How Starfish Can Help Us Rethink Gender—and Influence Design

Naama Agassi. All images courtesy of Naama Agassi.
Naama Agassi

Naama Agassi, an object designer from Tel Aviv, was invited to design this year’s iphiGenia Gender Design Award by the International Gender Design Network (IGDN), which AWT won in the “Revolution” category. We briefly chatted with Agassi to get her views on biology (her trophy design is based on the starfish, a hermaphrodite—an idea that questions our society’s idea of gender), and on another topic that is an ongoing conversation for women: hair.

 

AWT: Can you describe your design process from coming up with an idea to making the finished product?

Naama Agassi: At the beginning of every design process, I start by researching and analyzing the context of the design. In this project, I started off by researching the topic of gender. I wanted to give the trophy an added value and to take the opportunity to connect the design with an idea I believe in.

When designing the trophies, I was inspired by a small and fascinating creature: the starfish. Biologists define some of these unique sea animals as sequential hermaphrodites. This means that they have the ability to change their sex within their lifetime—more than once. They adapt their sex to the conditions around them, including water temperature, food availability and breeding needs.

 
I wanted to point out that our perception of gender and sex is very much affected by social norms, and that even in nature these concepts are much more complex and fluid than we realize.
 
Sketches. Photo by Naama Agassi.
Sketches. Photo by Naama Agassi.
Alpha shape model with clay.
Alpha shape model with clay. Photo by Naama Agassi.
Cast porcelain with two layers of color.
Cast porcelain with two layers of color. Photo by Naama Agassi.

I developed the form and the surface of the trophies based on the shape and texture of the starfish. By embedding this visual reference into the design, I wanted to point out that our perception of gender and sex is very much affected by social norms, and that even in nature these concepts are much more complex and fluid than we realize.

After thinking through the inspiration, I usually start sketching. I explore the shape using scaled models I sculpt by hand, and then I investigate the material in order to develop the production method. In the case of this trophy, for example, I investigated porcelain, with the aim to create a texture that would resemble the starfish’s skin surface. There was a lot of planning in the process, and fine tuning using illustration tools before actually producing the final design.

For the production of the final trophies, I created the alpha shape model with clay, I made a mold and then cast porcelain to the mold with two layers of color. In order to create the texture, I carved the external surface. The whole process from concept to final production took around five months.

 

Design Network (IGDN), which AWT won in the “Revolution” category.
This year’s iphiGenia Gender Design Award by the International Gender Design Network (IGDN), which AWT won in the “Revolution” category. Photo by Florian Yeh.
Final three awards for this year’s iphiGenia Gender Design Award.
Final three awards for this year’s iphiGenia Gender Design Award. Photo by Florian Yeh.

 

AWT: You say of yourself that you’re an object designer. Where lies the difference for you between the terms “industrial or product design” and “object design”?

Naama Agassi: Even though in my education, I am an industrial designer, I find the term inaccurate when I describe my work since some of the objects I produce are not made for an industrial production environment. Within the realm of my work as an object designer, I also design industrial products, but not necessarily. Referring to myself as an object designer is a more accurate way to describe my work: always objects, not always industrial, not always products.

 

A jewelry series by Agassi
A jewelry series by Agassi that focuses on hair as an aesthetic element. By playing with the loaded cultural conception of female body hair, the series highlights its decorative features and embraces it with renewed aesthetic appreciation.
Hairy Jewelry. Photo courtesy of Naama Agassi.
Hairy Jewelry. Photo courtesy of Naama Agassi.
 
Women’s hair is always a sign of strength, and I wanted to convey more of the qualities hair has; beauty and tenderness.
 

AWT: One project you showcase on your website is the examination of women and hair, specifically the removal of hair. Despite all progress and discussions, “hair” seems to be an untouchable subject when it comes to gender equality.

Naama Agassi: Men’s body hair is usually perceived as a sign of masculinity. Many times, women who grow their body hair might feel it is an act of resistance. Women’s hair is always a sign of strength, and I wanted to convey more of the qualities hair has; beauty and tenderness. I think it is still hard for us to see these qualities in women’s body hair. I chose to bring hair to women’s jewelry in order to explore it as an aesthetic element and to reconnect women with their hair.

AWT: What’s your next big project?

Naama Agassi: I am now working on a new and exciting collection of home objects, which will be launched in April 2019.