Libby Sellers hopes women in design won't have to ask ‘Are we there yet?’

London – Who was the first to say that insanity was doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results? While many attribute it to Albert Einstein, it's hard to be sure – perhaps it actually came from a woman. It is in the spirit of this colloquial wisdom that the 2019 Frame Awards vie to try something new: to challenge the past. 

As the conversation about gender parity in all industries amplifies, the question as to why design is not the leading community in resolving to correct inequality pervades. The sand in our collective hourglass, rapidly inching toward denouement, underscores, highlights and emboldens our unfulfilled responsibility to change.

Jury member for the Residential Spatial panel Libby Sellers is more than qualified to help confront the gender discrimination that affects over half the design community. The London-based jill-of-all-trades has played the roles of student, businesswoman, researcher, historian, curator, gallerist, consultant and writer within the industry. Still, what’s most impressive is not her résumé, but the delicate balance in which she continues to hone each of these respective characters, letting not one fall through the cracks.

Libby Sellers photographed by Joakim Blockstrom

She got her start with her MA in design history at the prestigious Royal College of Art, which boasts the distinction that it is the only postgraduate university in the world entirely dedicated to art and design. With a voice that rings clear with confidence and alacrity – the voice of a leader – it seems fitting that she had found her niche in guiding young and emerging designers through the ups and the downs of the industry, first as curator, then gallerist, and now a consultant. It is with the same tone that she wrote Women Design, which was published this June and showcases pioneering female designers from past to future.

And, as designers rightfully continue to demand representation and fairness for all in the industry, Sellers takes on her newest role: a leading light in the movement. At the Frame Awards, we hope that the example of vocal trailblazers like Libby help shift the standard in our design community.

I wouldn’t say women are equal at all in the design industry, which is really unusual in an industry that’s predicated on democracy and progressive attitudes

With the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, we’ve seen female leaders in the film industry and beyond take a stand. Where do you see the design community placed in terms of equality?

LIBBY SELLERS: Today, we’re just not there. While the statistics are sadly disappointing, they’re changing. Something like three quarters of design student applicants in North America and Europe are women. But, with figures for senior industry executives, that number drops to one quarter: there’s a real disproportionate representation of gender within the industry of design. Women are always outnumbered by their male counterparts. I wouldn’t say women are equal at all in the design industry, which is really unusual in an industry that’s predicated on democracy and progressive attitudes.

Where women are, or historically always have been, the pioneers of breaking through are where there’s been nobody to write the rules, or a gatekeeper to stop them from moving forward. You find examples such as Muriel Cooper (see cover image), who was a graphic designer that worked at MIT in 1970s. She was one of the first to start working on graphic interfaces for the computer and the Internet. It was a brand new field, where she was inventing the guides and the rulebooks. There was nothing previously there to hold her back.

In your Design Dialogues 2016 speech in Malta, you explain how, historically, design has always been a dialogue based on the conditions of society. There are obviously discrepancies in that narrative for women: can you expand on that?

If you look back through design history, women’s stories or rather their dialogues, have not been as audible as their male colleagues. There’s many reasons for that. The first and foremost being that, until the early 1900s, women weren’t even allowed to study design in any academic environment. Even though there were women practicing design, they weren’t academically qualified, and therefore they were treated more like amateurs, disregarded by any commentator or critic of the time. They weren’t written about in way that has allowed us to learn about that. Obviously the century progressed, and women’s rights, women’s access to design became more prevalent. Even still, if they weren’t working in architecture or industrial design, basically it wasn’t considered design. If they were doing textiles, or ceramics, or anything deemed feminine, it was downgraded or misaligned.

Finnish designer and architect Aino Aalto's glassware. She also designed textiles, lamps and buildings.

If they were married to a famous architect, say for example, Aino Aalto, or Denise Scott Brown, or even Ray Eames, they were often treated as a women who supported their husbands from behind the scenes rather than an active participant in the job.

To skip straight to an acceptance of gender neutrality would risk ignoring the knock-on gender bias that persists within the industry

In Women Design, you aim to explore this dialogue of women in design, to rewrite history in a way. How was this particular attention to the female scope received?

A handful of contemporary designers whom I contacted to be in the book asked to be excluded as they wanted conversations about their work to be focused on the work  – not their gender. It is a fair point and one that I respect, but because the design industry was and largely remains a deeply patriarchal one, the majority of design books are about men. They have been both written about them and by them. And this gender bias has permeated throughout our learning and understanding of design. Like many of my friends and colleagues in the industry, I felt that to continue without realigning the balance would only encourage an impoverished future for design as a result.

The 2018 edition of the Frame Lifetime Achievement Award honoured the trajectory of a female designer, Sevil Peach

Ignoring the fact that the design industry has historically been and largely remains patriarchal meant the marginalisation, relegation, suppressing and disregard of women’s large contributions to it. To skip straight to an acceptance of gender neutrality would risk ignoring the knock-on gender bias that persists within the industry. Those who rightly believe that gender should not matter and that talent and drive should determine who succeeds, must also acknowledge that these latent prejudices in the profession have already eliminated or repressed an overwhelming majority of that same talent pool.

With the issues we’ve discussed in mind, what does an event like the Frame Awards mean as an opportunity for designers?

I think recognition is an amazing opportunity at whatever level of your career you are, but not only your peers, but also a wider community. To endorse and celebrate that work is wonderful; there is nothing more gratifying.

From my perspective, it’s a chance to engage critically in my design community. I love awards because they challenge you to think, to look at something critically and come up with justifications as to why [you put] one thing over another.

The Netherlands has led the dialogue about critical thinking, and it seems fittings that the awards, a critical evaluation of the industry, are there

The Dutch design community seems to be an example to follow not just in terms of critical thinking, but also regarding the overall participation of women. As we are based in Amsterdam, do you see how that can influence the Frame Awards?

In the last 40 or so years, talking about this geocultural shift, the Netherlands really has invested heavily in critical design thinking. The country has led the dialogue about it, and it seems fitting that the awards, a critical evaluation of the industry, are there.

How do we keep this progress moving forward for all?

If you believe that design affects every single thing you do, at every waking and sleeping moment of your life, then it is therefore important to have the best design possible. That's when you have to make sure that the design comes from a spectrum that reflects the society in which we live, and that’s not happening if it’s only coming from 50 percent  – or less  – of the population.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Residential Spatial panel which Libby is on the jury for consists of four categories: Small Apartments, Large Apartments, Houses and Co-Living Complexes. You can submit your own projects and learn more about the Frame Awards event here.

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