Gender is accepted not as a simple biological factor, but as a way of identifying ourselves. The discussions around male-female are becoming increasingly complex as the focal point veers away from biological issues and more toward cultural ones. How does our gender identity affect the way we see the world? How does it affect the way we create? How does a history dominated by a patriarchal perspective change the way we perceive women and their role in the creative world?
At this year's "Women in Italian Design" exhibit at the Triennale Design Museum in Milan, these important questions were mined along with the aesthetic and historical place of women in Italian design. Curated by Silvana Annicchiarico and designed by Margharita Palli, the exhibit was conceptualized entirely by women, and rightfully so—due to this, the show turns out to be discernibly progressive, sensitive and unabashedly celebratory of the female spirit of creativity.
photo cred. Triennale di Milano
And as for why the Triennale saw this as an appropriate theme in today's politically charged atmosphere, the importance of highlighting women in design was not just a celebration of work but also an economic argument. Claudio De Albertia, president of Triennale di Milano states that "promoting female employment in the economy is not just a matter of fairness and equal rights, but also a question of efficiency, because the low female employment level means wasted resources and talent. A greater female employment rate, equal to male levels [would increase] the Italian GDP...by around 13.6%".
"Shopping T" by Paola Anziche
The exhibition opens with a dark room of weavings, an important process that is traditionally understood as a "women's craft" and a concept that is a recurring theme throughout the show. Annicchiarico writes about how historically, "textiles have been viewed as an exquisitely feminine domain. Nails for men, knots for women." Simultaneously, throughout history, literature and culture weaving also represents power: "weaving means participating in the life of the cosmos, joining it, recreating the unity of the world in its diversity." This is a perspective that could be identified as distinctly feminine while also suggesting the benefits of acknowledging intertwining points of view, relationships and networks.
"Olivetti Lettera 32" by Lucia Biagi, 2009
In contrast, for many prolific male designers in the twentieth century, singular identification and authorship was of the utmost importance—it didn't matter if you had a team of designers helping you, many star designer ended up getting all the credit. Annicchiarico highlights that we have already shifted far away from this approach:
Perhaps the time has finally arrived because we are really starting to leave the authorial paradigm, effective in the patriarchal culture of the twentieth century, when it came to claim design to it's own specific identity, which is ineffective and restrictive today, when design is no longer about just designing objects, but increasingly also about triggering processes and relationships.
The exhibition puts forth that female designers contributed to this industry-wide attitude shift. By opening the exhibition with a weaving installation, the curators have created a visual representation of the complex position women have occupied in Italian design—the tension between craft and design, the individual and collaborative creation.
Enter a caption (optional) Enter a caption (optional) A sponge lamp by Masayo Ave circa 1998
The rest of the show presents pieces from hundreds of different female designers throughout Italian history—navigating the installation as a river, or a timeline, that begins in the late nineteenth century and ends with bold works of the present day. You get to see objects from design powerhouses like Patricia Urquiola and Gae Aulenti along with ambitious and sometimes eccentric works from relatively ignored Italian designers of the past—the presentation intentionally presents no hierarchy between the two groups, again for the purpose of highlighting ideas as opposed to names and singular authorship. They are somewhat mysteriously grouped together, presenting material or symbolic themes without overt directives from the curators; ultimately, it's up to you to actively weave together the conceptual connections from object to object.
"Extra Virgin" oil and vinegar dispensers by Nunzia Carbone Nanda Vigo's playful "Due Piú" Chair, 1971 Illuminated neon "Vanity Chair" filled with natural goose feathers, Federica Ameri for LA FOI, 2015
The exhibit inquisitively explores the possibility of gender presenting a different point of view on design: emotional, innovative, highly diversified, and on many occasions lighthearted and humorous. The show recognizes that yes, perhaps the female mind does make for a different angle on design: more soft and emotionally sensitive. But again, looking at the role of women in design through the theme of weaving, "Women have always done just what men were doing with other equipment and different tools: in ancient times, the loom was for women what the spear or bow was for men. If the man (hunter) captured the prey with lightning speed and the lethal energy of an arrow, the woman (woman-spider?) spun a cobweb and waited for her prey to fall inside. Different procedure, identical results." As design becomes a catalyst for co-creation, innovative ideas will be found in the spaces in-between. Designers have the power to knit together ideas from different stakeholders and areas of expertise to birth new systems, products and modes of making.
To see more images from the "Women in Italian Design" exhibit, check out our Milan Design Triennale photo gallery.
Women in Italian Design was on view at the Triennale Design Museum. The exhibition catalog is available through the Triennale Book Shop.