In a notoriously male-dominated industry, it’s no surprise that women’s contribution to the world of architecture and design has often been overlooked and under-valued. It’s a tale as old as time, yet that shouldn’t fool you into thinking that women’s role in design and architectural history has had any less impact or influence on the industry as we know it today. From Eileen Gray to Norma Merrick Sklarek, I’m rounding up six inspirational women in architecture and design who fought against their gender to make their mark. Read on for more.
Marion Mahony Griffin
Dates: 1871 – 1961
Legacy: Her iconic watercolor renderings for Frank Lloyd Wright are still considered to be some of the best architectural renderings ever produced.
When you think of Frank Lloyd Wright, the godfather of modern architecture, I bet the first thing that comes to your mind are those beautifully romantic watercolor renderings. Except Wright actually had very little to do with those now iconic snapshots of early 20th century Mid-Western architecture – that was all Marion.
These designs went on to influence European Modernists such as Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, illustrating the depths of Marion’s influence. Her other achievements are no less impressive, and include taking the lead in developing the city design plans of Canberra, Australia.
Dates: 1878 – 1976
Legacy: Recognized as a pioneer of the Modern Movement in architecture and furniture design.
Even before her career really began, Eileen was making waves as one of the first women ever to be admitted to the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art in London. She would later go on to specialize in Japanese lacquer work, making a name for herself as one of the leading designers of lacquered screens and decorative panels.
It wasn’t until the 20s and 30s where Eileen really came into her own as a leading figure in the burgeoning Modernist movement. Her innovative Bibendum Chair is easily one of the most recognizable designs of the 20th century, and is still used in design today. Within these inter-war years, Eileen also designed two houses in the Alpes Maritimes, including the E-1027 which is considered to be one of the finest examples of early Modernist architecture.
Dates: 1885 – 1947
Legacy: Worked with Mies Van der Rohe to design the interiors for the Barcelona Pavilion and the Tugendhat House.
Often identified as the ‘woman behind Mies‘, German-born Lilly was a Modernist furniture designer whose career was sadly cut short by the Nazi regime. In the prime of her designing years however, she is credited with collaborating with Mies on a selection of Modernist masterpieces, including the Barcelona Chair, the Barcelona Pavilion and the Tugendhat House.
Although there is debate about just how great Lilly’s influence was on Mies’ designs, Albert Pfeiffer, Vice President of Design and Management at Knoll, points out that “it is interesting to note that Mies did not fully develop any contemporary furniture successfully before or after his collaboration with Reich”. As far as her influence in modern furniture design goes, the Barcelona Chair is still inspiring designers in various forms today.
Dates: 1903 – 1999
Legacy: Designed three of Le Corbusier’s most iconic chair designs: the B301, B306 and the LC2 Grand Comfort.
Parisian-born Charlotte is perhaps best known for her work as a designer under Le Corbusier. Despite being famously rejected by Le Corbusier in 1927 with the line “we don’t embroider cushions here”, Charlotte went on to produce three of his most iconic designs.
The streamlined design of the B301, B306 and LC2 have had a significant influence on the direction of contemporary design, setting the stage for the introduction of the sleek, light and functional aesthetic which defines modern living as we know it.
Legacy: Prolific American designer known for defining the mid-century modern aesthetic.
Together with her partner, Charles Eames, Ray was, and still is, considered to be one of the greatest American designers of the last century. They’re probably best known for their plywood furniture pieces which quickly came to define the mid-century modern aesthetic.
Among other things, the Eames’ designed revolutionary leg splints for injured World War Two soldiers. Furniture-wise, the pair are the creative masterminds behind the eponymous Eames Lounge Chair, which is of course a staple of modern twentieth century interior design.
Norma Merrick Sklarek
Dates: 1926 – 2012
Legacy: The first woman to become a licensed architect in New York and California.
In addition to her gender, Norma had the barrier of race to contend with in her journey to becoming an architect, making this pioneer all the more inspirational. Dubbed the ‘Rosa Parks of architecture’, she became the first ever woman to become a licensed architect in New York and California separately. Overall, she was the third African-American woman to be licensed as an architect in the US as a whole.
Despite her success and progress in the profession, Norma’s race and gender often excluded her from recognition on a number of projects. Among her impressive portfolio, she contributed to the design of a number of landmarks, including Santa Monica Place and Terminal One at Los Angeles International Airport. She remains an inspiration to both women and African-Americans for her remarkable achievements, which were nothing short of groundbreaking.