Voicing out how “design is, and always has been, a patriarchal industry with women being outnumbered by their male counterparts”, Women Design: Pioneers from the twentieth century to today, penned by Libby Sellers and published by Francis Lincon in an attempt to “redress this balance” as Libby identifies a need for it, is a 176-page book that brings the professional life of erratically selected successful women pioneers in the various fields of design and the struggles that they underwent to light. 

Book in Focus: Women Design: Pioneers from the twentieth century to today by Libby Sellers - Sheet1
Women Design written by Libby Sellers and published by Frances Lincoln_© Frances Lincoln

About the Author

Libby Sellers is a multifaceted designer, a design historian, a consultant, a curator, and a writer. She was the former curator at London‘s Design Museum for 10 years. Now, she is involved in freelance curating in institutions, including the Serpentine Galleries in London and Centre Pompidou in Paris. Her exhibitions celebrate the wide diversity in design. Her curatorial experience has certainly helped her author two publications on the cultures of collecting design, in addition to contributing to many magazines and publications about both contemporary and historical design. Libby Sellers was nominated for the Paul Hamlyn Breakthrough Fund for cultural entrepreneurs, and in 2014, she was honoured by the Women of the Year awards as a Woman of Achievement in the Arts. Women Design: Pioneers from the Twentieth Century to Today is her third book, which celebrates women designers from the past 120 years.

Book in Focus: Women Design: Pioneers from the twentieth century to today by Libby Sellers - Sheet2
Libby Sellers_©Joakim Blokstrom

Inside the Book

At its core, the book aims to isolate and highlight women, their struggles, and their achievements in the various fields of design with the untold stories of almost 30 individual women who either practiced individually, or in groups and flourished in their fields of set design, textile design, product design, architecture, industrial design, and many other fields of design. It is a gentle reminder about a long-neglected group’s contributions to design, due to a predominantly Western, white, male-dominated narrative. The noble intention behind her work is to enhance the visibility of such successful women designers. However, in an era of gender neutrality and gender equality based on the idea of meritocracy, it may seem preachy for Libby Sellers to hold women in design high and thus she shrewdly clarifies the temporal relevance of her work: Women Design. Libby Sellers argues that if sexism that was prevalent in the industry is ignored completely, it will not do justice to the commendable works of women designers which may go unnoticed and will cause an irreparable loss to the design industry as most of the design disciplines’ progress is based on precedents.

Contents page from Women Design Book_© Frances Lincoln

Libby Sellers places her work as merely the perpetuation of previous initiatives by design historians, editors, exhibition curators, and bloggers to pay tribute to the success of undocumented and unacknowledged women designers. She further clarifies that the selection of the 30 distinct personalities and their arrangement one after the other is intentionally random, neither biased nor hierarchical. The only intention was to ensure that the entries would “incite thought, inspire action, and engage meaningful conversations that will continue outside the pages of this book”. However, she gathers two or more women designers from similar professions under 3 titles; “On the Road, On the Bauhaus, and On the Stage”. The book encompasses the stories of a wide range of designers including historic pioneers like Denise Scott Brown, Ray Eames, and Lella Vignelli to contemporary designers like Zaha Hadid, Kazuyo Sejima, Hella Jongerius, and Neri Oxman.

The wide range of historical and contemporary designers and their lives discussed draws a detailed explanation of the struggles they faced and obstacles that redirected them, right from education to practice. “On the Bauhaus” segment of the book discussing the lives and work of Anni Albers, Marianne Brandt, and Lilly Reich, shows how entrenched gender stereotypes affected not only women but also institutions like Bauhaus which initially promised egalitarianism, but failed to keep the promise due to the inability to overcome the conventional chauvinism in the industry. The Fact that Zaha Hadid defended the gendered criticism of her works but admitted herself as a female role model to her colleagues and younger generation architects demonstrates the ingrained sexism in the industry which couldn’t be overcome even by successful women pioneers. Libby Sellers also identifies a split in the design field itself, which portrays women as responsible for decorative arts while men are responsible for more sturdy businesses like architecture and this dichotomy further made many women designers shift from their original design discipline to other feminine-friendly design disciplines. This also reasons for the extremely low percentage of women workforce in industrial design and a comparatively higher yet, still lower percentage in architecture, present day. Further, Libby Sellers deconstructs the issues in collaborative practices, where the women’s work goes unnoticed through the entries of Denise Scott Brown, Lella Vignelli, and Ray Eames.

Nevertheless, Libby Sellers inspires the readers by quoting how women broke the rule book and created their own ways, in previously male-dominant design disciplines and how women in such disciplines handled themselves though the actual number of practicing women is questionable compared to the number of female students in various design disciplines. She demonstrates how skill wins over gender biases with the example of Charlotte Perriand and Le Corbusier. Again, in the case of Althea McNish, it was her knowledge in the fields of both design and production techniques that allowed her to be creative overcoming the limits in realization of her work. Through the entry of Kazuyo Sejima, she clarifies how collaborative practices can be constructed to award equal visibility, credit, and fame. Libby Sellers portrays women designers as those who respond to the liquid times, by driving a change in their design fields such that it will benefit them. The handful of women designers in the industry are propelling changes in their fields by “embracing collaboration, dialogue, multidisciplinary research, and open-source platforms”.

Deconstructing Women Design

This is truly an inspiring book for all fellows pursuing a career in design. Throughout the book Libby Sellers gives insights on women pioneers in design, beyond the 21 names enlisted on the contents page. In addition to deconstructing the lives of the design pioneers, she also reveals sources, publications, websites, and curators from where knowledge about women designers can be gained. Women Design: Pioneers from the twentieth century to today may give an impression that women need to know and do more than men in the same field of design, women need to be unique, women need to learn the developments in their respective fields of science and technology well in advance, women need to become men in the process of sustaining themselves in the profession if not they will not be heard, seen or acknowledged. This enhances the fierce tone which supports the aim of the book which is to do justice to the underappreciated successful women designers. More than just appreciating the success of the women designers, Libby Sellers recklessly accuses the established male pioneers of the design industry, be it an institution or person, who delayed or denied the rightful accreditation to a women designer and the tale of Le Corbusier and E1027 is one such attempt. The book is one of the best archives that gathers untold stories of women designers from various backgrounds, nations, periods, and disciplines under a single umbrella, for students, curators, and simply designers, in an attempt to enhance the visibility of such design professionals and chauvinism that they overcame and also paving the way for further research on similar issues in the industry.


  1. Dawood, S. (2018). Women Design: the book challenging a ‘patriarchal industry’. [online] Design Week. Available at: https://www.designweek.co.uk/issues/4-10-june-2018/women-design-libby-sellers-book-challenging-patriarchal-industry/.
  2. Libby Sellers (2018). Women Design. London: Frances Lincoln.

Valliammai Tirupathi is a budding architect. She has an immense passion for research and writing, mainly in Architectural Theory and the History of Architecture. She believes that Architectural Journalism can bring about a change in the profession. She loves to analyze and break down heavy information and complex ideas into simple sentences.