such as: Yes, grant me that opportunity. Yes, I want access to that platform. Yes, give me that job (and pay me as much as you would a man). Yes, represent and sell my work (for the same price as you sell a work by a man). Yes, this is obvious, necessary, and the only way I will work for you, with you, alongside you. Speaking loud and clear is fundamental, but not every woman does this. Why? Partly, because of the structures that are in place at the moment. To this day, women in design have mainly been educated by men (in classes where half the students – if not more – are female); hired by men; working for men; and their work has been valued, collected (and exhibited, or not) by men.
If women cannot change how they are perceived by others, professional opportunities alone will never be enough. The creation of discursive environments where change can be enacted, tested out, then replicated and amplified, can only happen if and when women in design start using their voices. And by finding strength in numbers, they can finally advocate for equality in order to ultimately dismantle existing conditions.
On 18 January this year, we made our first attempt to dismantle such structures, organising a collaborative conversation at the Museum of Applied Arts in Dresden. Titled A Woman’s Work, the event gathered voices from the discipline of design to discuss the roles and influence of female practitioners. The symposium took place alongside the exhibition Against Invisibility, which rewrote a fraction of modern design history by rescuing the nearly-forgotten stories of female designers working in the Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau in the early decades of the 20th century.
What are the differences between them and us? As design critic Alice Rawsthorn pointed out in the symposium, ‘we need to build on [past achievements] with a dynamic and critical discourse … While many skirmishes have been won, others await.’
We must ensure that our stories won’t get lost like theirs. We must create spaces for their – and our – voices to be heard once the present generation is long gone. We must ensure that the current enthusiasm doesn’t get lost, and after an object designed by a woman is sold, exhibited, commissioned and exchanged for inflated sums of money, women – and their stories – will remain.
“As women step into the spotlight, myths can be shattered. The lone genius, the heroic creator, the object that arrives fully formed”
It is the responsibility of the gatekeepers – who write, who teach, who collect, who curate, who sell, who promote, who advocate – to open the gates for the dismantling of past and present conditions, in order to make women’s work, contributions and visibility a permanent condition.
What does the revolution bring with it? We do not know. But we know it is thorny, messy, complex and collaborative. It starts with simple actions. It begins with adding to the canon of design history voices other than those of white men; promoting and investing in work made by practitioners other than white men. It involves revamping design education to elect new role models and rewriting your syllabus to include more diverse voices. When prompted, it involves selecting someone other than a white man for a panel. It involves selecting a diverse group of people in the next exhibition you curate. It means working with someone other than those whom you already know.
These are the ways in which we can continue to claim space, connect people, and enact transformation. And this will transform us all.
ABOVE The symposium was held alongside an exhibition on the Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau
BELOW The event brought together a wide range of practitioners, scholars, writers, critics and curators