Libby Sellers talks us through her new book, Women Design
Libby Sellers is on a mission to readdress design history’s gender imbalance. In her new book Women Design, she talks us through the work of female artists and designers whose work has inexcusably gone overlooked.
Tell us about the book: how did it all start?
Women Design grew out of a series of conversations in early 2017. It certainly is timely and was prompted by the international women’s marches, the centenary celebrations of the suffragettes, the upcoming centenary of the Bauhaus (one of the first European schools to encourage female student applications), and the international calls to eradicate gender disparity across all industries.
While we might think that women’s voices are echoing around the world right now through the Time's Up and #MeToo movements – in design publications, conferences, judging panels and other public realms, women designers tend to be outnumbered by their male counterparts. 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. Gender pay gaps, silent or subtle stereotyping and discrimination still persist.
The book describes the design work made by women between the XX century and today: what is the aim of this book?
As design is all around us and effects everything we do, it is important that we encourage the best design possible. Whatever the rationale behind the gender bias, it has already eliminated or repressed an overwhelming majority of talent in the industry. To continue without championing a balance, would only encourage an impoverished future for design as a result. Perhaps, as I have done in Women Design, by highlighting some of the historical injustices and also seeking out and celebrating role models we might be able to create a discernible difference and encourage more women both to enter and remain in the industry.
Almost 100 years since the Bauhaus - one of the first art schools to encourage female students. #MeToo. Why is it so important that the book has been published this year?
Women have always been, and remain, a significant part of the design profession –as practitioners, consumers, commentators and educators. Yet if asked to name the design world’s greats, most people would produce a list of predominantly male names.
In your opinion, has the role of women in art and design changed in the last century?
Women were not even permitted to study design until the early decades of the twentieth century! Since then women’s increasing access to design disciplines has reflected the changing attitudes towards women in society as a whole. Steps were slow at the beginning of the twentieth century, but as the era progressed and the consequences of two world wars, followed by the relative success of the women’s liberation movement, those steps towards equality in the industry began to hasten. Yet their stories have not always been as visible as those of their male counterparts and baffling blind spots still persist in historical accounts.
Is there any designer or maker in the book that you felt particularly close to or recognised yourself into?
Throughout my career as a curator, a writer and a commercial gallerist, I have used design as a conduit for story-telling; a route into describing the world around us through objects, materials and processes. So in that way, all the women featured are inspirational as I have borrowed their stories to talk about design and its relationship to people. Without their pioneering efforts, I would not be able to work in design – a field I love.
What kind of feedback did you receive from your peers about the book? How did your - women and men - colleagues react? It seems like many are still reluctant to recognise the value of a product made by a woman.
Interestingly, role models have had a statistically significant impact on women’s performance in all fields. Yet there are many women who would prefer not to be described as a female designer. A few dissenters have said to me, “you’d never write a book titled ‘Men Design’, so why write one about women?” Fair point, but because the design industry was and largely remains a deeply patriarchal one, the majority of design books are about men. They have been both written about them and by them. And this gender bias has permeated throughout our learning and understanding of design.
Do you see a better future for design in terms of women recognition and working rights?
The issue of gender imbalance is not unique to the design industry, yet it is particularly at odds with an industry that predicates itself on liberal and forward thinking ideals. While progress is being made, at both a legislative and practical level, there is still much to do before equality is achieved.