“I have never considered myself a feminist”
says bluntly Paula Scher in the sixth episode of “Abstract: The Art of Design” (Netflix) dedicated to her work. The 40 minutes long episode discusses the issue of sex-based discrimination of women practitioners for exactly one minute and twenty seconds.
Paula admits her outrage while confronting sexism in her work-environment in the 70s and how nowadays she faces a sincere concern in the eyes of her clients upon “being stuck with an old lady” as she eloquently describes it, laughing at all times. As if sexist comments were a subject that cannot be discussed with the necessary seriousness. Even when she admits that sexism “is like any other –ism”, she doesn’t expand on it, simply states that the phenomenon exists, without using her very privileged position to elaborate, analyse and condemn the exclusiveness of the design profession.
At the beginning of the episode, we are being introduced to Pentagram – the world’s largest independent design consultancy – the black and white picture of all the partners, including Paula Scher, with only a very few women (there are only 4 women among 20 partners at Pentagram), impacts powerfully. Therefore, the reluctance of Scher to discuss her personal an very isolated achievement of breaking the ceiling (in comparison to the majority of women designers) and to acknowledge the structural oppression faced by women practitioners is disappointing to say the least.
The episode continues, with Scher jumping forth and back and giving spotlight to her almost 50 years long career, she discusses the projects, talks to her team, but even then, the hierarchal structure is preserved. Paula’s office together with her partners is on a different floor then the rooms of her design team, which in a symbolic way emphasises the up-down relationship of a master and an apprentice.
The series as a whole reinforces this hierarchical practice and nurtures the image of design as a success story of genius individuals (predominately white men) who driven by their determination and genie, managed to reach the highest positions in the hierarchy of the discipline. This distorted image of heroic individuals does not reflect the state of design only fortifies the clichés and cultivates the hyper-competitive, capitalist, individualist culture. The collectiveness, co-creation of knowledge, so important for a successful design process are barely mentioned.
In the course of the series we meet 8 different individuals, representing variety of design disciplines, from Christoph Niemann a neurotic illustrator, through Tinker Hatfield a shoe-wear designer, Bjarke Ingels – “enfant terrible” architect, Ralph Gilles – the head of design at Chrysler, Ilse Crawford- an interior designer, Platon – a very composed photographer, Es Devlin – a stage designer and already mentioned Paula Scher. Located in Europe and in NYC, the series perpetuates the culture of elite designers concentrated in the global north, missing the processes and group influencing today’s design from different parts of the globe. Most of the designers in the show, work in the teams, but their colleagues are only a mere background, an animated wallpaper sitting in front of their iMacs or remodeling the clay prototypes, with a very few actually talking. Ilse Crawford is an exception, she at all times uses plural while discussing the projects and seems to be more inclusive, also members of her studio appear relatively often in comparison to other episodes.
Out of eight portrayed designers, three are women, one could say “not bad 40%” , but we shouldn’t only stick to the gender balance on the individual and purely quantitative level. Rather we have to analyse the processes and messages behind any conceptual work and a documentary series is definitely a one. Deciding upon the format Scott Dadich and Morgan Neville, made a conscious choice of focusing on individuals rather than on collectives, which preserves the mainstream view of design and doesn’t pose any criticism towards the status quo. Presented women practitioners are either silent about the exclusiveness of design, or try to laugh out sexism. It proves us again, how efficient are the mechanisms of oppression.
The episodes presenting men designers, are quite appalling as well. In the one about Christoph Niemann, a woman working at The New Yorker apparently at a high position, meets with the illustrator to discuss the new cover, but she has no face, no name and her voice is muffled so we cannot understand what is she saying, all these efforts and tricks in order to attract our attention to the one and only hero.
Bjarke Ingels’ parents talk proudly about their son, the father is much more vocal than the silent, composed mother. The woman architect who used to be an intern at BIG Architects, is presented as the one who fell in love with a colleague, while working on a project and now they have a baby together and live in one of Ingels’ residential blocks. Again, a woman practitioner is not being accounted or remembered by her work, her input, rather is she portrayed through the lens of gender stereotypes.
The offices of Chrysler design team are almost exclusively filled with men, every now and then a random woman appears, but neither she talks nor presents anything of significance. The episode quite accurately represents the reality of car design, as a predominately male discipline, from which women are constantly excluded, not only as practitioners, but also as users.
“Abstract: the art of design” again and again fails to highlight the power, blends into a very predictable discourse and blindly worships its protagonists. The lack of criticism is appalling but not surprising, after all we have been living under the design patriarchy for a long, too long.