Design and Gender Studies

Speaking of women and design, it is important to recall the crucial role carried out by Gender Studies. Therefore, we asked a short interview to Cheryl Buckley, one of the main protagonists of design gender studies.

Besides, Cheryl Buckley’s article “Made in Patriarchy: Toward a Feminist Analysis of Women and Design” extracted from Design Issues, Vol. 3, N. 2 (Autumn), The MIT Press, Cambridge1986, pp. 3-14, is here re-published, with the kind permission of MIT Press (

There follows a short report on Gender Studies[ref]Cultural Studies are the meeting point of the different contributions coming from numerous disciplines – social sciences, cultural anthropology, semiotic, aesthetic theories, history of science and communication techniques- that aim at establishing the right of difference: sexual, ethnic, racial, religious, geographic. Cultural Studies re-evaluate and express subcultures and focus on subjects that are considered marginal: sexuality, gender, media, social and cultural movements, interethnic relationships and popular culture.[/ref], originating from “a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approach to the study of socio-cultural meanings of gender identity” in order to dismount the established knowledge on historiographical methods, by unveiling the ideologies that led to the lack of women in history books and in order to define new research paths in design.

Design e Gender Studies

Born in North America between the 70s and the 80s within the Cultural Studies , Gender Studies started spreading in Western Europe during the 80s. They developed from a specific branch of the feminist thought and found basic ideas in post-structuralism and in French deconstructionism (above all Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida), in the studies on language and psychology (Jacques Lacan and, in a post-lacanian perspective, Julia Kristeva).

Gender Studies are not a branch of knowledge apart, but a modality of interpretation of the different aspects of human life, the formation of identity and of the relationship between the individual and society and the individual and culture. For this reason they can be applied to any branch of knowledge.

In the 70s and 80s the spreading of Gender Studies was characterized by a political activism purpose linked to the condition of the homosexuals and other ethic and linguistic minorities in relation to discrimination problems, racial and ethnic oppression, the development of post-colonial society and globalization.

Thanks to Gender Studies nowadays it can be affirmed that the idea of gender does not coincide with the sex (biological, physical and anatomical features), but sex and gender are interdependent dimensions, in the sense that the process of gender identity definition starts from the sex, Gender is not characterized by an innate behaviour or roles but it is a cultural idea that is built psychologically and socially; not even gender identity is innate and immutable, but constantly changing through time and space, because it mirrors social and cultural conventions in a specific place and time. Therefore, the relation between sex and gender varies according the geographical area, historical period and a people’s culture. The ideas of masculinity and femininity are relative, that is to say dynamic and they need to be historicized and contextualized. Any society defines which values are to be assigned to a gender identity.

Throughout their development Gender Studies followed the evolution of feminist theories in the western world, that, after a ‘radical’ phase (60s – 70s), went through a ‘cultural’ phase, and subsequently a post-modern and post-structuralist one that unlike the radical phase which denied the difference between men and women, worked towards the construction of a theory and a practice of gender equality, taking into account the social and cultural differences.

In the design branch, Gender Studies, flourished in the British countries, argue that women are almost totally invisible in the history of design, an idea already claimed in some art studies (Rubino, 1979[2] ; Parker and Pollock, 1981; Bukley, 1986).
Therefore, in the second half of the 80s and 90s, in concurrence with the post-structuralist phase of feminism, a research path began, involving many scholars who wanted to go back along the history of design again with the aim of revealing the presence and the contribution of women.

Drawing on the researchers that through a hard work, because of the lack of specific sources and bibliographies, revealed the women’s paths in the arts even with non-conventional methods, many studies identified the women who, working in the factories (from, wall-paper painters to ceramists, from weavers to stylists), within artistic movements and school such as the Bauhaus [3], significantly contributed to the history of design. The historical studies traced back their lives, they also analysed their gender, i.e. the set of behaviours, attitudes, expectations, expressive forms and social relations modes though which the individual and social gender identities are defined in relation to the geographical, social and cultural context.

Judy Attfield, Cheryl Buckley and Pat Kirkham’s work was fundamental; they are seen as the main theorists of Design Gender Studies, to them we owe not only a map of the women designers and artisans’ works and biographies, but above all they re-established the importance of these women’s role, and the specificity of female creativity and projectuality in the social contexts of design, thus marking the change from a women designer approach to a feminist approach, as Judy Attfield mantains (1989).
The feminist approach manifested the need to re-discuss the cultural paradigms of modern culture, that disregarded women’s activity in the public sphere of production and design, confining them instead to the private sphere of care and reproduction.

Cheryl Buckley (1985; 1986) noted that, despite many studies highlighted the women’s work, among the critics a gender prejudice still exists: the classical historiographical methods established hierarchies, gave priority to some types of design (industrial design), designers categories (the pioneers), different artistic movements and production types (industrial), that were meant to neglect women; they ascribed to the men the dominant functional areas, relating to the industrial production, and to the women the “decorative” area of design: the so-called decorative or applied arts (textile, pottery, etc.) often carried out in a private or domestic context, and therefore not recognized as design activities[4].

The Gender Studies critical approach on classical historiographical methods, that caused the absence or the discrimination of the women in the histories of design despite their presence, involved a radical dispute on the well-established cultural paradigms. That debate showed ‘the ideological reasons of the silence on women’ thus revealing the relation of dependence between patriarchy and capitalism in the Western world, and the skill of both of them in modelling and re-defining society in order to avoid potential processes of transformation (Buckley, 1986).

This change of perspective opened new perspectives for the analysis and the historical reading of material culture, aimed at overcoming conventions and stereotypes. Research provided the possibility to identify new historiographical methods and parameters (for assessing design objects, and defining design and a designer’s activity) in order to let the dimensions hidden or omitted by previous studies, come to the surface. Especially, Cheryl Buckley underlined the need to re-define and widen the borders of design, redrawing the relationships and the distinctions between the arts, craftsman and design, in order to write a more inclusive history of design than that produced by modern culture.

Also in the British cultural context of the 80s, some researchers investigating, from a feminine perspective, the role of design in the gender relationships, emerged. These include enquiries on adverts, art, visual design such as those of Ellen Lupton, and on large consumption products, of which they analyse the communicative signs and images.
The interest for this kind of studies went beyond the British world.
Researches highlighted the subordination of women in the consumerist society: that of consumers of products designed by men.

It was also analysed how the design affects the construction of a gender identity, and if subjected to stereotypes, it leads to gender discrimination.
The relationship between gender and everyday objects was analysed under different aspects: from their shape to the materials, from the colours to the finishing, all elements conveying messages on life-styles, the desires of the consumerists and by which the gender identity is defined (Martha Zarza, 2001).

In Italy there is an interesting study by Raimonda Riccini whi investigated the relationship between the promotion of domestic technologies and the female identity. After clothing, the domestic technologies and techniques are the first instruments by which the female body is structured. Riccini’s study aims at highlighting now, despite the positive aspect of introducing technology into housework, hidden behind the utopian perspectives of a higher comfort, new forms of subservience to work are hidden, more and more insidious. Technologies offered new lifestyles where, every time, the housework seems to de-materialize Instead, a drastic reassessment of the female body and its technique in housework is foreshadowed : “…the intelligent house is once again a male technical construction, in which the technological functions are decided by engineers and producers” (Riccini, 1997, p.164).

Marinella Ferrara, Politecnico di Milano, INDACO department.


Attfield, J. (1989). Form/female follows function/male: Feminist Critiques of Design. In J. A. Walker (ed.), Design History and the History of Design, London, UK: Pluto Press, pp. 199-225.

Buckley, C. (1986, autunno). Made in Patriarchy: Toward a Feminist Analysis of Women and Design. Design Issues, Vol. 3, n. 2 pp. 3-14.

Pietroni, L. (2002, settembre). Donne e Design: il contributo dei Gender Studies. Op. cit., n. 115 pp. 15-35.

Pollock, G. with Parker R. (1981). Old Mistresses. Women, Art and Ideology, London UK: Routledge & Kegan.

Riccini, R. (1997). Identità femminili e tecnologie del quotidiano. In L. Fortunati, J. Katz, R. Riccini (a cura di), Corpo Futuro (pp. 155-166). Milano IT: Franco Angeli.

Rubino, L. (1979). Le spose del vento. La donna nelle arti e nel design degli ultimi cento anni, Verona, IT: Bertani Editore.

Trasforini, M. A. (2000, a cura di). Arte a parte: donne artiste fra margini e centro. Milano, IT: Franco Angeli.

Weltge, S. W. (1993). Bauhaus Textiles. London, UK: Thames & Hudson.

Zarza, M. P. (2001). Hair Removal Products: gendered objects under control of conventional conceptions of femininity and masculinity. Proceedings of the ICSID 2001. Seoul, Korea.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Old Mistresses: Donne, Arte e ideologia, gli inglesi studiosi esaminato il ruolo delle donne all’interno della storia dell’arte.
  2. In the 90s, Sigrid Wortmann Weltge addressed to the women’s work at the Bauhaus a study carried out from a female perspective. The study was published with the title Bauhaus Textiles – Women Artists and the Weaving Workshop.
  3. In fact, according to Judy Attfield, the history of design suffers from the theories of Modern Movement, that considers the shape-woman as originating from the function-man. Design is believed to be the product of professional designers, originating from industrial production through methods of work sharing. Handicraft given to women and made at home is not considered as adesign activity.
About the author(s):

Architect MsD and PhD in Industrial Design, Marinella Ferrara is a senior researcher of Politecnico di Milano (Design Department) and an assistant professor at the Design School of the same institution. Her research are directed to the relationship between design and technological innovation. She is the author of several books and essays that link micro‐stories to the macrostructures for rethinking of the relationship between design and materials as a dynamics of the socio-technical innovation process.She is investigating in order to define the strategic role of design as driver for innovation trought interdisciplinary process. She has opened a personal focus on Mediterranean Design considered as emblematic expression of the contemporary geo‐political complessity. Other topics are: self-production design, relationship between design and crafts, the women’s Design in the mediterranean countries.

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