Is design still a (cis)man's world?

3 July 2018

In Design as an Attitude, design critic and author Alice Rawsthorn sets out to squash the stereotypes, by celebrating design’s ability to better the world we live in, especially in light of its currently tumultuous future. Arguing that design is a powerful force in all of our lives, she questions why it is often dismissed as a “manipulative commercial ploy”.

Below is an excerpt from Rawsthorn’s book, which is out now, published by JRP Ringier.

When Gertrud Arndt quit her job in an architect’s office in 1923 to take up a scholarship at an art and design school that promised to welcome “any person of good repute, without regard to age or sex”, she planned to study architecture. Instead, she was dispatched to the weaving workshop, as were most of the other women who enrolled as students at the Bauhaus.

Nor was the Bauhaus alone in perpetuating gender stereotypes in design. A few years after Arndt’s arrival there, a young French interior designer Charlotte Perriand asked Le Corbusier for a job in his Parisian architectural studio only to be rebuffed with: “We don’t embroider cushions here.” Decades later, the viewers of a 1956 episode of the US television show Home watched a mortified Ray Eames join her husband Charles on air after being introduced by the (female) presenter with: “This is Mrs Eames and she is going to tell us how she helps Charles design these chairs.” Another of Le Corbusier’s collaborators, the British architect Jane Drew, who practiced with her husband Maxwell Fry, became so irritated by repeatedly being introduced as “Mrs Fry” at lectures, that she took to saying: “I’m sorry Mrs Fry can’t be with us tonight, instead Miss Jane Drew has kindly accepted to replace her.”


Renault = Présent, edited and designed by Irma Boom in 2016.
Courtesy: Irma Boom

No wonder that so many design history books are stuffed with references to men – mostly white men, though that is another story. Things have improved. A number of women designers are now recognised as leaders in their fields: including Irma Boom in books; Hilary Cottam in social design; Ilse Crawford in interiors; Es Devlin in stage design; Hella Jongerius in industrial design; Frith Kerr in graphics; and Christien Meindertsma in conceptual design. Other women have bagged the prestigious design prizes, professorships and curatorships that once seemed to be reserved for men. Yet the most visible and commercially successful designers are still overwhelmingly male, even though female students have been in the majority at most North American and European design schools for more than two decades. And I have yet to meet a woman designer, successful or otherwise, who has not suffered from similar misogynistic slights and impediments to those that beset Arndt, Perriand and Drew. As for the rapidly expanding community of genderqueer designers who prefer not to identify themselves as cis male or cis female, they suffer from as much, if not more prejudice.


Agender ungendered fashion shop designed by Faye Toogood in 2015 for Selfridge’s department stores in London, Birmingham and Manchester.
Copyright and photography: Faye Toogood


Tulip Pyramid, a design research project into the construction of China’s new design identity, completed in 2016 by the Chinese designer, Jing He.
Photography: Femke Reijerman 
Courtesy: Jing He

Not that either group would be spared such obstacles in other fields, but they have had – and continue to have – an unusually tough time in design. Nor are they only victims of design’s gender bias. The rest of us suffer too. If you believe that design plays an important part in organising our lives and in defining the objects, imagery, technologies and spaces that fill them, it stands to reason that we need designers of the highest calibre. But we will not get them unless they come from every area of society, not just from one gender.

Right now, they don’t. An analysis of the depiction of gender in the 2015 issues of the Dutch design magazine Frame, conducted by the Australian conceptual designer Gabriel Maher, revealed that more than 80% of the people – mostly designers and architects – featured in its editorial and advertising were presented as cis male and all of the remaining 20% as cis female. No wonder that teachers in design schools report that even their most promising female and gender queer students suffer from low self-esteem and other entitlement issues.


Hella Jongerius working with Edith van Berkel and Arian Brekveld on the design of the World Business Class cabin for KLM, Royal Dutch Airlines at JongeriusLab in Berlin.
Photography: Marcus Gaab for KLM
Courtesy: JongeriusLab

Those students do, at least, have inspiring role models in Boom, Crawford, Jongerius and the other gifted women that have won over the male powerbrokers, who still control established areas of design. Another source of optimism is that women tend to thrive in newer disciplines, where there are no male gatekeepers to block them, as Laura Pana has done in her work in the refugee crisis, and Sara Khurram and Iffat Zafar in healthcare. Yet more new disciplines should surface in future, given the speed of advances in science and technology, and the growing acceptance of the design process as a possible solution to an increasingly expansive range of economic, political and environmental challenges. In theory, this should enable yet more women to operate in those fields free from the constraints of old boys’ networks.

Genderqueer designers should benefit too, and spare the rest of us from misogynistic design cliches at a time when interpretations of gender identity are becoming ever subtler, and more singular. As binary definitions of gender appear increasingly outdated, it will be more important than ever for us to express the nuances of our personal identities in our design choices, rather than leaving it to the cis male establishment that has sustained the “man’s world” of design for so long.

This is an excerpt from Alice Rawsthorn’s book, Design as an Attitude published by JRP Ringier.

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Alice Rawsthorn

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