Designs on your body: a gender issue

Interview with professor Uta Brandes and designer Gabriel Ann Maher

Are gender stereotypes being challenged enough in contemporary design and the media? The issue is more relevant than previously thought and was the subject of a recent debate at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London. K meets two designers who are redefining the concept of gender in design.

The home is a place of comfort, safety, warmth and entertainment. It’s where we rest away from the workplace and retreat from potential threats. Historically, however, the design of the home has illustrated the divide between genders like no other space.

A typical middle class home in 19th century Britain included a drawing room, where women took comfort in novels, music, watercolours in gold frames, pretty objets d’art and sofas upholstered with the same fabric as their clothing. According to Jacob von Falke, museum curator [Austrian Imperial Museum of Art and Industry amongst others], the interior had to suit the complexion of the lady of the house, so for example those with paler skins decorated in light hues. Men on the other hand, had smoking rooms and libraries filled with worldly books, leather chesterfields, dark wood furnishings, and altogether more solemn décor in greens and browns.

The ‘soft’ ones are those that are considered to be close to homework, sewing, decoration and interiors, which are regarded as ‘typical’ of women.

This characterisation of masculine and feminine objects reflects the gender bias in the design industry, where traditionally women’s roles have been confined to crafts like sewing and weaving. Professor Uta Brandes, founder of the International Gender Design Network, says that the problem is that the industry is still being divided into two areas.

“The ‘soft’ ones are those that are considered to be close to homework, sewing, decoration and interiors, which are regarded as ‘typical’ of women. The ‘hard’ ones, on the contrary, consider design sectors close to engineering, large technical and outdoor artefacts – a man’s world as a socially constructed ideology. Even though these stereotypes are about to be questioned they still have – partly unknowingly – an intrinsic impact on the idea of who is suited to what type of design.”

Sex in the frame

“To tackle the problem of gender inequality in design, the social ideologies of the binary system of femininity and masculinity must be overcome”, she says. It’s not the objects themselves that are feminine or masculine – these are meanings that we, the public, perceive. So just how can this perception be altered?

It’s not the objects themselves that are feminine or masculine – these are meanings that we, the public, perceive.

One answer might be found in the media, which influences the way we consume design.
Indeed, designer Gabriel Ann Maher recently undertook an analysis of Dutch magazine Frame, a leading interior design publication. Over the course of 2013 she picked it apart, cutting out images of bodies and analysing them along with the magazine’s headlines. She found an extraordinarily high proportion of male designers compared with female, as well as stereotypical portrayals of men and women.

Upon completing the research she invited the magazine and a group of young designers along to a debate to discuss the findings. “The editors realised how intensely an audience of young designers feels about this particular issue, and it was of course quite heated in a lot of ways, but they were very humbled”, she explains. “It was quite amazing because they then took the analysis and published the criticism of their own magazine, including parts of the debate. They also did a survey among their readers, a lot of them being well-established designers, and asked them specific questions about the role gender plays.”

Chair men and women

Maher’s research led to The Act of Sitting, an installation and performance piece focusing on a radical new design for a chair. “I was quite fascinated by this one very powerful posture called Mr Chair. It’s fantastic sexual posturing, very confident, with shorts, hairy legs, relaxed and reclined, and it’s a posture we’re very familiar with. But I was intrigued that there was no female body positioned like this in a public setting. So I was interested to show the construction of gender through the act of sitting. Everybody’s body is capable of that position; however for some reason we have associated particular meanings with it and therefore for a certain body it will be familiar and for others it will be strange.”

Maher’s chair confronts conventional design as well as how we sit. “It’s almost meant to be an unidentifiable chair so you couldn’t approach it in the same way that you would a chair that you just walk up to and sit in.”

Challenging the media

The result is a form of disorientation whose aim is to change accepted ideology, so those sofas upholstered in pastel colours and dark leather chairs are no longer perceived as masculine or feminine. “I think most of what we see culturally, and this understanding of gender being either male or female, affects the way users perceive their own gender identity.”

“Design has long been thought to be out of the gender question because it deals with functionality and aesthetics. Only now is it about to understand the relevance and impact of gender”, says Brandes. At the moment, designers have a tremendous opportunity to urge the media to account for all genders, body types and classes.