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Magazine

09 December 2019
THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN INDUSTRIAL DESIGN: A SURVEY OF THE PAST TO REDESIGN TODAY’S WORLD

Cristina Noguer

AUTHOR’S NOTE  

This text arises from the need to reflect upon my own body and condition as a white Catalan woman born in the eighties, who holds a degree in Industrial Design and has worked professionally in Catalonia, Chile, Mexico, India and New York. I’ve tried to recognise myself in the multiplicity of contexts of my practice, where I’ve sometimes underestimated my privileges and at other times I’ve overlooked the patriarchal impact on myself and my praxis, a form of violence that is often intangible yet undeniable, experienced in silence, confusedly and individually. Voices like those of Uzma Z. Rizvi, lecturer in Anthropology and Social Sciences at the Pratt Institute of Art and Design in Brooklyn, have prompted me to challenge and position myself. To quote Rizvi, ‘If, due to your body experience, you have never had to question how the world looks at your race/class/ethnicity/gender/body, or if that has never impacted the way the world identifies your research or work, you should know that that is a privileged experience. And that privilege or lack thereof, informs you and your praxis.’[1]

 

 

I begin this text by asking myself why we don’t have any evidence of the presence of relevant women in the field of industrial design. To answer this question, we must contextualise the origins of industrial design at the end of the Second World War, when the discipline emerged to respond to the need to make industries and innovations developed for military activity profitable. At that time, with the expansion of capitalism and technological development, industrial design became a very powerful political tool, as stated by Beatriz Colomina in Domesticity at War (2013), ‘The postwar form of domesticity turns out to be a powerful weapon.’[2] Charles and Ray Eames were among the most outstanding architects and designers of those years. They defined the imaginary of happiness, domesticity and progress that the United States wanted to show the world, transforming the waste of a military industry into the main objects of a domestic industry.[3]

The First World War had forced women to leave their homes and take up positions previously occupied by men. And yet their role in the fifties required they went back home, setting them in domestic environments that would help them improve their lives and those of their families, thereby emphasising the idea of family bliss that had been inoperative during the war. The Jacques Tati film My Uncle (1958) describes the role of women in that modern and technological context very well: a man-made context designed to be consumed daily by women. The fact is that unlike product design or arts and crafts, industrial design excluded women from the production process. Their creative skills were considered apt for producing decorative arts: creations with domestic instead of commercial functions. Incipient capitalism and patriarchy interacted to devaluate such design for, as described by Cheryl Buckley, Professor of Fashion and Design History at the University of Brighton, ‘it has been made in the wrong place – the home, and for the wrong market – the family.’[4]

This exclusion didn’t just appear out of nowhere. Already before the war, the skills of women weren’t considered appropriate for design, as revealed by Christopher Long’s 1997 comment on the famous and influential essay by Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime (1930). Long states, ‘Loos critiqued everything from teapots to shoes, famously found that the ornament of design being criminal, primitive, degenerated and most importantly, erotic and feminine, has had a great influence on design and design history of the 20th century.’[5] In Made in Patriarchy: Toward a Feminist Analysis of Woman and Design (1986), Buckley illustrates how historians have served as catalysts for perpetuating this exclusion, for design produced by men has been described as bold, accurate and calculated, while design produced by women has been presented as weak, spontaneous or lacking in rationality. On the other hand, arts and crafts, traditionally assigned to women, aren’t considered to be of strategic interest for the economy of those years.

In this context, it is no wonder that women are absent from history, despite the fact that many women actually enrolled in design schools like the Bauhaus, Ulm, or others outside of Germany, where female designers like Otti Berger, Anni Albers, Marianne Brandt, Alma Buscher, Lilly Reich, Charlotte Perriand, Greta Grossman, Florence Knoll, Gae Aulenti and Andrée Putman studied. Whether or not they were aware of the fact, the system was against them. As we learn from Isabel Campi, industrial design historian and researcher, ‘They were afraid of being considered a school of applied arts for women because they wanted to stand out as a higher school of architecture.’[6]

It’s interesting to reflect on Buckley’s point of view on the women who have made history in design: ‘the few women who make it into the literature of design are accounted for within the framework of patriarchy; they are either defined by their gender as designers or users of feminine products, or they are subsumed under the name of their husband, lover, father or brother.’[7] Clear examples of Buckley’s assertion are the female designers Aino Aalto, wife of Alvar Aalto, and Ray Kaiser, known as Ray Eames through her marriage to Charles Eames. We could think that if Ray has made a name for herself in history this is because she completes the idea of domesticity, bringing modern art, industrial design and modern architecture to female consumers, and ends up becoming a modernist model in a patriarchal domestic context.

However, even though the market is specifically conceived for women, in the field of industrial design that creates objects like smartphones, Siri, liquidisers and vacuum cleaners, by default the ideal body is still that of men: we drive cars made for male bodies and we write on keyboards made for male hands. There could be two reasons for this: on the one hand, the collective unconscious of producers and, on the other, purely economic issues that obey the laws of capitalism based on scale economy: the greater the production, the lower the unit price, making products accessible to most, increasing the market quota and, in short, obtaining greater profits. In this sense and yet contradictorily, to design with the male body in mind is to design for the normative model — the female body is the exception.

Scale economy produces the standardisation of consumer products and the need for ongoing production. To make these changes possible, the concept of programmed obsolescence was devised, in connection with a model that is ecologically and socially unsustainable that projected a fractionated, non-inclusive, colonialist and abusive vision of the future promoted by the New Deal movement in the United States. This entailed a change of direction in the profession. Designers like Enzo Mari reacted against this model of consumption. Mari did so by publishing Autoprogettazione (1974), a manual of basic instructions for the construction of nineteen basic items of furniture. Users, until then perceived as passive subjects, began to play a part in the construction of their own pieces of furniture. Thus, Mari introduced the Do-It-Yourself idea: a model much closer to that of pre-industrial craftsmanship led by women.

At some universities students also began to call into question the political and socio-economic impact of industrial design. Based on the theories of the Frankfurt School, for instance, critical design and speculative design emerged and suggested new ways of seeing design and its impact. Instead of offering answers to economic and business needs, they challenged the system and proposed a design not associated with patriarchal authority, thereby opening up a space for feminism and intersectionality in this field. This critical thinking, along with new technologies, has triggered the formulation of new ecological theories that redefine the economic system, suggesting production, consumption and relational alternatives.[8] The book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (2002) by chemist and ecologist Michael Braungart and architect William McDonough has meant a starting point for demystifying downturn understood as the only answer. The authors present a proposal based on the technologies in a context in which all sorts of new materials nourish the environment as a result of their use. This idea has triggered the revolution of biomaterials and biologic manufacturing.

The diversification of (sustainable) ecological movements has paralleled the diversification of feminist movements. As a result of this and of recent technological progress, a change has come about in consumer products in a feminine key. Segmentation is increasingly precise, as now the idea is to serve a market niche instead of the whole market. In the fourth industrial revolution provoked by the development of robotisation, factories are more flexible and the expenditure on tools and infrastructure is reduced. This has enabled large companies to offer hyper-personalised products for a very reduced market segment and, even so, continue to make a profit. Hence we now have all sorts of products for any kind of market. All fetishes and eclecticism are catered for: period cups that remotely control the menstrual cycle, apps that offer tutorials on masturbation, clothes, perfumes and cosmetics for both sexes and all skin tones, etc. These products are supported by inclusive marketing campaigns that embrace diversity of gender, age and race, and hope to leave stereotypes behind. In this context, the book The Responsible Object: A History of Design Ideology for the Future (2016) edited by theoretician Marjanne Van Helvert which challenges the present state of affairs is particularly relevant: ‘Their concept of woman mostly equals to female, feminine, heterosexual, and, in some contexts monogamous and mother. It reproduces stereotypes about women, their “taste”, their technological abilities and their roles both in public and domestic life. Moreover, the discourse of some of the projects is overtly based on companies’ economic plans, therefore women remain, once again, potential consumers that would buy more gender-segregated products, but this time with “feminist” concerns.’[9]

According to the theory of symbolic violence developed by Pierre Bourdieu (1979), ‘design can function to naturalise oppressions and then obfuscate power relations around this process,’[10] hence ‘the most intolerable conditions of existence can so often be perceived as acceptable and even natural.’[11] In this sense, we could say that the symbolic violence that had led to the standardisation and masculinisation of industrial design is now invisible, not because it has been overcome, but because it has become even more subtle.

In the face of present technological progress and the change of paradigm it entails, we need an open, critical, intersectional and ecofeminist vision. We need more local producers and consumers, male and female, more open and shared design. We need to reduce, recycle, repair, recover and reuse, just as we need to research new materials and open processes for local and sustainable production. The Superlocal project is an example of locally designed electrical appliances. Andrea de Chirico designs and manufactures a collection of hairdryers using local resources from different parts of Europe. Another example is Emma Pardos, a clothing brand launched in the Catalan capital that sells socks made in Barcelona. This could seem irrelevant, but at a time when half the socks purchased worldwide are manufactured in the Chinese town of Datang, also known as Sock City, Emma’s project becomes an interesting alternative.

So the responsibility clearly falls on consumers. Knowing how to consume is one of the keys to confronting the social and ecological crises we are currently experiencing. Yet as consumers, how do we confront the present revolution that favours a plurality of local, technological, specific and ecological manufacturers? How can we manage to make tools that were designed to be collaborative, accessible and shared really work as such? Can a feminist, de-colonised and sustainable design exist in this context? How would design have developed if during the rise of capitalism we had protected sororal relations? How would the economy have fared?

 

[1] Uzma Z. Rizvi, ‘Decolonization as Care,’ part 15 of 20 in the Decolonizing Anthropology series, 19 September 2016. Accessible at https://savageminds.org/tag/care/

[2] Beatriz Colomina, Domesticity at War, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2007, front cover.

[3] From 44.4 million tonnes in 2016 to 52.2 in 2021, data from the Global E-waste Monitor 2017. Executive summary.

[4] Cheryl Buckley, ‘Made in Patriarchy: Toward a Feminist Analysis of Women and Design’, Design Issues, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Autumn 1986), The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Quoted in Women’s Creativity since the Modern Movement (1918-2018): Toward a New Perception and Reception, Helena Serazin, Emilia Maria Garda and Caterina Franchini (eds.), Zalozba ZRC, Ljubljana, 2018, p. 23.

[5] ‘Visualising Gender Norms in Design,’ Design Context, Sunday 14 September 2014. Accessible at http://s-walker1215-dc.blogspot.com/2015/01/visualising-gender-norms-in-design.html

[6] Isabel Campi is referring to the Bauhaus school. Quoted in ‘Creadoras. Las mujeres de la Bauhaus que la propia Bauhaus olvidó,’ ICON DESIGN. Accessible at https://elpais.com/elpais/2019/02/04/icon_design/1549295232_577771.html

[7] Cheryl Buckley, ‘Made in Patriarchy: Toward a Feminist Analysis of Women and Design’, op. cit. Quoted in Design Discourse: History, Theory, Criticism, Victor Margolin (ed.), The Unversity of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1989, p. 251.

[8] It’s interesting to remember the etymology of ecology and economy. Ecology: a neologism derived from oikos that means house, and –logy that means a particular branch of knowledge or subject of study. In other words, a study of the house, embracing its surroundings and the environment, like the house inhabited by different species. Economy: derives from the Latin term oeconomia and also from the Greek οἰκονομία, in which oikos once again means house and nomos means law or management. That is to say, the law or the rules of the house, understood at a macro scale.

[9] The Responsible Object: A History of Design Ideology for the Future, Marjanne Van Helvert (ed.), Valiz, Amsterdam, 2017.

[10] Quoted in ‘Design as Symbolic Violence: Addressing the “isms”,’ a conversation held at DRS2016 on 29 June 2016. Accessible at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55ca3eafe4b05bb65abd54ff/t/58515abfd2b857bc8c362767/1481726660069/535-Boehnert-Symbolic-Violence-DRS2016-Conv.pdf

[11] Pierre Bourdieu, Masculine Domination, translated by Richard Nice, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 2001, Prelude, p. 1.

 

Cristina Noguer

Articles

09 December 2019

THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN INDUSTRIAL DESIGN: A SURVEY OF THE PAST TO REDESIGN TODAY’S WORLD

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