For the book “HerStories”, Gerda Breuer looked at the history of female graphic designers from 1880 to the present day. In this interview, the historian explains how important female designers were for the women’s movement, why the narrative in Germany is lagging behind and what female designers can do today to become more visible.
Interview by Martina Metzner
The history of design is full of male stars. What is still missing is a comprehensive look at the contribution of female designers. During her time as a professor of design history, Gerda Breuer has repeatedly focussed on the visibility of women in design. She has now written a comprehensive book that expands the male-dominated “His-tory” focussing on singular personalities to include “HerStories” and takes a look at female graphic designers as a collective. The book was designed by Katja Lis, who is mentioned on the cover in the same way as the author.
Dear Gerda Breuer, what prompted you to write “HerStories in Graphic Design” about female graphic designers from 1880 to the present day? What is missing to complete the history of design?
On the one hand, there are personal reasons. On the other hand, it’s about rewriting design history. During my time as a professor of design history at the University of Wuppertal, 80 percent of my communication design students were women. But only the history of men was taught. Where have the female designers gone? This question gave rise to the first book “Women in Graphic Design – 1890 – 2012”, which I published with Julia Meer and which shows that there were good female designers who were on an equal level with men. And then I asked myself: did women actually fight for their interests? Did they protest? You can work for the free economy, but you can also develop a productive, emancipatory force. That is the subject of my new book “HerStories”.
How can design history be re-written?
The view of history is always in flux. The history of reception has contributed a great deal to the fact that female designers have remained invisible. In their time, they were definitely involved and accepted. Their contributions were seen at the 1893 World’s Fair in the USA, at the 1914 International Exhibition of Decorative and Graphic Arts in Leipzig and at the 1914 Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne. Many female designers worked professionally with their own agencies. But a lot of research and resources are still needed to rewrite design history. For example, I am a member of the “UN/SEEN” research project funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, which Petra Eisele and Isabel Naegele initiated to contribute to the visibility of female graphic designers in the past and present. It is important to break up the canon of good design. Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, for example, did this in the 1970s. She wrote on a poster that if design is to be socially relevant, then “taste and style are not enough”.
What does this mean for today’s graphic designers?
The fact that female designers are excluded is no longer an option. You are currently talking about a fourth wave of the women’s movement. Young female designers need role models from history. Katja Lis, who designed the book “HerStories” and is an advocate for women in design in the German Designer Club, is a good example of this new movement. But as is usually the case with waves, there is also a danger that they will die down again.
In the book, you take a close look at female designers who understand visual design politically – graphic design as a means of emancipation and thus part of the women’s movement. The focus is primarily on the USA and England. Why?
There were many facets to why women stood up for their concerns. Self-empowerment is a very important point. They formed networks and collectives and supported each other. That is still the case today. In the USA, the war of secession meant that men were no longer around and women had to look after their own income. They founded drawing schools and created institutions through which they could sell their work. A good example of this pioneering spirit and pragmatism is Candace Wheeler, who was able to establish herself as an interior and textile designer at the end of the 19th century. In England at the beginning of the 20th century, there was the suffragette movement, which campaigned for women’s political suffrage. They had their own advertising agency, the “Suffrage Atelier”, which designed and produced their political writings, posters, banners and even clothing. They are still proud of this in England today.
Russia also produced powerful female graphic designers very early on, especially after the Russian Revolution, which dissolved bourgeois institutions such as family and marriage. In Germany, works by women in the applied arts are underrepresented in the archives. The poster by the “Guerilla Girls”, who discovered for their exhibition „The F* word“ iat Hamburg’s Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in summer 2023 that only 1.5 percent of the works archived there were created by women, also alludes to this. But interest in this country is developing.
In the beginning, of course, it was the daughters of the upper classes. When did this change?
It is true that, initially, women who wanted to work as illustrators or craftswomen were initially trained at public schools for a fee – for example at the ladies’ academies in Munich or at the Lette Verein in Berlin. For a long time, women were not allowed to study at public art academies, partly because nude drawing was considered immoral for women. From 1919, art academies in Germany were also opened to women. But there were other multiple obstacles at play: from the financial sovereignty of the husband to the ban on women founding associations and the denial of their right to vote in elections.
Don’t we also need the narrative of singular personalities?
There has long been criticism that design history focuses too much on personalities, even though it was a collective process. There are many great female designers who have since attracted attention. But that is not my focus in “HerStories”. But rather: What were the framework conditions like in order to develop? What forms and formats did women resort to in order to defend themselves against the restrictions? It is important for the rewriting of design history that we integrate women both as personalities and as collectives, taking into account the respective historical context.
We have already talked about singular personalities. You attribute a special role in the emancipation of female graphic designers to Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and Martha Scotford. Why is that?
Sheila Levrant de Bretteville was not only a designer, but also a feminist and typical of the 1970s. She included women in her concerns, for example, she founded the “Women’s Building” in Los Angeles with Arlene Raven in 1973. This sparked a huge debate when the new California Institute of the Arts was founded in Los Angeles, whose programme she helped to shape. As a result, designers such as Paul Rand and Armin Hoffmann left the Yale School of Art, where de Bretteville had been Director of Graphic Design since 1990. Today, she is a role model for many young female graphic designers, for example for the magazines “Girls Like Us” and “Missy Magazine”. Martha Scotford is an art and design historian from the USA who described in 1994 that design history should not just be a male-dominated “neat history” with a linear narrative, but a “messy history” with many scattered individual contributions. This is also a great example.
In addition to the politically motivated designers, there were and are of course also those who worked purely commercially …
I didn’t thematise that so much. Nevertheless, I wanted to show that women could also be incredibly successful. The female art directors of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue magazines have been very good graphic designers since the 1910s and have strongly promoted the image of the modern, working woman. They built up a whole network of women, including photographers, authors and famous personalities – Jacky Kennedy and Susan Sontag were part of their circles.
We come to the present: What are the concerns of women and graphic designers then and now?
There are a variety of approaches. One difference is that women today are moving away from the binary code of male-female and the power structures between men and women and are opening up to different sexual identities. They are also looking at ethnic groups that have been marginalised by Western white society, i.e. the BIPOC scene (abbreviation for Black People, Indigenous People and People of Colour, editor’s note). The internet plays a huge role in this: Here, women and designers can make themselves visible, articulate themselves and network.
At the moment, a lot of art and design is revolving around “white supremacy” and “decolonising design”. What can graphic designers contribute to this?
I mainly observe female designers who come from the Arab region but have studied in the West. One example is the Berlin-based graphic designer and activist Golnar Katrahmani, who comes from Iran. She is committed to Arabic writing and its reception, gives workshops, takes part in exhibitions and gives lectures. Another representative is Dana Abdullah from Kuwait, who co-founded the “Decolonising Design” platform. When I engage with them, I ask myself whether our networks are not still very westernised and white.
What can female graphic designers do today to become more visible? What can they learn from history?
They already do an incredible amount: they articulate themselves and receive training on how to make themselves visible. And then there’s always the magic word “network”. That already existed in the 1970s and 1980s. I’ve always done both. The network doesn’t spare you from your own work and your own achievements. The invisibility of women in design history also has to do with the fact that they wrote little, discussed little, worked little programmatically – they were influential, but often in the background. The designer Ellen Lupton refers to the many female professors as “underground matriarchy”. Women have to engage in public discourse – about empowerment, about queerness, whatever. That’s what I would recommend to women and designers today.
Thank you very much for the interview!
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