The challenge to name ten well-known female product designers offhand who do not work together with a male partner would probably embarrass even design experts. Hella Jongerius, Patricia Urquiola, Matali Crasset: that is as far as most people get. But further than that? Product design, like architecture, is a male-dominated world – even if we presume that female designers are no longer subjected to such biting chauvinism as Charlotte Perriand was when she appeared at Le Corbusier's studio in 1927. "We don't embroider cushions here," he said, and showed her the door.
There is one trump card however, which would bump up this list of female designers to six in one go: Front Design. One of the reasons the three Swedish designers are causing such a stir in the sector is that they are all women. That said, this seems to be far less remarkable in Sweden than elsewhere, after all there is a noticeably large number of women in design in Scandinavia.
Furniture classics or bric-a-brac?
The most obvious explanation for this is one of the biggest clichés on Scandinavia alongside elk, red wooden cabins, a love of nature and excessive alcohol consumption: equality. Indeed, in international equality rankings, Scandinavian countries occupy the top spots. "A strong tradition of gender equality in Nordic countries has given women access to educational opportunities, apprenticeships, and directorial positions in design industries," says Judy L. Larson from the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington. In 2004 this museum held the exhibition "Nordic Cool: Hot Women Designers", representing no fewer than 159 female designers, starting with pioneers like Swede Karin Larsson (born in 1859) and her proto-modern textile designs; Finn Maija Isola, who in 1951 was the first female designer to work for Marimekko; and Dane Nanna Ditzel, who is responsible for numerous furniture classics from the second half of the 20th century. An article on Icelandic design on the Icelandic Design Centre Website also points to the high percentage of women working in Nordic design today. Eight of the ten designers named in the article are women. Moreover, among the most interesting female representatives of the Scandinavian design scene are Swede Monica Förster, Dane Cecilie Manz and Norwegians Silje Søfting and Eva Marit Tøftum, whose studio is fittingly called SHE Design.
But does this impression correspond with reality? Are Nordic countries really a paradise for the female designer? "Today, at large gatherings of designers, there still seem to be more men than women in the field, even up here," admits Dane Louise Campbell. Swedish designer Zandra Ahl took it even further and in her 2002 book "Swedish Taste" described the public design debate in her home country as "stupid, sexist and racist": "Taste is a question of status, and it is still white middle-class men who have leased this, while design by women is frequently reduced to decorative bric-a-brac." Whether she is right or wrong, statements like these show that there is an awareness of the topic – and that is more than can be said of many other countries.
Bicycles are not for girls
Although even in Scandinavia all that glitters may not be gold, it cannot be denied that female designers there have better opportunities than in many other countries. Icelandic designer Sigridur Heimisdottir from Studio Sigga Heimis recalls an incident from her days studying in Italy: "There were 25 of us in the industrial design class, six of us women. For our final project we decided to work together to design a bicycle. The professor kindly asked us if we thought that would be the best thing to work on, being girls." That would never have happened in her home country. "In Scandinavia boys and girls are taught equally and learn that success is not a matter of gender – even in the design profession."
The biggest media stars on the female design scene in Scandinavia are without doubt Front Design from Stockholm. Part of the three Swedes' success is down to their eternal balancing act between sexiness and girl power, because let's be honest, without the attractive group photos of Sofia Lagerkvist, Charlotte von der Lancken and Anna Lindgren they would probably get considerably less media attention. Yet their designs certainly fly in the face of a cliché or two – particularly the idea that Scandinavian design is principally minimalistic and sober. Front's approach may seem untypical, but Louise Campbell claims to observe a fundamental shift in Nordic design: "Over the past ten or 15 years design in general has become somewhat gentler. This gentleness may well come more naturally to women than men, but it seems to me that both genders are welcoming this more empathetic approach to design." Which poses a chicken-or-egg question: Are women playing a greater role because the trend is going in the direction of softer design or is it the other way round? Are drills that look like a hand-held blender conceivable in the future, as Swede Karin Ehrnberger visualized them for her final project on gender clichés in product design? Or, thanks to Scandinavian women designers, will we see more products like the office chair "Lei" on the market, which Monica Förster designed for Officeline, specially tailored to the female anatomy?
But before we get carried away, Louise Campbell brings us back to reality: "In Scandinavian culture someone's gender is far less relevant than the work they produce. I do, however, still quite frequently find myself discussing my work in rooms where the only other female figure is gazing down at us from a pin-up calendar."