One of the annual features of the WantedDesign show is a roving exhibit created by masters students at the School of Visual Arts. The project invites attendees of the NYCxDesign event to reconsider some aspect of design. The exhibits are playful and interactive, encouraging visitors to have an active, creative experience at the design show, in addition to the traditionally more passive role of viewing the work presented by exhibitors.
This year, the SVA students took on the question of gender with a project titled "Engender." The project was made up of seven “interventions,” that work to break down the symbols and elements of gender and re-cast their representations. The project was created in a class called Design Performance by MFA first-years in the Products of Design program.
Several of the interventions address the biological, bodily aspects of gender. The “Reshaper” provides guests a range of body parts to try on—in the form of either cartoon-outlines made from colorful wire or photo-realistic pillows. Student Eden Lew explained that the offerings—breasts, six-pack abs, fat rolls, collar bones, genitals—include both the idealized and disparaged body parts, and encourages people to play with both aspects.
The “Translator” and “Renderer” interventions similarly play with the physical body, by transforming representations of the user. The “Translator” is a quick-sketch portrait by Lijia Yang, who draws the participant as a new gender. Meanwhile, “Renderer” uses a digital app to transform the participant in any way one requests, highlighting how gender can be either subverted or reinforced with the use of digital photo editing. Student Adem Onalan, who made me look taller, said that digital technology is often used to create more idealized bodies. Selfie culture similarly exploits digital technology to disseminate idealized images of gender, but it could also be used to undermine them.
The “Deconstructor” and “Rebrander” interventions break down the graphic symbols of gender, like the Venus and Mars icons that are used to represent male and female, or the lipstick-kiss and mustache. Both interventions allow participants to create new gender icons. Rebrander uses a syringe-like stamp to create new icons, at once playing with the role of gender in tattoos and in hormone therapy. Deconstructor uses a set of stickers, which are inspired by the language of make-up and grooming, explained student Leila Santiago.
“Dispenser” and “Olfactor” particularly address the problematic aspects of gendered design. “Dispenser” offers seemingly innocent confections, but each is branded with a negative gender stereotype. “Olfactor” is a guessing-game that uses genderless baby dolls, which have been pre-scented with deodorant marketed to men or women. Participants are invited to guess which doll is supposed to smell like a man and which smells like a woman. I guessed wrong—and in a way that’s the point. Should scents really be gendered? Should certain plants really be more associated with male rather than female? Yet many people would feel uncomfortable buying or using a deodorant that’s clearly marketed to the opposite gender.
Designing products for a certain gender is becoming increasingly problematic in a world where gender boundaries are becoming more and more fluid, and also where we need products that can be more flexible and adaptable. A highly-gendered product may only be useful to people who strongly identify not only with that gender, but also that type of gender representation. Taken as a whole, the Engender project not only points towards these issues, but also performs a kind of solution by allowing participants to create their own gender definitions.