SUITSUIT interviews Charlotte Martens, Senior Curator at Kunsthal Rotterdam. After having an interesting visit to the exhibition 'Here We Are! Women in Design 1900 - Today, we were curious to know who is part of the minds behind the exhibition. She passionately talks about her sources of inspiration and the many possibilities that women created in design both back then and today. Read along and learn more about the never-ending inventiveness of women in design, right across time.

In your work as curator, what makes you stay inspired?

"I am always looking for the newest, craziest things that are currently happening. In disciplines like fashion, photography and - in this case - design. Actually, in art in general. It is really great to do, since I always find myself inspired to work with what I see. And when you notice that a large, enthusiastic audience is drawn to it, well, that's my reason for doing it. The fact that people understand art in multiple layers is truly the cherry on top."

What do you mean by these multiple layers?

"In design, for example, you can see how some people will just look at the object and think 'this is cleverly made' or think 'what beautiful material'. Then there are also people who want to know exactly who created the object, in what way and why. Or people who delve deeply into the stories behind the object. All these different layers can also be seen in this exhibition. There are also people who just like the exhibition and objects. To look at a weird chair and ask themselves: 'What is that weird chair doing there, why is it here?' Through reading the text, they can discover the story, or in this case, the historical development of the ways women design. It is all possible, but not required, and that makes it accessible to a large audience."

Why was 'HERE WE ARE' chosen as the title for the exhibition? 

"The phrase 'Here we are' says it all: look at us standing here. It is, of course, a kind of activist title, which, by the way, I did not come up with myself. In this case, it was a collaboration with the German Vitra Design Museum. We can always choose to customise a title, but I figured it was so 'spot-on'. The idea of showing who we are in a both friendly and activistic way."

We noticed in the exhibition how women had to fight to make a name for themselves in design - other than in kitchen and textiles - what is it like in 2022?

"Women in 2022 can simply be architects, think of Francine Houben designing as many buildings as Rem Koolhaas. Women of this era can be anything and design anything. One thing I do notice is that women often engage in social design - in other words, they collaborate with the target audience to create something suitable."

Can you name an example?

"Think of the Capsters, the sports niqaabs designed by Cindy van den Bremen in collaboration with the muslim women. The 'approach' of women often involves: 'Let's sit around the table together with the target group. I am designing a headscarf, but what would you like to see in it?' This is how she found out that she had to incorporate velcro in such a way that it wouldn't irritate. It is a small example, but this is how you make a product that is perfect for an entire target group and is already world-famous. I personally think this is particularly clever, to incorporate social awareness into your work by continuing to look around you.

Or think of the ladies from Solar Energy, Pauline van Dongen and Marjan van Aubel, who realise that solar energy is the future, but feel it could all be a bit more 'sensual and sexy'. Out of this came beautiful designs, Pauline van Dongen for example turned it into fashion in a gorgeous dress covered with tiny solar panels - she turned something so practical into a beautiful object."

The future is female..?

"I definitely think so! Sometimes men tend to think: design a building and suitable furniture; just like Le Corbusier (French urban architect, ed.) traditionally did. Surely women think differently about this. It seems they look more at habits and prefer to work together with the target group to create the best possible design."

Can you explain why women seem to lean more towards social design, is it something 'feminine'?
"I honestly don't know, it seems that designs are a bit more sensual in terms of 'look and feel', but of course there are also many male designers who have mastered that too. It is difficult to divide men and women in that. I think design itself has also gone through an evolution and there is much more of a focus on the market than before. One thing I personally have always considered a beautiful and empowering example - is how in World War II, for example, women were skilled enough to make weapons, but were sent right back into 'the interior and the kitchen' after service. It appears that women designers in today's era tend to be more indifferent to that fact. They just do their thing and, above all, strive to deliver a perfect product. Nice to see how much guts there are now."

What is your own favourite design or who is the most admirable designer in the exhibition?
"I really like Cindy van den Bremen, who I mentioned earlier. And I'm also a fan of Pauline van Dongen and Marjan Aubel, how they created an almost 'sexy' design based on solar energy. Iris van Herpen also creates beautiful designs, of course. One person I added to the exhibition myself is Kalkidan Hoex, who was adopted as a two-year-old in Ethiopia and grew up in the Netherlands. Searching for her own identity, she has found a middle ground between the African and Western worlds, which come together beautifully in her jewellery. She is so successful at such a young age, already working with leading brands - incredibly impressive how she chooses her own path.

She had a strong vision herself of how she wanted her work exhibited: like a nomad woman in the desert - completely covered, making her feet and jewellery the only thing visible to the viewer."

Can you name an example of an everyday feminine design that you use?
"Something very practical from Marimekko: an oven mitt! Marimekko has insane designs that will never get boring. I don't need a different colour or version of her designs every season, but the great part about this exhibition is learning that she was one of the first women to start a company where only women were employed. She wanted to get away from the 'men's stuff' and give women a chance by saying, 'You get a job, if you join my team.' Even to this day, her company is very successful."

Would you like to share any thoughts with women who see a future in design?
"Keep it up! Just keep going, keep doing what you do and remember: the sky is the limit! It simply is. There is so much knowledge and expertise of materials available which makes it possible to design good things. Don't be discouraged and if you have a crazy idea: go for it! See where it eventually leads! We have quite a talented group of designers in the Netherlands - I haven't even mentioned a Hella Jongerius, Christien Meinderstma or Claudy Jongstra yet. I could name a whole list of great female designers - in other words, that says it all!"