A Woman’s Work
18 January 2019
Japanisches Palais Dresden
Curated by Foreign Legion, A Woman’s Work was a symposium organised as a complement to the “Against Invisibility” exhibition, which focuses on the forgotten stories of the women of the Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau. Taking the exhibition as a starting point, A Woman’s Work examined the contemporary, to shed light on the invisibility of the female practitioner as it continues to exist today.
Structured in three parts – “Advocates of History”, “Enablers of Visibility” and “Dismantlers of Existing Conditions” – the symposium brought together a wide range of practitioners, scholars, writers, critics and curators based in different parts of Europe, aiming to offer transversal, multigenerational and diverse perspectives on the present and the future of female practice.
Throughout the course of one day, conversations took place in a variety of formats, creating platforms for exchange and connection. A Woman’s Work aims to bring women in and around design, art and architecture to the fore, advocating for their visibility to become a permanent condition.
Symposium speakers and audience
Libby Sellers speaking about her book and symposium at London Design Museum titled “Women Design”
Aspect of “A Woman’s Work” symposium at Japanisches Palais Dresden. On the screen, a group picture of ”Women Design” which took place on 7-8 December 2018 at London’s Design Museum.
Registration and Coffee
Matylda Krzykowski and Vera Sacchetti
Introduction to “Against Invisibility”
Curator, Kunstgewerbemuseum Dresden
Part 1 – Advocates of History
“Women have always been there”, critic Alexandra Lange has recently noted, “but we have overlooked their contributions.” If design history has been skewed from the start – given the perspective of those who wrote it in the first place – what can be done to rediscover women designers? Advocates of History looks at recent examples of revisited design history, in exhibitions, books and events, that seek to celebrate female practitioners and their contributions to the fields of design and architecture.
designer and design researcher
Director, Werkraum Bregenzerwald
Design historian, consultant and author of Women Design
Bettina Möllring, Sarah Owens, Ania Roschinske, Thomas Geisler
Part 2 – Enablers of Visibility
It is not enough that female practitioners do the work – it is also up to those in positions of power to bring their work to the spotlight. How can we make sure that the histories of these designers are written, talked about, broadcast? And how can they be transported from one generation to the next? Enablers of Visibilityexamines the roles of museums, schools, critics, journalists, and even social media in disseminating the stories of women designers.
Designer and teacher, founder of Studio Greiling
Design critic and author of Design as an Attitude
Journalist and editor, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
Ritual of Self-Empowerment
Practitioner and founder Pinar & Viola
Katrin Greiling, Christoph Knoth
Part 3 – Dismantlers of Existing Conditions
Even while pushing for the visibility of the female practitioner, we often fail to recognize our own bias and ingrained behaviours. How can we create frameworks for the visibility of women designers without replicating the same Eurocentric stereotypes, and without overlooking different perspectives and geographies? Dismantlers of Existing Conditions discusses strategies for shifting our perspective, and that of our students, our audiences, and our establishment.
Designer, researcher and educator, Brunel University London and Decolonising Design research group
Graphic designer, web developer and professor HFBK Hamburg
Professor of Visual Communication at Zurich University of the Arts
Roundup and Concluding Remarks
Director, Museums für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg
Matylda Krzykowski and Vera Sacchetti
Vera Sacchetti, Matylda Krzykowski, Christoph Knoth, Gabrielle Kennedy, Emma Lucek
Henrike Terheyden, Bettina Kletzsch, some of of the audience members of “A Woman’s Work”
Guided tour through the “Against Invisibility” exhibition at Japanisches Palais in Dresden. From left to right: Thomas Geisler, Pinar Demirdag, Sarah Owens, Alice Rawsthorn, Antje Stahl, Katrin Greiling, Klara Nemckova, Vera Sacchetti, Emma Lucek
After the symposium Foreign Legion was invited to use A Woman’s Work as a basis to develop an exhibition for the Kunstgewerbemuseum Dresden. The exhibition is titled Add to the Cake: transforming the roles of female practitioners. The exhibition preview, in form of a walk-through installation, takes place from 26 April – 4 July 2019. The exhibition, which enacts possible futures for the female practice, takes place from 5 July – 3 November 2019.
See more here.
A Woman’s Work, or,
steps towards the yin revolution
by Vera Sacchetti
and Matylda Krzykowski,
a contribution to the exhibition catalogue of Gegen die Unsichtbarkeit. (“Against Invisibility”)
Published in English in Domus.
“A Woman’s Work, or, steps towards the yin revolution” in the exhibition catalogue
This essay by Vera Sacchetti and Matylda Krzykowski introduces the symposium “A Woman’s Work” exploring the roles of contemporary female practitioners in the design world.
A Woman’s Work explores the roles, influence and visibility of contemporary female practitioners. It has the form of a symposium that will take place 18 January in the frame of the exhibition “Against Invisibility”, currently on display at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Dresden. The symposium is structured in three parts: Advocates of History, Enablers of Visibility and Dismantlers of Existing Conditions. The gathering aims to bring women in and around design, art and architecture to the fore, creating the conditions for their visibility to become a permanent condition.
Curators Vera Sacchetti and Matylda Krzykowski are the founders of Foreign Legion, a globally active curatorial initiative. Their essay A Woman’s Work, or, steps towards the yin revolution – that we hereby publish – is part of the exhibition catalogue.
“Is a yin utopia a contradiction in terms, since all the familiar utopias rely on control to make them work, and yin does not control? Yet it is a great power. How does it work? I can only guess. My guess is that the kind of thinking we are, at last, beginning to do about how to change the goals of human domination and unlimited growth to those of human adaptability and longterm survival is a shift from yang to yin, and so involves acceptance of impermanence and imperfection, a patience with uncertainty and the makeshift, a friendship with water, darkness, and the earth.” – Ursula K. Le Guin 
For female designers in the early 21st century, the last two decades have brought attention, and with attention, visibility and value. The renewed interest in the role of women in design contributes to make amends with one of the many lacking aspects in the discipline’s history, the systematic erasure of women’s presences. It is an occasion to celebrate, even if, as critic Alexandra Lange has recently put it, “women have always been there—as recent histories have shown them to have been in computing, the sciences, and a host of other male-dominated fields—but we have overlooked their contributions.”
Nevertheless, this newfound place under the spotlight should be less a cause for celebration than an opportunity to bring about systemic, and much needed change that has the power to significantly affect the design world and system — with positive consequences that will benefit not only women, but all those who fight for visibility and equality, and ultimately the discipline itself.
The recognition of the role of women in the history of design opens the door to other kinds of realizations, such as a recognition of the design discipline’s fundamentally collaborative nature, and of the many, complex relationships that exist behind the making of a designed object, be it analogue or digital, material or immaterial.
With these realizations comes also the understanding that design is not a discipline of big names and heroes — much like design history has made us believe for the better part of the last two centuries — but a discipline where many hands work together, weaving non-linear processes and complex stories. It is in bringing about this understanding that the analogy of the yin-yang symbol can become useful. “In the yang-yin symbol,” writes seminal author Ursula K. Le Guin, “each half contains within it a portion of the other, signifying their complete interdependence and continual intermutability.”
For Le Guin, the characteristics of Yang — “male, bright, dry, hard, active, penetrating” — and Yin — “female, dark, wet, easy, receptive” — shouldn’t be considered as separate or subordinate to one another. Instead, they are complementary and equal. “Neither can exist alone,” she concludes, “and each is always in process of becoming the other.” As women step into the spotlight of design history, and are subjected to new analysis and renewed attention, so does the mostly “yang” model of design come under scrutiny, and can be re-evaluated in all its messiness, incompleteness, and thorniness. In this process, the discipline itself, alongside its past, present and future, can allow itself to become deeply transformed. This how the yin revolution starts.
No longer need women to navigate the design profession without role models to look up to and be inspired by. No longer have women to conform to any predefined career orientation, designing their paths in whichever way they deem best. And because, in recent years more than ever, women in design can find inspiring examples all around them, the practitioner of today should not have to quiet down their voice, hush away their presence, hide their influence.
And yet, it is this reclaiming that is the biggest challenge, one that must take most of our attention right now: finding and using our own voices in design, loud and clear.
To say things such as: Yes, grant me that opportunity. Yes, I want access to that platform. Yes, give me that job (and pay me as much as you would a man). Yes, represent and sell my work (for the same price as you will sell a work made by a man). Yes, this is obvious, necessary, and the only way I will work for you, with you, alongside you.
Speaking loud and clear, unafraid and unabashedly, seems like the obvious thing to do, and a survey of contemporary female practitioners will find a minority that acts and moves in the world of design exactly like that: unafraid and unabashedly. Nevertheless, look beyond this minute number and you will find that reclaiming a voice is still a very difficult thing for women in design to do.
This difficulty is mostly related to the structures and frameworks within which we operate in the design world. To this day, women in design have been mostly educated by men (in classes that at present count roughly half of women students); hired by men; worked for men; and their work has been valued (and exhibited, or not) by men. “Education plays a major role in helping us all accept different ways of organizing relations and power in institutions, universities, boards, and councils,” writes curator and educator Chus Martínez in a recent article.
Martínez goes on to say that if women cannot change how they are perceived by others, professional opportunities alone cannot be enough. “We need to name the dangers women face,” she concludes, “but we must also be flexible enough to play with the entrenched structures long enough to find ways of working together that are more equitable. By adopting preceding models, we are adopting their symbolic values as well.”
The creation of discursive environments where change can be enacted, tested out, and then replicated and amplified, can only happen if and when women in design start using their voices, loud and clear in their polyphonic embrace. And finding strength in numbers, they can finally advocate for real equality, which, Martínez reminds us, “calls for pushing existing conditions to the limit,” in order to ultimately dismantle them.
Dismantling the conditions of the present is fundamental for the visibility of women in design to become permanent. Today, even if invisibility seems far at bay, there is a great risk that the female practitioner will quickly become assimilated by the system and become a commodity, as just another trend, a temporary obsession of markets, collections, museums and the media. And, after all design made by women is sold, exhibited, commissioned and exchanged by inflated sums of money, it will be discarded in a few years for something else, something new, something fresher.
Women could return to their invisible condition and their struggle for a voice, for a place, for agency, will have to start again. It is in the fearless dismantling of the present and its entanglements that the great transformation ushered by the yin revolution can happen, and become a permanent condition.
What does the yin revolution bring with it? We do not know. But we know it is thorny, messy, complex, and collaborative. And it will transform us all.
1: Ursula K. Le Guin, No Time to Spare, 2017
2: The hidden women of architecture and design
3: Ursula K. Le Guin, No Time to Spare, 2017
4: Ursula K. Le Guin, No Time to Spare, 2017
5: Chus Martínez, “But Still, Like Air, I’ll Rise”, in e-flux journal 92, June 2018
6: Chus Martínez, “But Still, Like Air, I’ll Rise”, in e-flux journal 92, June 2018
This article originally appeared in Icon 190, the April 2019 issue.
For female design practitioners in the early 21st century, the opening two decades have brought attention – and, with attention, visibility. This renewed interest in the role of women helps to counter design history’s systematic erasure of their presence. While there is reason to cheer, why stop there? This is an important moment, charged with possibilities to bring about overdue change, with consequences that will benefit not only women, but all those who fight for equality.
As women step into the spotlight, myths and long-standing beliefs within design can be shattered. The lone genius, the heroic creator, the idea (and object) that arrives fully formed – all of these can be challenged and the discipline can finally re-evaluate all its messy complexity, its collaborative nature, and non-linear processes. And in this effort, the design discipline can allow itself to be deeply transformed. This is how the yin revolution – a poetic concept outlined by author Ursula K LeGuin in her series of essays No Time to Spare – starts.
No longer need women strive to navigate the design profession without role models to be inspired by. No longer need women conform to any predefined career orientation, instead designing their paths in whichever way they deem best. And because, in recent years more than ever, women in design can find inspiring examples all around them, the practitioner of today should not have to quiet down their voice, hush away their presence, or hide their influence.
At present, most of our attention should be given to claiming space and agency in design: finding and using our own voices, loud and clear to say things such as:
Yes, grant me that opportunity.
Yes, I want access to that platform.
Yes, give me that job (and pay me as much as you would a man).
Yes, represent and sell my work (for the same price as you sell a work by a man).
Yes, this is obvious, necessary, and the only way I will work for you, with you, alongside you.
Speaking loud and clear is fundamental, but not every woman does this. Why? Partly, because of the structures that are in place at the moment. To this day, women in design have mainly been educated by men (in classes where half the students – if not more – are female); hired by men; working for men; and their work has been valued, collected (and exhibited, or not) by men.
If women cannot change how they are perceived by others, professional opportunities alone will never be enough. The creation of discursive environments where change can be enacted, tested out, then replicated and amplified, can only happen if and when women in design start using their voices. And by finding strength in numbers, they can finally advocate for equality in order to ultimately dismantle existing conditions.
On 18 January this year, we made our first attempt to dismantle such structures, organising a collaborative conversation at the Museum of Applied Arts in Dresden. Titled A Woman’s Work, the event gathered voices from the discipline of design to discuss the roles and influence of female practitioners. The symposium took place alongside the exhibition Against Invisibility, which rewrote a fraction of modern design history by rescuing the nearly-forgotten stories of female designers working in the Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau in the early decades of the 20th century.
What are the differences between them and us? As design critic Alice Rawsthorn pointed out in the symposium, “we need to build on [past achievements] with a dynamic and critical discourse … While many skirmishes have been won, others await.’
We must ensure that our stories won’t get lost like theirs. We must create spaces for their – and our – voices to be heard once the present generation is long gone. We must ensure that the current enthusiasm doesn’t get lost, and after an object designed by a woman is sold, exhibited, commissioned and exchanged for inflated sums of money, women – and their stories – will remain.
It is the responsibility of the gatekeepers – who write, who teach, who collect, who curate, who sell, who promote, who advocate – to open the gates for the dismantling of past and present conditions, in order to make women’s work, contributions and visibility a permanent condition.
What does the revolution bring with it? We do not know. But we know it is thorny, messy, complex and collaborative. It starts with simple actions. It begins with adding to the canon of design history voices other than those of white men; promoting and investing in work made by practitioners other than white men. It involves revamping design education to elect new role models and rewriting your syllabus to include more diverse voices. When prompted, it involves selecting someone other than a white man for a panel. It involves selecting a diverse group of people in the next exhibition you curate. It means working with someone other than those whom you already know.
These are the ways in which we can continue to claim space, connect people, and enact transformation. And this will transform us all.
Add to the Cake:
Transforming the roles
of female practitioners
26 April – 5 July 2019
Photomontage of Kunstgewerbemuseum Schloss Pillnitz in Dresden by Foreign Legion
From symposium to exhibition
Stemming from the “A Woman’s Work” symposium, which took place at the Japanisches Palais in Dresden in January 2019, “Add to the Cake' is an exercise in enacting the kind of transformation that design, architecture and arts are about to experience. It develops over the course of an exhibition, an active public program, and a series of performative moments over the course of six months. The preview, which will take place from 26 April to 4 July 2019, introduces a larger audience to the themes of the symposium and becomes an in-progress environment where the forthcoming exhibition comes to life
Photomontage of SAM in Basel by Foreign Legion
Photomontage of Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein
by Foreign Legion
Add to the Cake:
Transforming the roles
of female practitioners
6 July – 3 November 2019
Opening 5 July 2019, 6 PM
Contemporary cultural constructs have us believe that not everyone can get a fair share of the cake, and that only a limited few can write history. In the case of female practitioners in design, architecture and the arts, their erasure from the history and the memory of their disciplines has been systematic; but in the first two decades of the 21st century, they have regained visibility. In this pivotal moment, female practitioners have the chance to usher in an important transformation for their disciplines. We can – and need to – add to the existing cake: infinite layers for an expanded canon.
Adding to museum collections and to historical accounts, adding to collective memory and to possible futures. Most importantly, we must realise that “adding” doesn’t mean “taking away”, but that it enriches the existing context with multiple, varied voices and perspectives.
“Add to the Cake” is an exercise in enacting the kind of transformation that design, architecture and arts are about to experience. It develops over the course of an exhibition, an active public program, and a series of performative moments over the course of six months.
The exhibition stems from the “A Woman’s Work” symposium, which took place at the Japanisches Palais in Dresden in January 2019, in context of the “Against Invisibility” exhibition, and gathered local and international perspectives on the present and the future of female practice.
In “Add to the Cake', the exhibition collects and develops themes that were first discussed during that occasion, and frames them alongside other objects and ideas developed by female practitioners. Alongside it, an active public program presents a variety of formats, focusing on establishing permanent visibility for female practitioners.