start a discussion about merit. Perhaps like Zaha did later in her life, by celebrating their rightful place both as a woman and a designer – stepping forward as role models – then we might be able to create a discernible difference and see the statistics change in women’s favour.

Zaha Hadid.
Photography by Marco Grob.

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects, Antwerp. Photograph by Claudia Lorusso.

NHK: Contemporary design culture is reassessing the legacy of many female designers — “an overdue re-evaluation of a patriarchal history of modernism,” as you state in the book. Indeed, the book itself significantly contributes to this pursuit. In what other ways can we honour women’s contributions and engage with their stories, both retrospectively and in the present moment?

LS: Cultural institutions, publications and periodicals have been awake to the need to rebalance their representation for a while, with many – like the NGV – initiating commissions and sponsored programs specifically to redress the equation. I’m not asking them to stop! Far from it, though the next stage of research and development might include a transnational, postcolonial framework that looks beyond the white, western world and our 20th century interpretations of culture.

NHK: Libby, thank you kindly for joining us.

LS: Thanks for including me in Book Club!

Women Design: Pioneers from the Twentieth Century to Today is published by Frances Lincoln and available for purchase at NGV Design Store and Quarto.

“Cultural institutions, publications and periodicals have been awake to the need to rebalance their representation for a while, with many – like the NGV – initiating commissions and sponsored programmes specifically to redress the equation.” – Libby Sellers