Elevate Difference

Woman as Design: Before, Behind, Between, Above, Below

Stephen Bayley’s Woman as Design is a large, and fairly heavy, coffee table book that examines how a woman’s body has inspired and changed the world. A woman’s body has been used as the inspiration (whether conscious or unconscious) for a myriad of products including cars, soda bottles, and buildings.

Divided into two parts, part one focuses on the sexualized and eroticized parts of a woman’s body and dress in a more historical context. Part two moves to the outside world and the changes and trends that advertising, fashion, movies, cosmetics have undergone through time in relationship to women’s bodies. The general lesson is that those in power have shaped and changed women’s bodies, sometimes literally in terms of corsets and bras. Women are, in turn, seen as sex objects to be desired and claimed or virgin Madonnas who are sacred and untouchable.

The organization seems a bit convoluted, and it could have been made more concise. With the seemingly non-linear direction of the book, it’s one you can pick up and flip to a page at random, but it isn’t one you sit down and read through. Woman as Design is also not a book that you pick up as a scholar looking to further your knowledge on the topic, but it does provide some great illustrations that really help prove Bayley’s points.

Woman as Design is filled with large color photographs, some of which are reproductions of famous paintings and sculptures, like the Venus de Milo. Quotes from historical figures, actresses, designers and architects accompany many of the photos. There is a stunning set of images of a woman using her breasts as a type of performance art, and I have never seen breasts move like that before. Since many of the images involve nudity and close-ups of various parts of the female form, the book is not recommended for young people without accompanying text and context.

Bayley’s text does not necessarily present any new or radical ideas on how women’s lives and bodies have been shaped by culture, but it does make the idea easily accessible.

Written by: Kristin Conard, January 2nd 2010