The Designed by Women Project

Designed by Women, a website developed by the Stewart Program, focuses on designs by women across the globe. The world of industrial design has always been the purview of men, and the world of objects for the home has seemingly been divided into male creators and female consumers. With this website, leading voices in the design community challenge our assumptions about design by presenting pioneering designs by women from 1900 to the present. Through images, biographies, interviews, curatorial essays and object entries, Designed by Women provides insight into the remarkable careers and viewpoints of these designers. 

Project team 

A team of experts has been assembled to carry out this ambitious project: Jeannine Falino, former Curator, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Penny Sparke, Professor of Design History at Kingston University, London; Pat Kirkham, Professor of Design History at Kingston University, London; Jennifer Laurent, Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; David A. Hanks, Curator, Stewart Program for Modern Design; and Joanne Lefebvre, Head of Paprika graphic design, Montreal.

Greta (Margareta) von Nessen, Anywhere Lamp, 1951
Matali Crasset & Pierre Hermé, Essentiel de Pâtisserie Cake Plate, 2010
Maija Isola, Lokki (Seagull) Textile, 1961
Grete Jalk, Side Chair, 1963
Sophie Cook, Pod and Teardrop Bottles, 2003
Eva Zeisel, Town & Country Pitchers, c. 1945

The Story of Women in Design


Women have been makers from time immemorial, whether weaving baskets and cloth, or making pottery or jewelry. Recognition from within the Western canon, however, was slow until a combination of societal change and scholarship over the last fifty years began to reverse this trend. The works of twentieth-century artists and designers such as Eileen Gray and Ray Eames are featured in museums, books, and the marketplace today, but their presence still pales in comparison to that of men. Whether considered from a national or global perspective, women face a continuing gender gap in the arts. Recognition, advancement, and compensation continue to lag that of men, and women of color work hardest of all in their struggle for acceptance and recognition.


For centuries, women’s activities and responsibilities revolved around the household. In the 1890s, middle and upper class women began to enjoy greater independence from the home. This new generation was described as that of the New Woman, leading their own lives. Their rising talents were displayed in the Women’s Building of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago; the building itself was designed by Chilean-born American Sophia Hayden, the first woman to graduate from the MIT school of architecture. The Women’s Building was the first international platform to promote women’s achievements in the visual arts, even if at a distance from that of men.

Many women turned to the arts as socially sanctioned pursuits that left them free to create and even earn money. Some took classes, established studios, and joined art organizations. While some of these activities can be considered purely avocational, others saw in them a means to another end: professionalism. As college-level art departments grew in number, more began to consider art, design, and art education as viable career goals. Maria Longworth Nichols (later Storer), who founded Rookwood Pottery in 1880, proudly proclaimed that the potter’s wheel would be turned by “woman power.” She provided women with professional career opportunities. This was the case for British ceramic designer Clarice Cliff. An early stint as a decorator along with night classes at the Burslem School of Art led to her career as a designer of ceramic forms bearing richly-colored abstract and stylized designs. At her peak, Cliff also employed as many as 70 decorators, many of them women.

The Emergence of Industrial Design

When industrial design emerged as a professional discipline during the 1920s and 1930s, women began to make their mark in this arena but nevertheless struggled with male clients and manufacturers in a field unaccustomed to them. The Cranbrook Academy of Art (est. 1932) fostered women designers in part because of the women who taught there, including Loja Saarinen, who led the weaving and textile design department, and her daughter, Lisa (Pipsan) Saarinen. One of Cranbrook’s most successful female graduates was Florence Schust Knoll, whose residential and corporate furniture designs and interiors are a hallmark of mid century modernism. Similar to Knoll was Cranbrook graduate Ray Eames. Both women married men in the design field, which had the contradictory effect of enabling their early careers while obscuring their individual talents. 

Working as a pair, Ray and Charles Eames combined technological advances in molded fiberglass and steam-bent plywood with a modernist aesthetic to create some of the most enduring furnishing designs of their generation. Emigres to the United States like Greta Magnussen-Grossman and Eva Zeisel made major contributions to postwar design. Swedish-born Grossman created Bauhaus-inflected furniture and lighting for clients. Zeisel, who was born and educated in Hungary, brought a biomorphic aesthetic to midcentury ceramic designs in collaboration with leading manufacturers.

New Visions

By the 1960s and 1970s, women artists and designers had emerged as a talented, if still underrepresented, international body. Some, like Maija Isola of Finland, created hundreds of bold and colorful textile patterns for Marimekko, an international fashion and interior furnishings company. Italian-born Lella Vignelli and her husband Massimo Vignelli were architects and designers who emigrated to the United States. Working as Vignelli Associates, they created corporate graphic identities, packaging, furniture, glassware and tableware, much of it in a reductive, elegant, and colorful style.

Contemporary Design

Toward the end of the twentieth century, women designers and artists began to embrace an even greater diversity of materials and forms. Plastics, for instance, had long been used in industrial design, but advances in plastics manufacturing – creating flexibility, malleability, and transparency – led to a renewed interest in the medium. Made into stacking boxes, wastebaskets, furniture, jewelry, and much more, it attracted designers from around the globe, including Laurene Boym, Matali Crasset, Monika Mulder, and Ionna Vautrin.

The New Millennium

As graduates of the many art and design programs available worldwide, today’s women are taking a greater role in shaping the look and feel of modern life. Some disciplines, like textiles, jewelry, and fashion, continue to be weighted toward women, while film, architecture, and industrial design are often seen as a male domain, but the situation is fluid and encouraging. Most troubling is the fact that women of color are shockingly absent from the scene, with only incremental changes to show for the last hundred years.

More women than ever are heading up their own firms, the best-known of these was the late Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid. Front Design, originally composed of four Dutch designers, infuses their work with excitement based upon movement, process, and surprise. Other independent designers like Johanna Grawunder add luster to design firms with their own innovative forms. For every woman heading or contributing to a major firm, there are dozens more who work contractually or within the academic arena. One of them is Czech artist Eva Eisler, who designs for industry while teaching and making jewelry.

Twenty-first century design is now a truly international affair, which has boded well for women, who can share their work online using this horizontal playing field. While their numbers have grown, they still remain a minority, and many labor without the recognition or remuneration of their male peers. Nevertheless, the trend continues to improve, with bold and accomplished work making the case that women designers are here to stay.