We rely on advertising revenue to support the creative content on our site. Please consider whitelisting our site in your settings, or pausing your adblocker while stopping by.

Get the Magazine

Women's History Month

Architecture and design have longstanding reputations as male-dominated industries. In fact, women didn’t even begin practicing architecture in the United States until the mid-1800s. But despite the historic lack of female representation in the field, their contributions to the design canon are undeniable. In the spirit of Women’s History Month, we looked back at the past century of design history to spotlight 10 practitioners whose work not only defined their own era but has continued to resonate through the ages:


Marion Mahony Griffin
Marion Mahony Griffin pictured alongside her husband, Walter Burley Griffin.

Recognized as one of the first female architects in the world, Marion Mahony Griffin (1871-1961) was a trailblazer for architectural equality. From her inauguration into the built world, as the second woman to graduate from MIT’s School of Architecture in 1894, to her 14 years of foundational work with Frank Lloyd Wright, Mahony Griffin’s storied career illustrated a radical breakthrough for women’s agency in architecture. By 1898, she became (likely) the first licensed woman architect ever. However, it was decades later that she would truly find her footing in this incredibly male-dominated field. 

Capitol Theatre in Melbourne, Australia. PHOTO: Rory Hyde

It was in the 1910s that Mahony Griffin began to gain full creative control over her projects. When Wright left his practice in 1909, she worked on several of his abandoned commissions including Millikin Place and a selection of homes — such as the residence of famous automobile mogul Henry Ford. Later, she would start her own practice with her husband, Walter Burley Griffin, and together, they would work on hundreds of projects across the U.S., Australia and elsewhere, including the planning of Australia’s Federal capital, Canberra. A founding member of the Prairie School of architecture, Marion Mahony Griffin is remembered today for her incredible drive in the face of adversity. 


Eileen Gray

A paragon of the Modernist movement, acclaimed Irish architect and furniture designer Eileen Gray (1878-1976) mastered a bold and unique style. One of the first women to study at the Slade School of Fine Art in London for drawing and painting, she started her career as a furniture designer and studied traditional lacquerware techniques under Japanese master Seizo Sugawara. During her long career, she perfected many famous modernist designs, like the Bibendum Chair and the Pirogue Daybed, before finally turning to architecture in her late 40s. 

The E-1027 Table. PHOTO: spinhall

With no formal training, her first project was her most notorious, perhaps echoing the Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg’s idea, “first thought, best thought.” Designed around 1926 with her partner — both working and romantic — Jean Badovici, this was the infamous seaside villa near Monaco: E-1027. The subject of some scandal, E-1027 was eventually defaced with loud murals painted by a nude Le Corbusier, who disagreed with Gray’s view that a home was a living entity. Gray’s curvaceous, height-adjustable chrome table of the same name also became one of her most famous furniture designs. 


Charlotte Perriand

French architect and furniture designer Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999) aspired to build a better world through design. A social activist and feminist, Perriand took a humanist approach, which became a major theme in her work. After studying furniture design at the School of the Central Union of Decorative Arts, she completely renovated her own apartment for the Salon d’Automne, calling it the Bar sous le Toit, in 1927. As her first major success, this project championed the idea that good design should not be for the elite few, but for everybody. Building mainly with steel, which was then considered a masculine material, she also challenged sexist architectural standards. 

Tokyo Chaise Longue by Charlotte Perriand. PHOTO: Jean-Pierre Dalbér

Originally rejected by her idol, Le Corbusier, with the snub “we don’t embroider cushions here,” Perriand secured herself a title in architecture anyway. When Le Corbusier saw her Bar sous le Toit at the fair, he offered her a job at his studio. There, she contributed to the design of the LC1 armchair (with its tilting back), the LC4 chaise longue, and other iconic Le Corbusier chairs. Eventually setting forth on her own, she became a highly sought-after architect, working on many famous projects, including Méribel Les Allues ski resort in Savoie, the United Nations’ League of Nations building in Geneva, and others. 


Ray Eames
Ray and Charles Eames.

Though she is now rightfully regarded as one-half of one of design’s most famous husband-and-wife teams, Ray Eames (1912-1988) was regrettably under-appreciated during her time. She met her life and design partner, Charles, while studying at the renowned Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan in 1940. In the decade that followed, the duo quickly solidified their place in the design canon; they were invited to participate in California’s Case Study House Program, which sought to build modern homes that showcased wartime and industrial materials. Case Study House Number 8, which eventually became Charles and Ray’s permanent residence, remains a celebrated example of mid-century architecture and was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Case Study House Number 8. PHOTO: Dystopos
LCW Chair by Charles and Ray Eames. PHOTO: Sailko
Fiberglass Shell Chair by Charles and Ray Eames. PHOTO: Sandra Fauconnier

In the early 40s, the pair also began experimenting with plywood manufacturing, beginning with a wooden leg splint designed for the U.S. Navy, laying the groundwork for their most famous furniture designs. In 1946, the Lounge Chair Wood (LCW) won MoMA’s Organic Designs in Home Furnishings contest. Two years later, the Eameses won a second MoMA competition for low-cost furniture design with their Fiberglass Shell Chair. Both bestsellers are still in production today. While much of the Eameses’ work was collaborative, Ray also shined independently as a multi-hyphenate creative, winning two MoMA awards for textile designs, creating 27 covers for Art & Architecture magazine between 1942 and 1948 and lending her graphic design skills to Eames furniture ads for Herman Miller.


Lina Bo Bardi
PHOTO: Bob Wolfenson

Architect Lina Bo Bardi (1914-1992) is the perfect example of what happens when cultures collide. Born and trained in Italy, where she got her start creating illustrations for local publications, she moved to Brazil after World War II and fell in love with the local vernacular. She established her practice there in the late ’40s and quickly hit her stride, receiving major commissions such as the São Paulo Museum of Art, in 1950. One year later, she completed her first built work: her own residence, called the Glass House (or Casa de Vidro), which drew from American modernist references while embracing the local context. Her over 6,000 drawings, ranging from colourful architectural representations to more narrative works, are stored in her archives in this home.

SESC Pompeia by Lina Bo Bardi. PHOTO: Clarissa Sá

As time went on, she continued to make her mark on Brazil’s built environment. Her use of concrete became somewhat of a signature, as seen in both the São Paulo Museum of Art and the SESC Pompiéa, a former steel strum and refrigerator factory sensitively reimagined as a recreation centre for the working class. The latter developed into one of her most well-known projects, wholeheartedly embodying her ethos to leverage the social and cultural potential of architecture.


Florence Knoll
PHOTO: Smithsonian Institute

Another Cranbrook Academy success story, Florence Knoll (1917-2019) made an immeasurable impact on Modernist design, particularly in the office interior. Though her husband, Hans, is credited with founding their eponymous furniture company, Florence was the brainchild behind the Knoll Planning Unit, their interior design division. By 1960, the company was in its heyday, with its showrooms and retailers bringing in $15 million in sales annually. Florence was instrumental in conceiving the “Knoll look,” designing showrooms that sold the dream of living there, rather than just the product itself.  As a businesswoman, she revolutionized selling for the contract market, creating “paste-up” presentation floor plans using fabric swatches, wood chips and other finishes that humanized her contemporary designs. She became the first woman to receive the AIA Gold Medal for Industrial Design in 1961 and earned the International Design Award from the American Institute of Interior Designers one year later.

Florence Knoll Sofas. PHOTO: Knoll Archives

Despite her many accomplishments, her success was often downplayed. She set the record straight in a 1964 New York Times interview: “I am not a decorator…the only place I decorate is my own house.” As a female designer in her own right, Florence was exceptional.

Her impeccable eye and enormous influence also helped her to identify and empower other rising stars in the field. Unafraid to take risks, she bet on young talents with little experience, discovering up-and-comers like Ezster Haraszty, Anni Albers, and Evelyn Hill at the Bauhaus Weaving Workshop. By putting their work into production through Knoll’s textile division, she reframed the profession of weaving, which was formerly looked down upon as “women’s work,” within the hierarchy of the company. Throughout her prodigious career and life – she lived to be 101 – Knoll not only fundamentally changed the aesthetic of modern interiors but paved the way for female designers to come, ensuring her enduring legacy.


Denise Scott Brown
PHOTO: imoisset

Though also highly regarded as a design practitioner, Denise Scott Brown (1931-) was ahead of her time as an architectural academic and theorist. A founding partner in Philadelphia firm Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates (alongside her husband Robert Venturi), she developed a portfolio of projects that embraced a signature postmodern style. With theorist Steven Izenour, the duo wrote the book Learning From Las Vegas: the Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form in 1971, which published studies of the Las Vegas strip conducted for a Yale University research studio course. Examining the role of sign and symbol alongside architectural form, the book was controversial at the time for its indictment of Modernism but praised by progressive critics. Two years later, Scott Brown wrote the follow-up essay, “Learning From Pop,” which emphasized the consideration of pop culture in designing architecture.

Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery. PHOTO: Richard George

Like many of the women on this list, Scott Brown often lived in her husband’s shadow. She wrote the essay “Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture” in 1975 (she only published it a decade later, however, for fear of its impact on her career), describing her struggle for recognition as the only female partner of her firm, and has since become a staunch advocate for women in the profession. After she was snubbed for the Pritzker Prize in 1991, which only recognized Venturi, architecture students launched a petition to retroactively acknowledge her work, demonstrating her continued relevance.


Maya Lin
PHOTO: Jesse Frohman

Maya Lin (1959-) was just 21 years old when she got her big break. Though she was still a Yale University undergraduate student at the time, her proposal for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. stood out amongst 1,422 submissions in a blind public design competition, ultimately winning her the commission in 1981. The design — an austere black granite wall etched with the names of fallen soldiers — was controversial for its minimalism. And while many called her lack of professional experience, and ironically, her Asian American heritage, into question, the project catapulted her into design stardom.

The Princeton Line by Maya Lin. PHOTO: Alyssa C. Thiel

To achieve this level of success so early in one’s career is a rarity. But what is perhaps even more remarkable is Lin’s longevity — and versatility — as a designer. Through the years, she’s worked on everything from land art (see seminal works such as Peace Chapel and A Fold in the Field, her largest project to date), to sculptures and installations, as well as monuments like the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, for which she has become renowned. She was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016 in recognition of her contributions to art and architecture. Now aged 64, she still owns and operates her eponymous studio in New York City, where she is focused on projects that address climate change and habitat loss.


Zaha Hadid
PHOTO: Steve Double

As one of the biggest female architects of contemporary times, with 950 projects in 44 countries to her name, Iraqi-British architect Dame Zaha Mohammad Hadid (1950-2016) and her firm, ZHA, have had an undeniable influence on architecture in the new millennium. Initially founded in 1980, ZHA rose to success in the early 90s when many of Hadid’s early projects were realized, including her first building, the famous Vitra Fire Station in Germany. 

Morpheus Hotel in Macau by Zaha Hadid. PHOTO: Ivan Dupont / Virgile Simon Bertrand

Known for its extremely futuristic style, her complex parametric design process — coined by firm partner Patrik Schumacher — involves the use of contemporary modelling technology and mathematical algorithms to create otherworldly structures and form mutually adaptive shapes. The giant concrete and steel curves of the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan, among Hadid’s many other projects, shows a singular style and design vision that is internationally celebrated.


Jeanne Gang
PHOTO: Sally Ryan

The founder of architecture and urban design practice Studio Gang, American architect Jeanne Gang (1964-) takes women in architecture to new heights — literally. Gang designed the St. Regis Chicago: the tallest building in the world designed by a woman. Her best-known project, the Aqua Tower in Chicago (2010), was also the largest project awarded to an American studio run by a woman. 

Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois, by Jeanne Gang.

Gang is still highly influential in the industry today. One of her recent projects, the sinuous Gilder Center in New York City, graced the pages of AZURE’s 300th issue. A major champion for sustainable design practices, Studio Gang’s mantra of “actionable idealism” embodies an attitude towards change that is both tangible and empowering. As to where her career is headed next, the sky is the limit.


Portrait of Anupama Kundoo
Anupama Kundoo. PHOTO: Andras Deffner
Mariam Issoufou Kamara. PHOTO: Stéphane Rodrigez Delavega

The list above is a reminder of what we already know: Though women have made immeasurable strides in architecture and design in the past 100 years, the industry has historically privileged a very narrow (read: white and Western) perspective. There is still a long way to go, but the 2010s marked the beginning of a more diverse chapter that will undoubtedly shape the next 100 years of design history. With so many praiseworthy practitioners in today’s increasingly globalized landscape, it feels nearly impossible, and dare we say, wrong, to single out just one figure that represents the current era. Whether innovating through material research like India’s Anupama Kundoo, pioneering low-cost and sustainable housing like Mexican architect Tatiana Bilbao, or embracing a spiritual, contextual approach like Niger’s Mariam Issoufou Kamara, today’s leading ladies bring a unique outlook that speaks to the present moment. Learn more about them in our previous International Women’s Day coverage.

10 Women Who Have Shaped Contemporary Design and Architecture

In honour of Women’s History Month, we celebrate 10 female practitioners whose work defined the last 10 decades of design and beyond.

We rely on advertising revenue to support the creative content on our site. Please consider whitelisting our site in your settings, or pausing your adblocker while stopping by.