Design is one of those things that we hardly notice, yet touches almost every part of our day. The buildings we walk into, the furniture we sit on, the accessories we wear, the books and posters we read – all of this was designed by someone, and for the most part of history, that someone was most likely a man.
Like a lot of industries, the world of design has been dominated by men and the effects of this lingers today as more men are placed in senior positions. But women have been actively changing this for decades and continue to do so. By doing this, they have become teachers, role models and legends, opening up the world of design to all who want to be a part of it.
To celebrate female designers, we have rounded up 10 iconic women who changed the world of design with their remarkable contributions.
1. denise scott brown
Architect, urban planner and designer Denise Scott Brown helped change architectural discourse in the 1960s, along with her husband Robert Venturi and fellow architect Steven Izenour. She helped inspired an entire generation of architects and encouraged them to enrich their designs with her nascent postmodernist theories that she grounded by studying the Nevada city of Las Vegas. Brown, Venturi and Izenour, along with their students at Yale School of Architecture, scrutinised Las Vegas’ sprawling chaos so they could learn from its bright signage and complex forms. The result is the book Learning from Las Vegas, which has continuously been printed since its first edition in 1972.
2. mimi vandermolen
Mimi Vandermolen immigrated from the Netherlands to Canada to pursue a career in design at the Ontario College of Art and Design, where she became the first woman to graduate with an industrial design degree in 1969. She started out at home appliance company Philco, but she made the biggest impact when she joined car giant, Ford. Mimi made her mark as a trainee working on the exterior of the Mustang II, becoming one of the first full-time female employees hired at the car company. She began working on car interiors and after a few twists and turned, was promoted to design specialist and eventually became design executive for all small cars, overseeing interior and exterior design developments in North America – a first for a woman in the automotive industry.
3. althea mcnish
Born in Trinidad and later moving to London, textile designer Althea McNish changed textiles and fabrics in Britain by incorporating tropical colours in her design, making her the UK’s first black textile designer of international repute. She studied her craft at Royal College of Art, graduated in 1957 and made a name for herself commercially as one of the leaders of the strong new movement in British printed textile design of the time.
4. ray eames
Ray Eames is counted as one of the most iconic designers in history. She and her husband Charles are known for their groundbreaking contributions to architecture, furniture design, industrial design and manufacturing, and the photographic arts. She studied with the German-American abstract expressionist Hans Hofmann, and continued her education at the Art Academy in Cranbrook, Michigan, where she met Charles. They married and later started a design office. Ray and Charles Eames developed several new production processes and even did some work for the military.
5. susan kare
A pioneer in graphic design and computer iconographer, Susan Kare is one of the most influential designers of the modern age. Her career began at Apple in the 1980s, where she worked as the the screen graphics and digital font designer for the original Macintosh computer. She designed some of the most recognisable icons that we still use today. Since then, she has done freelance work at leading brands such as Microsoft, Paypal, and also Facebook, where she designed the Facebook gift icons that were in use until 2010.
6. eva zeisel
The world of ceramics and pottery was transformed thanks to the work of Eva Zeisel. She started her career designing for factories in Germany and Russia. Her china and dinnerware is known for fluid curves and softer edges. Not only did she popularise ceramics, she created more than 10 000 pieces of work during her lifetime and was among the first women to have a solo exhibit at the The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, with her 1946 exhibition Modern China. Today her works are in the permanent collection of museums all over the wold including Bröhan Museum, in Berlin, The British Museum in London, and The Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, both in New York.
7. kazuyo sejima
Some of the most memorable museums and public buildings in Japan, Europe and North America were designed by superstar architect Kazuyo Sejima. She forged her path solo, starting the firm Kazuyo Sejima and Associates in 1987. Her projects won her the Japan Institute of Architects’ Young Architect of the Year Award in 1992. But her work really took off after she entered a partnership with former employee Ryue Nishizawa in 1995. The two formed SANAA (Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates) and took on projects all over the world. Their work is described as transcending minimalist architecture. Sejima was the second woman to win the most prestigious architecture award, the Pritzker Architecture Prize.
8. bonnie maclean
In the late ’60s the rock scene exploded, particularly because of the colourful, psychedelic posters that promoted bands. One of the best known graphic designers to create these posters was Bonnie Maclean, who worked on promotional material for The Fillmore, a legendary music venue based in San Francisco. Her worked boosted iconic acts including Jefferson Airplane, The Doors and Pink Floyd. MOMA has two of her pieces on display, including the delightfully trippy piece, ‘The Yardbirds’, which she created for The Doors in 1967.
9. eileen gray
Now considered to be the mother of modern design and a pioneer of the Modern Movement in architecture, Irish-born artist Eileen Gray ‘s journey into furniture design took off after she was asked by a friend to decorate an apartment. She rose to prominence in the 1920s, when she started creating iconic pieces of furniture such as the Bibendum chair, E1027 Adjustable Table and Transat chair. Soon she moved on to architecture. She designed her first home, also called E.1027, which was a modernist villa in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France. It is has been hailed as a masterpiece.
10. margaret calvert
UK road users owe thanks to South African-born graphic designer Margaret Calvert. She, along with colleague Jock Kinneir, designed many of the road signs used in the country, including signing programmes for British rail, motorways and airport authorities. She also designed the transport font used on road signs and the Rail Alphabet font used on the British railway system. In 2016, she was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the Birthday Honours for services to typography and road safety, and the following year was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Medal from London Design Festival.