The NGV’s Designing Women exhibition highlights the ongoing role of female designers as a dynamic and critical force in shaping contemporary design practice and culture. Spanning the years 1980 to 2018, it showcases over seventy works of design from the NGV Collection across diverse creative fields; all works are united by their female authorship.

The exhibition has four key narratives: Leadership, Community, Teamwork and Research. These overlapping stories offer fresh perspectives on the contributions women have made to the practice and profession of design over the past four decades. By focusing on the work, histories and achievements of designing women, the exhibition reveals that female designers, often overlooked in a male-dominated industry, are producing sophisticated, iconic and thought-provoking work.

Presenting an exhibition on the subject of women in design could be viewed as controversial as women, like men, want to be acknowledged for their professional contributions, ideas and output separately from their gender identity. On the other hand you might ask why, in the age of gender diversity and equal opportunity, is it still necessary to stage an all-female design exhibition?

By foregrounding the work of contemporary women designers in this exhibition we can draw attention to design’s evolving history – and its role in shaping today’s society.

Leadership

Historical stories of women in design are far less prominent than those of men, despite the contributions of women to the design and making of the material world. For women who gained access to art and design education in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, social and professional biases typically resulted in the marginalisation of their careers and work. According to the ideals of the time, a woman’s place was in the domestic sphere, and the business of design was deemed unsuitable for women. So-called feminine traits of gentleness, sensitivity and sweetness were considered incompatible with machinery, technology and the hyper-masculine image of industry.

Some women challenged this gender prejudice and formed a vanguard of change that pushed through these entrenched sociocultural notions. Fast forward to today and the results of their efforts are clear. Updated values within education and the design profession have drawn large numbers of women to the design field across diverse sectors. In this new paradigm, the visibility of female design leaders is seen as vital in sustaining gender equality and continuing to redress outdated attitudes. These designing women lead by example, creating an environment of inspiration, vision and entrepreneurship in their respective communities and on the international stage. But this perceptual shift in design as being inclusive and gender diverse has come slowly.

Community

The tendency for design to be viewed through the narrow lens of modernism has resulted in vast numbers of designing women being obscured from the historical record. Modernism principally emphasises style, technology and the creation of functional goods tied to the industries of Westernised nations. This narrow representation of design as solely a bedfellow of industry fails to acknowledge that design is in fact a diverse creative practice delivering both cultural and commercial outcomes.

The meaning of ‘design’ has evolved significantly over the past century. In its broadest sense it allows human beings to give material form to ideas, beliefs and values. Designer-makers contribute to the understanding of what ‘design’ means, and central to designer-maker production is the passing on of tacit knowledge through communities of practice.

Australia’s Indigenous women mastered the passing down of design skills through a system of matrilineal knowledge transfer that stretches back thousands of years. Grandmothers, aunties, mothers, daughters and sisters together honed design technologies, reworked what had gone before and incorporated new materials and tools.

Sharing embodied knowledge acquired from personal experience and learning is vital in sustaining design practice.

Teamwork

An area of design history exposed to intense scrutiny over the past four decades has been the unsatisfactory recognition and recording of designing women in collaborative partnerships. Since the emergence of the women’s liberation movement in the late 1960s, both Western design history and the design profession have been open to feminist critique. By asking the fundamental question, ‘Where are all the women designers?’, design historians set out to examine twentieth-century modernism from a feminist perspective, bringing consciousness to problematic issues of discrimination within the discipline. Consequently, the culture of contemporary design has benefited enormously from a re-evaluation of gender-driven narratives as well as those of class and ethnicity.

This work has helped highlight the stories of twentieth-century female designers like architect Marion Mahony Griffin (1871–1961), industrial designer Joyce Coffey (1918–2001) and interior and furniture designer Mary Featherston (b.1943–), who all experienced relative anonymity when co-designing with their better-known husbands.

Renewed interest in unearthing stories of women’s participation in design has inspired a reappraisal of the concept of ‘authorship’. Design benefits from the ideas and talents of multiple people, and teamwork underpins all design to lesser and greater degrees. Today it is finally considered best practice to acknowledge the contributions of all team members, including collaborators and manufacturers, shifting the narrative away from that of the sole creator.

Research

In Western democracies since the 1960s, there has been a steady upsurge in the number of women enrolling in design education.1Jennifer Jones and Josie Castle, ‘Women in Australian universities 1945–1980’, University of Wollongong, 1983, p. 16, http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ291805.pdf, accessed 14 Sep. 2018. The social and cultural re-framing of the design profession as being more inclusive has expanded the scope of design and the issues it attempts to address.

Design research is both academic and practical, with designers investigating new processes, materials, systems and methods. It began in the industrialised nations of Europe in the mid twentieth century and has evolved in parallel to an array of industries, including arms production, space exploration, automotive manufacturing, consumer electronics and construction.

For the greater part of the twentieth century, design research, as mostly a male domain, was placed alongside science and engineering and was put to work in the interests of business and governments. Its critical function was to increase design’s effectiveness in driving military prowess, international competitiveness and economic development. Design’s significance now reaches far across social, economic, ecological and cultural spheres. Consequentially, the field of design research – and with that the importance of female design researchers – has expanded exponentially.

Today there are diverse trajectories of design research, just as there is a diversity of designers. Through the lens of gender diversity designers investigate possibilities, speculate on future scenarios and test propositions. Driven by curious and creative minds, the expanding field of design research embraces notions of design in its broadest sense and delves into many different modes of research, experimentation and speculation.

Contemporary design is the product of human ideals being questioned, challenged and transformed. The work and practices of the fifty-five women designers in the NGV exhibition Designing Women reveals that the continuation of this tradition is key to unlocking the true power and potential of design.

Bibliography

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  • Jose, Jane, Places Women Make: Unearthing the Contribution of Women to Our Cities, Wakefield Press, Mile End, South Australia, 2016.
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Notes

1

Jennifer Jones and Josie Castle, ‘Women in Australian universities 1945–1980’, University of Wollongong, 1983, p. 16, <https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ291805.pdf>, accessed 14 Sep. 2018.