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Design Like a Girl

In a collaboration with her interior architecture students, Endicott College professor Sarah Bischoff penned a new book that introduces young readers to the history of women in design.
In a collaboration with her interior architecture students, professor Sarah Bischoff penned a new book that introduces young readers to the history of women in design.
By: Danna Lorch

While teaching an architectural history course in the fall of 2020, Associate Professor of Interior Design Sarah Bischoff was disappointed to discover that while she could “easily count 100 remarkable women architects and designers,” none of the textbooks available presented a sufficiently inclusive history of design. 

“Not a lot of women were brought up and it didn’t feel right not to address that problem when our department of interior architecture is made up primarily of women,” she said.

Initially, Bischoff began assigning a student to research a female-identifying architect or designer and present their story and major projects at each class session. The project became such a powerful teaching tool that Bischoff was inspired to write her new book, Design Like a Girl: 30 Groundbreaking Women Architects and Designers Throughout History. The book is the first of its kind geared towards young readers ages 8-14—most of whom might not even know about the design field. 

For decades, women weren’t allowed to walk through university gates to study architecture or design. Instead, they designed in the shadows of husbands or fathers—never getting any official credit for their often-brilliant ideas, much less pay. The gender inequality they faced—and some still face—is not mentioned enough.  

Candace Wheeler is the first woman profiled in Bischoff’s book. In an era when women rarely worked outside the home, the progressive “mother of interior design” was a serial entrepreneur who started multiple organizations and markets for female designers and artists to develop and sell their work.   

However, many schools didn’t admit women until they were forced to in 1972, when the U.S. Department of Education passed Title IX of the education amendments, prohibiting discrimination based on sex in federally funded education programs. 

While modern celebrity “starchitects” like Zaha Hadid are included in Design Like a Girl, being a glamorous starchitect wasn’t the criteria for inclusion. In fact, many of those profiled here were previously overlooked by history. “I wanted there to be stories that every child could relate to,” Bischoff explained. “Not only did I want to include indigenous women, queer women, and women with disabilities, but I also wanted to include women who advocated or fought for other women’s rights or inclusion.” 

As readers learn about multifaceted women in architecture and design past and present, they also engage with imaginative artwork created by Bischoff’s students in Endicott’s interior architecture program

Student illustrations from Design Like a Girl

Bischoff said that she chose to collaborate with her students both as “a way to give thanks to them,” and also to showcase the next generation of female-identifying talent in the creative field. 

Interior architecture major Jillian Hersey ’23 was one of those students. The project resonated with her because until high school she’d never even heard of the design field. The idea of showing young generations of girls their career options felt meaningful. 

Hersey was matched with architect Jeanne Gang, whose Aqua Tower in Chicago represented the tallest woman-designed building when it opened in 2010—literally breaking the glass ceiling for women in architecture. 

As she researched and illustrated Gang’s profile, Hersey took copious handwritten notes, and penciled sketches influenced by the architect’s approach. “Her works of art are all based around the idea of building relationships—and that’s something that matters deeply to me in my own design work too,” Hersey explained. 

Yianna Buterbaugh ’23 is minoring in graphic design and relished the opportunity to try out the Photoshop skills she’d learned in the classroom in the context of the book project. She was assigned the profiles of Mexican architect Frida Escobedo and the late Norma Merrick Sklarek, a pioneering African American architect often described as “the Rosa Parks of architecture.” 

For Escobedo’s profile, Buterbaugh said, “I was inspired by the geometry that she uses in her architecture, and I chose red typography to represent her because that is a color of the Mexican flag.” 

The book presents this more inclusive design history in a clear yet creative way, also offering an introduction to key design tools like a color wheel communicating how moods and energy levels are impacted by different shades. 

These real-world applications of design principles are meant to offer younger kids multiple entry points to a field that has historically been too elite and expensive for many women and people of color to join. 

Bischoff, who is also the mother of a 10-year-old daughter said, “If I can inspire one young girl to pursue her dreams of being a designer, I have exceeded my goal. If I have inspired one of my students, then I have exceeded my goal.”

Purchase the book here