Talking Eds: A Conversation with Angela Tillman Sperandio and Samira Bouabana of Hall of FemmesBy Steve Kroeter December 12, 2013
In this installment of “Talking Eds,” a series focusing on personalities in the design-book publishing world, Designers & Books talks with Angela Tillman Sperandio and Samira Bouabana, the two founders of the Stockholm-based Hall of Femmes. The aptly named company is dedicated to showcasing the role of women in design through a series of pocket-sized books on the work of great women designers and art directors—ranging from fashion photographer Lillian Bassman to industrial designer and architect Lella Vignelli—as well as through the Hall of Femmes “Design Talks.”
Designers & Books: When did the two of you meet and what were the circumstances?
Angela Tillman Sperandio and Samira Bouabana: We met when we were students at the Forsbergs School of Design in Stockholm and started up our own design studio, Hjärta Smärta, in 2001 immediately after our exams. Before school neither of us had any experience with design, but we started to collaborate on most of the assignments and spent all our free time together having never-ending discussions about ideas, design, life, and existence. Our boyfriends at the time became jealous. In 2011 we closed our studio after ten years, but by then we had already started Hall of Femmes besides doing our full-time jobs. Even though we’re no longer working together on a daily basis, the conversations still continue. We’ll probably always have some kind of working relationship.
D&B: Who were your early heroes and role models?
ATS & SB: What has formed us most professionally was probably meeting each other. We have created our design vocabulary together in terms of references, aesthetics, preferences, and tonality. When we were students, the Russian avant-garde was a great influence and inspiration to us, with its the playfulness and anarchistic approach to the visual elements. Another influence was the Swedish design duo Melin & Österlin from the 1960s, which defined a conceptual but light-hearted and playful branch within Swedish design of which we feel a part. Our design heroes back then were all men. That was what the history of design looked like to us. And to be honest, we didn’t see it as a problem. When you are a young woman, it’s very easy to identify with men and think that you’re just “one of the guys”—until you realize that you're not.
|Hall of Femmes co-founders Angela Tillman Sperandio and Samira Bouabana. Photo: Paulina Westerlind|
D&B: How did the idea of starting Hall of Femmes occur to you?
ATS & SB: After a couple of years we had started to think about our own future in an industry with very few high-profile women. It became clear to us that many women dropped out of the business after a a few years, or didn’t get the jobs they deserved—despite their talent. Since we come from Sweden, a country with a long tradition of social welfare, like paid maternity leave and kindergartens, we were really tired of the simplification that women don’t get to have careers if they also have children.
What we saw was a structural problem within the design industry itself. We felt that we lacked women in the business to look up to and whose successes we could aspire to, and out of curiosity, we started doing research.
When we couldn't find a lot of information online, we went to the archives. We scanned the libraries. We phoned older male designers and asked them if they could give us the names of any female classmates they had studied with. And we started to make a list.
Finally we selected ten names, all based in New York. We wanted to have conversations with them about career opportunities for women—or the lack thereof. To our great surprise, they all said yes.
D&B: What is your relationship with the idea of inspiration?
ATS & SB: Instead of focusing on demonstrating that there aren’t women in graphic design, it seems obvious to us, that the only way to inspire the notion that it’s possible to work a lifetime in design is to show examples of the women who actually did, like Ruth Ansel, Paula Scher, Lella Vignelli and Janet Froelich, to name a few. These women have often been innovative, fearless, and have significantly contributed to the development of our profession. We believe that the history of design can be rewritten, through showing the fantastic examples that do exist.
D&B: Was it your sense that that the lack of female role models was true pretty much globally in the world of graphic design? Or were you thinking specifically about Sweden?
ATS & SB: Misogyny is everywhere. In fact, Sweden is probably one of the more enlightened countries. In a perfect world, there would be no need for a project like Hall of Femmes, or to create a book series on women designers especially. But we are light years from there at the moment. Let’s just count the number of biographies written on women designers, the number of women speakers at any design conference in the world, or the number of women on design juries. The statistics are depressing. But things are changing for the better, because more people today are aware. We find that more often, disappointing claims about gender, are followed by constructive suggestions of what to do about it. Change happens because people want things to change.
D&B: What were your biggest victories and most rewarding experiences with Hall of Femmes? Conversely, any disappointments you’d care to share?
ATS & SB: Our first journey to New York was a life-changing experience in both professional and private ways. It has changed the way we see ourselves and the way we look at the world, to an extent that we are probably not fully aware of yet. In the process of making the books, it has been educational and inspiring to meet all of the women. They have all been very generous to us and they are people we admire. They have given us short-cuts to knowledge that would otherwise have taken us ages to reach through our own experience.
Also the ability to show previously unpublished material has been rewarding. Many of the designers haven’t kept archives of their work, so a large part of our work has been looking up and documenting their visual material. In order to find some of the material, we’ve had contact with friends, magazine collectors, and foundations in both Sweden and the United States.
We got a sense of the significance a book can have, when the Art Directors’ Club in New York inducted Ruth Ansel into its Hall of Fame. One of the jury members told us afterward that our book was in front of them when the jury made the decision. Ansel’s work and long career had never been documented before.
Disappointments—not so far. But a great deal of work, time, and our own money have gone into the project.
D&B. Now that you are in your fourth year, how do you evaluate the impact you’ve had?
ATS & SB: When we first started in 2009, these things weren’t much talked about. But now, awareness of diversity issues and of women’s underrepresentation has become important in many different areas, not only in design.
Since 2009, we’ve been back to New York three times. We’ve done around 40 interviews and written almost 700 blog posts. We’ve given lectures in Sweden and abroad. We’ve been consultants to institutions on women’s contributions to the field of design. We’ve published eight books in three years. We’ve recorded six podcasts and arranged a two-day design conference with prominent speakers from the world of visual arts, design, communication, and fashion. We have received a lot of attention both within the design community and in mainstream media. So Hall of Femmes must have contributed to raising awareness and promoting discussion.
D&B: As you have sorted through your own experiences as designers, and as you’ve absorbed the experiences of the designers you’ve published books about—what are your conclusions about the impact that gender has on the practice of design?
ATS & SB: As it turns out, the designers we‘ve met have had different experiences of being women in the design world. They have diverse views, which makes it even more interesting. There isn’t one answer to the question but many, because women are not a homogenous group—but individuals.
It’s easy to see that in the lower levels of design, for example in design schools, the sexes are more equally balanced; but the higher up you go, the fewer women you find. When we asked Ruth Ansel how she thinks the situation has changed for women after having worked almost 50 years as art director, she said: “It hasn’t very much. It is more about appearances than reality. More women are in the workplace but they’re not getting recognition or salaries comparable to their male peers. Women are still working in a man’s world. It is especially difficult for an independent outsider type of woman, whether she is a graphic designer, an architect, or an interior designer, to really achieve a top position, even if she is an exceptional talent.”
D&B: How do you determine which designers you will do a book on? And once you’ve chosen a designer, how involved are they in the in the project? Are these “authorized” biographies?
ATS & SB: Our choices have been subjective. We choose designers whose work we admire and who had made their marks on design history—credited or uncredited. All of the women have been involved in the making of the books and we’ve had many discussions along the way. We haven’t always been in agreement but working together we have found a way through that. The process is intense and personal.
Tomoko Miho, for example, died before her book was published in 2013. It was very sad. Her work had never been published before, so the book was very important to her. It was something she wanted us to do, even though she knew she wouldn't live to see the end result.
D&B: Have you found kindred spirits anywhere? Any individuals or organizations that have taken on a similar mission in other countries of the world?
ATS & SB: There are several good initiatives right now for a more inclusive design industry, both in Sweden and abroad. Things like The 3% Conference, Let’s Make The Industry 50/50, Graphic Birdwatching, Girls Who Code, and Black Girls Code, to name a few.
D&B: What are your thoughts about the exhibition “Designing Modern Women 1890–1990” exhibition currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York?
ATS & SB: It’s a great initiative and a good example of how things are changing for the better. We have a great deal of respect for Paola Antonelli, senior curator for design at MoMA. Her work has been an important contribution to the status of women in design.
D&B: How many people work with you on the Hall of Femmes project? And are there any men?
ATS & SB: The Hall of Femmes team has grown in number because the project has grown, especially since we've arranged “Design Talks.” But Hall of Femmes is a highly collaborative project anyway and we are grateful to every single person who has contributed. In the inner circle we‘re about five to six people and we have a board. We have men on our team and we are happy that there are men forward-thinking enough to not leave feminism to women. Madeleine Albright is often quoted as saying that there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women. We’d like to add that we think there’s a special place in heaven for men who do!
D&B: Can you tell us about your upcoming titles in 2014? And are you planning to do more “Design Talks”?
ATS & SB: We have more interviews that we haven’t edited yet, and our list of important women continues to grow. We would love to publish more books, but we’re always looking for the funding to be able to do it.
When it comes to “Design Talks,” we’re arranging a seminar at the Swedish Centre for Design and Architecture the first week in February celebrating the architect Lina Bo Bardi, with Nathalie du Pasquier and Pat Kirkham as guests. A week later, on February 10, 2014, we are hosting an event in New York in connection with an exhibition about Swedish Fashion Photography at the Aperture Gallery. We’re also planning a few smaller events for 2014, as well as initiating a Hall of Femmes mentor program for female creatives.
D&B: Other than design and advocating for improvement in the role of women in design, what other interests and passions are important in your lives?
ATS & SB: Food, drink, travel, our husbands, our kids, really good TV series, and occasionally really bad ones.
D&B: How important are books to the two of you? What are your libraries like?
ATS & SB: Very important. During the ten years we worked together we built a fantastic library of design/photo/typography/fashion related books. When we closed our studio we had to divide those books between us. It was like two parents negotiating shared custody of the children. We still share some books, the rare ones that we couldn’t find two copies of. We meet at cafés to exchange them and wave them off.
D&B: How do you find out about new books that you end up deciding to read? And where do you buy them? Do you have any favorite bookstores?
ATS & SB: Blogs, reviews, or old books that we happen to stumble across in bookstores. We also buy a lot on the Internet. We love browsing in bookstores all around the world and can stay for hours. We also spend a lot of time in libraries. In fact, we never leave the house without bringing at least two or three different things to read.