Four female designers that shaped the interiors industry
There is a very famous quote by Charles Eames about his designer wife, Ray: “Anything I can do, Ray can do better.”
So, in honour of International Women’s Day, we wanted to pay homage to four pioneering female designers who defied societal norms expected of their gender and helped shape the interiors industry into what it is today.
Perhaps the most influential female furniture designer, Ray Eames was known for being half of a four-decade creative partnership with her husband Charles. Although Charles’ name was often attributed to the most iconic designs of the 20th century, he always insisted that Ray was an equal partner on many projects. She began her career as an abstract artist, before turning her hand to graphic design, furniture design, architecture and filmmaking. The Eames Office was a place of collaboration between the two of them, alongside well-known designers of the day.
Ray was instrumental in the creation of the Eames House in 1949. Nestled in the hills of Los Angeles, it is widely regarded as a significant example of modernist architecture (it’s now a National Historic Landmark). Tasked with building an affordable yet contemporary home from industrial and disused wartime materials, the Eameses designed a house that balanced architectural evolution with comfortable, and, more importantly, liveable interiors. Ray and Charles believed it should be down to the residents of a home to choose the furniture and decorative pieces, thus furnishing the space with their own personality – a radical concept for its time, believe it or not. They loved to collect decorative objects and the Eames House was full of numerous vignettes curated by Ray herself, ranging from artisan pieces such as baskets, rugs and lampshades, to plants and flowers, and also natural objects like wood, stones, feathers and tumbleweeds. When the mood took her, she would rearrange them to create a different look.
In 1945, the Eameses created the LCW (Lounge Chair Wood), which would later go on to be heralded by Time Magazine as the greatest design of the 20th century. Originally, they’d hoped to create an ergonomic chair from a single piece of plywood, but found the material was susceptible to breakage if bent too much. Ray and Charles’ final version used a plywood spine to join two pieces of moulded plywood, creating an innovative design that was coveted the world over and foreshadowed the use of technology and modern materials in furniture production.
Be Inspired: Explore our collection of decorative ornaments and infuse your space with character, à la Ray Eames.
Although a contemporary of the art deco era, Eileen Gray is widely acknowledged for her modernist furniture designs. The Irish-born architect and designer was one of the first women to study at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, and also the first Westerner to practice the art of Japanese lacquering. In 1922, she opened a furniture shop to sell her pieces – quite the daring feat in a time where it was very rare for a woman to be running a business on her own. She also devised an architectural training program for herself, as architecture was a male-dominated industry at the time and women were not welcome.
From 1926-29, she designed a holiday home for herself in Monaco (known as E-1027) with a focus on multi-purpose furniture and the layout of the interiors rather than the building exterior itself – a design philosophy that was at odds with the avant-garde movement of the time. (As a side note, her architect boyfriend at the time tried to take credit for the lauded design. Eileen ended the relationship very soon afterwards.) Her next project was a small two-bedroom house, and she included lots of space-saving, multi-functional pieces such as expanding wardrobes and a folding dining banquette with storage.
The most famous pieces designed by Eileen Gray broke records. She spent two years lacquering her extravagant ‘Dragons’ Armchair by hand, which sold at Christie’s in 2009 for €21.9 million. The E-1027 table was modernist design that embodied both form and function, and became a bestseller – this height-adjustable tubular metal and glass side table sold up to 1,000 units a month during the height of its popularity. And if you haven’t heard of Eileen Gray before, you’re bound to recognise the Bibendum Chair, whose rounded design was inspired by the Michelin man, and was said to be a feminist/feminine response to a square armchair made by her design contemporary (and sometime adversary) Le Corbusier.
Be inspired: If you love the look of the E-1027 table, take a peek at our Hatta Coffee Table – a modernist marvel in a similar style.
The first woman to receive the Gold Medal for Industrial Design from the American Institute of Architects in 1961, Florence Knoll was hugely influential in turning interior design from a hobby into a profession. After completing her architectural education at various schools across the US and in London – and spending a year or so pursuing furniture design with the aforementioned Charles Eames – she worked for an architect firm in New York. Being a woman and this being the 1940s, she was automatically assigned to interiors. However, it was during this time that she worked with Hans Knoll (her future husband and business partner) to design an office for an American statesman, which led to her joining Knoll Associates and launching their interior design service.
Knoll Associates capitalised on the post-war boom in office building, and it was Florence’s design vision that revolutionised the way modern offices looked and functioned. She went beyond decorating, consulting the client about their requirements to understand how the space needed to function and imagined the design as a whole, heralding the beginning of interior design as we know it today. Previously, offices were decorated with antique mahogany furniture, executive desks and large bookcases, and the layout was impractical and unproductive for collaborative work. The signature ‘Knoll Look’ replaced this with carefully considered space planning in which modern furniture, interior architecture and accessories worked harmoniously together. When Hans Knoll died in 1955, she continued to serve as company president for the next ten years, and during that time she doubled the size of the company and made it into an international brand.
Florence Knoll always insisted she wasn’t a furniture designer, choosing instead to commission pieces from leading designers to produce under the Knoll name. Though she herself considered the pieces she designed to be the ‘meat and potatoes’ that filled the gaps for a project, they are still incredibly popular today. Her Lounge Chair is a classic example; this geometric armchair, with its clean lines, metal frame and tufted back cushion, looks just as good in modern homes and offices as it did when it was first launched in 1954.
Be inspired: Create a sleek, modern office in your own home using our Dalu Desk.
Following the war, the government needed to reignite the manufacturing industry so decided to focus on training and supporting up-and-coming British designers. Step forward Lucienne Day. After graduating from the Royal College of Art, she became a freelance textile designer – a ground-breaking career move for a time when everyone was an in-house designer – whose modern abstract patterned fabrics, full of vibrancy and colour, offered cheerful relief and optimism after the war. During the late 1940s, Lucienne designed fabrics for Edinburgh Weavers, the John Lewis brand, Cavendish Textiles, and Heals, the latter of which would form a design partnership spanning four decades.
In 1951, Lucienne’s furniture-designer husband Robin was commissioned to design the auditorium seating for the brand-new Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank as part of the Festival of Britain. He called upon the talents of his wife to design the wallpaper and furnishing fabric that would complement his modern furniture. And so, Lucienne Day’s iconic Calyx print was born, featuring abstract botanical motifs. Although Heals were initially reluctant to support this design as it was such a departure from the traditional chintzy fabric patterns of the time, the print went on to be a huge commercial triumph and is regarded as a significant milestone for British post-war textiles.
Lucienne felt that good design should be accessible to all, especially after years of post-war rationing where homes had been deprived of life’s little luxuries. She was eager to create affordable textiles, so her designs were produced on cheaper, modern fabrics like rayon, and scaled down patterns were included for smaller homes. She expanded her designs onto wallpapers, carpets, tea towels and china, so that every home could own a piece of contemporary art.
Be inspired: From ikat to floral prints to abstract designs, discover our vast range of beautiful patterned pillows.
The influence of these four trail-blazing women has continued into today’s interiors, as evident in the furniture and accessories seen in our collection, and the way we approach the interior design process. As we’re championing female pioneers in the industry, it seems only fitting to mention OKA’s three founders – Sue Jones, Annabel Astor and Lucinda Waterhouse – who launched the brand back in 1999 when they were unable to find the exact pieces they were looking for. Fast-forward 21 years and OKA has become an international brand known for its love of colour, its creativity and its high-quality craftsmanship, and who we hope inspires the female design revolutionaries of tomorrow.