Hall of Femmes started off as a personal quest for Swedish designers Samira Bouabana and Angela Tillman Sperandio. A few years ago they realised that, as design professionals running their own practice, they experienced a lack of role models – or, more precisely, visible, successful women in senior positions in the fields of art direction, graphics and advertising. Since then, Hall of Femmes has evolved from a blog into a series of interview-based monographic books, launch events and a podcast, culminating in the latest iteration: a two-day conference at Moderna Museet in Stockholm.
The roster included Barbara Kruger, Janet Froelich and Cindy Gallop – giants in art, art direction and marketing, respectively – and each seemed as enthusiastic to be in the audience of the event, as they were about the invitation to address it.
Art director Ruth Ansel was one of the first designers to be featured in the book series [see CR May 10] and, on the stage at Moderna, the auditorium celebrated her work with cheers and standing ovations as she, and later Janet Froelich, took us down the memory lane of magazine-making. Froelich’s Hall of Femmes monograph was released on the occasion of the conference and from the podium she presented behind-the-scenes backgrounds to a selection of her magazine covers. More than 1,000 issues of The New York Times Magazine and T Magazine, the style-oriented supplement to the same newspaper, have been published during her reign as art director and creative director.
“I believe in the image, desperately,” Ansel proclaimed in her presentation. “It can become the content. It can tell the story.” Her own story is lined with iconic covers and spreads from the pop culture periodicals that have defined the spirit of entire decades: Harper’s Bazaar, New York Times Magazine again, Vanity Fair. (Her younger peers, who made up the majority of the audience, gasped and reached for their smartphone cameras during her talk.) Ansel was also the first female art director on each of the magazines she spoke about but, she claimed, she didn’t acknowledge it as a particularly important fact at the time.
And so the topic of gender equality (or, rather, the lack thereof) in the industry surfaced, despite Ansel striving to rise above it. In the panel that rounded off the first day, Froelich picked it up: “Sorry, but it didn’t get fixed 20 years ago.”
In the midst of the festivities, this was a sad revelation. The reason we were here, after all, in this setting, was because there is still something wrong with the world. Gender arguably still has a greater influence on your professional chances than what’s in your head, on your desk, or in your phone book. Yet the issue of gender equality doesn’t leave much room for sentimentality – it has to look forward, as there is no golden age to turn back to.
On the second day of the conference, Swedish fashion designer Ann-Sofie Back provided some insight into a creative process that is equally unsentimental. Rather than the things she likes, her work draws from the things she’s appalled by. “I have a very short attention span,”she said. “If there’s something I dislike, it takes longer for me to get bored with it.”
Recent collections from her studio are the product of trying to understand those aspects of contemporary society which are strange, ugly, even disgusting. Things like obsessive paparazzi imagery, the stereotypes of old-school horror movies, avatar styling in online communities, gas-station workwear, and pornography. In Back’s hands, dealing with the repulsive head-on becomes a way of preparing for the unknown. And it works as an effective antidote to any nostalgic tendencies.
Taking the stage after Back was ‘body architect’ Lucy McRae, whose design thinking is surging down a similar track. The niche she has carved out for herself is extraordinary. She produces shocking yet mesmerising sci-fi scenarios, snapshots of a not too distant future, not in a utopian way, but by captivating the viewer with visualisations of an uncanny tomorrow and the altered human bodies inhabiting it.
And McRae does this with things you can get from the supermarket, such as matches, food dye, cotton swabs, balloons and tights. By applying them in bulk she transforms and reshapes faces, limbs and entire figures. The resulting photos and short films, by extension, address issues like genetic manipulation, prosthetics, and the rise of artificial intelligence – or already accepted practices like plastic surgery or Botox, which McRae talks about in terms of “accessorising the skin”.
These speculations, all based on more or less available technology, sometimes spin off into product concepts. Among such designs are digital tattoos and a ‘swallowable’ perfume, that would come in pill form and use the body itself as an atomiser for the scent molecules, appearing on the skin as gold-tinted sweat pearls. Thinking a generation or two ahead might sound like too much to handle. But McRae argues otherwise: “It’s important that the way technology evolves isn’t left to the scientists. Art, design and cultural creativity should help in sculpting that evolution.”
What McRae brings to light is that the world she describes is already in the making, and almost within reach. Yet it’s still in our power to change tomorrow into what we’d want it to be. “A lot of it’s quite scary,” she says, adding: “But I’m not scared of it.”
Next up for Hall of Femmes is a book on Mary Shanahan, best known for her art direction of Rolling Stone magazine in the late 1970s and early 80s. It will be the eighth in the series. As for the overall project, its future is apparently still to be determined.
Björn Ehrlemark and Carin Kallenberg run Neighbours of Architecture, a series of public talks which are staged in the Palmhuset in Gothenburg. See arkitekturensgrannar.se