words Jes Fernie
Two pubes on a plate – what does this tell us about the work of women designers today? Perhaps girls do want to have fun but they want a lot more besides.
The cover of this book is cool, white and minimal. It consists of one picture: a white plate with two pubic hairs on it. This is a promising start. Turn the page and you are greeted with the word “Dish” written in that needlework style so favoured by prissy 19th-century middle England. This is even more promising.
Dish is a selection of recent work by 40 female industrial designers from across the globe. It may seem deeply unfashionable to produce a women-only line-up or even to dwell on inequality of the sexes at all, but the scarcity of women in design and architecture is so pronounced that desperate – even unfashionable – measures are called for.
The editor of this book, Julie Müller Stahl, proposes that this imbalance is due to the approach many women take to a career in the industry: unlike their male counterparts, their identities do not revolve around being “a designer”. They take on multiple roles, each of which retains potency and autonomy – roles such as mother, wife, designer, entrepreneur, artist and teacher. This wider identity matrix results in an approach that many manufacturers and design firms find difficult to contain and one that doesn’t fit nicely into the established economic framework.
Flipping through the designers’ short statements, I am struck by the similarity of outlook. Many of the designers want to collaborate with partners, create self-produced work (thus keeping control over the end product) and generate an emotional connection between the user and the object. They use wit, fantasy and ingenuity to produce personal and sensuous objects that can often be adapted to the needs of the user. Ayse Birsel’s Red Rocket desk, for example, is a radical rethink of the work station. Biomorphic shapes make up a space that seems to mould its way around the user’s body, giving her (it could only be a her, or a truly liberated man) a sense of comfort and control. It’s a desk for girls with attitude and a habit of putting their box of tampons in the see-through filing cabinet next to their station.
Recent years have seen a return of the decorated object and a sense of whimsy in industrial design. After 20 years of obsessive, hard-edged, “boy” design, things seem to be lightening up. This move has freed up women, in particular, to enter a world where the baroque is embraced and ornament is celebrated.
French designer Florence Doléac is an extreme example: she makes sculptural objects that are devoid of function but would make any home look like the set of a theatrical show. Danish designer Anette Hermann produces light installations that project daisies and clouds onto benches and tables, and Camilla Groth camouflages her ceramic tableware by leaking pattern from cups and saucers onto tables.
Expressing the difference between the sexes leaves the contributors, editor and designers in this book negotiating tricky ground. They have boldly decided to state a difference and risk marginalisation rather than pretend second place is really quite comfy. Dish irreverently abandons the pathetic “Go on – include me” plea of many all-female line-ups and instead seems to say, “OK, do what you damn well want but if you pass me by you won’t have such a good time.”
Dish: International Design for the Home, by Julie Müller Stahl (ed)
Princeton Architectural Press, £25