Dezeen Magazine


"There is without doubt institutional prejudice in the furniture industry"

Opinion: there's no excuse for excluding women from the design conversation in Milan, says Kieran Long who offers a ready-made Rolodex for a fairer male/female split.

This column is intended as a service to design, and to address a practical problem that is in acute focus during Milan furniture fair week. The problem is the shocking lack of women designers who are allowed to participate in product and furniture design, either as designers or voices in the discussion about the field.

I know how it goes. You're organising an event or a commission, you go to your contacts book, you phone up the next in line and they happen to be male. I think there is without doubt institutional prejudice in parts of the furniture industry, especially in Italy, but mostly it's just carelessness and laziness. It must also be because brands, PR people, agents, curators and media outlets can not think of any women to invite. Hence this column.

This idea first came up when my wife (Sofia Lagerkvist from Front) was invited to be on the jury of the new Young Talent Award, funded by the Be Open Think Tank. She was the only woman on the jury (out of five) and there was only one woman on the shortlist for the prize (Katharina Mischer of male/female duo Mischer Traxler, who also won the prize) out of ten. This simply doesn't make sense: easily half of the interesting designers I can think of practicing today are women and many of them are in an emerging generation.

I then got into some Google research and recommend you do the same: look on the website of any of the big brands in furniture design and count the number of women they employ as designers. The results are shocking and wildly unbalanced.

I'm not going to get into all the reasons behind the systematic exclusion of women from the top table of design: there are people far more qualified than me to make that critique. I just want to make a list of great women designers on one of the world's most important design websites, so that when anyone out there is trying to make a 50/50 gender split on juries, panels, rosters whatever (as all should), there is no excuse.

So, here's your ready made Rolodex of important women in furniture design.

The most important and productive women in this field of design must be Patricia Urquiola and Hella Jongerius. If you need legends try them, or Reny Ramakers, Li Edelkoort or Ilse Crawford. To that you would add Front (read my above disclosure) as the highest profile all-woman design studio.

Li Edelkoort sits in what could be a very very long list of women influencing and defining design culture and discourse, which would also include Paola Antonelli, Constance Rubini, Alice Rawsthorn, Michelle Ogundehin, Johanna Agerman Ross, Beatrice Galilee, the V&A's own Jana Scholze and Corinna Gardner and many more. As I say, that feels like a separate list – suggestions are very welcome.

The above list is partial, focused exclusively on those who would identify themselves as part of the world of furniture and product design (so excludes architects, graphic designers, fashion designers, digital and interaction designers, etc). It's western euro-centric and biased and I offer it without critical interpretation. But it's a start. Perhaps in the comments people could leave more names, and this page can function as a starting point for anyone organising a talk or a biennale, making a commission or exhibition, or employing a designer for their product range.

We are of course all guilty, including national museums. The post-1945 gallery of design at the V&A has a grand total of four pieces of furniture designed by women (Sayaka Yamamoto, Ineke Hans, Alison Wales and Mary Little), two of which were are credited in partnership with men. There are other objects (ceramics and glass mainly) designed by women in that gallery, and many more pieces by women in the furniture gallery, but there is certainly a gender gap. We are working actively to address and correct that.

I'm not trying to make a big point here, just trying to provide a useful bunch of links. I'd like to thank my colleagues here at the V&A, as well as Amy Silver and Sofia Lagerkvist for their help and suggestions. Please add to this list in the comments, and let's do a compare and contrast at next year's Milan to see if panels, juries and design rosters have equalised.

Image is courtesy of Shutterstock.

Kieran Long is senior curator of contemporary architecture, design and digital at the Victoria & Albert Museum. He presents Restoration Home and the series The £100,000 House for the BBC, and is currently the architecture critic for the Evening Standard newspaper.