Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Women Design: Pioneers in architecture, industrial, graphic and digital design from the twentieth century to the present day

Libby Sellers
Francis Lincoln
2018

It would be nice to think that we no longer needed to isolate women’s achievements. But gender equality has not progressed as far as many women and men would have hoped and Women Design deserves to be an exhaustive tome. Instead author Libby Sellers, a celebrated design curator, makes her point precisely through profiles of 21 creative females. Her arguably conventional approach to organising this book around gender is addressed in the first page of her introduction: “We might ask whether, in a time when dialogue has turned to gender neutrality, a discussion of women in design is still valid?” Her retort: “Absolutely!” This may be unnecessarily chirpy but her defence is solid. “To skip straight to an acceptance of gender neutrality would risk ignoring the knock-on gender bias that persists within the industry.”

The fact that the ‘Design’ in the title is a verb neatly introduces the idea of active participation and tangible outcomes, in contrast to the noun “women designers” that could create one identity for a broad group of disparate protagonists, and at worst simply objectify them. On the downside, the book’s subtitle offers up the categories “architecture, industrial, graphic and digital design from the twentieth century to the present day”. Textile design, though covered extensively and in a similar number of profiles to architecture, is not named as a category of its own, and is instead subsumed under industrial design (digital designers are given far less space but appears in the subtitle.) Ironically this creates a type of erasure of a whole type of design that the project purports to work against.

Sellers studied design history at the V&A/RCA, worked as a curator at London’s Design Museum and, until recently, ran an eponymous gallery devoted to raising the profile of design. Apart from the subtitle (which is often the publisher and marketing team rather than author’s final decision), her curatorial instincts are evident in the carefully balanced selection of profiles. Roughly half the women included are living, and a quarter of those are mid-career or professionally active. The image choices are strong and support the text well, and Sellers’ writing is engaging throughout. Historical context is provided within an economical amount of space without assuming the reader has a surfeit of time to get to the point.

She also punctuates the individual profiles with three themed sections – “On the Bauhaus”, “On the Road” and “On the Stage” – each of which addresses a design groups or brings together several practitioners in one discipline. The most unusual,  “On the Stage”, covers theatre and stage production – arguably more obscure terrain for design writing – which Sellers coins “architects of temporary space”. It opens with the brave emptiness of work by British designer Sally Jacobs’ (born 1932) who challenged the entire canon of designing for Shakespeare with her white box scenography for Royal Shakespeare Company’s Midsummer Nights Dream, directed by Peter Brook in 1970. Sellers then dives back to her unexpected antecedent, the Ukrainian designer Alexandra Exter (1882-1949) whose constructivist stagings for Russian theatre broke as many conventions, before looping forward to conclude with the mid-career profile of another British designer Es Devlin (born 1971) whose work includes New York’s Metropolitan Opera’s 2015 version of the opera Othello, the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony and tours for superstars including Beyoncé and Adele. Devlin is without a doubt one of the leaders in her field, though it is a field that has been relatively welcoming to women.

What this book does not address is the ways in which women – as a cultural construct – may make a distinct contribution to design. Inevitably, some of the profiles read as women who succeeded in a man’s game by becoming one of the boys. For example, referring to graphic and digital designer Muriel Cooper (1925-1994), the digital designer John Maeda is quoted as thinking ‘in Muriel’s era, men were tough, and she said, ‘I’ll be tougher.’” The final profile – of the Milan-based, Spanish-born furniture and interior designer Patricia Urquiola – touches upon what we may think of, perhaps stereotypically, as traits particular to “women”, describing her practice as built around the values of “empathy, open mindedness, human-centred thinking and collaboration.” It is this profile too that most explicitly confronts the challenge of career and motherhood recounting that initially Urquiola “a single mother, was hesitant to break out on her own.”

This brings me to the one major quibble in this otherwise carefully considered project. While the introduction names previously published studies of women designers, for those reading with even half an academic eye the lack of any bibliography or reference list is surprising. More work, by others, is needed. The leads Sellers research would provide are crucial to the rebalance Women Design seeks to address.

book review Crafts magazine Nov./Dec. 2018, pp. 74