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International Women’s Day: Celebrating Women In Design in 2024

From Patricia Urquiola to Japanese architect Sanaa, we discover how a handful of women designers are taking the world by storm

Mar 06, 2024 | By Joe Lim

Women have long been associated as home decorators but are more than just beautifying interior spaces. Women have come a long way in the fields of architecture, product design and interior design. We have a handful of crucial women figures who have been reigning in their respective industries.

In a world dominated by men, these design greats of the fairer sex have been leading the charge to provide people with aesthetically pleasing and efficient products, spaces and ambiences. Let’s kick off International Women’s Day with these significant role models.

Leanne Ford, Interior Designer

Leanne Ford
Leanne Ford. Image: Clever.

Interior designer Leanne Ford is big on giving her clients space to breathe with various shades of white. The HGTV DIY guru, who rose to fame showing America that any middle-class home has the potential to become a Parisian pied-à-terre or zen oasis, told WWD, however, that her latest collection with Crate & Barrel is bursting with colourful influences — though products are still mostly in shades of white.

Interior designer Leanne Ford may not be a household name, but she started her career at Betsey Johnson in the early 2000s. While industry naysayers say it takes work to cross from the fashion industry to the interior design realm, she certainly made the right choice.

Leanne Ford
Cool, sublime, neutral — the themes that Leanne Ford is recognised for. Image: Guffertys.

Ford, who had previously lived in New York City and Los Angeles, moved back to Pittsburgh because she was tired of the traffic. There, she took on the project of renovating a midcentury modern house in Sewickley Heights, and she went on to become well-known when she and her brother Steve appeared on the HGTV series “Restored by the Fords,” where they took on home remodelling projects. Leanne Ford’s journey started when she bought a historic schoolhouse to live in. Her cosmopolitan yet rustic personality captured American viewers.

Today, the former HGTV DIY guru has made her name for showing America that any middle-class home can be transformed into a Zen oasis. Renowned for her expertise in white interiors, she experiments with various shades of cool hues to create interior spaces that stand out. Who said white is boring?

Leanne Ford
The Origins Collection are furniture pieces designed for Crate & Barrel. Image; Crate & Barrel.

She now works with furniture brands such as Crate & Barrel to create a comprehensive collection of beautiful pieces for the home, such as sofas, credenzas, consoles, armchairs and an extensive outdoor furniture range. Her latest collection for Crate & Barrel is “The Origins Collection”. Her favourite artistic movements — Bauhaus and Neo-classical — inspired her to devise these chic pieces where pale wood, beige and cream-based furniture take centre stage.

“I tend to kind of keep my blinders on and create what I think is beautiful. You’re gonna live with this furniture, and if all goes well in 20 years, it’s still going to make you feel good,” she said.

One of her key pieces from this collection is an updated Chesterfield sofa with sun-bleached-looking beige leather. The collection is effortlessly cool; even if the pieces are in neutral shades, their striking forms will make any space stand out.

Kelly Wearstler, Interior Design

Kelly Wearstler
Kelly Wearstler. Image: Deezen.

American designer Kelly Wearstler established her own interior design company in 1995. During her illustrious career, she has created numerous hotels and upscale residential, commercial, retail, and hospitality spaces. Her luxury lifestyle business includes collections of wall coverings, tiles, furniture, lighting, rugs, fabrics, and interior design. Kelly views design as primarily romantic and intuitive. Her trademark style combines colour with intricacy and spontaneity to create luxurious and vibrant rooms.

Kelly Wearstler
Dahlia Los Angeles cocktail bar designed by Kelly Wearstler. Image: ElleDecor.

Known for her stunning combinations of materials and inspirations, Wearstler, one of the world’s most prominent female interior designers, uses her creations to tell powerful stories. Her strengths are her deft use of materials, her ability to juxtapose many historical styles, and her ability to add the unexpected to a space. She has a strong affinity for natural materials and strives to reduce the carbon footprint in her designs. Additionally, Wearstler is the first member of the MasterClass Series as an interior designer.

Kelly Wearstler
Four Seasons, Anguilla Private Residences, US. Image: Anguilla Private Residences.

Wearstler’s distinct modern style, fusing vintage and artisanal pieces, never fails to stun the eyes. Kelly Wearstler’s distinct modern style never fails to stun. Her approach to design is theatrical, incorporating vivid colours, odd shapes, and unexpected bold prints. Her own flair and surprising combinations elevate every room she designs. Wearstler is not just for the dazzling and striking. She is renowned for her ability to glam up neutral hues and draw attention to outdoor spaces without making the designs appear flashy or overdone.

“My aesthetic is about mixology; always something old and something new, raw and refined, masculine and feminine.”

Patricia Urquiola, Furniture and Lighting Designer

Patricia Urquiola
Patricia Urquiola in a Haworth showroom. Image: Haworth.

Born in Spain, Patricia Urquiola is based in Milan nowadays. One of the most acclaimed interior designers of modern days, Urquiola is mainly known for her furniture designs and commercial interior design projects, which combine poetic and playful designs with pragmatic and practical elements. Her work includes designing for brands such as Moroso, Molteni & C, Kartell, Flos, and Foscarini, to name a few.

“I always think that the project I’m working on will be the best.”

Patricia Urquiola is an architect, art director, and industrial designer from Spain. Her studio creates interior pieces and architectural projects with consideration for workplace mobility and production cycles. Urquiola starts every project to integrate emotion into her designs by developing an understanding relationship with the user. Her goal is to establish a connection between items or areas and the people who use them or are in the vicinity.

“Caboche” pendant light for Foscarini. Image: Foscarini.

Working with intricate processes that range in size from micro to mega is familiar for Urquiola. She espouses an inventive design philosophy integrating social, technological, and humanistic perspectives. She creates connections between industrial research and craftsmanship since she is a strong proponent of giving second lives to abandoned materials through upcycling. Today, she’s one of the most recognisable faces in furniture, lighting and decorative pieces.

Studiopepe, Furniture and Lighting Designer

Studiopepe comprises Chiara Di Pinto and Arianna Lelli Mami. Image: Essential Home.

University colleagues Chiara Di Pinto (born in Milan in 1976) and Arianna Lelli Mami (born in Desio in 1975) earned degrees in Industrial Design from the Milan Polytechnic and created Studiopepe in Milan in 2006. The studio is a multidisciplinary design, architecture, graphic design, communication, installations, and creative direction business well-known for its approach.

Their broad iconographic and cultural allusions, which inspired their style, might be eclectic. Studiopepe has found inspiration in Italian design’s formal, chromatic, and visionary aspects from the 1950s and 1960s, allowing them to experiment with new aesthetic norms and create demanding projects with graphic and sculptural quality. The firm works with design companies to develop interior design projects, hotels, boutiques, showrooms, exposition booths, style projects, and photoshoots for significant magazines.

“So Far” dining chairs for Baxter. Image: Baxter
“Zefir” chair for Baxter: Image: Baxter.
“Stami” chair for Gallotti&Radice. Image: Galotti&Radice.

Studiopepe is also renowned for its transformative work of the Milanese flagship store of the Danish furniture brand Republic of Fritz Hansen. The female duo also reimagined the Kvadrat multi-room installation to launch the Raf Simons fabric collection.

Their work with premium leather furniture brand Baxter has catapulted their career and recognition. For Baxter, they designed the “Zefir” leather chair and “Lazybones” lounge chair.

“Zelda” daybed for Essential Home. Image: Essential Home.

They have also created furniture pieces for Tacchini and carpet designs for CC-Tapis. More recently, they collaborated with Ethimo to create “Sling Chair”, a garden armchair with which they won the 2021 Archiproducts Design Award, adding to accolades received from Frame Magazine in 2019 and Wallpaper* Design Awards in 2021.

Their designs for Essential Home include a unique collection of sofas, armchairs, consoles and tables. The “Happy Few Collection” offers a bespoke furniture line that fuses modern aesthetics with organic details where eye-popping contrasts make each piece a showstopper.

“We noticed there are a lot of affinities with Italy here in Portugal, and that’s is very interesting, the passion for Wood’s Craftsmanship, the etching, and other materials as glass or ceramic. All of these elements inspired us to test them into a design with a contemporary twist. It has been really interesting observing the employers at the factory, and their passion for craftsmanship. We have been influenced by their passion, so we decided to put them to the test.”

Sanaa, Architect

Sanaa’s founders are Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. Image: Dezeen.

This year’s Jane Drew Prize for Architecture goes to architect Kazuyo Sejima, who was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize for elevating women’s status in the field.

Sejima gained fame in 1995 when she and Japanese architect Ryue Nishizawa co-founded the Tokyo-based architectural practice SANAA. Every year, The Architectural Review and Architects’ Journal present the W Awards, formerly known as the Women in Architecture Awards, which include the Jane Drew Prize.

Named for the modernist pioneer Jane Drew, Sejima joins the ranks of trailblazing architects who have previously won the prize, including Denise Scott Brown and Yasmeen Lari.

Museum Of Contemporary Art. Kanazawa, Japan. Image: Sanaa.

Sejima, born in 1956, attended Japan Women’s University to pursue her architectural studies before beginning her career with Toyo Ito. In 1987, she opened her studio, Kazuyo Sejima & Associates, where Nishizawa worked while he was a student studying architecture at Yokohama National University.

Their established studio has gained international recognition and significant projects, including the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, designed in 2004. After Zaha Hadid, Sejima became the second woman to win the coveted Pritzker Architecture Prize when the studio earned it in 2010.

“Beyond the formal, structural and material experimentation of her work, Sejima is one of too few female architects to have established themselves on the international stage,” said The Architectural Review editor Manon Mollard.

New Museum Of Contemporary Art, New York, USA. Image: Sanaa.

The Rolex Learning Centre in Switzerland, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, and the more recent Sydney Modern—an addition to the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Australia—are a few of SANAA’s other well-known projects. In addition, Sejima is a designer in her own right; outside of SANAA, she designed a multipurpose bag series for Prada and a commuter train featuring enormous windows. In 2022, the Japan Art Association named SANAA the architecture laureate of the Praemium Imperiale awards.

Rossana Hu, Architect

Rossana Hu of Neri&Hu architecture firm with her husband Lyndon Neri. Image: Neri&Hu

After working under Ralph Lerner and Michael Graves, Rossana Hu started her career at the Architects Collaborative in San Francisco. In 2004, she and Lyndon Neri co-founded Neri&Hu Design and Research Office, where Lyndon Neri later became her husband. The company is best known for revitalising historic locations, having completed multiple commissions in master planning, architecture, product and interior design, and branding. These sites include the Waterhouse at South Bund in Shanghai, Tsingpu Yangzhou Retreat in Yangzhou, and Nantou City Guesthouse in Shenzhen. Two monographs have been published by Thames & Hudson about Neri&Hu’s work: Neri&Hu Design and Research Office: Works and Projects 2002 – 2014 in 2018 and Thresholds: Space, Time and Practice in 2021.

Neri&Hu have earned many esteemed international awards for their designs, including the Architectural Review Emerging Architecture Award (2010), The Plan Award Overall Winner (2018), Wallpaper* Design Awards Designers of the Year (2014), Dezeen Awards Architecture Studio of the Year (2021), and Architectural Record Design Vanguard (2009). The firm’s creations were shown at the MAXXI Museum in Rome, the Design Museum in London, and the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City. They’ll be on display at the 18th Venice Architecture Biennale in May.

“House of Rememberance” in Singapore. Image: Neri&Hu.

Over the past 20 years, Hu, a leader in the creative vanguard, has significantly changed Shanghai’s design culture. She was a co-founder of Shanghai’s Festival of Design in 2016, which brought a plethora of design-focused talks and other public events to the city. She has also received invitations to serve as a judge for several esteemed contests and awards, including the 2020 RIBA International Prize and the Dezeen Awards 2022. He is also one of the founding partners of Design Republic, a platform for design that combines education, retail concepts, and design and cultural exhibitions. She joined the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s International Advisory Board in 2018 after being named creative director of Stellar Works in 2015.

The 20-room Tsingpu Yangzhou Retreat plays on the Chinese vernacular building typology of the courtyard house. Throughout the complex, reclaimed-brick corridors connect one building to another, allowing visitors to discover views as they explore its paths. Image: Pedro Pegenaute.

Hu has given her all to architectural education in addition to her design work, giving talks at colleges and trade associations around the US, Europe, and Asia. In addition to the University of California, Berkeley, she has taught at the Yale School of Architecture, Harvard Graduate School of Design, University of Hong Kong, and other institutions. Hu received her Bachelor of Arts in Architecture from the University of California, Berkeley, with a minor in music, and her Master of Architecture and Urban Planning from Princeton.

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