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“Can design be genderless?” that’s the vague question—though brimmed with possibility—that the National Museum of Women in the Arts asked last Wednesday night. The discussion was the third installment of the museum’s latest programming initiative, Fresh Talk, which focuses on women initiating social change. Featuring design critic Alice Rawsthorn and industrial designer Gabriel Ann Maher, the evening raised as many questions as it answered.
The first of the two speakers, Rawsthorn provided a common and predictable introduction of historical gender issues within design, most notably the conspicuous lack of women in design jobs through much of the 20th century. This dearth of diversity among designers reinforces heternormativity even today, according to Rawsthorn, who noted that new smart homes are built with amenities tailored to accommodate a traditional nuclear family. She was optimistic that times are changing, though, due to the recent upsurge in LGBTQ visualization and support. While she surveyed several interesting examples of non-gendered design, ranging from a Danish stool to a pop-up clothing store, more detail on how these products are being used would have made Rawsthorn’s conversation more satisfying.
Maher’s introspective talk balanced Rawsthorn’s broad and sweeping discussion. A gender-fluid designer whose work is included in the museum’s current “Pathmakers” exhibition, Maher spoke at length about their own personal interests and research. Arguing that design is inherently genderless—it is designers who create gendered objects—Maher’s research and designs both highlight and complicate how gender is communicated visually. For instance, their DE____SIGN clothing series includes an extendable shoulder feature as a way of adding or subtracting a typical sign of masculinity for the wearer.
Both Rawsthorn and Maher acknowledged that gender identity is complicated and varied—even Facebook’s 58 gender options weren’t inclusive enough. Yet the discussion itself struggled to be intersectionally inclusive. Very few (if any) designers of color were cited and the product examples used were overwhelmingly geared toward a middle-to-upper class Western consumer.
The evening ended on a note of optimism rooted in the belief that de-gendering design is a liberating, progressive force that allows for exponential self-expression. Rawsthorn shrewdly observed that the last century of design was swathed in “benevolent standardization” that condensed gender identity to male and female. Subsequent generations will “revel in being Other,” she said brightly. But it may be worth asking if genderless design has a similar ability to standardize otherness.
The next Fresh Talk event is March 2 at the National Museum for Women in the Arts (1250 New York Ave. NW).
Photo by Kevin Allen