Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 28, 2021
Charlotte Fiell and Clementine Fiell Women in Design: From Aino Aalto to Eva Ziesel London: Laurence King Publishing, 2019. 256 pp.; 500 ills. Paper £35.00 (9781786275318)

The story of design history, like that of art history, has often revolved around a series of important philosophies and innovations that are associated with prominent male figures. In Women in Design, Charlotte Fiell and Clementine Fiell have provided a valuable resource, a welcome addition to the literature of design history, filling in some of the gaps in the accepted narrative of the field by highlighting the role of women designers. Although the names of many of the designers covered in the book will be familiar to scholars, the details of their accomplishments and inventions and their roles within particular fields have not always been acknowledged. Some of the featured designers, like Coco Chanel, Ray Eames, and Anni Albers, are household names. Other women, such as Ilonka Karasz—who designed 186 New Yorker covers, along with the first modernist children’s nursery in 1928—may be less widely known to readers. Still others have only recently received credit for widely recognized designs: Clara Driscoll’s role at Tiffany Studios as designer of some of the company’s most iconic lamps, including the Dragonfly lamp, initially attributed to Louis Comfort Tiffany, was only discovered in 2006.

An introduction to the volume connects women’s increasing opportunities in the field of design to the history of women’s rights and feminism. Beginning in the Enlightenment, ideas about the equality of the sexes began to improve women’s access to education, which in turn led to larger roles in many areas of society. In the sphere of design, the authors find an important inflection point in the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century. The socially progressive ideas at the core of the movement, its elevation of handicrafts, the value placed on women’s education, and overt connections to the suffragist movement in England were all factors that allowed women designers to gain some ground. Although lesser known than their more famous male peers, figures like May Morris, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, Gertrude Jekyll, and Florence Koehler all became influential forces within their fields.

The rise of modernism after World War I was another breakthrough period for women in design. Amid freer social mores, expanding educational opportunities, and their greater participation in the workforce, women like Marianne Brandt, Eileen Gray, and Eva Zeisel achieved professional recognition that had been largely out of reach for earlier generations. During this period and into the middle of the twentieth century, the modern home became an important focus for design practice, and the traditional association between women and the domestic sphere allowed women to play a more prominent creative role in some cases.

The main body of Women in Design consists of 106 entries, organized alphabetically, that cover mostly individual design figures but also a few collectives and loosely knit groups, such as the “Damsels of Design” at General Motors and the contemporary all-female Swedish design group Front. Each entry includes one page of text and one or more pages of carefully curated imagery showcasing major works by each of the featured women. Fiell and Fiell give relevant biographical accounts of each figure’s upbringing and education, along with key influences and important turning points for each designer. It is through these stories of individual careers that the authors elucidate the place of women within specific design fields in various countries during different eras. Some accomplished women got their starts in the design world in unconventional ways. For example, the British designer Betty Joel began designing furniture for her own home when she could not find any that suited the needs of her modern household. Other women found advantage within cultures or movements that advocated more progressive social attitudes. The Swedish furniture designer Greta Magnusson Grossman, like a number of other designers in the volume, gained opportunity and reputation in the relatively forward-thinking climate of Scandinavian culture, while the Russian graphic designer Valentina Kulagina benefited from new ideas about gender equality in Soviet Russia.

Beyond changing societal norms and greater access to education, a striking number of designers gained advantage through their partnerships with emerging or established male figures in the design world. Such collaborations often allowed women to fulfill more active design roles and to gain more high-profile commissions. They also increased a designer’s chances of seeing her work produced and displayed. In the end, however, many partnerships acted as double-edged swords for women designers, opening up opportunities while at the same time making it less likely that they would receive the same credit and recognition for their work as their male counterparts. Even some notable designers, such as Lilly Reich, Aino Aalto, and Charlotte Perriand, were long underrecognized for their contributions while their more famous partners came to be seen as leading figures in the field. In a later interview, Perriand acknowledged the trade-off, noting that seeing her Revolving Armchair of 1928 (initially attributed jointly to Pierre Jeanneret and Le Corbusier) being produced and becoming part of a broader movement in modern living were more important to her than receiving recognition (Mary McLeod, “Perriand: Reflections on Feminism and Modern Architecture,” Harvard Design Magazine 20).

The women featured in the book come from a broad range of design disciplines. In earlier eras, creative women were often steered toward specialties that were considered conventionally feminine, such as weaving, jewelry, and book design. Yet over time, women found their way into every area of design. There are several architects represented in the book, along with a larger number of practitioners from the fields of fashion, textile, jewelry, ceramic, furniture, product, graphic, and even car design. The work of several contemporary women—like Yiqing Yin, who designs sculptural clothing, and Neri Oxman, whose experimental creations incorporate biology and computer engineering—defies categorization.

Taken as a whole, the stories of ingenuity in Women in Design emphasize the myriad ways that individual women have managed to carve out space in their fields. Certainly, they all encountered obstacles and prejudice as a result of their gender. Reading these stories all together, I was at once struck by both the diversity of experiences and the commonalities shared among many of these designers. Yet I suspect that the book’s alphabetical organization encourages readers to approach it as a source book to be dipped into, rather than as a more integrated narrative inviting connections between the various designers. The arrangement avoids the pitfalls of broad historical generalizations and a sweeping overarching chronology. Without such a chronology, the unique ways that individual designers navigated their circumstances may come into sharper focus. Nevertheless, I confess to some bias toward a more historical organization. As I read through the profiles, I often felt the urge to flip back to earlier entries. I wanted to consolidate and compare. How did the experiences of Art Deco–era designers differ in Europe and the United States? Were there parallels in the experiences of women breaking into the field of graphic design in the 1960s and 1970s? To be fair, Fiell and Fiell enable this kind of flipping back and forth by frequently mentioning relevant or closely associated designers with the page numbers of their entries in parentheses.

Women in Design is perhaps most inspiring in that it casts a spotlight on the contrast between contemporary designers and their predecessors from earlier eras. Roughly one-fifth of the entries in the book represent women working within the field today, and their creative successes and high profiles emphasize just how dramatically opportunities for women designers have evolved. No longer dismissed as amateurs, steered exclusively toward stereotypically “feminine” disciplines, or relegated to supporting roles, these designers can take more credit and exercise greater control over their creative output than ever before. Despite this progress, the task of recognizing or reaffirming women’s contributions to design, as this volume does, remains an important one. As the authors note, women working in design today still achieve less prominence and receive lower pay than their male peers, even though they represent the majority among design students and in the workforce. Women also occupy fewer higher-level positions as managers or creative directors. Their work appears less often in design exhibitions or museum collections. As someone who teaches art and design history to aspiring professionals (more than half of whom are young women), I am grateful for any research that aids us in unearthing further examples of women’s contributions to these fields and thus allows for a more comprehensive story of design to be told.

Ann Baldoni
Visiting Lecturer, Academy of Visual Arts, Hong Kong Baptist University