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Four female heroes | With Design Anthology

March 2020

The top floor of Fora’s new space on Great Eastern Street was the fantastic setting for this celebration of International Women’s Day. Co-hosted with Design Anthology UK, the event brought together four celebrated female designers who each shared with the audience the pioneering women who had, in turn, inspired their own career.

In the process, the audience was treated to a whirlwind tour of art, architecture, design and what it takes to be a successful female creator in the traditionally male-dominated world of art and design.

 

Libby Sellers of Libby Sellers Gallery chose Eileen Gray

Libby Sellers was formally the curator of the Design Museum in London and author of Women Design. Now the founder of her own gallery, Libby chose Irish architect and furniture designer Eileen Gray as her hero.

Born in 1878, Gray moved to Paris in 1902 where she was a pioneer of the Art Deco style of interior design. Although her heyday was in the Twenties and Thirties it was not until the Sixties that Gray really began to receive the recognition she deserved and achieve what Libby described as ‘every designer’s desire – to see their work go into production in their lifetime.’

But what particularly made Libby cite Eileen Gray as a hero was her ability to constantly reinvent herself. In 1927 she embarked on a new career as an architect, creating the Modernist masterpiece E-1027, a villa in the south of France. It drove neighbour Le Corbusier mad with jealousy.

“Corbusier was outraged that a woman, without any formal training, could define what he regarded as his own style.” Once Gray had left the house, he resorted to painting garish murals on its walls in what Gray regarded as an act of vandalism. ‘Eileen Grey, with her talent and ingenuity, managed to get under Le Corbusier’s skin. That’s my kind of lady,’ said Libby.

 

Biba Dow of Dow Jones Architects chose Barbara Hepworth

Biba Dow is the founder of Dow Jones Architects and chose acclaimed sculptor Barbara Hepworth as her hero. Born in Yorkshire in 1903, Hepworth is most strongly associated with St Ives in Cornwall.

Biba described how the studio – now a museum – still feels like Hepworth has just walked out and she shared a photo of rows of stones outside the studio in different stages of being transformed into a sculptural piece. Again, working in a male-dominated industry, Hepworth was one of the greatest forerunners of abstract sculpture in the UK.

As well as Hepworth’s great artistic legacy, Biba cited her tenacity as the reason she regarded her as her hero. ‘Barbara Hepworth would not let herself be deflected by her male competitors who she called ‘big bears’. She was determined.’

The work she produced was often huge in scale, designed to respond to the physical context as the viewer moves. Biba commented ‘I’m amazed that such extraordinarily powerful sculptures were made by such a small, petite woman.’

 

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Sherry Dobbin of Futurecity chose Alanna Heiss

Sherry Dobbin is the founder of Futurecity (and a Fora Resident) and her choice of hero was unique on the panel in that her hero, Alanna Heiss, is very much alive.

As one of the founders of the Alternative Spaces Movement in New York City in the early 1970s, Heiss turned abandoned and under-utilised spaces into art showcases. Her Clocktower Gallery in Lower Manhattan and her PS1 Building in Queens have been instrumental in presenting artists such as Joel Shapiro, Richard Tuttle and Lynda Benglis to a wider audience.

Sherry regards Alanna Heiss not only as a hero but also as a friend. She knows first hand what makes her such an exceptional curator. ‘Alanna Heiss gave artists risk; she spent time with them and she let them develop their craft,’ said Sherry. ‘Alanna understands artists. Very few curators know how scary it is to be an artist. They are giving their most vulnerable selves when they produce something.’

 

Spandana Gopal of Tiipoi chose Peggy Guggenheim

The fourth panelist, Spandana Gopal is the founder of Tiipoi which produces homewares inspired by everyday items from India. Spandana described how her family in India did not have any strong connections to the worlds of art and design, but she knew it was the path she wanted to follow. For that reason she chose the trailblazing Peggy Guggenheim, one of the most renowned art collectors of the 20th Century as her hero.

‘Peggy Guggenheim had the courage to be vulnerable. She had the ability to believe in herself,’ said Spandana. ‘There’s something very liberating about a woman who lived her life how she wanted.’

By following her own unique instinct, Guggenheim acquired works by Picasso, Dali, Man Ray and Miro, primarily between 1938 and 1946. In the process, as Spandana observed, Guggenheim ‘created one of the great art collections. Something she did for art’s sake, not for money.’

 

This Fora event was a wonderful opportunity to hear how the achievements of pioneering women had inspired the current generation of female designers. It was a celebration of creative genius but also of tenacity, determination and a willingness to forge your own direction, often in the face of doubt and hostility.

In sharing what and who inspired them, the panel was an inspiration to their audience too. For more opportunities for inspiration, you can check out our upcoming events here. Alternatively, keep reading our related articles below.