here's no wrong way to identify as a woman, but living on planet Earth in the year 2020, you wouldn't know that. In fact, if you were an extraterrestrial being who had somehow been spared the knowledge of our little blue water planet, you'd likely believe — and rightly so! — that being a woman was wrong.
You'd wonder why so much of society — from tampons to tax structures — is set up to punish women. You'd wonder just who the hell designed all this? Take me to your leader! you'd demand.
Design permeates every facet of our being — everything we interact with has been thought out — or not, sadly, which is the case all too often— and vies for a place of use or delight in our increasingly complicated and hyper-saturated lives.
Some design is admirable for being un-noticeable (think of a highway system that seamlessly connects you to other byways) while another design is celebrated for its immersion, its ability to move you (think of a sweeping staircase, a labyrinth-laden garden, a seemingly precarious perch on a cliffside) to action, to emotion.
Chay Costello, Associate Director of Merchandising at MoMA, says good design is design that solves a problem.
Hence the launch of MoMA's Design Store's new pop-up — running until September 27th in SoHo and online — Design Innovations for Women, championing radical, empowering design in/around the realms of sexuality, reproduction, and activity.
PULP got the chance to pick Chay's brain about the evolution of everyday products and how good design can combat gender inequity.
KATIE: Why this pop-up now? You’ve said that we’re collectively bearing witness to a cultural shift — a sea change across a variety of industries that seeks to normalize and celebrate historically stigmatized facets of being a woman — and yet in many ways, society is still rather Draconian about banal bodily facts. Do you think design can help exact social change? What is the dialogue between products and producing more progressive, inclusive morays?
CHAY: I have been working on this initiative for several years, and the way that women have started talking about their bodies has really paved the way for it. We started discovering some innovative products that followed suit — many of which were designed by women.
All of the sudden there are people and teens on podcasts talking about their periods and menopause and pelvic floor health and that’s amazing.
CHAY: We wanted to amplify those voices while surfacing some great designs that improve the daily lives of women and girls.
It's interesting when you're thinking about the way our society has looked at and treated the bodies of women. On the one hand, they objectified us to sell everything, from beer to fragrances; and on the other hand, there was this long standing taboo when talking about menstruation or women's sexuality. I'm heartened and inspired by these designers who are looking at these areas of need. I do think that good design can help exact social change by starting conversations and helping make women’s lives easier. These new products designed by women are also packaged and marketed in a sophisticated, bold way that helps send subconscious cues to consumers that they deserve to be normalized and even celebrated.
KATIE: What was the process like in choosing these products? Were any particularly surprising or exciting? Are there any needs you feel aren’t being met by designers that you’d be keen to see?
CHAY: When choosing the products, we held informal focus groups with our colleagues at MoMA because I realized we have so many different ideas and products. My colleague and I, Alexandra Glaser, one of our buyers, wanted more women’s voices in the conversation, including a doctor, Dr. Veronica Ades, because a lot of these products came with studies and statistics that I could read, but I couldn't understand. It was amazing to sit down with women of all ages and backgrounds and talk about life, everyday challenges, and these products in a design context.
We found that menopause was an area that was underserved. As it’s a topic that touches upon menstruation and aging at the same time, no one in our society wants to talk about it, but it is something that we need to acknowledge. We’d love to see more products for menopause and really more products about aging come to market. I’m excited about the three menopause-oriented products in the collection. We have Hot Girls Pearls, a necklace filled with cooling gels, Coolibrium Tank Tops, tops that are designed to cool body temperature and the Pulse Lubricant Warming Dispenser.
KATIE: How is MOMA and this design pop-up making space for non-binary folx and trans women — how is design part of our continuing conversation around gender and who “gets to be a woman” or gets to be designed for?
CHAY: I’ve been doing a lot of research on gender fluidity as a design movement—it is an important part of the discussion as there are people who menstruate and don’t identify as being a woman. Always actually removed the female symbol from all their packaging recently for that reason. We’re really excited to be carrying a boyshort from the brand “Aisle,” that alludes to liberating yourself from the menstrual aisle in the drugstore. This gender neutral design is a great option for menstrual underwear for non-binary folks or trans men. We are also carrying a variety of sex accessories and brands that encourage fluidity in your sexual experience.
KATIE: In your mind, what is “good design”? A coupling of form and function? Something gleaned from real user research? Is all good design readily recognizable or do you think (like some books or movies or art) that society overlooks some designs …?
CHAY: When I went to these brands and companies to ask about joining the pop-up, I thought I would have to convince them that they would make sense in a design context, but these brands knew they were examples of good design. These brands are enriching women’s lives every day and that is what good design is. I think overall society recognizes good design, as the products they use on a daily basis to make their lives easier and better fit directly into this category.
Good design solves a problem. Good design should improve our everyday life.
I do think the designation of what good design is needs to be fluid to remain relevant, and this Design Innovations for Women initiative is part of that fluidity. I don’t think people could have got their minds around a tampon or sports bra or vibrator as good design a couple decades ago, but we can have that awareness now.
KATIE: What might you reply to naysayers who insist that the MOMA “isn’t the place” to celebrate vibrators or extol the evolution of the tampon? Why IS MOMA the place to do just that?
CHAY: At MoMA Design Store, we pride ourselves in having good design for everyone and every price point, which usually includes things like vases and tableware. MoMA has always celebrated good design in everyday items, as shown in the 2004 exhibition Humble Masterpieces, where we featured nearly 120 simple objects, from Post-It® notes to paper clips, Band-Aids to Bic pens, calling out items we always use, but don’t pay much attention to.
If you take a look at the products in the Design Innovations for Women pop-up, like the packaging of Dame or Billie, they look luxurious. These are not the products you find in a drug store — they are the products you find at a nice boutique. The way that these products were designed turns them into something you want to talk about and share with people and leave out on your dresser, rather than hide away and be ashamed of. These products are extremely relevant in the design world, which is why MoMA Design Store is a great place to have this conversation and celebration.