These female creative powerhouses shaped design, made history and changed the way we live.
In honour of International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating 10 pioneering and legendary women who made waves in architecture and design. Not only have they made the history books, their iconic designs still influence design and designers today, their creations still coveted the world over. Ladies, we salute you.
Behind every great man, as the saying goes, lurks a great woman. And much of the credit given Charles Eames has to be shared with his wife Ray. Many of the Eames‘ iconic designs are down to Ray’s free spirit approach to experimentation. She and Charles Eames started by experimenting with plywood, resulting in their first mass-manufactured product; a moulded plywood leg splint that received 150,000 orders from the US Navy by the end of the second World War. Soon after, the husband-and-wife team went on to use their wood-moulding technique to create furniture incorporating other materials including fibreglass, aluminium and leather.
One of their most famous designs was the 1956 Lounge Chair, which was pioneering as it’s two-directional curve was created from laminate plywood (unseen by the world at that point in time).
During a time when gender equality was lacking, her husband Charles famously noted: “Anything I can do, Ray can do better.”
Many of Eames’ designs are still hugely popular today, with Eames’ inspired pieces also high in demand – from the Eames DSW chair to the Eames Elephant.
Arguably one of the most underrated designers of the 20th century, Eileen Gray only really received recognition towards the end of her life. After opening her own gallery in 1922 in Paris, she moved into furniture, working closely with many of the outstanding figures of the modern movement, including Le Corbusier and J.J.P Oud. Her most famous piece is the E-1027 glass and tubular steel table, originally conceived as a height adjustable invalid’s table, the lightweight piece became an instant hit at one point selling more than a thousand units per month.
Gray later moved into architecture, working with Badovici to create the E-1027 villa in 1929, for which she designed both the architectural structure and all its furniture, drawing inspiration from Bauhaus theories. She was one of the first architects to utilise steel tubular structures, and most of her works are still being produced by ClassiCon and Aram.
The Florence Knoll sofa is one of those mid-century markers, along with martini lunches and typing pools, that have come to exemplefy the spirit of the post-war era. Equally at home in a hotel lobby, a doctor’s waiting room or a ranch style home, it was the brainchild of Florence Knoll, the creative force behind Knoll Studio. She was a highly skilled designer and architect in her own right before co-founding Knoll Studio with her husband Hans, and her work elevated the standards of furniture design and manufacture to a whole new level. By 1950 her designs comprised nearly a third of Knoll’s catalogue offerings – many of which are still in production today. Her most famous pieces include the lounge collection from 1954, which included the Florence Knoll Sofa and Lounge Chair, both of which are still produced by the Knoll Studio today.
Sass has always played a part in talented women finding success. Never more true than with Charlotte Perriand, whose career almost ended before it began. At the age of 24 she strode into architect Le Corbusier’s office and asked him to hire her as a furniture designer. His response was simply, “We don’t embroider cushions here”. Several months later when Le Corbusier saw one of her commissions for the Salon D’Automne exhibition in Paris he quickly changed his mind and immediately hired her.
She went on to become one of the most influential furniture designers of the early modern movement, which was a particularly incredible feat during such an extremely male-dominated era of architecture and design. Her design and develop the series of tubular steel chairs are still sought after and admired today, and many of her creations are still being produced as part of the Cassina I Maestri series.
Half of the duo behind architecture group SANAA, she’s designed everything from chairs to watches to vertical museums.
But Sejima is perhaps best-known as the primary architectural mind behind the New Museum’s redesign in 2007. Her clean, modernist aesthetic, has won her the Pritzker Prize (the equivalent of the Nobel Prize of architecture). She’s also the director of the architecture sector for the Venice Biennale – the first ever woman in this position.
Most of us have hazy memories of a grandmother or great aunt with splashy kitchen curtains. Chances are they were in the Calyx print – one of the most iconic patterns of the 20th century – and the lasting legacy of Lucienne Day. Arguably her most famous design, the abstract pattern was created for the Festival of Britain and featured in every (then) contemporary living room in Britain.
Widely recognised for her contribution to modern textile design, Lucienne Day’s impressive career spanned 60 years. A versatile and influential designer, her designs ranged from textiles to carpets, wallpapers, tea towels and ceramics. Her designs transformed natural shapes such as flowers, grasses, shoots and landscapes into something geometric and shamelessly modern. She also created a link between mass production and fine art – with designs influenced by abstract painters like Kandinsky, Miró and Klee.
Ultimately, the freshness and originality of her work ensures that it is still relevant to contemporary interiors as her designs are still sold today beloved by fans of both mid-century and hand-crafted, artisan style.
Zaha Hadid was one of the world’s most celebrated architects, constantly pushing the latest technologies and materials to create boldly contemporary, organic and free-flowing designs. Her work included the Vitra Fire Station and the critically-acclaimed Aquatics Centre for the London 2012 Olympic Games, with its instantly-recognisable swooping roof.
But besides creating some of the world’s greatest buildings, Hadid was also a celebrated painter, furniture and home accessories designer, working with some of the world’s most renowned design brands, including Alessi, Vitra and B&B Italia. She had an endless portfolio of products: from furniture to footwear and even jewellery, prototype cars and yachts.
Known for experimenting with both form and material, Patricia Urquiola’s designs combine slick, contemporary looks with her traditional Spanish and Italian heritage. Throughout her career, the trained architect has worked with some of the world’s biggest design names, including Kartell and Boffi, and has designed some of the most poetic and practical furniture of the 21st century.
Her most famous designs include the Shimmer Side Table for Glass Italia, the Fjord Relax armchair for Moroso, the minimalist Flo stool for Driade, sculptural Antibodi chaise longue for Moroso, and the cozy-quirky knit Mangas rugs for Gandia Blasco.
Paola Navone is a woman of many talents; she’s worked as an architect, interior designer, and art director as well as producing furniture, home goods, and textiles. Her knack for timeless design has attracted collaborations with some of the industry’s top brands, from Armani Casa, Knoll International, and Natuzzi to Alessi, Molteni and Poliform.
Her designs reinterpret the past for a modern audience, cleverly combining inspiration from all over to create timeless designs that are a perfect mix of then and now, here and there. It’s this magic formula that give her designs mass appeal – even reaching the more humble consumers through accessible collaborations with the likes of Crate & Barrel and Anthropologie.
For more gorgeous and timeless designs, see our Design Classics
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