women designers

Insight - 04/25/22

Celebrating Women Design Pioneers

5 min

By Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman

Celebrating Women Design Pioneers, Thought Leaders and Activists

For centuries, women have been the pioneers and drivers of design. You see it in architecture, interior design, fashion, advertising, furniture and product design: women working behind the scenes, receiving little to no credit for their pioneering work. Fortunately, that’s all starting to change.

The early twentieth century saw the beginnings of a transformation in America. The number of design product patents held by women began to rise. Universities granted more and more design degrees to women. Companies hired women into design leadership roles. Today, more than half of all working designers are women—yet women remain underrepresented in design leadership positions. 

At Interwoven, we’re working to change that. Starting in early 2020, we began our Women Design Heroes Instagram series, celebrating women designers who have made an awe-inspiring imprint on the world.

Design Pioneers

Some of the most inspirational designers were cross-disciplinary trailblazers. Ray Eames started out as a painter in the early 1930s and 40s, making her mark on the New York abstract expressionist scene along with her friend and fellow artist, Lee Krasner. After a move to the West Coast, Eames took up architecture and industrial design, working closely with her husband, Charles Eames, and well-known architect Eero Saarinen. In Eames’ now-famous home and artists’ haven, the Eames House, you can see the influences of abstract art on the multi-colored facade.

“I never gave up painting, I just changed my palette.”

– Ray Eames

Textile designer and weaving innovator, Anni Albers changed the way textiles were perceived, using the medium as art and a breeding ground for experimentation. She trained at the Bauhaus and embraced its learning-through-experimentation methodology to explore composition and color through weaving. She often worked in grid patterns and was influenced by her husband’s work in optical illusion color theories. She taught for many years at both the Bauhaus and, after immigrating to the U.S., at Black Mountain College. Her seminal book, “On Weaving” (1965) is a must for your library.⁠ 

Designer Anni Albers weaves at a loom
Textile Designer Anni Albers
Architect Zaha Hadid. Photos courtesy of Forgemind ArchiMedia and Alena Graff.

Other design pioneers—Elsa Schiaparelli, Rowena Reed Kostellow, Ellen Manderfield, Coco Chanel, and many more—have not only left their mark on design itself, but have also paved the way for a future generation of designers. 

Thought Leaders and Inspiration

Some design thought leaders are not designers in the way you might think. Take a look at Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, whose impact on women’s rights in the U.S. still resonates. She may seem like an unlikely Woman Design Hero, but her life and legacy are a testament to perseverance and focus. We should learn from her example and remain true to our vision and stay focused on the long game. 
Other Women Design Heroes serve as a source of unending inspiration and creativity. Take architect and inventor Neri Oxman, head of the Mediated Matter research group at MIT. Oxman’s work is category-defying; her 3D-printed “skins” and art pieces explore concepts in materials science, product design, and Material Ecology, a new field defined by Oxman which regards biological processes and Nature as inseparable parts of product design and architecture.

Ayse Birsel is another design thought leader and a true font of creativity. Voted by Fast Company as One of the Most Creative People in Business, she has designed hundreds of award-winning products and systems for Fortune 500 brands including Amazon, Colgate-Palmolive, Herman Miller, GE, IKEA, The Scan Foundation, Staples and Toyota, among others. Her recent book, “Design the Life You Love,” uses design thinking as a scaffold for creating the life you want. 

“Life, just like a design problem, is full of constraints — time, money, age, location, and circumstances. You can’t have everything, so you have to be creative to make what you want and what you need co-exist.”

– Ayse Birsel

Social & Political Statements

Other Women Design Heroes have used their work to elevate political and social platforms. The concept is not new; the visual and visceral elements of design can captivate the human imagination and mind in ways that other media cannot. Consider the images of Barbara Kruger, whose bold text laid over collaged photos has become an iconic format in American political history. Her striking poster for the 1989 Women’s March on Washington–”Your body is a battleground”–challenges our assumptions on gender, identity, and politics.

Like Kruger, Katharine Hamnett uses bold, direct text to get her message across. Her oversized T-shirts feature huge slogans in block text; her “CANCEL BREXIT” T-shirt is sold out on her website. Alongside being the “inventor” of slogan t-shirts, she is also a pioneer of sustainability in the fashion industry. Over the course of her decades-long career, Hamnett has campaigned endlessly to change the fashion industry, both with her designs and sustainable production. She has been involved in numerous eco-friendly initiatives, and has given lectures on sustainability around the world.

“I am committed to changing the way it works, only making clothes ethically and as environmentally as possible, preserving traditional skills, and showing how it can be done.”

– Katharine Hamnett
Designer Katherine Hamnett black and white portrait
Fashion Designer Katherine Hamnett. Photos courtesy of Katherine Hamnett.
Ruth Carter with the Black Panther poster
Costume Designer Ruth Carter. Photos courtesy of Gage Skidmore and AntMan3001.

Carter’s design process may be one of the most fascinating elements of her work. She does intensive and deep research into each character she is creating a costume for, which adds depth and nuance to the costumes she designs. She brings her characters to life, adding to the complex narratives of the films she works on. 

These designers represent only a fraction of the Women Design Heroes celebrated in our Instagram series. See Part Two of our Women in Design blog series and follow us on Instagram to learn more about women in the industry.


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