Visual Culture

16 Women Pushing Design Forward in the United States

Alexxa Gotthardt
Mar 8, 2017 10:56PM

Design is everywhere. It’s embedded in the screens we tap, the chairs we sit on, and the systems that pump clean water into our communities.

Across the American design landscape, innovators are creating new furniture, products, graphics, and exhibitions every day; educators are cultivating the next generation of designers; and writers and thinkers are guiding contemporary discourse in the field.

But even today, in a world that is striving for gender equity, it remains difficult for women to excel in the design world. Recent studies published by the AIA (the national professional association of architects) and AIGA (the professional association for design) reveal that, while design and architecture programs attract female and minority students, “the professions don’t retain them,” explains design critic Alexandra Lange, “and the numbers are particularly small at the leadership level.”  

Motivated by these imbalances, we spotlight 16 women who are transcending these statistics and leading progressive change in their fields. From Lindsey Adelman’s biomorphic lighting to Liz Ogbu’s socially engaged design projects to Paola Antonelli’s radical approach to curation and collecting, these creatives are using design to bring beauty and functionality to daily life, to preserve the rich history of their field, and to tackle urgent social issues of our times—including discrimination, women’s rights, and access to clean water.

In 2010, Antonelli ushered an unprecedented addition into the Museum of Modern Art’s illustrious collection: the @ symbol. The purchase, which for the curator “brought ideas of shared economy and open source into the acquisition mechanism of museums,” is one of numerous innovative projects that she’s shepherded into the MoMA—and the design world at large—since landing at the museum in 1994.

Overall, Antonelli’s curatorial approach hinges on her belief in the utilitarian function of design. “Innovation and progress cannot happen without design,” she says. “Revolutions may be concocted within the fields of science and technology, but without design, they would never become part of our lives.” Other seminal projects spearheaded by Antonelli, who was raised in the design capital of Milan, have included “Design and Violence,” an online exhibition that probed design’s relationship with war, hacking, intimidation, and other violent, manipulative acts; and the recent acquisition of an original set of emojis.

This year, Antonelli and her team are planning “Items: Is Fashion Modern?,” MoMA’s first exhibition to explore fashion design since 1944. Slated to open in October 2017, the show will “use objects—in this case garments and fashion—as a way to cast a deeper gaze onto the world and onto human ingenuity and shortcomings,” she says.

You might not know Scher’s name, but there’s little doubt you’ve seen her work. As one of the globe’s most influential graphic designers, she’s conceived logos for Citibank and Tiffany & Co., posters for Elvis Costello, the graphic identity for MoMA, and an information-packed mural for Planned Parenthood—to name just a few of her accomplishments.

Scher was encouraged to pursue design by her teacher, Stanislas Zagorski, at Philadelphia’s Tyler School of Art. “He said three simple words to me: ‘Illustrate with type,’” she remembers. “I’ve followed his advice ever since.” Scher’s breakout project came in 1996, when she developed a radical, award-winning (and since widely copied) logo for The Public Theater in New York. It boldly eschewed symmetry in favor of vertically oriented text, with each letter of the word “public” rendered at different thicknesses. 

More recently, Scher has devoted much of her time to crafting campaigns and brand identities that advocate for women’s rights. These include the creation of a kaleidoscopic mural for Planned Parenthood’s New York headquarters that tells the story of the organization’s longtime support of reproductive rights. And last year, Scher launched the identity for a new non-profit startup, Period Equity, aimed at eliminating America’s tax on tampons.


Just days before Dylann Roof’s racially motivated attack on innocent churchgoers in South Carolina in 2015, Clark was in the process of meticulously unraveling a Confederate flag. This deconstructed object, like all of the artist and educator’s work, is informed by the ancestry of materials and their social impact. Encouraged by mentors like artists Nick Cave and Anne Wilson, who guided her during her undergrad days at School of the Art Institute in Chicago, Clark has long worked at the intersection of art and design.

“‘And’ thinking rather than ‘or’ thinking is most interesting to me,” she explains. “Not artist or craftsperson or designer or poet or chef or activist, rather artist and craftsperson and poet and chef and activist. Bright things happen at the crossroads.”

Clark has used textiles and hair as building blocks for a range of projects that toe the line between functional tool and conceptual artwork. In one recent piece, she translated the texture of her hair into a font called “Twist.” The letters that result probe the histories, cultural connotations, and reductive stereotypes that black hair can evoke. “Imagine the 13th Amendment written in Twist,” she says, pointing to the way the project seamlessly synthesizes design, art, language, and politics.

Khemsurov and Singer are in the process of building a design empire. The two New Yorkers, who met while working together at i-D Magazine, set out on their own in 2009 to found Sight Unseen, an online magazine that spotlights emerging designers. A few years later, in 2014, their nomadic design fair, Sight Unseen OFFSITE, launched to fanfare. The duo’s website and roving fair have helped catapult the careers of many creatives, from Thaddeus Wolfe and Max Lamb to Faye Toogood and Bec Brittain.

Recently, Khemsurov and Singer have added another arm to their operation, and this time it’s not-for-profit. Design for Progress was conceived the day after the recent U.S. election as a means to “engage the design community to raise money for progressive causes,” says Khemsurov. Right now, Khemsurov and Singer are in the throes of organizing a contemporary design auction that’s “set to raise at least $40,000 for non-profits leading the fight against the regressive policies of the current administration,” she continues.

Simultaneously, they’re preparing for New York Design Week in May, when they’ll open the next edition of Sight Unseen OFFSITE and introduce a new initiative. Using New York Fashion Week as a model, they’ve asked several hip boutiques and cafes not usually associated with design week—like Opening Ceremony, Rachel Comey, and Dimes—to participate in order to raise the event’s profile and expand the audience for design.

Somerson is the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)’s 17th president. She’s also one of only a handful of women to helm the eminent art and design school since its founding in 1877. In her relatively new role, which she assumed in early 2015, she aims to “amplify a message about the essential importance of art and design in shaping the future,” she says, as well as to create a diverse pipeline of students who will move into design careers and make an impact on the world—what she calls her “social equity initiative.”

It’s an ambitious goal, but one that she’s approaching with a strategic plan—and armed not only with her position at RISD, but also with a successful furniture design practice. (She co-founded RISD’s furniture design program in 1995, then led it for some 15 years.) The elegant wooden beds, tables, and armoires she crafts in her Massachusetts studio are influenced by nature, the great 20th-century designer and Le Corbusier collaborator Charlotte Perriand, Egyptian design, and the structure of interpersonal relationships.

Additionally, from under Somerson’s direction at RISD, some of contemporary furniture design’s most daring practitioners, like Misha Kahn, Katie Stout, and Ian Stell, have risen.

Adelman’s interest in design was first piqued after witnessing a woman carving french fries out of foam for an exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum. Soon after, she landed at RISD to study industrial design—and has since become one of the country’s most in-demand lighting designers. She launched her eponymous studio in 2006 with the Branching Bubble chandelier, a fixture that she’s become famous for. Its elegant matrix—forged from brass spindles and translucent glass globes—set the tone for Adelman’s line of lighting inspired by natural forms like cellular structures, tangles of vines, and bioluminescent bays.

Today, she and her team of 40-plus employees craft a range of lights, from small, glowing sconces to sprawling webs of glass orbs that drip with shimmering brass chains. But despite Adelman’s blossoming business—she recently opened a second studio in Los Angeles—she is adamant that the production of her lights should remain in her studio and engage local artisans. She sees her workspace as one of several in the contemporary design world that are “mindful of the entire manufacturing process and life cycle of an object, and aware of its global consequences.”

“What I can do is change the conversation,” says Lange of her design writing, which has spangled publications like The New Yorker, Curbed, and the New York Times. She believes she can do this by focusing attention on a designer, project, or historical moment that’s typically overlooked, or by asserting an alternative opinion about an object of design or work of architecture that is central to mainstream discourse.

Lange has made a name for herself by bringing visibility to causes ranging from the erasure of women’s contributions to design history (“Architecture’s Lean In Moment”) to historical preservation (“Imagining Jane Jacobs”) to urban park equity (“How to Fix New York City’s Parks”)—which refers to the equal care of all public parks, whether they be lucrative tourist attractions or tiny neighborhood green spaces. Responsible landscaping of public spaces, a subject on which she’s written extensively, “can address a number of the most pressing problems of our current urban age,” she says, “including climate change, the public realm, and public health.”

Since having children, Lange has become fascinated with children’s design, from the bright colors that swathe toys to the construction of playgrounds and car seats. “I found that I couldn’t turn the critic part of my brain off, even when I was sitting on the floor trying to interest my son in tiny farm animals,” she says. In response, she began writing a series of essays that explore the history of the objects that surround children and how they inform human experience. They’ll become a book, published by Bloomsbury USA, in spring 2018.

The philosophy behind Slow and Steady Wins the Race “breaks the rule that fashion must constantly change,” reads the contrarian manifesto for Ping’s conceptual clothing line, which has garnered something of a cult following since launching in 2002.

The garments and accessories she crafts resist the fashion industry’s penchant for luxury and exclusivity,  and its “hyper-consumerist pace.” Ping’s goal is to make sturdy, cutting-edge basics that are sold for an accessible price point relative to their haute-couture peers. She’s even cheekily modeled canvas totes after the sort of trendy designer “it” bags that fetch upwards of $3,000 at high street stores.

Ping, who studied at Vassar, Central Saint Martins, and London College of Fashion, brings a deep curiosity about human behavior to the creation of her clothing and concepts—as well as an interest in small-scale production. She and her team are currently in search of craftspeople and artisans from all over the world to collaborate with. “This is a criteria we have always had,” she says, “but exploring it globally has been a new focus.”


Demisch’s obsession with design began with a teenage pastime: foraging for antiques. “I got hooked on how much there was to know and learn about even a single object,” she says. Fast forward to 2005, when Demisch opened her chic Manhattan design gallery with co-founder Stephane Danant. Demisch Danant, as it’s called, has since become the go-to source for collectors on the hunt for the best of 1960s and ’70s French furniture, in particular.

The duo has become known for presenting sinuous chairs, desks, and chaise lounges by the likes of Maria Pergay and Pierre Paulin, within period interiors. At design fairs like Design Miami/, this approach makes for perennially elegant booths. It also reflects Demisch’s commitment to showing work within a historical context and supporting it with extensive monographs and scholarship.

The gallery recently mounted a show of 86-year-old Pergay’s new work. For Demisch, bringing awareness to her six-decade career and developing her current market have been two of the gallery’s greatest accomplishments.

Ogbu designs for social impact, not buildings, as she explained in a 2014 TED Talk. This ethos drives all of the work produced by Studio O, Ogbu’s innovation firm. Armed with design and creative strategy chops she honed at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and’s “Innovators in Residence” program, Ogbu routinely tackles “wicked social problems” related to health, infrastructure, and inequality facing struggling communities across the globe.

Ogbu is recognized for numerous projects, including the design of shelters for U.S. immigrant day-laborers and the optimization of clean cookstoves, which reduce both emissions and costs for citizens of Tanzania and beyond. More recently, Ogbu led the design and social innovation strategy for Clean Team Ghana, an organization that provides portable toilets to low-income residents of urban areas in need of hygienic sanitation.

Ogbu is also a member of The Equity Collective, a group of designers working to push civic engagement forward. In 2016, she worked with several members of the cohort to produce “Dick & Rick: A Visual Primer for Social Impact Design.” The cheeky illustrated guide makes important distinctions between successful and futile community-engaged design practices, noting instances in which altruistically minded projects actually hurt communities.

Walsh was something of a wunderkind. She began coding at age 11, and five years later, at age 15, she launched a website through which she taught her peers to use HTML, CSS, and graphics programs. Somewhere along the ride, she discovered a passion that was “more on the visual side than in coding / backend,” she says. So she applied to RISD to study design.

The 30-year-old designer has maintained this rapid pace since her adolescence. Just several years after graduating from RISD, she partnered with the legendary Austrian designer Stefan Sagmeister to launch their eponymous firm, Sagmeister & Walsh. There, Walsh works on five to 10 projects at a time, for clients that range from BMW to The Jewish Museum to Levi’s, building brand identities, ad campaigns, and social media strategies for them.

While studio life (which can be glimpsed via a live feed on Sagmeister & Walsh’s website) keeps Walsh busy, she makes time for passion projects, too. 12 Kinds of Kindness, for instance, is a 12-step guide designed to encourage empathy between humans. Ladies, Wine & Design (LW&D), on the other hand, tackles what Walsh sees as a lack of support between professional women in the industry, and a dearth of women in top positions. To combat these hurdles, LW&D organizes mentorship circles, portfolio reviews, and creative meetups that Walsh hopes will “offer a chance for women to create positive and healthy connections with each other.”

From ages four to 18, Aguiñiga crossed the border from Mexico into the U.S. every weekday to attend school. “The border is an issue close to my heart and one that has affected my community historically, and more so in this political climate,” the designer and artist explains. It’s also a theme she’s embedded in her furniture and art by blending colors, techniques, and materials from both sides of the border.

Aguiñiga is currently focused on the group she founded, Art Made Between Opposite Sides (AMBOS), which tackles these issues through artistic interventions, discussions, and screenings in and around the border. One such project asks commuters traveling into the U.S. from Mexico to knot together two pieces of string that represent the two countries. All of the individual knots will be joined to create a garland, or “quipu” (which refers to a pre-Columbian organizational system), representing what Aguiñiga sees as an essential collaboration between the contiguous nations.

“If I had to point to any particular early influence, it would be sneaker culture,” Tillman says of her initial inspiration to pursue design. After graduating with a BFA in design in 2009, she cut her teeth on gigs at sportswear companies Reebok and Puma, where she focused on branding. But it was her time at IDEO, the boundary-pushing branding and innovation firm where she landed in 2011, that opened her mind to design’s expansive problem-solving potential. There, she had a hand in optimizing diabetes pens, banking apps, and packaging for 2,000-pound rolls of paper.

These days, Tillman is one of the most sought-after product designers in the industry. After a stint as Design Director at Boston-based financial literacy startup Society of Grownups, she moved to Slack, a messaging platform that facilitates conversations between co-workers and activists alike. There, as Head of Communication Design, she leads the team that’s charged with evolving the fast-growing company’s brand design.

When she’s not thinking up new strategies to transform Slack into a more effective tool, Tillman works on passion projects like Tomorrow Looks Bright, a newsletter and website that celebrates black female creatives—and designers in particular. The project broaches an issue she believes is stifling the efficacy of contemporary design. “The design industry needs to address its diversity problem fast,” she says. “We have so many different problems to solve and lack the range and broad perspective to make solutions that the world actually deserves.”

When Lupton was in high school, she read an article about the design of New York City’s garbage trucks. It would make a lasting impact on her, eventually inspiring her career as one of the country’s most influential design curators and educators. “The white trucks were emblazoned with the word ‘sanitation’ in black lowercase Helvetica,” she says. “At the time, I didn’t know that fonts had meaning or even names. That article changed my destiny.”

Since joining the Cooper Hewitt as a curator of Contemporary Design in 1992, when she was in her twenties, Lupton has spearheaded the institution’s holistic approach to design scholarship and exhibition-making. Under her direction, its program has spotlighted pioneering fashion designers like Sonia Delaunay and Thom Browne, dissected the creative spaces and strategies of Disney’s Pixar, and explored the wide-ranging cultural connotations of “Beauty” through 334 objects.

According to Lupton, great design simultaneously tells a story and solves problems, as well as being inclusive, socially responsible, and sustainable. 

This year, Roberts is overseeing a radical partnership between Design Miami/, the esteemed design fair where she’s served as CEO since 2015, and The United Nations. The collaboration will tackle one of the globe’s most urgent issues—environmental sustainability—through a series of brainstorm sessions that bring together designers, thinkers, and policy-makers to discuss how city infrastructure can solve problems of ecological health.

The partnership might seem an unusual one, but Roberts is no stranger to pursuing bold ideas. In 2008, she founded MODERN Magazine, a design publication that caters to collectors and fans of 20th-century and contemporary design. In her years at Design Miami/, which has outposts in both Miami and Basel, she’s led a nimble rollout of adjustments that respond not only to the shifting tastes of collectors, but also to the changing motivations of designers, who are increasingly focusing on sustainability, community-building, and technology.

Alexxa Gotthardt