The Design World’s Gender Equality Quest Continues

MILAN — Women have undoubtedly helped shape architecture and design as we know it.

Charlotte Perriand, Ray Eames, Zaha Hadid and Patricia Urquiola are just a few women who have pioneered change in a design world dominated by men. Yet it is only recently that many of their careers and work have come into the spotlight, in an effort to highlight the essential role women have played in the evolution of modern design, both in creative and business terms.

This month, Paris trade show Maison&Objet unveiled the first creative and business network of the design industry dedicated to fostering relationships between women. On Wednesday, Maison&Objet’s managing director Mélanie Leroy told WWD that Woman&Design by Maison&Objet is a business and creative collective that aims to identify, connect and promote women who are pushing the boundaries of product design, interior decoration, craft and lifestyle. 

Outside of the fair, Leroy joined Leia Capital in 2022, an angel investor group dedicated to investing in innovative projects led by women. Leroy now wants to leverage the fair’s strengths as a business partner and its community to better serve the women in the industry.

Today, women hold a major place in the design professions — 69 percent of all interior architects in the U.S. are women, the organization said. In France, 50 percent of designers are women. However, “there is still a long way to go in terms of gender representation, with women severely under-represented at major industry awards and celebrations,” Leroy told WWD.

In June, the organization revealed that it appointed Nina Magon as its official U.S. ambassador. Magon is the founder of Nina Magon studio, which is active in the luxury residential, commercial and hospitality worlds. The fair said that Magon is a female figure whose path has transformed the industry.

Among the organization’s main objectives are fostering exchange “within an inclusive, fertile and committed/involved year-round professional network and ensuring gender representation via Maison&Objet’s communications.” Each month, its newsletter will highlight the work of a female designer, entrepreneur or craftswomen.

Gender Equality Remains a Challenge

In Italy, inserting women into key roles at the top is an uphill battle. A report released by Italian market regulator Consob in 2023 showed that companies with female CEOs accounted for just 2 percent of Italian listed firms at the end of 2022. Only 4 percent of those firms had female presidents.

The design world echoes this trend, commented Federica Sala, an independent curator, adviser and author of a book, “Venini: The Magic of Glass,” about the glassmaker founded more than 100 years ago in Murano, Italy. She also curated the “Echoes, 50 Years of iMaestri” exhibit for luxury furniture maker Cassina, alongside famed designer Patricia Urquiola.

“I see the reticence of a lot of companies when it comes to hiring women for technical positions like engineering,” Sala said, noting, however, that the number of women graduating from Milan’s Polytechnic University in the fields of engineering and architecture has risen exponentially and there is more of a balance between men and women graduates. The pre-World War II graduating class saw only three women in total for both engineering and architecture programs.

Women, she explained, have been slighted from the start, citing a book called “494. Bauhaus al Femminile” by Anty Pansera in which the author claims the women of Bauhaus were relegated to designing textiles. Elsewhere, women in Italian history have often held the role as the behind-the-scenes manager of the business. “The funny part that emerges is that the Bauhaus textiles were sold the most.”

Federica Sala

Federica Sala

Jessica Soffiati

Earlier this month and in an effort to forge bonds between women across design and architecture, Milan-based design firm Metis PR and Milan’s Women’s Society hosted “Waves of Design,” a panel discussion celebrating design as an engine of innovation and social progress, with a focus on the role and contribution of women to the design sector.

“Networking events hold significant importance in our modern age, especially in the context of Italy where they’re less common, particularly for women. These gatherings create opportunities for women to come together and discuss a wide range of topics, from personal to professional, in a setting that goes beyond the typical Italian aperitivo,” Caterina Monda, Metis PR’s cofounder, said.  

According to Schwa, a Milan-based branding consulting company with a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, 42 percent is the average percentage of women on Italian companies’ boards of directors, said cofounder and CEO Helen Nonini, explaining that the issues that hinder women in corporate Italy are the same issues that hinder them in the design sector.

Schwa cofounder Elena Berardi echoed this, referencing data from the 2023 Spencer Stuart Board Index. “Although there is still much to do, data show a clear improvement thanks to legal obligations. However, we can’t say the same about younger generations or cultural diversity. The average age of board members is 59.”

Age is a factor but so is deeply ingrained perceptions of the female’s role in society, commented Milan- and Buenos Aires-based designer Augustina Bottoni.

“Women in the design field must navigate certain stereotypes and often face hostile work environments. Another significant issue is the work-life balance, due to the pressures of the domestic workload that frequently are not shared equally within the families,” she said.

As women across the globe strive for more equality in the field of design, opportunities are on the rise.

On Sept. 5, Leroy will host her first official dinner in Paris to celebrate this newly created network with a group of 30 design-forward women. Such gatherings will take place multiple times a year, with a celebration and award ceremony earmarked for the International Women’s Month of March.

Metis PR

Metis PR and Milan’s Women’s Society recently hosted a panel discussion, “Waves of Design.”

Courtesy of Metis PR

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