The ABCs of Women in Design, Part I

Yes, the future is female. But sometimes we forget that the past was as well. This past March, in honor of Women’s History Month, I posted each day about a different woman working in design—both past and present. Here is the first of a four-part round-up of these posts, slightly expanded. Let’s relearn our ABCs.


A is for Aino Aalto

Wife of Alvar and co-founder of Finnish furniture company Artek, Aino Aalto collaborated on and contributed to most of the design projects that bear her husband’s name. Despite blueprints and other project documents bearing both their names, Aino’s contributions have largely been overlooked by history.

In 1935, both Aino and Alvar founded Artek along with two other partners. Aino took the role of Creative Director and took on all interior commissions for the company, including furniture. Her Chair 615 of 1939 and Sunbed of 1940 showcase her commitment to designing beautiful, everyday objects suitable for mass production. Similar in style to Alvar’s 1929 Chair 611, the 615 features a narrower frame and taller back to better fit around a dining table. But the designs for which she is best known are her tumblers for Iittala, still in production today. Designed in 1932, the pressed glassware features an undulating surface inspired by the ripple effect of pebbles thrown in water.

Images: 615 Chairs, 1939; Sunbed, 1940s, 22CL Tumblers, 1932.

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B is for Lino Bo Bardi

Born in Italy, Bo Bardi immigrated to Brazil in 1946, where she established a reputation for bold, distinctive architecture and design. In 1948, she established Studio d’Arte Palma with fellow Italian expatriate Giancarlo Palenti. The Tridente armchair (produced by Studio d’Arte in 1949) was a collaborative design between Bo Bardi and Palenti. Made with Brazilian hardwoods, the chair had the ability to unfold into a lounge or bed.

In 1952, valuing simplicity, Bo Bardi envisioned a chair that was both flexible in structure as it was universal in form. This concept resulted in a chair with a semi-spherical shell resting on steel ring frame. The seat could be angled and rotated to suit the comfort and needs of the sitter. Aptly named the Bowl chair, Bo Bardi’s design is a statement in simplicity and boldly predates Eero Aarnio’s Ball chair by nearly two decades.

Images; Bowl Chair, 1951; Bowl Chair renderings; Tridente Chair, 1949.

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C is for Gabriella Crespi

Born in Italy, Crespi developed a reputation as a transformative designer easily crossing between the worlds of fashion, décor, and sculpture. Taking inspiration from multiple natural and supernatural sources, her elegant, handcrafted pieces embraced a strongly sculptural style.

Her famous Plurimi series of the early 1970s took its name from the free-standing sculpture/paintings of Emilio Vedova. Collaborating with her daughter Elisabetta, Crespi, she designed metamorphic furniture that played on ideas of volume and change. The Cubo Tondo from the this series, features sliding and adjustable surfaces that change with the user’s needs, while the Puzzle Table of 1973 was comprised of modular sections for maximum versatility.

Other designs by Crespi include her Z Bar (1972) made from a single sheet of stainless steel and her Fungi lamps (1973), which highlighted bamboo, a beloved material that “unites strength and flexibility.” Despite being designed nearly 50 years ago, her designs still retain a glamorous, contemporary aesthetic much sought after today.

Images: Z Bar, 1972; Fungi Lamps, 1973; Cubo Tondo, early 1970s; Puzzle Table, 1973.


D is for Dorothy Draper

Long before Don, there was Dorothy. The first to professionalize the field of interior design, Draper established her own interior design firm in 1923, breaking gender roles and revolutionizing the design industry. Yes, other did interior design before her, but Draper was the first to dedicate and entire company to it.

Known for her use of vibrant hues, Draper viewed interiors as a way of elevating one’s quality of life through the use of color and beauty. Draper’s style can best be described as Modern Baroque, a term she herself coined. By combining elements of Baroque and other furniture styles with bold colors, Draper created interiors that were rich and glamorous but still inviting and warm.

Image: Greenbrier Hotel & Resort, West Virginia, 1948; Palácio Quintandinha, Rio de Janeiro, 1944.


D is also for Nanna Ditzel

Working alongside her husband Jørgen, Ditzel co-founded an award-winning design studio in Copenhagen in 1946, creating unique pieces that explored new materials and techniques. Her Ring chair, designed in 1958 for Poul Kold, features a unique bolster back and armrest that wraps around the sitter. Strong, comfortable, and stately, the chair helped earn Ditzel the title of First Lady of Danish Design. But she was only jsut getting started. The following year, the couple created their timeless Hanging Egg chair, made of woven rattan.

After Jørgen’s death in 1961, Ditzel continued to innovate. In 1969 she began experimenting with fiberglass, creating brightly molded chairs for Oddense Maskinsnedkeri and Domus Danica. With intense, glossy colors that spoke to the era, her OD 5301 stool features curved back and optional arms bolted to the base.

Despite working in male-dominated field, Ditzel built a successful career that extended over six decades. Upon her death in 2005, she passed the torch to her oldest daughter Denine who continues to manage the company today.

Images: Ring Chair, 1958; Hanging Egg, 1959; Toad Stools, 1963; OD 5301, 1969; Tux Lounge Chair, 1955.


E is for Egg Collective

Egg Collective may not have the household name recognition as Ray Eames, but that is starting to change. Established in 2011, Egg Collective is a collaborative venture combining the skills and talents of Stephanie Beamer, Crystal Ellis, and Hillary Petrie. Believing “the act of creation carries responsibility,” each piece is handmade using natural materials. In addition to maintaining high craftsmanship, Egg Collective creates work that reflects a strong design identity. Their Nutty magazine rack is more akin to a piece of sculpture than a storage place for future reading. Featuring geometric angles set against a rounded base, the piece feels very contemporary without being too arty, luxurious without being overly stuffy. Similarly, their modular Georgie ottomans play with geometric shapes to create a flexible seating system that is anything but boring.

Images: Nutty Magazine Rack; Georgie Ottomans with Samuel Side Table.

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One of only three women in her 1943 Milan Polytechnic Institute graduating class, Ferrieri co-founded Kartell with Guillo Castelli in 1949. Kartell has since become a leader in contemporary design, much in part to her talent and vision as art director from 1976 to 1987. During this time, Ferrieri worked closely with forward-thinking designers including Joe Colombo and Gae Aulenti, advanced the use of plastics in furniture production, and established the company’s design identity with geometric shapes, bright colors, and glossy finishes. Her stackable Componibili containers pieces, designed in 1967 and 1969, remain one of Kartell’s best selling products. Bright and shiny, the modular pieces are as charming today as they were fifty years ago.

Ferrieri’s style adapted with the times. In the 1980s, her work took a more post-modern approach with exaggerated shapes reminiscent of Memphis. Her Model 4814 arm chairs used recycled polypropylene to produce a marbled effect on the plastic frame, while her Model 4810 stool paid playful homage to Alvar Aalto’s Stool 60.

Images: Componibili Storage Containers, 1969; Model 4814 Lounge Chair, 1988; Model 4810 Stool, 1980s.


G is for Greta Grossman

Born in Sweden to family of cabinetmakers, Grossman defied early expectations when she took up woodworking and industrial design, fields largely considered male professions at the time. In 1940, Grossman immigrated to Los Angeles where she brought her European modernist aesthetic to Rodeo Drive. Rejecting cold, colorless interpretations of modernism, Grossman imbued her work with personality, creating organic shapes at times embellished with anthropomorphic names. Her Grasshopper floor lamp (1947) and Cobra lamp (1950) remain some of her most collected designs.

Images: Grasshopper Lamp, 1947; Cobra Lamps, 1950; Hexagonal Coffee Table, 1959.


G is also for GAE AULENTI

Born in Italy, Aulenti graduated from the Milan School of Architecture in 1954, one of only two women in her class. She reportedly told the New York Times that she went into the field to defy her parents who wanted her to be “a nice society girl.” Instead Aulenti forged her own path, rejecting the work of modernist masters Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. Known for her work on numerous important architectural projects, Aulenti also designed furniture, lighting, and interiors. Her Locus Solus lounge chair was part of a series of outdoor furniture designed for Centro Studio Poltronova in 1964. Using brightly-colored, sinuous lines of enameled steel, Aulenti playfully parodied the tubular steel pieces favored by Italian Rationalist by adding cushions in a gaudy pattern of inspired by Pop fashion.

In 1972, Aulenti designed her Mezzo Pileo lamp (aka Pileino) for Artemide. Named after the cap of a mushroom, the lamp had a morphing head that allowed the user to focus the light in different directions. But don’t let the sleek, minimalist nature of Pileino and Locus Solus fool you into thinking Aulenti was a strict modernist. Her 1993 Tour table instead took a tongue-in-cheek approach to traditional wheeled tables. Exaggerating the casters into four large bicycle wheels, Aulenti defiantly proved she would not be classified.

Images: Solus Lounge Chair, 1964; Mezzo Pileo Table Lamp, 1972; Tour Table, 1993.