Women’s Work: The Interior Designers History Forgot
That exasperating 20 percent pay gap between men and women is often cited as the most undeniable and damning indicator of the persistent inequality between the genders. A seemingly straightforward, but somehow still unresolvable issue, the existence of the pay gap is often attributed to women taking lower-paying jobs, their increased participation in part-time work, and at least partial gender bias. But another cause for this disparity is a segregation that has artificially been created between two different types of work, so-called men’s work and women’s work.
Though the term “women’s work” historically referred to activities performed within the household, from childrearing to housekeeping, it has since expanded to include jobs outside the home, such as teaching and nursing. Women’s work is usually understood not as a set category, but rather a set of qualities, some more enduring than others. The one element which clearly delineates women’s from men’s work is money. Even when paid, women’s work often goes underpaid. This gap creates a hierarchy of work that further influences how work is perceived, permanently relegating women’s work to the sidelines and perpetuating its inferior position. If money breeds more money, the opposite is true as well.
The evaluation of women’s work is tightly connected to how this work is perceived by the culture at large—often judged as amateurish as opposed to professional, as craft and not art. The underlying assumption is that when women do something, it is for love or as a hobby; when men do it, it becomes a reputable profession. Men are thus able to elevate work previously performed solely by women to the professional realm, through the introduction of business acumen, stronger power dynamics, and, perhaps most importantly, the exchange of currency. The examples of professions shifting from the female to the male domain are many, from the expectation that home cooking lies on the shoulders of the female members of a household, while the restaurant industry is seen as a notorious boys club (to this day, only seven women have been awarded the Michelin three star distinction). Film editing experienced this transition too. When the job primarily consisted of cutting and assembling negatives, a position seen as tedious and often likened to sewing, it was predominantly performed by women. However, as films moved away from analog towards digital technologies and the prestige of the profession increased (the Academy Award for video editing is now considered a key predictor of the winner in the Best Picture category), men have increasingly taken over the profession.
While many still associate women’s work with the domestic realm, another useful example of this category of work is interior design, particularly when referred to (often pejoratively) as interior decorating. Although present in some form ever since we’ve had interiors to decorate, interior design in the contemporary sense developed in the 19th century, as industrially produced furniture became more readily available and furniture styles began changing with greater speeds, requiring greater efforts (or funds) dedicated to staging an elegant space. The profession of interior design quickly became the domain of women, who were considered purveyors of good taste and believed to be more socially agreeable—making them better suited for navigating conversations with exacting clients. The first famous interior designers, such as Elsie de Wolfe and Dorothy Draper, were almost exclusively women. These were the first designers to sell the idea of an aspirational lifestyle (similar to today’s bloggers, an often lucrative career still commonly dismissed as amateurish, placing it squarely in the category of women’s work). But more often than not, interiors—and thereby the women who designed them—were skipped over in history books. Compounded by the fact that interiors often get updated and altered much sooner than a building’s exterior, it is not difficult to see them as a perfect expression of women’s work—ephemeral and overlooked.
When interior designers do appear in the architectural canon it is often through their connection with more famous male designers, although their achievements are often appropriated by those same designers. It is not surprising that for an extended period of time few knew that a Le Corbusier or Jean Prouvé interior was likely the work of Charlotte Perriand, and that many of the famous early Ludwig Mies van der Rohe interiors were in fact largely designed by Lilly Reich.
Both relegated to obscurity and then lifted from it by their association to their famous male counterparts, Perriand and Reich were both educated as architects, but were more commonly given assignments that were considered “softer” and more “feminine,” such as interior and exhibition design. Despite their significant contributions to the ateliers, and the collaborative nature of the design process, the women still occupied a lower rung in the hierarchy and were paid significantly less than their male counterparts. The women’s work was also rarely given rightful credit. Reich, for instance, was instrumental in designing the fabric partitions at the Tugendhat House (1928–30), today considered as one of the first seminal works by Mies. The visually striking curtains acted as the primary space-making devices in the house, greatly influencing Mies’s later fluid spatial plans. But the partitions were overshadowed in the narrative which was created around the Villa, as the soft, sensuous furnishings didn’t match the story of the machine aesthetic, so crucial to the hard-edged aura modernist architects wanted to create. Because of this, Reich’s work on the interior was forgotten and credit for the Villa’s interiors largely went to Mies. Unlike Mies, who fled Germany in 1937, Reich remained in the country during World War II, acting as Mies’s business representative until her death in 1947.
Perriand’s story bears some similarities to that of Reich. Joining Le Corbusier’s office in 1927 (despite initially being rejected with the reply “We don’t embroider cushions here”), Perriand played a key role in the design of many of Le Corbusier’s interiors, including the Villa La Roche and the kitchen at Corbusier’s famous Unité d’Habitation. In addition, the three chairs she designed—chaise longue, fauteuil grand confort, and the siège à dossier basculant—were for decades solely attributed to Le Corbusier, becoming a crucial part of his design biography. When, beginning in the 1930s, Perriand became increasingly socially conscious and realized her politics were diverging from those of Le Corbusier, she left his atelier, deciding to forgo a career designing prohibitively expensive objects for the urban elite for one designing collective housing that merged functionality with aesthetics. Unlike Reich, who died before her career, halted by the war, could recover, Perriand remained active as a designer until her death at 96 in 1999.
For both Reich and Perriand, it was their connection to interior design that made it easier to relegate them to the sidelines of architectural history, while their work—which defied gender stereotypes–could easily be attributed to male designers. In recent years Reich, Perriand, and many other great women of interior design have been “rediscovered,” but they are still often presented as an afterthought in the service of the great male genius of architecture.
A common interpretation of the persistent issue of discrediting women’s work is that it serves as a way of preserving the status quo of gender inequality. The distinction between men’s work and women’s work is seen as a mechanism through which men retain their dominance. We can find some evidence of the entrenched nature of work segregation in the fact that, despite increasing numbers of women participating in men’s work, the percentage of men performing women’s work remains low—for instance, the 2013 U.S. Census Bureau report indicated men make up only 8 percent of the workforce in nursing, and a 2015 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report revealed that only 3 percent of kindergarten teachers are male. Research has also shown that many men working in traditionally female professions reported falling into these jobs, rather than actively choosing them, and experienced substantial “role strain,” causing them to abandon these careers for more traditional male professions. These findings serve as a telling indication that the perception of women’s work has not changed at all, likely due to all the problematic associations present with this type of work—from the fact that these jobs require a higher education but offer lesser pay to how these professions are often trivialized in the public eye. Not solely an issue of gender, the question of women’s work also ties into our culture’s misapprehensions about sexual identity. For instance, the common stereotype of the male interior designer, often seen in films and other popular media, is one of flamboyance and frivolity, his identity diluted to a caricature as he is relegated to the mire of women’s work.
In response to these and other concerns, many authors (including Gloria Steinem and Anne-Marie Slaughter) have called for a reassessment of women’s work, demanding a re-evaluation of its importance to both the domestic and public realm. The hope is that, on the one hand, women can infiltrate the ranks of masculine professions and demand equal wages (with the caution that the very ability to demand more money, or discuss it openly, is one of privilege and luxury, not afforded to all), while pushing for increased valorization of traditional women’s labors. Once again, Charlotte Perriand’s work might offer some useful insights, in the architect’s attempt to reform domestic drudgery through spaces that moved women’s work into the general social space of the family—particularly her functional and comfortable kitchens, which opened up towards the living space and thus opened up the very activity of cooking. But a more complete answer might lie in the many women who are still nurturing under-appreciated decorative arts such as crocheting, embroidery, and knitting, and proving through their success in marketplaces like Etsy that women’s work can be craft, art, and business venture all at once. And if the Pussyhat Project has anything to say about it, a strong political statement, too.