In As Long as It’s Pink: The Sexual Politics of Taste, published in the mid-1990s, veteran design researcher Penny Sparke argued that ever since the Industrial Revolution, the cluttered interior has been associated with femininity while the minimal forms of modernist architecture have acted as signifiers of a masculine aesthetic. And in broader terms, “taste” – a subjective concept associated with decoration and to a lesser extent with essence – has been a quality assigned to women while “design” is a purely masculine construction. In her book, Sparke sought to contend with women’s exclusion from the world of design, and was part of the feminist trends that engaged with the feasibility of feminine design or feminine style.
It seems appropriate that more than twenty years later, the discourse on aesthetics or ability would change into a discourse on the content and subject with which new design objects seek to contend. In the context of the designer’s role, the discussion should shift toward the issue of identifying a need and how this need is addressed. In this article, too, there is a gendered classification of objects – last year’s graduation projects from the schools of design – but the emphasis in this classification focuses on projects that provide a solution to the exclusive needs of the female body, or issues often faced by women throughout their life, and not style. Judging by the graduate exhibitions shown last year, there is reason to believe that it is no coincidence that all the projects discussed here were also created by women designers, not men. This once again raises the question of identifying a need: Are only women capable of identifying a woman’s needs and designing for other women simply because they can identify with them or understand their feelings and physicality? What would a birthing chair or a sophisticated means of self-defense look like if it were designed by a man rather than a woman? Can this group of products be categorized as “feminine design”, a concept that will no doubt be perceived as controversial? I wish to argue that it is women who are most likely to identify women’s needs – mental, physical, or social. At the same time, from an aesthetic and technological aspect, some of the projects indicate that when women designers achieve a sufficiently good product, one that in accordance with the attitudes Sparke described in her book some twenty years ago, would have been perceived as the work of a male designer, not a woman designer.
Jey Tsymbaluk, Department of Visual Communication, NB Haifa School of Design
Jey Tsymbaluk of the Department of Visual Communication at NB Haifa School of Design always wondered why it is so self-evident that every woman will at some stage in her life also be a mother, and chose to engage with the issue of motherhood. With exceptional sensitivity she identified a connection between botany and fertility and childbirth from a visual and verbal perspective, and the result is 32 texts that she wrote and which became five illustrated books. In them Tsymbaluk expresses her criticism of the automatic nature of childbirth in Israel, employing coarse and crude language that runs counter to the intimate texts she wrote. This project ostensibly has no “purpose” and does not solve a problem, but it courageously raises a subject that is worthy of social debate.
The graduation project by Adi Sela of the Department of Interior Design at HIT-Holon Institute of Technology raises an issue that probably only few people are aware of, and which is also indirectly associated with motherhood. Sela chose to delve into the painful fact that in Israel, women serving prison sentences who are mothers of children under two years of age have the right to choose to bring their baby with them and raise him or her in prison. Sela further discovered that in the only women’s prison in Israel this fact is not addressed, and there are no solutions for the needs of babies. Sela designed a new, contemporary prison that is also adapted to the needs of babies, and includes public spaces for play, and especially a less gloomy and intimidating atmosphere. Additionally, she chose to locate the prison in the center of Tel Aviv rather than a remote city or suburb. These decisions, which in general provide the babies, who are not to blame for the situation imposed on them, with a less abnormal setting and as pleasant an environment as possible.
Adi Sela, Department of Interior Design, HIT
As previously stated, Sparke challenged the perception whereby masculine design is characterized, among other things, by high technical abilities. The next three projects, which were created by students from the Department of Industrial Design at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, prove the erroneousness of this perception. Besides the fact that they demonstrate that women also possess technical and technological abilities, they also required motivation and close familiarity with women’s habits, the woman’s body, and its needs.
In the field of medical equipment, the project by Miriam Yair-Pur stood out. The designer chose to begin her explanation about it with the assertion: ‘Childbirth does not have to take place on a bed’. This perception, which has become increasingly widespread among women in recent years, led Yair-Pur to identify the need for a new piece of medical furniture – a birthing chair that provides another option for women who wish to be more involved in this subjective experience. The chair is not a cold, indifferent piece of medical furniture, but a modular option that combines technological progress with soft, round lines that convey, even before use, the possibility of a pleasant experience. In this instance, it is possible that what is perceived as “feminine taste” – round lines, soft materiality and color – is actually a necessary language and function, rather than a disruption.
Miriam Yair-Pur, Department of Industrial Design, Bezalel | simulation
Naama Boxnboim, Department of Industrial Design, Bezalel | Photograph: Oded Antman
Ovyo by Naama Boxnboim is a new invention that is consistent with the natural approaches in the field of medicine. The product is designed for women, and by means of a simple, non-intrusive action, it enables identification of the precise monthly “fertility window”, based on the Fertility Awareness Method. The product is characterized by clean, functional design, devoid of features that might classify it as a necessarily women’s product, but rather as a medical product possessing cleanliness and refinement.
Defancy by Esti Baranets is a series of jewelry pieces, some of which might be perceived as nothing more than highly creative fashion items. Perhaps in a utopian world. Baranets created these pieces to serve as self-defense weapons for women in cases of assault, especially sexual assault. The pieces of jewelry are designed as an integral part of the body, or can be fitted onto items of clothing and accessories. Here, too, it seems that close familiarity with women’s habits and with items of clothing is necessary in order to identify the connections Baranets created with impressive elegance. At the same time, contending with this issue requires an understanding of the connections between different materials, their durability, and their ability to cause damage, alongside familiarity with self-defense techniques.
Esti Baranets, Department of Industrial Design, Bezalel | Photograph: Oded Antman
To conclude, just as there are products specifically designed for women, there are products specifically designed for men. However, in light of the fact that when it comes to women, the gender discourse in design mainly focuses on subjects such as taste, decoration, or style, I believe there is good reason to present products designed by women for women that do not merely constitute a superficial discussion.
Ronit Elkabetz, whose collection of clothes is currently showing at the Museum (Je t'aime, Ronit Elkabetz Exhibition), once stated that ‘It is impossible to dress me’. Elkabetz, a strong feminine figure and an involved client in the design processes designated for her, served as an example of a user who is also the designer, and thus almost from the outset eliminated the possibility that someone else might understand her exclusive needs. Most users do not have design items adapted specifically for them, and consequently women’s involvement in the design processes of certain products is of paramount significance.
I am not arguing that a male designer who accompanies his partner during childbirth cannot identify the need for a more convenient or ergonomic product for women, or that a security guard cannot think of self-defense methods using high heels. At the same time, it seems that what is required in addition to this is the ability to identify as well as high sensitivity, which can only stem from authentic experience, in order to enlist the required motivation for delving into exclusively women’s subjects. Therefore, perhaps “feminine taste” can be read not as style or decoration, but as a necessary tool.
Dreams From Ronit Elkabetz's Wardrobe
Do clothes make the man? Or is it perhaps man - or woman, rather - who breathes life and power into clothes? Article by exhibition's Curator - Ya'ara Keydar from "je t'iame, Ronit Elkabetz" exhibition catalogue.