The most influential female designers of the last century

On the centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK, we look at the female designers who have made an impact on everything from graphics to textiles over the past 100 years.

Margaret Calvert (1936-present)

Photograph by Steve Speller

Widely considered to be the mother of modern day information design, Margaret Calvert was born in South Africa before moving to England as a teenager. After specialising in illustration at the Chelsea School of Art, she was hired by well-known graphic designer Jock Kinneir as his assistant. Their most significant achievement together was undoubtedly their redesign of the UK’s entire road sign system, which replaced the chaotic mish-mash of different typefaces and symbols commissioned by various bodies that existed previously. They started with the new motorways that the government was spearheading in the late 1950s, and then went on to review the signage on all the other roads across the country in the 1960s. In 1964, Kinneir made Calvert a partner and renamed his consultancy Kinneir Calvert Associates. As well as her work as a typographer, Calvert had a stint as head of graphic design at the Royal College of Art from 1987. She is still working as a designer today, and is a regular face at major design conferences such as the D&AD President’s Lecture and Design Indaba.

Lucienne Day (1917-2010)

Lucienne Day with Calyx furnishing fabric, 1951 © Robin & Lucienne Day Foundation/photo: Studio Briggs

Désirée Lucienne Conradi (later known as Lucienne Day) is widely recognised for her contribution to modern textile design. While her career was initially hindered by the advent of World War Two, Day’s big break came when she was asked to take part in the 1951 Festival of Britain. It was there that she debuted her famous, geometric Calyx textile design as part of the Homes and Gardens Pavilion. Her work was displayed at the pavilion alongside the steel and plywood furniture created by her husband, notable furniture designer Robin Day. Today, Day is known for having brought the drabness of post-war Britain to life with her colourful, patterned designs, which have been applied to countless carpets, wallpapers and ceramics over the years. Some of her biggest clients included John Lewis, Liberty and Heal’s Fabrics, who she produced over 70 patterns for during their two-decade long relationship. She was married to notable furniture designer Robin Day,

Ray Eames (1912-1988)

(Left) Ray and (right) Charles Eames

One half of another husband-wife design duo, Ray Eames’ name is synonymous with the emergence of American modern design during the mid-20th century. After originally studying painting in New York, Ray met Charles at Cranbrook Educational Community in Michigan in 1940. Less than a year later, Charles divorced his previous wife and married Ray in Chicago a month afterwards. The two of them moved into their first home together in Los Angeles, where they would spend most of their spare time messing around with plywood. This prolific period of experimentation resulted in their first mass-manufactured product – a moulded plywood leg splint that would go on to have 150,000 orders from the US Navy by the end of World War Two. They also experimented with making furniture in a wide variety of materials, including fibreglass, aluminium and in the case of the 1956 Lounge Chair, leather and plywood. One of their most famous designs, the chair became the must-have centrepiece of any aspiring CEO’s office during the 1960s and 1970s. Following Charles’ death in 1978, Ray devoted the rest of her life to communicating their design philosophy through writing and countless talks. Ray passed away in 1988, but both her and Charles’ legacies are continued today through the Eames Foundation set up by their family.

Zaha Hadid (1950-2016)

Photo by Brigitte Laco

Being the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize for Architecture in 2003 was no mean feat for the late Zaha Hadid. Born in Iraq, Hadid studied mathematics at the American University in Beirut before enrolling at the Architectural Association in London from 1972. It was there that she studied under Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who offered her a job after she graduated as a partner at his new firm, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture. Hadid was not destined to last very long there, however. Instead, she chose to develop her own brand of neo-modernist architecture that she became so well-known for. The early years of her career were tarnished by a series of abandoned projects, most notoriously the Cardiff Bay Opera House. But the Rosenthal Centre for Contemporary Art in Ohio, which opened in 2003, marked the point when her critics were forced to start eating their words. Famously, the opening night of her first major public building saw staff tackle the “diva” reputation that Hadid had been branded with head on, by wearing t-shirts that read “Would they call me a diva if I were a guy?” Hadid went on to create many high profile buildings in the UK, most notably the London 2012 Olympic Aquatics Centre.

Hella Jongerius (1963-present)

Photo by Markus Jans

Originally from the Netherlands, Berlin-based industrial designer Hella Jongerius is famous for her belief in “long-termism” and is outspoken about the fact that “there’s too much shit design” in the world today. Her work is typically known for mixing traditional craft techniques with modern technologies. Jongerius set up her first studio – Jongeriuslab ¬– in Rotterdam in 1993, where she mixed independent projects with work for major clients such as airline KLM and the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York. Since 2012, she has served as art director for rug company Danskina, as well as being art director of colours and materials for Vitra since 2007. Recent projects include a major exhibition at the Design Museum in London, which looked at the designer’s research into the possibilities of colour.

Paula Scher (1948-present)

One of the giants of graphic design in the US, Paula Scher has been a partner at Pentagram’s New York office since 1991. Her big break came in the mid-1990s though, with her landmark, typography-led identity for The Public Theatre. Scher has gone on to create identities for brands ranging from Citbank to Tiffany & Co, and her teaching career includes over two decades at the School of Visual Arts, along with positions at the Cooper Union, Yale University and the Tyler School of Art. She has served on the board of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), as well as being awarded its highest honour – the AIGA Medal – in 2001. Scher has also been the subject of various books and films, including a monograph published by Unit Editions, and a Netflix documentary on the “art of design” in 2017.

Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999)

Photo by Paul Gutmann, Archives Charlotte Perriand (courtesy of Cassina)

One of the most influential furniture designers of the early modern movement, Perriand is famous for her achievements as a woman during an extremely male-dominated era of architecture and design. Born in Paris, she studied at the Ecole de l’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs, but was constantly frustrated by its traditional, craft-based teaching focus. From very early on she took a different approach, drawing inspiration from the industrial design of the cars and bicycles she saw every day on the streets of Paris. After graduating, Perriand’s career was almost ended before it began, when at the age of 24 she strode into architect Le Corbusier’s office and told him to hire her as a furniture designer. His response was simply, “We don’t embroider cushions here”. Luckily for Perriand, several months later Le Corbusier saw one of her commissions for the Salon D’Automne exhibition in Paris and immediately hired her. Working with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, Perriand would go on to develop the series of tubular steel chairs that she remains most famous for today. She worked at the studio for over a decade in total, and during that time also collaborated with cubist artist Fernand Léger and furniture designer Jean Prouvé.

Eileen Gray (1878-1976)

Artist-turned-furniture designer and architect Eileen Gray is arguably one of the most underrated designers of the 20th century. It was only really later in life that she received recognition for her classic designs such as the leather and tubular steel Bibendum Chair and the E-1027 glass and tubular steel table. Born in the Irish market town of Enniscorthy, Gray spent her childhood in London and was among the first women to be admitted to the Slade, where she took up painting in 1898 before doing an apprenticeship in a London lacquer workshop. After opening her own gallery in 1922 in Paris, she moved into furniture and worked closely with many of the outstanding figures of the modern movement, including Le Corbusier and J.J.P Oud. Gray later moved into architecture, again encouraged by Le Corbusier and J.J.P Oud. She designed two houses in the Alpes Maritimes, one at Roquebrune which was built from 1926-1929, and the other at Castellar, built from 1932-1934. After World War Two, and right up to her death in 1976, she continued to work as a designer on major projects such as the Cultural and Social Centre. Today, her work is rightly preserved as part of the archives at major, international institutions such as the V&A and MoMa.

Susan Kare (1954-present)

Photo by Ann Rhoney

Susan Kare is widely considered to be one of the pioneers of computer-based iconography. She began her career at Apple in the 1980s, working as the screen graphics and digital font designer for the original Macintosh computer. It was while she was at Apple that Kare arguably helped to shape what the language of user interfaces looks like today. Her archive of graph paper drawings showing her ideas for the original Macintosh interface were recently acquired by the Museum of MoMA, and shown as part of its exhibition This is for Everyone: Design Experiments for The Common Good, as well as featuring in the Design Museum’s 2017 exhibition on pioneering Californian design.

Morag Myerscough (1963-present)

North London-born designer Morag Myerscough has been applying her trademark, colourful design aesthetic to interiors, installations and exhibition spaces for over two decades. Since founding Studio Myerscough in 1993, she has worked on commissions ranging from the first permanent exhibition space at the Design Museum’s new site in Kensington to giving the rooms and wards at Sheffield Children’s Hospital a vibrant makeover. The designer was also crowned as a Royal Designer for Industry (RDI) by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) in 2017, a widely recognised award that celebrated her work for providing “significant benefit to society”.

Who do you think is the most influential female designer of the last 100 years? Let us know in the comments below.

Hide Comments (19)Show Comments (19)
  • Elizabeth Bryant February 6, 2018 at 10:26 am

    Why is Lucienne Day referred to as ‘The wife of notable furniture designer….’. Do we refer to Robin Day as the husband of noted textile designer Lucienne Day…? Painful irony, Design Week.

    • Sarah Dawood February 6, 2018 at 12:34 pm

      Hi Elizabeth,

      Point taken, we could have started that sentence differently. We thought it was an interesting point that Lucienne and Robin Day were both notable designers, and to exclude this would have been neglecting part of the story. If you read further, we also make the point that Lucienne deserves recognition in her own right. It would have been irresponsible of us to exclude interesting context, and had we written a piece on Robin Day, we would have definitely said he was married to textile designer Lucienne Day.

      Design Week team

      • Joanne MacKie February 11, 2018 at 1:43 pm

        But you mention it twice!

    • jutta van gils July 23, 2018 at 7:15 pm

      Thanks I thought this too!

  • Nina Stritzler February 6, 2018 at 2:52 pm

    Aino Marsio-Aalto who seems to be always forgotten despite her role as formally trained pioneering woman architect. Unlike Gray, Perriand and Kaiser Eames, she received a formal degree in architecture in the early 1920s. Subsequently she became Alvar Aalto’s partner and the head designer and executive head of Artek. Marsio-Aalto contributed to innumerable architectural projects including the iconic Paimio Sanatorium, Villa Mairea and the New York World’s Fair as well as the Sunila Pulp Factory and Baker House at MIT. Marsio-Aalto designed furniture, interiors, textiles, and major public and private buildings.

  • mike dempsey February 8, 2018 at 11:00 am

    For me, Lucienne Day towers above this shortlisted collection of designers. Her work continues to exude optimism, joy and delight through her use of colour, pattern and the sheer inventiveness of her brilliant work.

    And while on the topic of colour, in all the hubbub, image immediacy and ‘nowness’ of the internet, in presenting and praising the work of current designers, e.g. Camille Walala (DW26 July 17) and Morag Myerscough (DW 5 Feb 18), let’s not forget the early pioneering work of Ben Kelly and his innovative contribution to creating joyful, colourful spaces. His 1982 Hacienda, the Science Museum’s children’s space and the many Gymbox venues, all referencing back to Ben’s earlier Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark album cover of almost 4 decades ago. It is so easy to overlook or marginalise design history.

  • Tony Pritchard February 8, 2018 at 8:57 pm

    Jacqueline Casey, Rosemarie Tissi and April Greiman helped shape graphic design in the 20th Century

  • Brea from 99designs February 9, 2018 at 10:55 pm

    Great roundup! Always love reading about Zaha Hadid and Paula Scherr, and it was lovely to discover other female graphic designers I was not yet familiar with.

  • Tim Hiltabiddle February 10, 2018 at 2:34 pm

    April Greiman is one of the most important and influential graphic designers of the 20C, regardless of gender. To not include her on a list of “female designers” is a huge oversight in my opinion.

  • Maya P. Lim February 12, 2018 at 2:50 pm

    Excellent gathering. But it’s missing Jessica Helfand, one of the most influential and inspiring designers of the century…and a major champion of women leadership!

    • C Gambell October 16, 2018 at 7:30 pm

      Second this!

  • Alice February 14, 2018 at 12:05 am

    Elizabeth Friedländer, an often overlooked and under appreciated designer who worked at Penguin. See the Design Week article about the exhibition of her work at The Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft

  • Angela February 16, 2018 at 11:38 am

    Maybe if the piece was titled ‘Some of the most influential female designers of the last century’. There are a number of names missing currently.

  • Kate Farley March 4, 2018 at 1:36 pm

    Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Gunta Stolz, Anni Albers, Sonia Delaunay, Clarice Cliff, Marianne Straub, Enid Marx, Vivienne Westwood, Jacqueline Groag, Sarah Campbell, Zandra Rhodes… let’s not just stick with the obvious, we need to raise awareness of the others who have constantly been side-lined for being female!

  • Michael Pinto September 17, 2018 at 7:25 am
  • C Gambell October 16, 2018 at 7:29 pm

    I refuse to believe that there are no women of color who have been influential in design over the last 100 years. (We can quibble about Hadid, but that’s clearly not the point).

  • m. hahn October 17, 2018 at 2:51 pm

    corita kent, katherine mccoy, lorraine wild

  • Anna Claude Bailey March 9, 2019 at 3:14 am

    Some of my personal favourites: Doreen Mashika, Nkhensani Nkosi, Patricia Urquiola, Denise Scott-Brown.

  • Vincent Bowman May 17, 2023 at 9:52 pm

    Where is Lela Vignelli in this grouping? Oh she’s an architect. So is Zaha Hadid.
    They both happened to work on products. Lela candlesticks, furniture, interiors. Hadid, shoes, yachts, furniture installations as well. Maybe Lela was not that influential. Only know by industrial designers like myself.

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