Do we still need to study lesser-known parts of history, penalized by a perspective centered on gender (but also on geographies and the usual social dynamics)? The answer is undoubtedly a convinced yes

This text is taken from the book Designers and Designers: a question of gender? edited by Dora Liscia Bemporad and Patrizia Scarzella, Lezioni di Design series, ed methylene, 2024 - all the images used in the body of the text are taken from the same

Exhibitions dedicated to female designers have been produced and curated in Italy for at least twenty years. This in itself would not be news, were it not for the fact that these cultural operations mark an absolute peak on the topic of feminine culture dedicated by public and private institutions in our country.

Before this, only sporadic appearances, fleeting mentions that would make even respect for an alleged pink quota in female design indignant.

But is this really the way to reconstruct a partial and flawed history? Faced with an evident historical and historiographical gap, does underlining the theme of disparity - in this case the gender legacy - help to re-establish a balance or does it underline it further?

Read also: Women and design: is there still a gender issue?

Recently, on the occasion of the Venice Architecture Biennale, the curator Lesley Lokko turned the spotlight on another cultural disparity, this time not linked to gender (although it is also an issue ), but rather to ethnicity and geographical origin.

“It was clear from the beginning – explains the curator – that The Laboratory of the Futur and she would adopt the concept of “change” as her essential gesture. As part of those same conversations that attempted to justify the existence of the Exhibition, difficult and often emotional reflections on resources, rights and risks were addressed.

For the first time, the spotlight is on Africa and its diaspora, on that fluid and intertwined culture of people of African origin that today embraces the world. What do we mean? How will what we say change anything?

And, perhaps the most important aspect of all, how what we say will influence and involve what "others" say, making the Exhibition not so much a single story, but a set of stories capable of reflecting the fascinating, splendid kaleidoscope of ideas, contexts, aspirations and meanings that each voice expresses in response to the problems of its time?”.

Obviously there are those here too who have spoken of demagogy and intellectual speculation which have not adequately responded to the expectations of a public eager for alternatives, yes, but still recognizable as "architectural".

And, beyond the alignments between supporters and detractors, the most evident signal lies in the fact that the change of perspective perhaps must correspond to a change of gaze and paradigm, which often requires a long time and, above all , is always preceded by the declaration and denunciation of a problem.

Therefore, it is from this perspective that we are going to reread some of the exhibitions on female design that have taken place in Italy in recent years, precisely with an analytical spirit.

The first fundamental synthesis dedicated to the theme in Italy can be found in the exhibition "From lace to motorcycle" curated by Anty Pansera and held in Ferrara in 2002.

Already at the opening of the catalogue, the design historian retraces the sad numbers of a significant female absence in the essays dedicated to Italian design at the end of the twentieth century/beginning of the third millennium. Starting from her self-declaration: in her "One Hundred Designers" in the appendix to the "Atlas of Italian Design 1940/1980" there are only six names of women designers. Percentage that does not improve in Andrea Branzi's volume "Italian design, 1964-1990".

And the names are always the same, moreover. The Ferrara exhibition, therefore, also by virtue of these previous gaps, is entirely dedicated to female design, starting from areas considered traditionally managed by women - lace and weaving - to then arrive at comparisons on other territories, which are also victims of the same cultural cliché in reverse, see the automotive sector.

On this occasion, in the introduction to the catalogue, Pansera discusses a non-secondary effect of his research: "What is perhaps worrying, however, is having to face, at the opening of the 21st century, the accusation of feminism: an attitude never declared nor ideologically supported but, I believe, actually practiced; in fact, in never having asked myself, in practice, this problem: even if, over the years, I have become increasingly aware of how much better, more prepared and determined a woman must be to be able to occupy spaces and reap consensus/success, compared to a man, starting from equal conditions/preparation/opportunities".

Here, therefore, the whole exhibition, which boasted other important female presences in the figures of Lica Covo Steiner and Anna Steiner who designed the coordinated image of the exhibition and catalogue, takes a common thread of reevaluation of forgotten figuresfrom a decidedly male-centric history of Italian design.

The protagonists are in fact "Designers who worked in that twentieth century which opened with the all-female enterprise - invention, direction, execution: eight hundred embroiderers, the products sold all over the world - of the Bolognese Aemilia Ars (1900-1935): "modern style" lace mostly designed by artists/designers and some women, mostly "unnamed".

Just as "feminine" are a good part of the adherents of the albeit brief Milanese experience of Nuova Tendenza (1911): and not to be forgotten are those extraordinary sisters of Marcello Nizzoli (the father of Italian industrial design) which anticipated the experiences of the Futurist Art Houses, where there are quite a few women's names one comes across".

The difficulty in the incomplete reconstruction not only in terms of cultural ideology, but - as a logical consequence - also of preserved finds and works is central in determining the presence of the designers. With some happy exceptions, fortunately, such as that of Fede Cheti "a creative designer and entrepreneur who has been able to impose innovative interior trends, calling alongside her names of prestigious designers and artists (from Ponti to Gruau. .. precisely)".

In some cases, however, the lack of historiographical data and artefacts is unbridgeable. For example, the case of "Giulia Veronesi is cited, who alongside Eduardo Persico contributed to making the masters of the Modern Movement known in Italy during the fascist era, writing essays, books, articles... From her one would wanted to start addressing the topic of "communicating/disseminating industrial design".

The exhibition followed not only a thematic development, but also a chronological one; therefore, it is from the Second World War onwards that the issues come home to roost and the non-updating of disciplinary practices in the field of gender equality becomes increasingly difficult to justify.

“From the Academies of Fine Arts and the Faculties of Architecture – explains Pansera – came the designers who in the second half of the 20th century tackled ever wider and more complex typological ranges: from furniture to furnishing components - the most traditional field of intervention of the design - investigating new materials (from foam rubber to plastic materials) and new forms... to lighting fixtures, sanitary fixtures, IT tools, means of moving around.

Five decades during which more and more women have established themselves in the world of design: and from university chairs to the direction of prestigious newspapers they have also definitely contributed to the knowledge of this activity, sometimes too underground, sometimes too spectacularized".

This does not mean that the female numerical minority is once again underlined, attempting to outline reasons: "It is certainly one of the most difficult professions for a woman (as well as one of the most "recent"): for example an "important" career cannot fail to correspond to demanding rhythms, absences from any family life, continuous concentration on one's project/product/work, continuous and indispensable updates".

Substantially in continuity will be the exhibition "D come Design", curated by Pansera with Luisa Bocchietto and inaugurated for the first time in Turin, where the subtitle “Feminine applied arts” once again explains the overlap between gender art and disciplinary sector.

Precisely to continue that research, there is also the completion of a sort of documentary summary that photographs the state of the art, given that "From the situation photographed by Anty Pansera with the exhibition "From lace to motorcycle", held in Ferrara in 2002, The contemporary situation is truly witnessing an exponential increase in the presence of women in this sector.

The protagonists have tripled in six years so much so that since it was not possible to expose them all, it was decided to add a Dictionary to the volume in which to try to name at least the most successful ones".

The exhibition formula this time is ternary, as Bocchietto explains: “With these three passages we wanted to tell how the role of women in the project developed; three distinct stages to mark the beginning of the century, the central years of the growth of the discipline, the current state.

The exceptional nature of the former figures, the rarity of the latter and the acquired normality of the female presence in the professional field of contemporary women is evident.

We understand how this process was not easy, it happened in silence, with sacrifice and effort that only women can know. It is not with vindication that we wanted to do this female review, the writer was unable for age reasons to participate in the engaging phase of feminism, but rather to note a path taken by women to affirm their right to civil expression, artistic, professional.

As much as equality in the world of work is advertised, it is still an unacknowledged fact. (…) It was not easy for women to enter the world of work, take on "masculine" attitudes to gain credibility, come to terms with their femininity, face family sacrifices or the latent criticism of clichés that contrast motherhood and work.

They are continuouseithers that stand between the will and the objective of truly participating in the construction of society. Even today, political and managerial participation is scarce because there are no spaces but also because perhaps the price of giving up or adhering to the rules of the game is too high for women.

Both mentalities, the male and the female, have in fact not yet absorbed the change. However, change is underway and will be even more evident in the near future."

If these first two fundamental exhibitions mark a decisive stage in a historiographical reconstruction, the approach of the exhibition “W. Women in Italian Design", curated by Silvana Annicchiarico for the Triennale Design Museum in XXXX, espouses the same desire to contribute to the cause, but with a substantial change in exhibition-curatorial paradigm.

“There is, however – explains Annicchiarico – a possible limit that almost all the research mentioned above has in common: the fact of applying to women's design the same authorial approach adopted by that patriarchal culture that wrote the history of design as a history made substantially and exclusively by designers: planner-demiurges who, in collaboration with industrialists and entrepreneurs, would embody the very quintessence of design culture, exhausting it in themselves and in their own self-representativeness.

In reality, as is known, the category of author has been in crisis for a long time in the most disparate disciplinary fields: from literature to cinema, both its presumed relevance and exhaustiveness and its theoretical stability are being questioned.

(…) Perhaps the time is ripe for us to really begin to move away from the "authorial" paradigm that was effective in twentieth-century patriarchal culture, when it was a question of claiming a specific identity for design, but ineffective and restrictive today, when design is no longer just designing objects but increasingly also triggering processes and relationships.

Precisely starting from this belief,W. Womenin Italian Design proposes a methodological and organizational approach that does not work through medallions and biographies, but instead chooses - consciously - to represent female creativity as a karst river which runs through the entire Italian twentieth century, sometimes impetuous like a mountain stream, other times placid and slow like a plain river. Not an order designed for "Authors", therefore, but for objects, artefacts, projects.

Which are born from women, but then enter the great flow of a creativity that goes beyond the limits, calculations and boundaries of the project culture promoted and appreciated by patriarchal culture. What type of creativity emerges from the reconnaissance of women carried out to set up the TDM9?

It is an unpredictable creativity, based on welcoming, on caring. With a sudden, uncontrollable vision of the project. Creativity with a strong innovative content. Magmatic, fertile, chaotic. A project without testosterone. Nothing monolithic. Nothing definitive. A lot of irony and lightness. With a peaceful, positive vision of the world. Without complaints. A liberated creativity. Elegant. Which expresses a very strong vitality."

Once the authorial paradigm has been overcome and the thematic one has been embraced, a new line of interpretation of feminine design emerges, a dimension that questions the peculiarity of the approach conditioned by gender and which essentially identifies it in the attitude to care and inclusiveness, as stated by Lokko herself cited at the beginning.

“Often – states the curator of the 2023 Architecture Biennale – culture is defined as the complex of stories we tell to ourselves, about ourselves.

Although this is true, what is missing from this statement is the awareness of who represents the "us" in question. In architecture in particular, the dominant voice has historically been a singular and exclusive voice, whose reach and power have ignored vast swaths of humanity – financially, creatively and conceptually – as if we listened and spoke in one language. The “history” of architecture is therefore incomplete. Not wrong, but incomplete.

This is why exhibitions are important. They constitute a unique opportunity in which to enrich, change or retell a story, whose audience and impact are perceived far beyond the walls and physical spaces that contain it. What we say publicly is fundamental, because it is the ground on which change is built, both in small and large steps."

Precisely with the intention of contributing to the completion of a flawed history of architecture, in 2022 the MAXXI museum in Rome produced the exhibition “Buone Nuovi – Good News”, curated by Ciorra, Motisi and Tinacci and dedicated to the great "female architects" of history.

And already in the definition a first difficulty is revealed: "great Italian authors - specifies Pippo Ciorra - decidedly hostile to a gender-oriented approach in architecture, and in the world of professions in general. Gae Aulenti, Cini Boeri, not to mention the "anti-feminist".
Bo Bardi, essential milestones for our architectural narrative, tended to reject with disdain any reference to their being "women-architects", for reasons that could themselves be the subject of study, and perhaps they would not have willingly agreed to be included as such in this review".

In fact, it is symptomatic that some of the great protagonists of the world of architecture did not agree to be included in a story because they were female quotas. The entire exhibition - splendidly set up by Matilde Cassani - appears almost like an oxymoron, or rather like an exhibition of great design themes that do not in the slightest suggest the question of gender, although the hat is exactly that. In fact, the result is a temporal image, but above all a snapshot of the present, which outlines research themes that go beyond the "female project" approach to define the urgency of broader themes .

“Yesterday - explains Elena Tinacci - it was above all the woman herself, today it is the weakest social categories to which the attention of collectives is also directed, both historical and well-rooted in the present, who find in the strength and fluidity of the group the key to their political-disciplinary action".

We therefore have to ask ourselves whether there is still a need for exhibitions, research and historical reflections on female designers. But perhaps it is not the substance of the answer, but that of the question that needs to be reformulated.

Do we still need to study lesser-known parts of history, which have been penalized by a perspective centered on gender and, often, on geographies and the usual social dynamics?The answer is certainly a convinced yes.

But the desire to escape from just as many conditionings arises just as strongly, deriving from a - however very understandable - desire for revenge and claim.

Every rediscovery is fundamental in historical reconstruction beyond the motive, if only to then evaluate whether it was ideological censorship, forgetfulness or historiographical irrelevance. The new generations are calling for overcoming the gender approach. They ask for it, but above all they implement it, often tackling the project collectively, as demonstrated by the recent "Italy, a New Collective Landscape" curated by Angela Rui at the ADI Museum.

The point today is not whether it makes sense to study lace or motorcycles, but to question ourselves about the use of these topics as levers for a mirror reversal which risks being only a counter-story of reaction. My personal wish (and commitment) is to research - to remain metaphorical - the history of the concept of weaving and mechanics in the project regardless of genres and individual socio-cultural origins.

July 2023

The text by Domitilla Dardi and all the images are taken from the book “Designers and designers: a question of gender?”, edited by Dora Liscia Bemporad and Patrizia Scarzella, Series Lezioni di Design Firenze, Methylene Editore, 2024