Libby Sellers is on a mission to redress design history’s gender imbalance. In her new book Women Design, she writes us back into the discourse, giving voice to stories that were in danger of being forgotten, celebrating contributions that – in a narrative that eagerly promotes the work of their male counterparts – are all too often overlooked.
Italian designer Leila Vignelli, 1974
Franklin Court in Philadelphia, PA, USA, by Venturi, Rauch and Denise Scott Brown, 1976
The centenary of the suffragette movement. Ninety-nine years of the Bauhaus (one of the first European schools to encourage female student applications). #MeToo. Time’s Up. There’s revolution in the air, and curator, writer and commercial gallerist Libby Sellers has dropped an Alka Seltzer into the fizzing, fractious moment with the launch of her timely tome – Women Design – a survey of (and salute to) pioneering women in our industry.
Sellers is a master storyteller, be that through her curation at London’s Design Museum, or her thoughtful writings on design history. Through the (remarkably succinct, yet richly detailed) 176 pages of Women Design, she unfurls 21 of design’s keenest minds (some big names, some underappreciated) using their graphics, digital innovation, and spaces, as a conduit to understanding the past shifting century of design – and women’s instrumental role within it.
The interiors of the Great North Eastern Trains, 1997
The New Museum in New York, NY US, designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, 2007. Photography: Dean Kaufman, 2007
From the pioneers who broke gender stereotyping, such as Marianne Brandt, or who completely rewrote the rulebooks, like Muriel Cooper, the book is a measured waltz through a 120 years of oppression and progress; tackling the on-going issue of women’s acknowledgement within a creative partnership, issues of race, and political impact on design, all the while celebrating individual talent and achievement. ‘It was important to show diversity,’ Sellers explains. ‘Design is an enormous field, and women did more than just “embroider cushions in ateliers,” (paraphrasing Le Corbusier’s famous insult to Charlotte Perriand).’
Coloured vases series 3, by Hella Jongerius, 2010. Photography: ® Gerrit Schreurs
The 'Damsels of Design' with reporters at the feminine car show held at General Motors Technical Center, Warren, MI, US, 1959
Take the story of Swiss graphic designer Lora Lamm (b.1921), whose decade-long post-war ‘Milan period’ Sellers writes about with reverence. Lamm’s colourfully optimistic posters beam from the pages of Women Design. They bask in the glow of mid-century Milanese experimentation; letting-on little of the male-dominated industry Lamm was breaking through. Despite her considerable commercial success with brands like La Rinascente, Pirelli and Elizabeth Arden, AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale) refused her membership in 1960. Today, though you’ve probably seen her oft-copied designs and typefaces winking from walls and screens world-over, few outside of the industry know the name Lora Lamm, side-lined as it is by design history books.
Women Design, by Libby Sellers, 2018
Through Women Design, Sellers aims to ensure the same will not be said in 100 years about the likes of today’s pioneering design stars, like Neri Oxman and Es Devlin (whom she also spotlights in the book). The underlying message? Though women’s voices are being heard more loudly than ever, our reason to shout is not dimmed.
The title itself is a bold statement, a call to action. Newsflash: Women Design. It’s a simple two words that, even today, many of us could still bear repeating. ‘This book was written to celebrate the breadth and diversity of contributions from some of the most inspiring and pioneering practitioners – to help redress a balance,’ Sellers explains. ‘We might think that women’s voices are echoing around the world right now, we need to accept that inequality still exists. Women make up nearly three-quarters of the design student population at colleges and universities, yet this figure drops dramatically to less than one quarter when it comes to the actual industry.’
The Delegates' Lounge of the UN headquarters in New York, NY, US, by Hella Jongerius and Rem Koolhaas, 2013
‘Whatever the rationale behind the gender bias, it has already eliminated or repressed an overwhelming majority of talent in the industry,’ she adds. ‘To continue without championing a balance, would only encourage an impoverished future for design as a result.’
As much as this book is dedicated to those featured in it, it’s written for the next generation of trailblazers. ‘Perhaps, by highlighting some of the historical injustices in design history, and also seeking out role models, we might be able to create a discernible difference and encourage more women in an historically patriarchal industry.’
A still from Information Landscapes, developed in partnership with David Small, Suguru Ishizaki and Lisa Strauseld, 1994
It’s an urgent message, and a fierce read; a celebration of how far we’ve come, and an acknowledgement of progress yet made. The tales tumble from it as a warning to all of us working in the industry today. As the viral saying goes, ‘Powerful women empower women.’ Sellers seems to agree. ‘Know what has come before so as to avoid falling into any kind of prejudice or cliché,’ she urges. ‘Women designers are one another’s most powerful assets. Support each other!’ Onwards.
Women Design by Libby Sellers. Published by Frances Lincoln, £20
Costume Designs for a production of Salome at the Raimundtheater in Vienna, Austria, 1925