Daisy Chain Procession At Vassar

Vassar College

When I was in college, one of my classmates petitioned to declare an independent major in Men’s Studies. True story: he went so far as to stand up in front of a faculty review panel, plead his case, (something as base as: “if I can major in Women’s Studies, I should be able to pursue Men’s Studies”), and was promptly laughed out of the classroom. One might assume that given the context, (Vassar, c.2001), it was some sort of performance piece or screwball stunt; but I can claim with near certainty that this request to study the work of Men was delivered with the naive seriousness that only a 19-year old can muster.

I have to admit that I’ve always been grateful for my classmate’s momentary mental lapse, because it was out of this campus drama that I recognized my academic career as a veritable homage to Men’s Studies. Since that time, days rarely pass that do not serve-up some small reminder of the maleness of the universe, from a feature on Janet Yellen or Denise Scott Brown, to an all staff meeting where the divide between upper-level administration and lower-level cultural worker is clearly demarcated by gender.

White Box Gallery

White Box Visual Laboratory

Recently, I was thrilled to learn about ruf·fle, an exhibition organized by Portland’s League of Awesome Women Designers, (LAWD), that opened earlier this month at the University of Oregon’s White Box Visual Laboratory. Even in a town like Portland, where inclusive design firms seem to outnumber coffee shops, women are underrepresented in the field—statistically in number and in rank, but perhaps more importantly, women are less visible as a driving force behind the innovation that Portland is celebrated for. In her essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” cultural critic/historian Rebecca Solnit employs the phrase archipelago of arrogance to describe an inflated self-confidence—a distinctly masculine phenomena—that is so aggressively assured, it keeps women bound in self-doubt, inhibiting them from speaking up and, in turn, from being heard. In an essay written for GOOD, Alissa Walker seemingly responds to Solnit by encouraging women in design to use social media as a way to assert one’s voice in the field. She writes, “in this age, women can’t wait for someone else to organize the event or to curate the museum show… Creating a rich narrative, illustrated with videos, photos, blog posts, essays, is something I don’t see nearly enough from women in the field. Their numbers may be small, but it’s the responsibility of that 10% to tell at least 50% of the story.”

Founded by industrial designer Kari Merkl, LAWD was established as vehicle to promote visibility by cultivating connections between women in design, providing a space for discussion and critique, and supporting a network for professional and creative opportunities. Merkl has since moved to Chicago and LAWD has been temporarily relinquished to Sara Huston, a consummate maker and interdisciplinary creative, who conceived and organized ruf·fle in collaboration with the eleven LAWD members featured in the exhibition. The word ruffle forms the pith of the project and, explored as both noun and verb, becomes the meeting place where twelve very disparate design practices meet. Defined as disorder, disruption, and perturbation, but also as ornament and frill, the term provides ample fodder for design work that is not outwardly gendered, (no “shrink it and pink it” tactics employed here), but undeniably, is laced with a feminine sensibility that illustrates how women are actively engaging and innovating the field of design today.

I spoke with Sara Huston in her studio that she shares with her partner John Paananen. Together, Huston and Paananen make up the collaborative interdisciplinary design studio, the last attempt at greatness.

Lydia Cambron, Twice Daily

Lydia Cambron, Twice Daily

Sarah Margolis-Pineo: What is it about Portland that draws designers?

Sara Huston: Portland is a great incubator, but unfortunately, it’s not the best business atmosphere if you’re looking to sell work.  At least that’s what we’ve found.  A majority of the things we make are sold outside of Portland.  We have a creative and supportive community here, although maybe a little less critical than we’d like. Coming from the Midwest/East Coast and the rigor of Cranbrook, we’ve found that there is a lack of critical feedback, and competition in the city.  So far, we have been able to sustain our practice here, but it’s been difficult.  I try to seek out specific people in Portland to help fulfill the need for critical feedback and conversation, people that push me to create better work.

SMP: Was it from this desire to cultivate a critical community of sorts that produced League of Awesome Women Designers, (LAWD)?

SH: Kari Merkl, a designer who lived and worked in Portland for almost a decade and recently relocated to Chicago, started LAWD.  She started the group in an effort to be less isolated as a one-woman design studio, meet more women in the design community and foster a network of like-minded designers.  She has subsequently continued this idea in Chicago as well.  Right now, the Portland group is at a tipping point, leaders are stepping down and the group is shifting, into what?  I am not sure.  This shift and the ruf·fle exhibition sparked a branding exercise to explore the identity of the group and to discuss what we are really about and how we want to operate going forward.  We soon realized that there is no one unifying voice or identity other than the fact that we’re all women located along the art-design spectrum participating in monthly meetings that are run casually by whom ever wants to take the lead.  The women in the group come from a diverse set of backgrounds and professions, and I feel that is a huge strength of the group.  I have found that every woman participates in LAWD for different reasons, some are interested in connecting to find job opportunities, for networking, and others, including myself, are interested in critical feedback and discourse.

Kari Merkl, Holdover

Kari Merkl, Holdover

SMP: What do you mean by critical discourse?

SH: In-depth discussions about how and why we create things that involve going deeper than the surface.  Some topics I enjoy are process, technique, material culture, design/art philosophy and theory, identity, emerging technology, the integration/rejection of technology, social justice, and the battle of sustaining an independent practice in the US.  The group in the past has taken on conversations about what it means to be a designer/artist professional today in the midst of disciplines merging, and more of an emphasis being put on having a socially or environmentally focused practice… When I stop to think about it, gender issues rarely come up, if ever.  In smaller settings outside the meetings it seems like women are more open to discuss these deeper topics and gender topics like the representation of women in the field, pay structures, and other traditional “gender politics.”  It might be that the larger group setting and the casual nature of LAWD discourages conversation from going deeper more often.

A lot of us work and collaborate with men, and with disciplinary and professional boundaries dissolving, many LAWD members feel that defining oneself as a woman designer needs to give way to just designer; adding the word “woman” amplifies the differentiating factor if it’s continuously referenced.  But, at the same time, we still feel underrepresented in the field at large. There is a group called ForWARD in the city that was formed by a few women architects that meet monthly as well —they’re less casual than LAWD—but clearly, there’s a need for these formations and discussions.

Ali Gradisher, Myrargata Wall

Ali Gradischer, Myrargata Wall

SMP: You, and I’m guessing many of the women in LAWD, are not your traditional designers. What was your entry into the field?

SH: After receiving my BFA in sculpture,  I applied to graduate school in a variety of different disciplines.  I applied at the University of Cincinnati for architecture, Yale for sculpture, RISD for furniture, and Cranbrook for 3D design.  I was admitted to all but RISD. The minute I walked onto campus at Cranbrook it was obvious, I belonged there and the reminder of the day’s visit only confirmed that initial feeling.  Cranbrook is known for its rigorous studies, interdisciplinary environment and the pushing and blurring of boundaries.  A majority of the work I experimented with at Cranbrook was meant to challenge the language and intersection of art and design through mediums and visual languages that fascinated me.  I was interested in challenging what one thinks they know, what they expect, and where they think disciplinary boundaries lie.  I wanted to provoke people to think about objects in a new way.

At one point while studying at Cranbrook our artist in resident, Scott Klinker, pegged me as an artist with a furniture/storage fetish.  At that point, it was a perfect way to explain who I was and why I was using the language of furniture in a visually expressive way.  There really was no logic of it other than a fascination, a fetish.  My love for boxes, jars, tins, etc., probably has a bit to do with being obsessed with organization and an interest in the placement of objects in a space.  Organization allows my overly busy mind to find peace.  A lot of my work in grad school was also inspired and driven by these obsessions and fascinations with certain objects.  I feel like I explored these areas more as an artist than a designer, but it crosses over so much and it is hard to say that I do not also look at objects from the standpoint of a designer.

Sara Huston, EXPECTATION 05

Sara Huston, EXPECTATION 05

SH: I’ve just always been inexplicably drawn to objects, whether decorative or functional, and I think this is what drew me into design when I was studying art.  I became interested in the perception of the object, the usage, and the misusage of the object, which is also a focus in design.  I was never taught to separate the two disciplines or felt a need to separate them. They share so much and I was interested in, and still am interested in existing in that shared space, the space between. As the distinctions of a discipline blurs new potential and meaning emerge.  It is who I am and how I identify myself, and always will be …. even if it is hard to answer the question, “what do you do?”

SMP: But you’re definitely working at a certain scale relative to the human body that speaks more to furniture than the handheld crafted object.

SH: So far anyway.  I expect there to be a movement towards smaller containers and larger livable structures in the future, it’s been on my mind a lot.  I don’t limit myself because I don’t think I can work in a smaller/larger scale, my work just has yet to go there… When I initially relocated to Portland, my work shifted from sculptural pieces and into collaborating with John [Paananen] and working on projects together that were more design oriented—the sofa, rockers, and lamps.  It was a natural progression considering we met at Cranbrook, we were interested in the same design/art conversations and were now in a relationship and living together. Over the past year, we realized that we don’t work well when we start projects together, but instead we worked best when independently pursuing work and then collaborating once a project is started.  This realization birthed a whole new series of work in our studio, [the last attempt at greatness]; for example, John is working on a series of 12 structures that are meant to be quick physically built sketches which will culminate and inspire the creation of a larger project.   I’m currently working on an audio piece that will be included in the White Box exhibition, ruf•fle. It’s about disciplinary boundaries thresholds and categorization.  I am ruffling my own sensibilities in terms of process and medium with this piece and John has been a great sounding board and source of critical discourse for the project, pushing me to do even better work.

Sara Huston, Permanently Liminal

Sara Huston, Permanently Liminal

SH: The audio piece is terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. It’s a door that I’m opening for myself and there’s been a lot of hesitation.  I don’t practice as an audio artist specifically, but I see myself as an artist who can use any media to express what I’m trying to do, much in the way that designers are not limited by a singular material, but use what ever is needed to accomplish the job. Ultimately, what this piece has done is create a bridge into the new media/digital realm that I’ve been dreaming about.   I am used to working as a visual artist and once the visual component is taken away, my senses are heightened, and new ways of working develop.  New ways of forming audio and experiencing audio start to develop and I have found myself creating a new relationship to a medium that I had not paid much attention to in the past.  It has been very liberating and inspiring to work with audio.  It’s been a huge challenge, and that’s what I was hoping the show ruf•fle would do.

SMP: What is the content of the audio?

SH: The audio states in my own voice: “I am a designer. I am not a designer. I am an artist. I am not an artist,” and the phrases are overlapped so you can distinguish individual words, but there’s a lack of clarity and definition of what I am saying I am or am not. The need for classification and definition is called for in academia and when trying to find a place for myself professionally.  I run across this when in social situations or meeting someone new when I am asked, “what do you do?” When you exist in the in-between space, this liminal state, what you do can be difficult to communicate.  There’s Art and Design and I am always in the middle.  

Sara Huston, Permanently Liminal (detail)

Sara Huston, Permanently Liminal (detail)

SMP: How do you relate to craft?

SH: To me, and in my work art and design rest on top of craft.  I was taught in school to always focus on making something with an attention to detail and with the rigor of a crafts person no matter what medium I was working with, and how much experience I had with it.   This was referred to, by my instructors, as ‘considering the crafting of the object’, and their standards were very high.   I use the same principles to this day in all my work and when creating the audio and floor object for the ruf•fle show.

SMP: I’m guessing you’re still pushed into one camp or the other, despite all best efforts.

SH: I’m often referred to as a furniture designer, at least 50% of the time.  Part of my thinking going into the ruf•fle show was in reaction to that.  I was looking to provoke those who view me as a furniture designer, among other things.  I see myself as a provocateur of thought and visual language.  The motivation for the work is to disrupt people who come into the gallery looking for clarity, definition, comprehension or an established meaning behind the work they are viewing or assumed discipline of the person who made the work.  I am not interested in providing clarity, definition or something the viewer can comprehend, but instead I am interested in creating a situation that challenges their expectations, induces reflection and opens them up to new ways of thinking.  If they walk out frustrated, or confused then I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. Those moments can evolve into acceptance and a higher level of realization—they don’t always—it’s a tipping point.  I see my work as being the pusher.

White Box Gallery

White Box, ruf fle (installation)

SMP: Is this your way forging a new language, or at least initiating conversation, and does this conceptually feed into the way you’ve framed ruf•fle ?

SH: Yes.  The exhibition statement and title is a collective look into interpreting one word—ruffle—to motivate and inspire 12-women to create work.  Some women are considering it as a literal ruffle of fabric, others as a disturbance of a surface, or as in “ruffling one’s feathers.”  I chose a disturbance or ‘ruffling of ones feathers’.  The ability for that word to be interpreted outside of the feminine is huge, and that’s part of the reason why we chose it. It inherently seems very feminine, but the interpretations that are coming out elude gender-specific connotations.

SMP: It’s interesting that you chose an indirect way to address gender by using a term where the feminine connotations are pervasive but can go easily unacknowledged. Seems telling…

SH: There’s definitely diversity in how the women see issues of women in design.  There was one conversation when we were looking at the identity of the group, the question was raised of whether or not the group needed to go on being women only.  There are a variety of viewpoints, generations, and professional fields involved in the group.  It would be interesting for all the women in the group to sit down and have a focused conversation on issues that surround women in design.  The younger women in the group are definitely tending towards wanting to emphasize the gender issues and even going so far as to bring up inviting men into the group.

White Box Gallery

White Box, ruf fle (installation)

SMP: Oh, wow. Do you have to fall back on the old argument: every group and industry is run by men for men, can’t we just have this?

SH:  The group was started with that in mind and I think it is important.  Exhibitions like ruf•fle and the group LAWD are opportunities to express: we’re here, we’re doing stuff, and it can’t be ignored; but, being a group composed solely of women somehow allows women-focused issues to fall by the wayside during meetings… I’m interested to hear women designing in Portland discuss whether they consider their work as distinctly feminine, or if it’s gender neutral. When I stop to consider my own practice, I try to strip personal narrative or my identity away from the work.  I do not see my work as specifically feminine and when I create, I do not put an emphasis on being a woman who creates.  I give my students articles about gender issues in design and put an emphasis on knowing that the conversation is happening and has not ended, which I think is very important and part of ones education.

Is it important to thinking about gendered design when making or does that reflection come after the fact? Is it something we do intuitively? Is the entire conversation merely reflective? Just exploring that idea and how it relates to action is compelling in itself.


Sara Huston is a Portland-based artist, designer, maker, and educator. She and her partner John Paananen make up the collaborative interdisciplinary studio the last attempt at greatness, which explores subjects of progress, expectation, liminal space, categorization, perception, value, and the intersection and language in art and design. Huston and Paananen’s work is aimed at provoking discourse and contemplation in the viewer or user in an attempt to disrupt conventional ways of thinking, induce reflection, and challenge the boundaries of what is known.

ruf•le is on view at the University of Oregon’s White Box Visual Laboratory, (Portland), through August 24, 2013. The exhibition includes: Natalie Barela, Albertha Bradley, Noelle Bullock, Lydia Cambron, Flo & Goose, Alison Gradischer, Sara Huston, Kate MacKinnon, Kari Merkl, Diane Pfeiffer, Jennifer Wall, and JJ Wright. Organized by Sara Huston, Lydia Cambron, and Flo Truong, with assistance from Ashley Gibson, Manager, White Box.

Introductory photo is courtesy of Vassar College archives.

All other photos are courtesy of White Box, (c) Sara Huston, 2013

Sarah Margolis-Pineo