A Century of Women Designers Who Helped Shape Our Lives

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It’s not your usual teapot. Modern, minimal, and functional, the silver and ebony kettle is all smooth curves and sleek lines. But despite its polished finish, the 1925 piece was made entirely by (a woman’s) hand. As a student at the Bauhaus, Marianne Brandt studied with Josef Albers, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and László Moholy-Nagy. She soon became the director of the school’s metal workshop, where she designed the Bauhaus Building’s lighting fixtures. Brandt’s designs are beautiful and practical; here, for example, the graceful lid is set off-center to prevent drips. This inventive teapot is one of the Bauhaus’s most well-known designs. Less well known is that the piece was made by a woman.

Brandt is one of over 200 women product designers from more than 50 countries featured in Woman Made: Great Women Designers (Phaidon) by Jane Hall. The author’s wide lens covers the stories of iconic trailblazers and now-forgotten figures alike, and each designer is presented with one of their seminal works accompanied by a short text about their career and life. The book surveys a century of women’s contributions to design, exploring the ways that their furniture, lighting, textiles, and ceramics have shaped life not only in our homes and workplaces, but in society at large.

Nada Debs, “Summerland Paravan” (2019) (image courtesy Nada Debs, b. 1960, Beirut)

For most of its history, industrial design has been a male-dominated field. Since the early 1900s, women’s work in design has often been under-documented. When women were recognized in the press, it was frequently with a sexist edge, and even successful women designers like Aino Aalto, Anna Castelli Ferrieri, and Florence Knoll were routinely overshadowed by their more famous male partners. To combat this, Hall conducted extensive archival research, mining books, design journals and periodicals, exhibitions, and the web for information about her subjects. 

The author also connected with curators, design historians, biographers, family members, and friends of designers to get a richer picture of their lives and work. “Many of the obvious places to find out information are already inscribed by considerable gender bias, so I found simply talking to people the best way to try to find a more personal connection to designers featured where possible,” Hall said in a recent email to Hyperallergic.

Aino Aalto, “Pressed Glass 4644” (1932) (photo by Timo Junttila, © Iittala, 1894–1949, Helsinki)

Hall is committed to changing the ways that we think and talk about women creators. Her last book drew attention to women’s role in architecture over the past century, and her latest project raises questions about women’s visibility and viability in the world of design. “Too few women get the top jobs or design commissions in large-scale companies and manufacturers,” Hall wrote by email, noting that “the workshop traditionally is a very gendered place.” 

Despite the odds, the women in Hall’s book have found innovative ways to hone their own skills, produce their own prototypes, and launch alternative modes of production. Part of this shift — as we see in Hall’s latest generation of designers — involves an increasing emphasis on new technologies and digital tools, as well as local crafts and sustainability. Hall told Hyperallergic: “The idea is to fundamentally shift the conversation away from simplistic notions of a gendered aesthetic to be able to have real conversations about obstacles to women going about their daily lives as designers, getting things done.”

Monling Lee, “Sport Sofa” (2020) (picture credit: Jumbo, b. 1982, Taipei)
Gegia Bronzini, “Striped Fabric” (1964) (picture credit: Archivo Privato Gegia Bronzini, b. 1920, Milan. d. 1976, Venice)
Mira Nakashima, “Concordia Chair” (2003) (image courtesy George Nakashima Woodworkers, b. 1942, Seattle)
Hedwig Bollhagen, “766 Watering Can” (1955) (image © hedwig-bollhagen.de, b. 1907, Hanover, Germany, d. 2001, Marwitz, Germany)
Mimi Shodeinde, “Dip Lounger” (2016) (image courtesy Miminat Designs, b. 1994, London)

Woman Made: Great Women Designers by Jane Hall is published by Phaidon and available online.

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