Women’s contributions to building and designing the world we live in have long been felt, but have not until recently garnered just recognition. From furniture making to large-scale construction projects, female creatives are leading the charge in moving industrial design forward by shaping our surrounding landscapes, community spaces, and household objects. Here, we speak to five women from across the globe who are challenging dated misconceptions in the industry and paving the way for the future of female-led industrial design.
Li Xiang, X+Living
The Zhongshuge Bookstore in Chengdu, China, is an architectural wonder that envelops its guests in a storybook utopia. However, the work of Li Xiang, president and creative director of X+Living, goes beyond elegantly curved bookcases and reflective ceilings. By translating the beauty present in her everyday life into her design work, Li creates a narrative that evokes a sense of adventure. “The space itself should be like a complete story,” she explains. “No matter how the idea or design scheme changes, I always stick to one thing—that is, seeking the balance between function and aesthetics.” Initially starting out as an architect, Li was able to step into the world of interior design with a different set of eyes. This allowed her to take on projects in diverse industries, in which she continues to defy the guidelines set by precedent.“I will never be satisfied with a stereotyped form of design, so I try to make a breakthrough in every single project.” As a female entrepreneur, Li uses her femininity to help her be more insightful. She believes that the ongoing fight for gender equality has presented fair opportunities for men and women in the industry. “In my opinion, it is the female architects or designers that will define what’s next for themselves, as long as they have the willpower.
Nata Janberidze and Keti Toloraia, Rooms
One of the earliest challenges faced by Tbilisi-based designers Nata Janberidze and Keti Toloraia was coming from a country with no previous design scene. “We felt isolated at first,” the pair recalls, “but this situation helped develop our style without outer influences and trends.” The duo launched Rooms in 2007, quickly becoming one of the first Georgian design firms to showcase work on the international stage. The studio’s vision is deeply rooted in the pair’s Soviet childhood. “Everything we have done this far stems from our souls, our past, and identity. That’s why our collections carry hints of Soviet-era brutalism, and an ode to Georgian minimalist craftmanship.” The Life on Earth Collection, which debuted at last year’s Milan Design Week, features 12 handmade objects built with a combination of natural stones and composite materials, and references the pair’s experience of Asian and European culture. Carrying a deep awareness of classical techniques and craftsmanship, Janberidze and Toloraia continue to explore new processes and materials and drive the creative boom happening in their home country.
Olivia Lee, Olivia Lee studio
Singaporean designer Olivia Lee recalls several times in her career when she was undermined as a female entrepreneur in industrial design. But by remaining hands-on and vigilant, she began to shift the dynamic. Today, she basks in the success of her internationally recognized projects, such as the Athena Collection, which debuted at Milan Design Week in 2017. The tech-inspired collection includes a vanity table optimized for selfies and a tactile rug which prevents slamming into furniture during a virtual-reality gaming session. Keeping in mind her female consumer in the age of technology, Lee says her work is “more reflective of an approach, rather than a signature aesthetic.” With a focus on balancing the tension between tradition and future through the use of narrative design, Lee brings her clients into unexplored territories. “I enjoy being an oddity and subverting expectations,” she says, which explains why the designer loves when her work is described as wondrous and whimsical.
Mary Ratcliffe, M.R.S
As a teenager, Mary Ratcliffe spent most of her time in her dad’s workshop. Since she taught herself woodworking, she has been compulsively creating, funnelling her love for building and designing into Mary Ratcliffe Studio (M.R.S), which she founded in 2013. Ratcliffe’s work fuses traditional techniques of furniture making with contemporary design ideas. Items like the Constance Bench and the Myers Console convey her elegant but tough style, which she described as “contemporary with timeless undertones.” Her pieces contain rustic elements that are counterbalanced with a delicate execution. With her studio launching a ready-to-order furniture line later his year, she describes the process as wildly fulfilling. “Many of the pieces in development have been floating around in my head for years,” she explains. “It is a fun challenge to now be working through them in real life.” Through her work, Ratcliffe continues to be a shining example for young women aspiring to step into the world of industrial design. “I think this starts with us creating a community of supporting each other and building each other up, and I think role models and mentors are a big part of that.”