September 12, 2013

Women in Design: Confronting the Glass Ceiling


As with almost all professions, women in the universe of design have historically struggled to find a place at the table. The American Institute of Architects counted 83,000 members at the end of 2012, yet only 18 percent are women. In contrast, according to Interior Design‘s recent Universe Study, of the 87,000 interior designers in the United States, a whopping 69 percent are women. Ladies, it seems, are taking the lead in the field of interiors. And that’s not news.

As any design buff will tell you, the U.S.’s first interior designer by profession was a woman, the legendary Elsie De Wolfe, who was closely followed by Elsie Cobb Wilson, Ruby Ross Wood, Rose Cumming, Eleanor Brown and Frances Elkins. These women collectively play an enduring role in design history.

See some of today’s Movers and Shakers



?Pipsan Saarinen Swanson The older sister of Eero Saarinen, Pipsan married architect J. Robert F. Swanson, who at one time had been a partner of her father, Eliel Saarinen. In 1929, she set up an interiors department in her husband’s firm and designed interiors, textiles, fabrics and furniture until the 1950s.
Maria Bergson In 1940, Bergson emigrated to the U.S. from Vienna and went to work as a secretary at Architectural Forum, then a division of Time Inc. She wound up redesigning the magazine’s offices, revolutionizing commercial office design by replacing roll-top desks with interchangeable components.
Dorothy Marckwald She began her career working for Elsie Cobb Wilson and took over Wilson’s business when Cobb retired in 1933, along with Anne Urqhart and Miriam Smyth. The firm’s most high-profile commission was its 1952 design for the SS United States. Her firm specialized in ship interiors and consulted for Henry Dreyfuss.

Mabel Schamberg A leading Chicago designer from the twenties until her death in 1973, she was instrumental in the founding of the American Society of Interior Decorators, then called the American Institute of Decorators. She designed the House of Tomorrow at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.


And while Zaha Hadid leaps to mind as a rare female “starchitect,” the field of interiors has been blessed with a bounty of female marquee names: ClodaghBarbara BarryLauren Rottet and Kelly Wearstler have made waves, not to mention Mariette Himes GomezAlexa HamptonSuzanne KaslerEva MaddoxVictoria Hagan and Suzanne Rheinstein. The list is nearly endless.

Yet determining why women have been able to achieve a marked edge in interiors is a pandora’s box of social and cultural standards. In the early 20th century, it was considered improper for women to work. Judith Gura, an author and professor at the New York School of Interior Design, explains that “decorating” was the one career field deemed socially acceptable. Interior design, adds Gura, also allows women to take off from their careers off to raise families and is a relatively easy field to enter. Until the licensing of interior designers becomes universal, she adds, anyone can print a business card.

Gura has noted, however, that designing interiors was considered frivolous until men returned from World War II and entered the profession in larger numbers, deeming it “serious” and lucrative. And although men are still outnumbered by more than two to one, today the majority of A-list firms are run by men. Even though women dominate the field in numbers, they still face complex prejudices.

Yet, says designer Barbara Barry, “I have never felt the glass ceiling. As a woman I feel uniquely suited for design centered around the home.”


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