Designing Conversations for Change

Braving post-blizzard traffic conditions in D.C., nearly 100 guests attended the museum’s third FRESH TALK—part of the new public programs initiative Women, Arts, and Social Change. On Wednesday, January 27, FRESH TALK: Can design be genderless? featured Netherlands-based designer Gabriel Ann Maher, whose work is on view in Pathmakers, and International New York Times design critic Alice Rawsthorn.

Design historian and critic Rawsthorn kicked off the evening with an overview of design, highlighting the ways design informs everyday life and how it is often gender-biased. She discussed the increasingly eclectic and fluid concept of gender identity and how it impacts design culture through digital technology.

Gabriel Maher speaks at NMWA; Photo: Kevin Allen

Gabriel Maher speaks at NMWA; Photo: Kevin Allen

Maher, a designer who identifies as gender fluid, investigates gender through design media. Maher dissected issues of the Dutch magazine FRAME to reveal perpetuated stereotypes of “male” and “female”—from article titles to depictions of men and women designers.

Maher explained how designers direct people’s self-presentation—through clothing that accentuates body shape, or through the act of sitting, in which people claim or relinquish space.

In one of the night’s most repeated and tweeted statements, Maher declared, “Design is inherently genderless but it is designers who create gendered objects.”

The presentations wrapped with a moderated conversation led by NMWA Director of Public Programs Lorie Mertes. Rawsthorn and Maher explored ways that design could become more inclusive—from genderless bathroom signage to TSA body scanners (which are based on an algorithm for male or female forms). The speakers reflected on cultures that embrace and revere multiple concepts of gender. Both pondered how the internet can be a tool for change.

Fresh Talk speakers with guests during Catalyst cocktail hour; Photos: Kevin Allen

FRESH TALK speakers with guests during Catalyst cocktail hour; Photos: Kevin Allen

At Catalyst, a cocktail hour with a topic and a twist, guests became impassioned participants in a conversation sparked by the presentations. They became friends with fellow attendees, discussed perspectives, and focused on actionable steps for change. Here are a few highlights:

1. Seeing the world with new eyes.

Guests felt more aware of their built environments. They began to consider how the world is constructed and how design can create obstacles for gender-fluid people.

2. Empathy is the name of the game.

Attendees introduced themselves and shared details of their identities—which many had never considered aloud. Guests gained a greater understanding of the LGBTQ community, discussed how gender stereotypes are ingrained, and considered the impact of gender labels.

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Left and right: Participants discuss gender and ideas for change; Photos: Kevin Allen

3. Your ideas for social change matter.

Guests were surprised to have such meaningful conversations about the world from inside a museum. Instead of a traditional Q&A, guests provided their own strategies for change. Via comment cards, they completed the phrase “My idea of social change is…”

  • “discuss, discuss, discuss.”
  • “acceptance. Great event!”
  • “to be inclusive.”
  • “looking for new spaces and forums for conversation and questioning.”

The conversation continues online with #FreshTalk4Change. Visit the museum’s website to watch event videos. The recordings of FRESH TALK: Can design be genderless? will be available soon.

Don’t miss the next program, FRESH TALK: Natalie Jeremijenko, Wednesday, March 2. Artist and engineer Natalie Jeremijenko teams up with Jean Case and Megan Smith to discuss “Can an artist use science and technology to heal the environment?”

—Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell is the public programs coordinator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Blurring Boundaries: Contemporary Design

“Design has had one unwavering role as an agent of change” incorporating new developments—in science, technology, or culture—for the better, says Alice Rawsthorn, design critic for the international edition of the New York Times.

Gabriel Maher, Courtesy of Alwin Poiana

Gabriel Maher, Courtesy of Alwin Poiana

What kind of impact will the gender-queer design discussion continue to have? Can genderless design help move contemporary society and culture toward a more positive, welcoming, and safe environment?

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Genderless bathroom sign

Today, genderless, gender-queer, and gender-fluid identities have an increasing presence in mainstream consciousness. The New York Times stated, “2015 was the year unisex became a trend in fashion”—citing Louis Vuitton’s latest women’s wear ad campaign featuring Jaden Smith as a key example. The article also declares, “gender definitions are as fluid as they have ever been,” but there are also increased “efforts to codify the new reality, be it on bathroom doors or in the language of institutions.”

On January 27, as part of the museum’s Women, Arts, and Social Change initiative, artist Gabriel Ann Maher and Alice Rawsthorn continue the discussion surrounding the question “Can design be genderless?”

Netherlands-based designer Gabriel Ann Maher is one of the contemporary artists represented in the special exhibition Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today, on view at the museum through February 28. Maher will discuss fluid gender identity as an artistic subject. Maher’s video work DE___SIGN examines the ways in which design shapes concepts of “male” and “female” and reveals how gestures, movements, and positions can imply gender norms.

Alice Rawsthorn, Courtesy of The New York Times Company

Alice Rawsthorn, Courtesy of The New York Times Company

Rawsthorn joins Maher for a presentation and discussion. Of Maher’s work, Rawsthorn says, “At a time of renewed interest in feminism and growing awareness of transgenderism, designers are striving to imbue products, graphics, environments and technology with subtler, more eclectic interpretations of gender both in commercial projects and conceptual ones like Maher’s.”

FRESH TALK: Can design be genderless? considers these questions and more on January 27. Attend the event in person or tune in remotely for the live-stream video feed. You can also add your voice on Twitter by using the hashtag #FreshTalk4Change.

—Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell is the public programs coordinator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.