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Our best reads on trailblazing women designers

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Here are the women who have and continue to shape our built environment, their professions, and their industries

Modern concrete building with wall of glass and totem-like sculptures on the grounds surrounding it.
The grounds and reflecting pool of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, designed by Cornelia Oberlander.
Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia

In celebration of International Women’s Day, we’ve rounded up a collection of some of Curbed’s favorite pieces about trailblazing women in the fields of architecture, design, urbanism, and beyond. With women’s rights and the #MeToo movement dominating the global conversation, promoting the work, vision, and voices of women is more important than ever.

Below, find 14 stories covering larger-than-life figures like Julia Morgan, multi-hyphenate Ray Eames, and Zaha Hadid, as well as lesser-known groundbreakers like landscape architects Cornelia Oberlander and Harriet Pattison, and pioneering women of color like Norma Sklarek and Beverly Loraine Greene.

The women designers who made Herman Miller furniture shine

Courtesy Herman Miller

Herman Miller’s marquee designers were a band of “traveling men”—think George Nelson, Charles Eames, and Alexander Girard. But new material from the Herman Miller archives complicates and expands the narrative of three (or six) male superstars.

Curbed’s architecture critic Alexandra Lange dives into the lives of less familiar names like Peggy Ann Rohde, Tomoko Miho, Barbara Loveland, and Linda Powell to see how women’s graphic design work shaped the iconic brand into what it is today.

Malene Barnett founds Black Artists + Designers Guild to take on the industry’s race problem

Courtesy Black Artists + Designers Guild

Malene Barnett’s career has changed a lot since she graduated from design school 20 years ago: She’s masterminded dozens of interiors around the world, developed products, and nurtured her fine-arts work in a number of mediums.

But one thing hasn’t changed: When she opens a magazine, she doesn’t see black people—or the robust body of work she knows black designers produce. Instead of staying frustrated, Barnett decided to take action and establish the Black Artists + Designers Guild, a collective that aims to become the go-to resource for people interested in hiring black creatives and, more importantly, publishing and spreading awareness of their work.

How Julia Morgan gave California women space for leisure

Getty Images

In 1934, Morgan would tell a correspondent, “I have 22 pools now in operation and have come to some quite definite conclusions.” Among those conclusions, McNeill says, is that the pools and recreational spaces were among the most important aspects of the YWCAs. The women wanted to be free. And the clothes they had to wear—think about how freeing a pool would be even in those heavy, hot bathing costumes.

11 pioneering architects of color who made their mark: Norma Sklarek (1926–2012)

Courtesy Gruen Associates

Called the “Rosa Parks of architecture,” Sklarek was raised by Trinidadian parents in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. She would become a trailblazer in both New York and California, and was the first female architect to be licensed in both states.

Sea Ranch’s world-famous supergraphics almost didn’t happen, if not for Barbara Stauffacher

The Sea Ranch’s Moonraker Athletic Center, featuring supergraphics by Barbara Stauffacher Solomon. Jim Alinder/Princeton Architectural Press

After the Sea Ranch architects went over budget, graphic designer Barbara Stauffacher Solomon saved the day with cost-effective paint.

Meet Marion Mahony Griffin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s best frenemy

Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation/Frank Lloyd Wright Trust

Partners, friends, and eventually enemies, architects Marion Mahony Griffin and Frank Lloyd Wright are forever intertwined in their lives and works.

Elizabeth Close: Minnesota’s midcentury pioneer

Tom Trow

An unabashed advocate of the International Style and stripped-down design, “the word ‘decoration’ was almost a swear word to her.”

Ray Eames and the art of entertaining

Ray Eames also understood housewifery as part, though far from all, of her and Charles’s design practice, as historian Pat Kirkham argues in an essay in a new book on the famous design couple. “Ray enjoyed nurturing through hospitality, and her ‘at home’ performances blurred the boundaries between her roles as wife, friend, and artist, designer and filmmaker with Charles,” Kirkham writes in The World of Charles and Ray Eames (Rizzoli).

11 pioneering architects of color who made their mark: Beverly Loraine Greene (1915–1957)

Andreas Feininger/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Chicago-born architect Beverly Greene would rack up an impressive resume working alongside some of the greats of modernism. She became the first African-American woman licensed to practice architecture in Illinois (and likely the country) in 1942.

Landscape architecture icons to know now: Cornelia Oberlander and Harriet Pattison

Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia

Although their approaches to landscape architecture could not be more diametrically different, the women both recalled entering a field at a time when there were few female colleagues and even fewer female mentors. “I believed all along that it was important for women to be working,” says Oberlander. “I didn’t look right or left—I just kept going.”

Elsie de Wolfe, the Colony Club, and the birthplace of American design

Museum of the City of New York Collections

The contemporary concept of an interior designer didn’t exist in American domestic life until about the turn of the 20th century. And the pioneering decorator who started it all, many argue, was the the New York-based Elsie de Wolfe.

Celebrating Jane Jacobs

Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

Best known for her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs pulled together her experiences as an architecture journalist, New York City resident, and long-time observer of urban life (she grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, watching the city’s slow economic decline) to form her ideas about how cities and neighborhoods work best.

Avriel Shull: A self-made architect focused on livable midcentury design

Commercial Article 03

Avriel Shull’s logo—her first name written in curving cursive, wrapped around an artist’s palette—suggested that she had ambitions to be more than just an artist, designer, or architect (though she was all three). She wanted to be a brand.

And in midcentury Indiana, without the benefit of formal training or an architecture degree, Shull earned that distinction, designing and decorating an entire subdivision in her progressive, organic style.

Zaha Hadid: A complete list of unbuilt designs

Zaha Hadid Architects

Take a look at the unbuilt, unrealized, and in-progress designs from the late architect’s unfolding legacy.