There are strong arguments for and against a book on women in design (or illustration or photography or art or advertising…). Should it be able to fit in just one book? Is it more egalitarian to strive for gender balance in topical books, rather than “women” being the topic? Or has the history of women in design simply not been documented or celebrated enough to be able to move on to that next era? There have been a number of titles released in recent years, yet this latest from prolific design author Charlotte Fiell and her daughter Clementine promises to be the most comprehensive and international, and comes from a position of authority as well as passion.
Fiell is a name present on the spine of over 60 design history, theory and criticism titles, usually in the form “Charlotte and Peter Fiell” – a husband and wife author team behind a significant proportion of the design section of any library, with 4 million copies of their books sold worldwide. This time Peter has been aptly replaced by Clementine, their daughter, for the book Women in Design, which profiles 100 women designers across graphic, product, fashion, industrial, architectural and transportation design – an A-Z or “Aino Aalto to Eva Zeisel” of the female presence in our collective creative heritage.
According to Charlotte, the historical under-representation of women in design has only recently become widely recognised. “We had wanted to write a book about the status and role of women designers for a long time but it was not so easy to find a publisher who ‘got it’,” she tells It’s Nice That. “Over the years, when we’ve been researching other books or articles, we constantly kept coming across anecdotal stories about the difficulties women have encountered in all areas of design practice, from fashion to architecture, and the more of these tales we came across, the more outraged we became. A typical example being when the British Society of Industrial Artists and Designers awarded Charles Eames its prestigious design medal in 1967 and then, as a token gesture, presented Ray, his wife, with just a red rose – despite the fact that she always contributed equally to their shared design partnership. This simple, unthinking act perfectly sums up the enormous gender prejudice women designers have had to put up with and – even now – still have to fight against."
The centenary of the women’s vote legislation gave Charlotte and her daughter Clementine, a writer, editor and researcher, a marker in time to look back and reflect on the progress and achievements made by women in a male-dominated industry. While researching, the duo found what they describe as a “hidden history” full of inspirational people and stories that had yet to be documented individually, rather than as part of a male designer’s legacy.
“Women designers and their work have, also, all too frequently been assessed through a patriarchal lens, meaning they have either been entirely defined by their gender or their contributions have been subsumed under that of their ‘more famous’ husbands, brothers, fathers or lovers,” Charlotte continues. Even today, she says, young female designers are all too often pushed towards supposedly “female-centric” disciplines such as fashion and textiles.
The authors were also fuelled by a shocking statistic published in the Design Council’s Design Economy report in 2018, that said 22 per cent of the UK’s design workforce are women, despite the fact that 63 per cent of all students on creative arts and design courses are female. Other research (from the likes of Kerning the Gap and Kat Gordon) backed this up across the board, and told Charlotte that “there is a clear discrepancy between men and women when it comes to design career choices,” she says, and that “the chances of high-level success… are horribly skewed against women”.
Hence, the mother-daughter duo was compelled to write Women in Design, compiled to inspire the next generation. It not only celebrates well-known names like Eames, Aalto, Margaret Calvert, Lucienne Day and Anni Albers, it also shines a brighter light on lesser-known designers such as Clara Driscoll, who designed some of Tiffany Studios’ most iconic lamps, and Belle Kogan, now credited as the first female professional industrial design consultant in America.
“For too long their work has been lost in the mists of time and therefore gone unacknowledged,” Charlotte says. “Our book’s central message to women following in the wake of these remarkable female design pioneers is: ‘Yes, you can, now go and do it!’”