This week, our Hidden Histories seminar examines Archives and Beyond: Strategies for Historical Research in Gender in Design. DHS Ambassador Alexandra Banister meets Catharina Doerr, a writer and freelance graphic designer, to further discuss her research, which considers our relationship to objects, art and design from a queer feminist perspective. To find out more, follow Catharina on Instagram: @catharina.doerr
What is your background and how did you develop an interest in design history? I studied visual communication and product design at the University of the Arts in Berlin with a focus on critical design, design theory, graphic design and gender theory. Since I attended seminars about critical design, design theory, media theory (and especially about queerness and gender roles in film and media), I was driven by the question of the influence design and art has on our society and myself. Because everything in our visual culture reflects in a way how we live, feel and think. Especially in films it's visible, but also in things we design: buildings, objects, icons, illustrations, clothes, and more.
What does your research focus on? My research focusses on the analysis of objects. Through their reflection we can learn a lot about ourselves and our socialisation. I ask: what goes through my mind when I'm analysing an object in its context, and therein its function, shape, material? What do these thoughts say about me and about our society in which I live and in which the object is placed? Does it have to stay that way? Or can it be different? With this method we can learn a lot about our society. Especially when we share our thoughts on things with others and learn about theirs.
Your talk is part of a wider seminar series on Hidden Histories: Gender in Design, how does this apply to your work? My current work is an analysis of objects, in the form of essays, on the question of whether objects have gender. But I don't analyse consciously designed objects for girls and boys. I ask myself and others if we can see femininity or masculinity in the characteristics of an object, no matter which one: it could be a teapot, a knife, a vacuum cleaner in which we see gender in any way. This is a way to find out what images of men and women we have internalised through our patriarchal society. It’s an abstract self reflection about gender norms through objects, but also an invitation for others to do the same, especially for designers. I think as a designer it is important to know what shapes and influences us. The more we know about ourselves and our society, the more consciously and responsibly we can design.
Please tell us about an interesting piece of design you have discovered as part of your research. There is this project called “gender glitch” from Anis Anais Looalian: https://anisanais.com/gender-glitch. 5 objects are designed to experience the changeability of gender relations. It’s a manipulation of power structures through design. One of my favourites is the object “Liasson”, a standing stool on which a dildo is placed. It’s a critique on the role of men being the active part of penetration, while women are seen as the passive. To actively sit on this passive stool reconstructs this gender relation. Also, the stool is suitable for any sex, as anal penetration is possible for everyone. I really love the way how Anais uses these objects to show that gender is constructed and how fragile this construct can be if we dare to question it.
Credit for Doerr's portrait photograph: Sonja Knecth