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Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 790-791

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Book Review

Design and Feminism: Re-Visioning Spaces, Places, and Everyday Things

Design and Feminism: Re-Visioning Spaces, Places, and Everyday Things. Edited by Joan Rothschild. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1999. Pp. x+202; illustrations, figures, notes/references, index. $50 (cloth); $25 (paper).

Almost every professional field has had to confront the challenges posed by feminist scholarship, and they have done so on a number of different levels. In the sciences the issues have mostly concerned the history and sociology of the disciplines per se, although researchers have also investigated the possibility that the concepts of science themselves are gendered. In the engineering disciplines, where knowledge is typically generated with a more direct eye on the uses to which it may be put, feminists have drawn attention to ways in which seemingly objective, "technical" solutions may affect different people in different and possibly unequal ways. The same may surely be said for the hybrid design disciplines--architecture, industrial design, and graphic design--that constitute the terrain of this new collection of essays.

Design and Feminism consists of a dozen essays, many occasioned by a 1995 conference titled "Re-Visioning Design and Technology," divided very unequally between architecture, on the one hand, and everything else, on the other. Indeed, this is the first concern that must be raised about the collection. In the essay that opens the volume, Joan Rothschild and Victoria Rosner survey many of the books, articles, and conferences that have, since the mid-1970s, addressed such topics as women in architecture, spatial arrangements, and theories of architecture and gender. This wide-ranging analytical review goes on for about fifteen pages, and is followed by a brief section on industrial, product, and graphic design that reads as a somewhat grudging footnote to the noble profession of architecture. Admittedly, as the authors note, the literature outside of architecture is still sparse, but this is not an encouraging note on which to begin a collection whose stated objectives include breaking down the inherited hierarchies of professional design practice, promoting inclusiveness, and fostering greater interdisciplinary cooperation.

Nor do the essays themselves, despite their generally high quality, help to redress that imbalance. Nine of the twelve chapters are concerned with architecture or offer an architect's perspective on larger issues. Ellen Lupton's essay provides the only perspective on graphic design, but it is excerpted from her previously published book, Mixing Messages: Graphic Design in Contemporary Culture (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996). Three industrial designers--Nancy Perkins, Amelia Amon, and Wendy Brawer--are represented, but their brief, tantalizing reports are clustered together into a single, cramped chapter; and design historian Cheryl Buckley's "reworking" of her provocative essay of 1986, "Design in [End Page 790] Patriarchy," is notably less compelling than the original. For researchers who may be attempting to break out of a design discourse dominated by architects and architecture, Design and Feminism offers little comfort.

If "design" seems inadequately resolved by the collection, so also does "feminism," but this is an omission less by accident than, as it were, by design. Readers will come away from Design and Feminism not with a systematically articulated view of how feminism might contribute to the history, theory, and practice of design, but with a dozen perspectives on how to address this question in the first place. There is, for example, the "compensatory" approach to mainstream urban or architectural history practiced by such accomplished scholars as Dolores Hayden, who reclaims elements of the urban landscape that have figured importantly in the histories of women (how many of McKim, Mead, and White's celebrated beaux arts "landmarks" were originally private men's clubs?). Other contributions jar us by asking new questions of old material: When Alice Friedman, for instance, shifts the level of analysis from the male architect to the female client, some of the most famous projects of Frank Lloyd Wright, Gerrit Rietveldt, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, or Richard Neutra appear in a strikingly different light. Yet another group...


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