Cover Ilse Crawford (Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hansen & Søn)

Although men continue to dominate the design industry, here are five female architects and designers who have left an indelible mark on it

1. Eileen Gray

A pioneer of modern design and architecture, Eileen Gray was one of few women in her time to practise professionally in the field. One of her buildings upset Modernism's Le Corbusier so much that he famously vandalised it—naked.

Born into an aristocratic Irish family in 1878, Gray grew up in Brownswood, County Wexford, and divided her time between Ireland and London. Gray was was one of the first women admitted to the Slade School of Art in 1898 and she moved to Paris in 1902 to train in Japanese lacquer work.


By the early 1920s, Gray had quickly established herself as one of the leading designers of lacquer furniture in Paris, and she went on to open her own shop, Galerie Jean Désert, which she designed in collaboration with the architectural critic and editor, Jean Badovici. Gray was openly bisexual and had a romantic relationship with Badovici who became the catalyst behind her transition into architecture.

The '20s and '30s were a productive time for Gray who, apart from making furniture which feature lacquer heavily, explored designing multi-functional pieces that look just as modern then as they do today. These include the charmingly chubby Bibendum chair influenced by the famous Michelin Man; the sleek Day Bed which could be accessed from any direction designed specially for her new house; and the E1027 Adjustable Table which was also designed for the house and has been in the permanent design collection of MoMA in New York since 1977,


Gray’s first building, E-1027, which was completed when she turned 51, is also her best-known work. A seaside villa in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in France, the name of the house is a coded message spelling out her and Badovici’s initials—E for Eileen while the numbers referred to the alphabetical order of the letters J, B and G.

A vision of classic modernism, the villa had an open-plan interior that mixed moving screens with fixed walls. It was full of thoughtful details and embodied her view that “a house is not a machine to live in. It is the shell of man, his extension, his release, his spiritual emanation."

Corbusier, who was a friend of Badovici, was invited to the villa one summer. He was perplexed by how a woman untrained in architecture could design such an impressive building in a style he thought was his own that he defaced the pristine white balls of E-1027 with a series of garish cubist murals, executed in the nude.

Gray only ever realised three more architectural projects—a house for herself near Castellar, a studio apartment in Paris for Badovici, and a final renovation project in St Tropez—before she passed away in the '70s. Her furniture designers continue to be manufactured today by Aram Designs Ltd, London, who also granted a license to produce to ClassiCon of Germany.

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2. Andrée Putman

Despite having grown up in opulence, Andrée Putman's simple aesthetic made her seem perpetually modern. Putman was born in Paris in 1925 into banking wealth and seemed destined for the life immersed in music (her music teacher was none other than Francis Poulenc). She forsook this for a string of high profile jobs in fashion and art direction before finding her true calling, and making a name for herself in the world of design.

As a teenager, Putnam emptied her room in the family's Left Bank apartment of everything except a bed and a chair by Mies van der Rohe under a Noguchi lamp. This might have been an early indication of her famously impeccable taste. This combined with a passion for craftsmanship, knowledge of French Arts Decoratifs’ tradition, and eye for minimalist shapes led her to establish Ecart International in the late '70s.

Ecart was instrumental reviving forgotten French modernist furniture of the 1930s including the work of Eileen Gray. Putman was also the fashion set's interior designer of choice with the likes of Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld, among others, who commissioned her to design sleek shop interiors of modern luxury, devoid of the traditional gilt.

In the early '80s, Putman was commissioned by Ian Schrager to design Morgans in New York. This became known as the first boutique hotel in the world and was a turning point in her career. Morgans was much imitated across the world and Putnam subsequently designed hotels feted for their originality such as the Hotel Le Lac, in Kawaguchi, Japan; the Hotel Im Wasserturm, in Cologne, Germany; and the Pershing Hall in Paris.


In 1997, she set up her own studio, where she continued designing shop interiors around the world and a Hong Kong skyscraper that bears her name, not to mention the now iconic chequered escalators in Le Bon Marche Rive Gauche. Putman also worked on small domestic objects, including table ceramics, cutlery and jewellery defined by her signature style of simplicity with a witty twist.

Putman passed away in 2013, leaving a legacy of design that transcend trends but always adhering to her ethos: "I like the beautiful and the useful, and even more the beautiful in the useful."

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3. Dame Zaha Hadid

The first woman to be awarded architecture's greatest accolade, the Pritzker Prize, Dame Zaha Hadid was a star of the architectural scene and a visionary. Her intensely futuristic architecture manipulated severe materials such as concrete and steel into malleable forms characterised by curving façades and sharp angles, creating Hadid's unique design vocabulary.

Born in Iraq into a life of privilege in 1950, Hadid grew up in a secular, modernising Baghdad and her upbringing reflected this. Hadid's early education was in a convent despite being a Muslim and then boarding schools in England and Switzerland. After gaining a maths degree at the American University of Beirut, she went to the Architectural Association (AA) school in London. The AA was a centre of progressive architectural thought at that time and Hadid studied under Rem Koolhaas and Alvin Boyarsky, whom Hadid always cited as one of her most important influences.


For many years, Hadid was a "paper architect" but during this time she established her reputation through her drawings, paintings, and by teaching architecture internationally at schools including the Architectural Association, Harvard Graduate School of Design, Cambridge University, and Columbia University. In the '90s, her work was finally given the chance to be realised in physical form by way of the Vitra Fire Station.

Designed for the factory complex of the same name in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany, the small building was built to house the fire engine for the company’s volunteer fire brigade. A dynamic composition of intersecting concrete planes, this represented the earliest attempt to translate Hadid’s conceptual drawings into a functional architectural space.

More work followed in Europe, each more ambitious than the next including the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, Ohio and the Bergisel Ski-Jump on Bergisel Mountain in Innsbruck, Austria. The New York Times called the former the "most important American building to be completed since the Cold War" and marked the first American museum designed by a woman.


A year after the completion of the art museum, Hadid was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2004. Not only was she the first woman to receive the prize, Hadid began to attract more media attention as well as higher profile clients with greater ambition and more substantial budgets.

Projects now spanned the globe, ranging from the undulating Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan and the immense Phæno Science Center in Wolfsburg, Germany to the the gravity-defying Antwerp Port House in Belgium and 1000 Miami in the USA, Hadid's first residential tower in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the final projects designed by Hadid.

Hadid had a unique talent for making architecture, though it had its roots in what was once called the avant-garde. Not only was she honoured with a long list of awards, when the Design Museum in London gave hadid her first British retrospective in 2007, it was the most successful architecture show the museum had ever staged.

Hadid passed away unexpectedly at 65 in 2016 and while her architectural vision continues to be upheld by her London-based firm, Zaha Hadid Architects, the world lost a true original.

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4. Patricia Urquiola

Architect and product designer, Patricia Urquiola's work is immediately recognisable for their comfort—visual and tactile. The New York Times called Urquiola "the most lauded and in-demand industrial designer in Europe, on par with Philippe Starck and Hella Jongerius".

Indeed, the designer's client roster reads like the who's who of the design space ranging from outdoor furniture for B&B Italia and psychedelic pieces for GlasItalia, to crafted chairs for Moroso and a table service for Kartell.  

Born in Oviedo, Spain in 1961, Urquiola studied architecture and design at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid and completed her studies at the prestigious Politecnico di Milano where she graduated under the mentorship of Achille Castiglioni. After graduating, she joined the studio of De Padova, where she was put in charge of new product design and went on to run the product design division at Piero Lissoni’s studio for five years.

In 2001, Urquiola opened her own Milan-based studio from which she would design produce buildings as well as products in every possible medium.

Informed by craft but with the formal training of an architect, she is able to create industrial designs that have the feel of a one-off piece. The designer also does not make apologies for the femininity of her portfolio, which she explores through sensual colours and tactile finishes but without any coy conventionality. This quality endeared her to Patrizia Moroso, the art director of family-run Italian furniture brand Moroso. Moroso was the first major manufacturer to produce Urquiola’s work, conferring some much-needed visibility to the designer at the beginning of her career and their collaboration continues today with almost 100 stunning items and counting.

The ease of Urquiola's work lends itself particularly to hospitality projects and the designer is equally at home designing for big-name hotels like the Mandarin Oriental in Barcelona and Four Seasons Milan or the idyllic yet stylish Il Sereno on the shore of Lake Como, Italy.

Urquiola even tackled notoriously staid office furniture with a collection for Haworth that harkened back to the flowing designs of the '60s. The collection also addressed the industry's addiction to geometric shapes and neutrals with fluid shapes and candy colours.

In 2015, Urquiola was made the creative director of luxury Italian brand Cassina. With her forward-thinking voice, the designer was the ideal candidate to bring Cassina’s weighty heritage into the 21st century.

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5. Ilse Crawford

For some, the term creative polymath may seem like hyperbole but for Ilse Crawford, it merely sums up what she does. Product creator and interior designer, anthropological academic and author, Crawford was also the founding editor of the British edition of Elle Decoration. Under her, the pages of the magazine transformed from showcasing posed stuffy interiors to warm, touchable homes. Crawford has been quoted as saying: "I’m interested in things that are alive, and I’m not interested in perfection." She  continues to shape how we consider and interact with our homes.


Born in London in 1962, Crawford also grew up there and attended York University. After working at an architect's studio and some publications, Crawford was appointed the editor of the British edition of Elle Decoration, a post she held for almost a decade. A stint at Donna Karan followed, which helped transition her career into product and interior design.

Soon after, she founded the Man and Wellbeing department at the renowned Design Academy Eindhoven, where she helped students to prioritise human experience as a way to improve life.


Crawford then set up her own practice, Studioilse, in 2003 where she has conceived interiors for diverse range of clients including members’ club Babington House in Somerset and Soho House New York, Cathay Pacific Business and First Class lounges, Swedish hotel Ett Hem and community kitchen Refettorio Felix in London.

She has also created accessories for Georg Jensen, updated the CH24 Wishbone chair for Carl Hansen & Søn, lighting for Swedish brand Wästberg, upholstery for George Smith and rugs for Kasthall, as well as an environmentally sound collection for Ikea.

An episode of the Netflix design documentary Abstract was even dedicated to Crawford whose people-centric approach to design was evident throughout the show. Crawford's two books have been considered essential reading for anyone in the business of supporting and enhancing everyday life and she was awarded an MBE in 2014.

While wellness is bandied around casually these days, it would not be a stretch to say that Crawford's work has helped recalibrate the mindset of how objects and spaces can influence it.


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