Libby Sellers: Women Design


22 November 2018

A two-day conference next month at London’s Design Museum will examine the role of women in design, bringing together some of industry’s biggest names and exciting emerging practitioners to discuss their experiences of operating as female creative professionals, how things have changed over time, and how the sector’s imbalances could ultimately be redressed. Curator Libby Sellers, whose 2017 book Women Design was the starting point for the event, spoke to Disegno about why it matters and what to expect.

What led you to explore this subject, both in your book and in the conference?

The book came out of a series of conversations in 2017 with my publisher prompted by the international women's marches, the centenary celebrations of the suffragettes, next year's centenary of the Bauhaus – which was one of the first European schools to encourage female students – and the international calls to eradicate gender disparity across all industries. So it was timely in a sense, but also timeless because it's a conversation that I'm certainly not the first to have started.

The book adds to the attempt to redress an imbalance in the design industry – the fact that there are more make figures represented in historical accounts and contemporary conferences, talks programmes and books about design. It also reminds people of these amazing women in their achievements, looks at some of the reasons why they may not have been as well known as their male counterparts, and why women have been marginalised, overlooked or just not documented.

A large part of that is because design history, in its attempt to prioritise modernism, has predominantly focused on architecture and a lot of different disciplines got overlooked in that narration. It’s important to remind people that textiles, interiors, set design are all valid and important parts of this enormous industry we call design. If we look at the 2015 British Design Council report, it shows the disparity between male and female members entering and staying in the industry, and it’s shocking that even today, in an industry that’s predicated on progressive values, that this issue still remains.

In the book, I looked at various themes – each lady I write about, takes a different angle on why her work may not have been as well celebrated [as it should have been] or indeed just uses them as role models to inspire other women to join and stay in the industry. It looks at the role of attribution within a collaborative partnership, for example with Charles and Ray Eames, looking at how perhaps history may have reported their work with a bias towards Charles – similarly, for couples such as Alvar and Aino Aalto, or Lella and Massimo Vignelli. It also looks at race: Norma Merrick Sklarek was one of the first black American woman to get her architects’ license in the state of New York, but nobody's really heard of her. She told stories about how she was always held back from being a senior partner possibly because her clients, who were predominantly male and white, may not have taken on board her suggestions as well as if it had been from somebody they felt more comfortable sitting across the conference table with.

Then there is the geopolitics: when the architect Lina Bo Bardi moved from Italy to Brazil in 1946, it was at a time when the world's cultural gaze shifted away from South America towards North America and didn't really turn back until the millennium, which is about the time that her work started to be rediscovered or celebrated.

Aine Aalto

Do think that that the debate about women in design has changed over time? For example, has it moved between striving for gender neutrality and recognising the specific role of women as women in design?

I think gender neutrality is a complex and nuanced subject. The concept of design achieved maturity in the 20th century and, as such, it inherited that era's prejudices and conventions, so it is impossible to discuss design history without using binary notions of male and female. It was historically, and to a large extent remains, irrefutably patriarchal, so to jump straight to an acceptance of gender neutrality now would risk ignoring the gender bias that persists within the industry.

For example, a 2012 survey conducted by Women in Architecture, a group founded in the US by Lori Brown and Nina Freedman, examined 70-odd public architecture lectures and found that 62 per cent of them had only one or no women invited. We're not at equality yet and I don't think we can get to neutrality until we're at equality. We can talk about a meritocracy and value based on merit when we are at a completely level playing field – we are starting at a very imbalanced benchmark.

As you said, the design industry considers itself to be relatively progressive, so why is it taking so long even within this field to achieve equality?

I think it has inherited 20th-century notions of the hierarchy in which architecture is above the rest of the industry. That doesn't answer the question of why there aren’t more women, but it is largely why we know about more men. That’s not to say that women aren't working [in architecture], but perhaps they are not been given the credit.

You also get frustrating accounts about unsafe and unsupportive work environments for women – lack of child care provision and pay disparity. These are not specific to design, but they all do feed into the equation. Then, just like every other industry, one main barrier holding women back is an acute lack of self confidence. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, wrote a whole book about it called Lean In (2013). Women don't always put their hand up and step forward and might instead defer to their male colleagues. I think one way around that is for women to be much more supportive of other women in the industry – that’s one of our most powerful assets.

Muriel Cooper

Do you think design education is changing to these tackle biases?

I don't have the statistics in front of me, but I believe that at entry level more women apply for design education than men, but we lose them somewhere between graduation and senior level positions for all of the reasons I’ve stated. So it's not just about encouraging women into education – we have to keep them in the industry afterwards. Things like this conference are not the ultimate solution, but can hopefully present role models and tales of women who have overcome obstacles, providing inspiration to persevere.

For example, Neri Oxman, one of the designers I write about in my book, is working on the new frontiers of the field and she's writing the rulebook, rather than being having to subscribe to anybody else's rules. That's one way women have historically succeeded: when there's no gatekeeper of any gender holding them back, they can forge their own careers. Muriel Cooper, who I also write about, is another example – somebody who completely rewrote the rules when she moved from print design into digital.

What are you most looking forward to at the event?

We're absolutely delighted to have Saskia Sassen kicking off the conference: she will be talking about the gendering of planning and the built environment. She follows a screening of Denise Scott Brown accepting the 2018 Soane Medal for architecture. We've got a session chaired by Pat Kirkham, one of the senior design historians of our time, which looks at the idea that modernist design and architectural history was predominantly patriarchal, and how women historians have tried to introduce balance. Tate curator Ann Coxon will talk about Anni Albers, which coincides with the Albers show currently taking place at Tate Modern.

And Gabriel A. Maher will talk about their MA at Design Academy Eindhoven, for which they analysed a year's worth of the Dutch magazine Frame, looking to see how the genders were represented – and found that there were more men than women, but also that men were normally shown in dominating, threatening, strong poses while the women were predominantly reclined in supine, docile, passive poses. Finally we have Farshid Moussavi and Odile Decq in conversation about how they have had to gird and steel themselves to become senior partners and in their solo practices.

We jump around from past, to present, to future, looking at history, the contemporary, and crystal ball-gazing to consider what the future might be.