Sonia Sarangi reviews the Women in Design exhibition, curated by Daniella Casamento for the DIA.


Great Petition by Susan Hewitt & Penelope Lee. All Photographs Sonia Sarangi.

Walking down the stairs to the DIA Women in Design exhibition at Forty-five Downstairs, it struck me that the chosen venue was befitting in ironic ways. Discreet, tucked away, blink-and-you-miss-it. Women are an integral a part of many design professions, however we are sometimes not very good with showcasing the excellent work produced. Blink… and you could miss us.

Thus it was good to see that the curators of the exhibition chose 14 high-profile Melbournian women from the design industry. These were Celina Clarke, Debbie Ryan, Helen Kontouris, Helen Watts, Jenny Underwood, Kerstin Thompson, Kirsten Bauer, Leah Heiss, Leanne Zilka, Michaela Webb, Penelope Lee, Simone LeAmon, Sue Carr and Susan Hewitt. Between them they represent the disciplines of architecture, furniture design, graphic design, industrial design, interior design, landscape architecture, textile design and visual art.

My initial reaction to the scale of the exhibition was “Is this it?” However after going through the various exhibits, it ultimately felt like a lot of ground was covered through the use of various media. The video clips where the designers spoke about their work or research were particularly revelatory. I sincerely hope that DIA might make this an annual event and create a platform in successive years for emerging women designers.

What about the individual contributions? It is fair to say some left a deeper impression. Looking from an architectural perspective may also have skewed some of my observations.

Sue Carr’s minimal, hand-crafted objects (table, quote and image) came across as forthright and succinct. It also felt like a preview for a larger exhibition of work – I was left wanting to discover even more. Debbie Ryan presented a more conventional composition of past project images. However the presence of mini-maquettes and 3-D printed forms highlighted her explorations of forms and pattern, elevating the exhibit up a notch. The contributions of Leanne Zilka and Jenny Underwood and Leah Heiss were each accompanied by very engaging video presentations. The former was a conversation outlining Leanne and Jenny’s research and its application, the latter an unspoken demo for some beautifully designed products. Leanne’s individual presentation consisted of ethereal and detailed architectural models. In their own way, they quietly spoke volumes about her exploration of light quality, materiality and program in her projects. And finally, Simone Le Amon’s flirtatious Prima & Petit Ballerina lamps lent drama and a burst of colour to the exhibition.

The piece-de-resistance in terms of wall/floor space and its resonance with the overall theme was the Great Petition artwork by Susan Hewitt & Penelope Lee. Presented in words, a storyboard of construction images, model (in leather!), detail drawings and video loop – it wove together issues larger than the project itself. These included women’s suffrage, the challenges of translating a design into construction, the tactile complexity of design and the limitations of working on a public site.

I have seen the Great Petition many times from a passing tram. But the video presentation drew my attention for the first time to the delicate (and brilliantly resolved) bluestone plinth that forms the base of this artwork. We look. But have we truly ‘seen’? A cautionary allegory to women designers who sometimes choose to ‘let the work do the talking’. However, I am starting to cross over to the other side. I’ll go with “make it big so the boys can see it”.