Women’s Work

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Women in Graphic Design, 1890–2012Edited by Gerda Breuer and Julia MeerDesigned by Julia MeerJovis/D.A.P.

608 pp., $55

I like big books. In the digital age, big books stand out. Their sheer weight and volume ensure that they have both a physical and authoritative presence. Big books suggest a subject has some kind of importance. A successful big book will address big questions.

Women in Graphic Design, 1890–2012 is one such big book, weighing in at around three pounds. It is a dual-language survey of 608 pages, with an unfussy typographic cover and over 550 illustrations. Some of the texts and interviews are published in German—the majority with accompanying English abstracts—and this is of course a problem for Anglophone readers. The writing is always thoughtful, though, scholarly but never inaccessible. The book’s editors—Gerda Breuer, an art historian, and Julia Meer, a designer and the editor of ff magazine—state their aim up front: “Where are the women in graphic design history?”

Previous attempts have been made to address this question. For example, Isabelle Anscombe’s book A Woman’s Touch (Viking, 1984) was one of the first to focus on the contributions women made to textile, interior, and furniture design. A few years later, Liz McQuiston wrote Women in Design (Rizzoli, 1988), which through bibliographic entries highlighted women working across the design disciplines. There have been other attempts since then, notably Pat Kirkham’s edited catalog, Women Designers in the USA, 1900–2000 (Yale University Press, 2000), and Bryony Gomez-Palacio and Armin Vit’s Women of Design (HOW Books, 2008).

But feminist scholarship on graphic design has primarily been in journal essays, not books. This is exemplified by the design historian Martha Scotford’s now seminal essay “Is There a Canon of Graphic Design History?,” first published in 1991 in the AIGA Journal and subsequently reprinted in key anthologies, in which the existence of a male-dominated graphic design canon is problematized. Her conclusions are a cautious reminder that in the development of any graphic design history, a canon by its very nature may be exclusive. The danger, according to Scotford, is that “a canon creates the impression that . . . the best is known, the rest is not worth knowing.”

Fortunately, Breuer and Meer have heeded Scotford’s advice and produced this substantial volume with the intent of giving “an introduction to the topic, thereby providing the impulse for further research.” (The book itself is the culmination of a research project supported, in part, by a grant from the University of Wuppertal, in Germany.)

Women in Graphic Design is divided into four main sections—essays, interviews, documents, and short biographies—a structure that mirrors the editors’ use of different research methods to provide a fuller picture of women working in the field, both historically and up to the present day. The book starts off with a series of commissioned essays, which establish key historical, theoretical, and cultural contexts (women’s contribution to poster design; women, education, and the applied arts; Russian avant-garde designers), and brings to the fore “forgotten German pioneers,” such as the Bauhaus-trained designer Irmgard Sörensen-Popitz, the calligrapher Anna Simons, and the poster artist Dore Mönkemeyer-Corty. American pioneers are represented through essays by Scotford on Cipe Pineles in Eye; and by Ellen Lupton on American women graphic designers, from Kirkham’s previously mentioned catalog. In the interviews section, Meer speaks to Irma Boom, Paula Scher, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Tina Roth Eisenberg (a.k.a. Swiss Miss), and Anna Berkenbusch, among others. The book ends with an A–Z of short biographical entries of women working from 1890 to the present day, compiled from secondary sources. These begin to generate another kind of canon for graphic design history.

It is perhaps inevitable in a book of this kind that certain names would be absent, and the editors acknowledge this. Still, the lack of attention to collaborative work is surprising; there is a single essay addressing a husband-and-wife team. Thus, for example, there is nothing about the Women’s Design + Research Unit (which I cofounded) or BirdWatching, and only a brief mention of the 1990s Women’s Action Coalition in a revised essay by Lupton, originally found in Kirkham’s book. Missing graphic design educators include McQuiston, Sherry Blankenship, and Elizabeth Resnick. It is true they do not fit the exact terms of the book, but they have had a huge influence on the number and quality of women entering the profession.

Designers from outside the Anglo-European axis are few. It is heartening to see new names from Europe, and a less forthright emphasis on the United States, but still more could be done. Those included were selected for their “economic independence,” “status,” and “public recognition,” but these can be overly limiting criteria. The editors clearly argue from a professional-practice point of view—the women included have undertaken careers in graphic design. This is an understanding of graphic design that readers of Print will be familiar with, but it excludes those women whose practices are not economically driven.

Having said that, the book is still a very valuable resource. Despite omissions, the editors are clearly aware of “the problems of gender in the history of graphic design.” Meer identifies seven problems, from defining terms (“graphic design,” “male genius,” “female aesthetics”) to a gender-biased historiography and the sourcing of materials—for example, the inherent difficulty of locating archives of women in graphic design, which itself raises judgments about what is important.

So, even for a big book about a big subject, it has a lot to say. There is a danger that it becomes apologetic in places about the quality of scholarship. One essayist states that the women highlighted in her essay are “admittedly” in a process of “subjective selection,” implying that perhaps the criteria for judging women’s work has not yet been fully theorized. I wonder—if this were a book on men in graphic design, would the same sentiment be expressed?

This article is from the October 2012 issue of Print. Purchase the issue, or download a PDF version, at MyDesignShop.com.