20 July 2018
by Marco Romanelli
Charlotte Perriand, Eileen Gray, Aino Aalto, Ray Eames, Lina Bo Bardi, Gunnel Nyman, Nanna Ditzel, Maija Isola, Andrée Putman, Zaha Hadid, Patricia Urquiola, Johanna Grawunder, Matali Crasset, Kazuyo Komoda, le Front, Costance Guisset and, in Italy alone, Gae Aulenti, Nanda Vigo, Anna Castelli Ferrieri, Cini Boeri, Antonia Astori, Afra Bianchin Scarpa, Rosanna Bianchi Piccoli, Antonia Campi, Lella Valle Vignelli, Renata Bonfanti, Franca Helg, Paola Navone, Laura De Santillana, Daniela Puppa, Marta Laudani, Luisa Bocchietto, Carlotta de Bevilacqua, Giovanna Talocci, Donata Paruccini, Raffaella Mangiarotti… If someone suddenly asked you what all these people had in common, I suspect not one of you would reply: “They’re women!” - the correct answer would be: “They are (or were) designers!” or, even better in the case of many of them: “They are (or were) masters of design!” This little preliminary test is useful in tackling an issue that is as topical as it is thorny, in other words in what way does femininity affect design. Thorny whichever way you approach it: the “deniers”, that is to say those who, like me, believe that gender has no particular a priori effect on design, are then immediately accused of speaking from the perspective of a male designer, keen to preserve a perceived position of privilege. On the other hand, the “assertionists” are easily ridiculed for calling for hypothetical “pink quotas” which businesses ought to reserve for women designers, as they are for captious questions about “gays (or lesbians) and design.” These are real minefields, like all attempts to define, and therefore divide, individuals on the basis of characteristics such as birth gender or sexual orientation, country of origin or professed religion. It is impossible to forget that until very recently it was believed that the different brain mass in men and women was the cause of substantial differences, thus perpetuating notion of the genetic existence of a specific female brand of creativity, more predisposed to trivial and repetitive tasks (not least described as “feminine”) and a specific brand of male creativity, predisposed to commanding and inventing.
Certainly there has to be one basic caveat: believing, as I believe, that there is no difference between male and female design is a theoretical position that derives from due acknowledgement of the fact that male designers in the history of Italian design have found it much easier to access work in general and prestigious commissions in particular. This is attributable to the characteristics of a society that I would not hesitate to describe as backward, and certainly not to neuro-scientific evidence. It is therefore a case of a contingent reality, capable of changing over time (I believe the new generation of Italian women designers, amongst whom Serena Confalonieri, Francesca Lanzavecchia, Chiara Moreschi, Chiara Onida, Valentina Carretta, Giorgia Zannellato, Alessandra Baldereschi, Cristina Celestino, Laura Salmistraro, Chiara Andreatti, Cristiana Giopato and Laura Fiaschi have been demonstrating this clearly for some time), especially given the changing balance of the employment market in which the primary and secondary stages (of clear male bias) have been overcome, as well as the tertiary (transition) stage and that we have reached a new, more fluid, less sedentary stage, less geared to the production of goods, more immaterial and conceptual. One is tempted to say more feminine, were there not a danger of falling into a reverse stereotype. To demonstrate how widespread the commonplaces are and how ever-present the pitfalls, let us take for example W:Woman in Italian Design at the 2016 Triennale in Milan, an exceptional show for its breadth and variety of exhibited pieces, but in which, however, the analytical categories of female creativity – weaving together, procreating, protecting – fell straight into the commonplace that they claimed to be railing against. Naturally it is still not possible to provide a clear response to the problematics of gender, but we cannot fail to be conscious of the fact that young designers today are asking themselves, right now, as they read this: “why does anyone still ask themselves these questions?” and meanwhile carry on blithely designing, in mixed groups or together with a partner, whether they be male or female, while a male companion or alternatively a female companion is waiting for them to go out for a beer. Basically, I believe that the evolution of the species has, without our even realising it, begun to quietly resolve the matter by bringing in the new creatives, of whatever sex, to respond with a shrug of the shoulders to this pseudo-problem.