CM . . .
. Volume XVII Number 19. . . .January 21, 2011
Dazzling Women Designers. (The Women's Hall of Fame Series).
Toronto, ON: Second Story Press, 2010.
126 pp., pbk., $10.95.
Women designers-Biography-Juvenile literature.
Grades 4-8 / Ages 9-13.
Review by Julie Chychota.
With so much experience behind her, Suzanne resented still being called on for interior styling jobs, such as choosing fabrics and colors. She later commented that it "should not have been beneath any of the men" to choose colors and fabrics, but she did as she was asked. She continued earning less money than her male counterparts, and didn't feel this was fair. But as there were not yet any laws to ensure pay equity, there was nothing to be done. Finally, after undergoing an on-the-job test, which she passed, she was promoted to Chief Designer of Chevrolet Interior II, where she designed small cars. It was a first for GM, and for women designers everywhere. She had stuck it out, and made it.
Suzanne's ongoing passion for design was evident in her love of stylish sports cars and fine home décor. Her car of choice was a sporty and curvy Corvette. She had a keen eye for design and aesthetics, but also was concerned about safety and comfort. In 1967, Suzanne designed an inflatable seat back support that helped lessen back pain while sitting. She held the patent for this device, which was ahead of its time. Over her career, she also designed a collapsible safety switch for the instrument panels on cars, and a motorcycle helmet.
Sweet sixteen: Dazzling Women Designers marks the sixteenth book to take its place in "The Women's Hall of Fame Series." Jill Bryant, author of Amazing Women Athletes (2002), returns, this time with a constellation of innovative designers. Collectively, the 10 women she has selected hail from all quadrants of the globe, span five generations, and have wielded influence in at least eight distinct areas of design: architecture, furniture design, urban planning, landscape architecture, graphic design, fashion, textiles, and robotics.
In her introduction, Bryant writes, "Part of the beauty of any design is the excellent way it works" (p. 2). One might just as well apply this observation to "The Women's Hall of Fame Series," where form and function commingle to attractively represent the lives of exceptional women who have excelled in their particular vocations. In fact, Bryant's own book is a stellar example of good design. To begin with, like the covers of the other books in the series, that of Dazzling Women Designers commands attention. Up front, the bold, sans serif title in bright white and yellow--the two i's topped by stars--is suspended over a cluster of colored pencils. The pencils, enlarged to show textural contrast between the hexagonal wood tubes and the pigments inside, evoke a strong sense of tactility; one wants to reach for the book at first sight.
The richness of the visual design continues. Across the bottom quarter of the front cover, thumbnails of five designers offer previews of photographs that head up chapters. Meanwhile, the series title and the author's name appear along the top and bottom, respectively, set in bands of yellow bordered by dotted lines; an illustration of a tiny pair of scissors hovers over the topmost line. The carmine red of the spine wraps around to the back cover, which duplicates the series title, this time with a triangle ruler at one end and a ruler at the other. The decorative motif begun on the covers carries over into the chapters where dashed-line borders, page numbers set in star shapes, and an assortment of design tools play about the peripheries of the text. These illustrative details inject some lightheartedness into an essentially serious project.
Also in keeping with the strategic design of the rest of the series, Dazzling Women Designers follows a 10-chapter structure. Short chapters of about ten pages each keep biographies concise and to a length comfortable for readers on the younger end of the spectrum. The 10 biographies here are ordered chronologically according to the year in which the women were born, and they unfold in a relatively uniform fashion. Two or three introductory paragraphs recount the designer's birthplace, her childhood, and how she came to be drawn to a particular field of design. Following that, the author outlines the trajectory that a designer's life has taken, including the personal as well as the professional, and the setbacks as well as the successes. Here, as elsewhere, photographs and sidebars further break up the text proper.
Although books in "The Women's Hall of Fame Series" follow the same pattern, they never feel formulaic because their subjects are far too diverse. In Dazzling Women Designers, for instance, both Eileen Gray, born in 1878, and Zaha Hadid, born in 1950, are recognized for their contributions to architecture. However, the "shy" and reserved Gray (p. 14) received no "formal training" (p. 12), whereas the "bold and flamboyant" Hadid (p. 79) attended the Architectural Association School of Architecture (p. 81). A second example involves contemporaries Jane Jacobs and Cornelia Hahn Oberlander who worked in closely related disciplines. At age 11, Oberlander decided to become a landscape architect (p. 26); Jacobs only metamorphosed into an urban planner in her thirties (p. 18). Oberlander graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (p. 29). Jacobs, on the other hand, completed many courses, but never a university degree, although she "turned down about thirty honorary degrees" (p. 16). Similarities there may be, yet the biographies of these four women and those of the other six --Suzanne Vanderbilt, Eiko Ishioka, Ritu Kumar, Vera Wang, Aissa Dione, and Cynthia Breazeal--underscore the heterogeneity of this group.
The narrative, itself, proceeds virtually seamlessly because the author deftly contextualizes the lives of her subjects, especially those who are historically more distant, for 9- to 13-year-old readers. For example, she suggests that Gray styled her shop "Galerie Jean Désert" because a masculine name would have been taken more seriously than a feminine one in 1922 (p. 12). Later on, Bryant closes the generation gap when she explains that a 1954 Life magazine article promoting a playground design of Oberlander's "had nearly the impact that CNN does today" (p. 29). Yet, for all its coherence, the text contains 17 sentence fragments (still, a significant improvement over the 60 in Fearless Female Journalists). It also exhibits a few other peculiarities, such as the use of present tense in two chapters' opening sentences, and the use of the second-person pronoun in the final chapter's introductory paragraph. Readers in the targeted age category may not notice--and probably won't care even if they do.
Eschewing a glossary, Bryant instead incorporates specialized terminology directly into the text. Not only that, but she shoehorns a substantial amount of information into 46 sidebars, exceeding even the 35 sidebars in Fearless Female Journalists and the 37 in Nobel's Women of Peace. Apart from the usual inspirational quotations and references to other notable women, sidebars elaborate on design techniques (e.g., lacquer, batik) and movements (e.g., Art Deco, Bauhaus, Revivalism). The "Traditional Indian Textile Arts" sidebar alone takes up a full page. Still, these chunks of "incidental" information fill in more completely a reader's understanding of design.
As readers of the series have come to expect, sections entitled "Sources and Resources," "Acknowledgments," and "Photo Credits" finish off the book. Sources and resources include books, Websites, and print and online journals, arranged by designer; moreover, the author takes care to mark with an asterisk those that are specifically for children. These lists make it easier for readers to conduct their own further research if they so choose.
Books in "The Women's Hall of Fame Series" make lovely, practical, and affordable gifts and collectibles. Public and school libraries should invest in the entire collection (budgeting shelf space for future titles, of course), which could be used not only for attractive displays for Women's History Month, but also as a reference tool for young girls contemplating career options. Dazzling Women Designers, like its sister books, makes accessible the lives of accomplished women in order to encourage and motivate its readers to accomplish great things in turn.
Ottawa's Julie Chychota wishes "The Women's Hall of Fame Series" had existed back when she was ten.
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