Women Who Transformed Design Industry in the last Century
Differentiate by Design - Dec 3, 2021, by Asja Nastasijevic
Women have always been working and profoundly influencing the design industry, and sometimes even revolutionized it. Still, their role in design has long been under-represented in literature as well as in galleries and museum exhibitions. The same is the case with women artists. A handful of them we know of today have only come to the public’s attention over the last few decades. Intellectuals, society, and the creators themselves began to slowly correct this “failure” of history by giving much-deserved recognition and value to female designers. It’s a start that gives room for optimism.
A Visionary Designer in the Shadow of Her Male Counterpart
When a young 24-year-old Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999) applied for a job as a furniture designer at Le Corbusier’s studio in 1927, she was rejected with a dismissive response, “We don’t embroider cushions here.” However, the famous architect and designer changed his mind after seeing Perriand’s extraordinary rooftop bar exhibited at the Salon D’Automne in Paris the same year. Over the next ten years, Perriand worked alongside Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret designing the furniture according to the proposed drawings by Le Corbusier. Although Perriand was entirely responsible for solving design problems and inventing a series of chairs, she never received credit for her work. The famous “Chaise longue basculante B306” from 1929 is one such piece. It became one of the iconic examples of early modernism in furniture design and a best seller, but it was not until the 21st century that this beautiful chair with elegant curves and leather upholstery became recognized as the work of Charlotte Perriand.
However, after leaving Le Corbusier’s studio in 1937, Perriand managed to make a successful career of her own that spanned three-quarters of a century and across continents, from Europe to Asia to Latin America. She experimented with different materials and across disciplines, from furniture to industrial design to architecture focusing on egalitarian design and aiming towards a more affordable, quality and functional mass-produced furniture and housing. This approach culminated in the Les Arc, a modernist ski resort in France designed by an architectural collective led by Perriand. However, her contributions to the history of modernist design and architecture were acknowledged much later after her revolutionary achievements with exhibitions at Musée des Arts-Décoratifs in 1985 in Paris, the Design Museum in 1998 in London, and last year’s retrospective “Charlotte Perriand: Inventing a New world” at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris.
The Mother of Contemporary Ceramics
Eva Zeisel (1906-2011) is another heroine of modernist design whose work revolutionized middle-class American homes with simple and elegant tableware. Her career in ceramics started during her studies at the Hungarian Royal Academy of Fine Arts, where she initially entered to study painting. Her designs soon began to attract the attention of international ceramic manufacturers. She worked for companies from Germany to Russia, but not until she emigrates to the US at the start of World War II will her work gain full recognition and praise. The exhibition “New Shapes in Modern Chine: Designed by Eva Zeisel” in 1946 at MoMA featuring her timeless "Museum" porcelain dinner set was the first show devoted to a female designer. A self-described "maker of useful things," Eva Zeisel designed tableware that is characterized by clean, sensual lines, organic, soft curves, and everyday elegance. Ziesel created a humane and feminine version of modernist design - a “good design” as defined by the critics - by adding sensual and lyrical forms to the modernist principles of simplicity, rationality, and functionality. She believed that women should design the things they use, and perhaps it was with a feminine tone in her designs that she managed to reach so many homes at the time.
Ziesel created a humane and feminine version of modernist design - a “good design” as defined by the critics - by adding sensual and lyrical forms to the modernist principles of simplicity, rationality, and functionality. She believed that women should design the things they use, and perhaps it was with a feminine tone in her designs that she managed to reach so many homes at the time.
The Icon of Icons
Susan Kare (1954-Present ) thought she would either be a fine artist or a teacher. Instead, she became a pioneering computer iconographer whose work is now part of the permanent collections of MoMA in New York and SFMoMA. During the 1980s, Kare designed the first-ever computer icons for the Apple Macintosh’s graphical user interface. This new visual click-to-command pictorial language was revolutionary since it allowed users to converse with a computer in pictures in a single click instead of typing text commands like before.
Kare’s witty icons were representations of familiar objects, including a trash can for recycling, a floppy disk for saving files, scissors for the “cut” command, a paintbrush for MacPaint, and the legendary curly four-leaf clover-like symbol on the command key on Mac keyboards, among others. The icons communicated their functions instantly and memorably and became commonplace for computer users. Kare gave a human feel to a lifeless computer. We still use her icons today yet entirely unaware of the impact they had on our lives. So next time you click the floppy disk icon to save your document in Word, remember that it’s an exceptional work of a woman designer called Susan Kare.
The work of these three extraordinary designers has stood the test of time because it possesses a high level of creativity, boldness, and usability. However, it was valued differently throughout history, depending on the time and place where these designers worked. While we cannot undo the past, we can certainly change the present and the future by giving women designers the place they deserve in the design industry and history. We can do this by making them and their work more known, exhibited, correctly attributed, and valued. Let’s not forget that, sadly, many gifted women designers, architects, and artists around the world are still waiting to be acknowledged.
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Journalist and Writer
Asja is a content writer specialized in the arts, design, and culture. She holds a BA degree in Art History from the University of Belgrade and an MA in Art & Cultural Management from the University of Turin. Over the years, she worked as an art gallery assistant, art writer, editor, and content creator for various art-related and design-related magazines, galleries, and online marketplaces. She currently lives in Paris, where she works as an art history and world heritage guide. When not writing, researching, or leading tours, Asja is strolling through her favorite and most beautiful districts in Paris – Le Marais. Her motto is: "Put all you are into the smallest thing you do." It is a verse from a poem by one of her favorite poets Fernando Pessoa.
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