GRAY celebrates the accomplishments of five women who forever altered the design industry.
This portrait of fashion designer Ann Lowe appeared in the December 1966 issue of Ebony magazine with the following caption, “Telephone is key to business for Miss Lowe. It is difficult for her to travel unescorted, since battle to preserve sight has been as great as financial struggle. She orders fabrics by phone, chats with clients and dickers with trade people.” Image: Johnson Publishing Company Archive. Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust and Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture; Made possible by the Ford Foundation, J. Paul Getty Trust, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Smithsonian Institution.
Pick up any design history book published in the last 50 years, and chances are it will poorly represent a key segment of the world’s population: women. Even though the dominant narratives of history have traditionally focused on men, it doesn’t mean that women have been absent from the design profession over the last century. Far from it.
Around the world and through the decades, female-identifying creators in the disciplines of architecture, fashion, landscape, interior design, and product design have led major developments in their fields, charting courses defined by groundbreaking innovation and thoughtful humanity. Although often overlooked or disregarded, the contributions of women to the built and material culture that defines our lives are undisputed.
As women fought (and continue to battle) for equal rights and acceptance in society, we are reminded that representation matters. Celebrating and elevating female voices has a profound impact on defining social norms and shaping a world that is inclusive and safe for everyone. Although we still have far to go in achieving gender equality in the workplace and the world at large, these five female trailblazers demonstrate that when it comes to design, women have long been a force to be reckoned with.
ELSIE DE WOLFE
Elsie de Wolfe is often credited with inventing the field of interior design. Image: historical archive.
“Who rides a tiger can never descend.” With this bold declaration emblazoned on one of her signature needlepoint cushions, Elsie de Wolfe fearlessly charted a path for the multihyphenate woman creative: one who masters many fields of art and design. Never one to be put in a box, de Wolfe was an actress, author, and socialite, but is perhaps best known as America’s first interior decorator—a field she herself is credited with inventing.
Villa Trianon, de Wolfe’s French residence. Image: historical archive.
Born in New York City in 1865, de Wolfe was a product of the Victorian era, which prescribed interiors furnished with heavy fabrics and dark, stuffy, ornate decorations. A self-proclaimed rebel, de Wolfe splashed onto the scene with a call for interiors defined by simplicity and proportion. She outlined her proclivities for light colors, mirrors, painted furniture, and chintz (the printed cotton often seen in English country houses) in her best-selling 1913 book, The House in Good Taste, which envisioned the home as a medium for personal expression—a shocking stance at the time.
A sitting room featured in de Wolfe’s 1913 book The House in Good Taste.
Today, de Wolfe’s legacy lives on, as does her European-influenced style, which often mixed antiques with modern finishes and fabrics—an approach still embraced by interior designers the world over. Perhaps even more everlasting is de Wolfe’s fearless embrace and cultivation of her own personal taste—and, by extension, that of her followers. As she put it, “After all, what surer guarantee can there be of a person’s character, natural and cultivated, inherent and inherited, than taste?”
An image from de Wolfe’s 1913 book The House in Good Taste illustrates the use of simplicity in design.
Architect, interiors, and furniture designer Eileen Gray. Image supplied by Aram, holder of the worldwide license for Eileen Gray products.
For women designers of the Modern Movement (which emerged during the first half of the 20th century), coping with the rebukes of male designers and critics was commonplace. Architect, interiors, and furniture designer Eileen Gray experienced this hostility firsthand, as Le Corbusier, one of the leading male modernists, openly admitted to vandalizing her best-known architectural work, a seaside villa in France called E-1027. Nevertheless, Gray found acclaim in her lifetime, and today is regarded as one of the pioneers of modernism.
Born in Ireland in 1878, Gray spent her childhood living between there and London. Originally a student of painting and drawing at schools across Europe, Gray eventually turned her attention to more functional artistic pursuits, driven by her interest in the East Asian craft of lacquer. After training with the Japanese lacquer master Seizo Sugawara, Gray quickly developed her own technique, which she applied to screens, panels, and cabinets.
Gray’s iconic Non Conformist chair and Brick Screen. Images supplied by Aram, holder of the worldwide license for Eileen Gray products.
Along the way, Gray experimented with fabric and carpet design, and her abstract, geometric rug patterns continue to be favorites among design aficionados, along with her iconic chair and lighting designs, many of which are still in production today. Her use of chrome, steel tubes, and glass in furniture was revolutionary, although male designers of the era often received more attention for working with these materials. For Gray, the point was to continue experimenting and expressing, no matter the resistance she faced.
Gray's De Stijl side table, Day Bed Grand, and Blue Marine rug. Images supplied by Aram, holder of the worldwide license for Eileen Gray products.
LINA BO BARDI
Architect Lina Bo Bardi. Courtesy Instituto Bardi.
When Italian-born architect Lina Bo Bardi moved to Brazil in 1946, she brought her progressive politics and tenacious work ethic to her new home country, along with a modern aesthetic that prioritized raw materials and efficient solutions. Working across mediums, and dabbling in scenography, illustration, furniture design, curation, and editing, Bo Bardi wholeheartedly embraced the potential of design to bring people together.
Bo Bardi designed the Glass House, in São Paulo as a gathering place for artists, and as her own home. Courtesy Instituto Bardi.
Among Bo Bardi’s most influential buildings is the São Paulo Museum of Art (also known as MASP). Completed in 1968, it is a massive building suspended over a 70-meter-long public plaza. An expression of what Bo Bardi called “Rational-functional simplicity,” the museum is intentionally anti-pretentious, relying on the simple expression of glass and concrete and a bright pop of color to convey a feeling of monumentality. For her, architecture was a social art, most powerful when it was advancing society in a collective, accessible way.
The São Paulo Musuem of Art, designed by Bo Bardi. Courtesy Instituto Bardi.
Bo Bardi’s recognition continues to grow, even after her death, and in 2021 she was awarded the Special Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement award at the Venice Biennale of Architecture. Hashim Sarkis, the biennale’s curator, put it best when he noted her efforts to tap into the collective consciousness of her community: “Her career … reminds us of the role of the architect as a convener and importantly, as the builder of collective visions.”
Fashion designer Ann Lowe photographed in her New York atelier in 1966 with model Judith Palmer. Image: Johnson Publishing Company Archive. Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust and Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture; Made possible by the Ford Foundation, J. Paul Getty Trust, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Smithsonian Institution.
Fifty yards of ivory-colored silk taffeta, an intricately pleated bodice with a sharply defined portrait neckline, and a cascading train of folds and rosettes. These elements, along with hundreds of hours of labor, went into the wedding dress that designer Ann Lowe crafted for Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, the woman who would soon be Jackie Kennedy. While the future first lady went on to become a fashion icon, Lowe did not receive any public credit for the dress until many years later.
Working in New York during the mid-20th century, Lowe was highly sought after among the city’s social elite. The first African American fashion designer to open a store on Madison Avenue, she operated several gown shops and couture salons in New York over her lifetime, including three on the famed fashion retail strip—and her undisputed sewing skills and opulent designs made her an in-demand couturier through the 1970s.
A shot of Ann Lowe from the December 1966 issue of Ebony magazine with the following caption, “Ann Lowe puts finishing touches on debut dress for Alberta Wangeman, whose father is the executive vice-president of Hilton Hotel Corp.” Image: Johnson Publishing Company Archive. Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust and Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture; Made possible by the Ford Foundation, J. Paul Getty Trust, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Smithsonian Institution.
Lowe’s regal, fairy-tale gowns appeared in magazines including Vogue and Vanity Fair, and she regularly received commissions from high-end stores like Neiman Marcus and Montaldo’s. The decorative flowers on many of her dresses became her calling card—a detail Lowe developed while growing up in Alabama, where she would sew small blooms that mimicked the ones she saw in her family’s garden. The flower also signifies something of Lowe’s story as a designer: sometimes in bloom, sometimes dormant, but always striving toward beauty.
Landscape designer and artist Maya Lin. Photographed by Jesse Frohman.
When it was revealed that Maya Lin—a 21-year-old, first-generation Chinese American woman—won the blind design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., controversy erupted. In addition to her identity, critics decried her minimalist, abstract design as unfit for such a significant memorial. Holding stead-fast to her winning design, even after being forced to defend it before the U.S. Congress, Lin would go on to become regarded as one of the world’s foremost landscape designers and artists, with the 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial upheld as one of the most powerful commemorative monuments in the world.
The Maya Lin-designed Riggio-Lynch Interfaith Chapel in Clinton, Tennessee. Photographed by Tim Hursley.
Born in Athens, Ohio, Lin has built a career spanning the fields of architecture and art, creating large-scale environmental installations, studio art, buildings, and memorials. Her work quietly reveals big truths that ripple just beneath the surface of our physical world, asking viewers and users to pause and contemplate the threads that connect us to something deeper, and the paradoxes that define our lived experience. “I’m drawn to things that have a slight ambivalence, or they’re of two minds, so an ebb and flow seems natural,” Lin explains.
The Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research Cambridge Campus. The project was designed by Lin Studio with Bialosky + Partners Architects. Photographed by Iwan Baan.
Today, Lin continues her work on architectural design and art installations alongside a growing environmental activism practice. Currently, she is completing a new outdoor sculptural fountain for the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. Whether advocating for urgent climate change action or encouraging slow inner contemplation, Lin strives to move people. “I hope I’m doing something that gets people to take a pause,” she says. “Now is the time to really lean in and do something.”
This story was originally published in GRAY magazine issue No. 65-66.