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by Gabrielle Kennedy

It has been a rollercoaster ride for Gabriel Ann Maher. They* have just earned their Master’s degree in social design and is the recipient of an €11,000 Keep an Eye grant, and the inaugural €2,000 Gijs Bakker award.

They entered the Design Academy Eindhoven during the summer upheaval of 2012. “The Master’s heads had all resigned in protest over management interference and there was a lot of energy, a crackle in the air,” they say. “I had never been in an environment before where the students held so much clout.”

The students banded together, confronted academy management and got what they wanted – the heads were reinstated and the academy, it might be fair to say, moved full steam ahead.

But it was years earlier while studying for their undergraduate degree in interior architecture in Sydney that Maher first caught the Eindhoven bug. “I became obsessed with the Dutch design methodology,” they say, “but it was just never the right time for me to come … and then it was.”

Maher is an inspiring reminder of the power of design. Their work is focussed on exploring and deconstructing how and why designers should take a more accountable position.

Maher used their feminist perspective back in Australia where they studied interior architecture to better understand space. Eventually they pushed that position further into queer theory.

“Queer theory is multi-dimensional," Maher says. It celebrates different genders, bodies, race and class. It looks at things that deviate from social norms – anything that exists outside the bubble of a regular way of seeing a human – white, heterosexual, middle-class.”

If one looks at design, particularly design media, how objects are embedded and the associated meaning attached to that positioning reveals much about contemporary society.

“The media is trying to sell lifestyle through objects,” Maher says, “and how they go about doing that says a lot about all the vested parties. And lifestyle is such a strange idea anyway – the constant pursuit of a better and more comfortable life. But it becomes a real problem when that pursuit comes at the detriment of seeing anything else.”

Maher spent one year collecting and analysing images from both editorial and advertising in FRAME magazine. They physically cut out representations of the body and then mapped it.

“A cowering ballerina, a dirty man holding a dead animal … it is all trying very hard to be edgy except it is not,” they say. “Images like that are only really about power dynamics and are very detrimental. It is just an easy way to create a mood, but is treading such a dangerous line.”

According to Maher little about how we are is as natural as we believe it to be – how we walk, how we act, how we talk – it all very self-conscious and directed.

But directed by what and by whom is where the discussion becomes interesting – even a bit scary. Design, advertising, commercial pressures and the broader media. It all becomes dangerously entwined.

“The semiotics of fashion is fascinating,” Maher says. “The signs, symbols and codes we read and communicate. We decode others in an instant, but how? A lot of it is about design and the things people choose to surround themselves with.

"Through this process I was really trying to find a deeper way of understanding the way I had been socially designed and changing my name became inevitable. It was very empowering. I made this transition and soon started to understand myself in different ways. The name Ann shifted to the more gender-queer Gabriel."

After piecing together their analysis of FRAME, Maher set out to create her own original geometry out of normal fashion codes. “I wanted to change the silhouette of the body,” they say. “The resulting garments went on to become my graduating pieces, which was never my intent. They were very effective in communicating all my ideas though.”

Based on a gridded structure, Maher created coordinates that can be used as the start point from which to design a garment. “It is based on looking at the body in terms of various elevations,” they say, “Eye, shoulder, rib cage … it is all related to architecture and how I was trained to use line.

“When we decide about someone, we do it very quickly,” Maher continues. “Things like gender we conclude in a millisecond, but to me it doesn’t make sense to assume anymore. Why assume gender through a body and why is it so important to categorize anyway?” It is always this or that, always a binary and then those binaries are reinforced and legitimized in the media. My goal was to escape from that dynamic.”

Initially Maher’s Design Academy tutors were challenging of these ideas. They said that they didn’t see it and that Maher needed to prove it. They even said they wanted to see a chair.

“I was flabbergasted,” Maher says. “A chair? I said ‘No way!’ It took me ages to really feel comfortable explaining to them what I thought was wrong in design. I needed to present the ideas carefully, to not come across as angry, confrontational or aggressive. It had to be based on open dialogue.”

Maher´s analysis of Frame magazine, which the magazine even went on to publish parts of, convinced them. Next came a performance and a design debate hosted by the magazine on the issue of gender. 80% of FRAME content focuses on male designers.

And Maher even managed to present a chair – or more a contraption that communicates this idea of control.

“Even how we sit is all based on power dynamics,” Maher says. “My chair shows that how we move is constructed, which means we can also deconstruct it. If we change our environment then we can move differently and act differently.”

The intended goal of this research is to show designers the impact of what they do and to encourage more discussion on the best ways to become more accountable.

But Maher also recognizes that designers are in a difficult position. “It is a dichotomy,” they say. “We are constantly being told to be innovative, but the human subject stays exactly the same. That makes no sense. It is because design ends up getting lost in the commercial world, but maybe we can work towards changing the commercial world. I think that is at the core of what I am doing.”

Maher’s next step is to start a PhD, but they want to avoid falling into the academic trap of just staying put. They want their work to always include an exchange.

*Maher asked to not be identified in this article using the feminine she. "I imagine that [this request] will make for some confusing grammar for the public to read, but it also deepens the discussion of the topic," she wrote. "Even in writing an article, gender is implied in our language structures. I wonder if it's possible to shift this (also in this article). The idea of fluid or obscure identity can be communicated by breaking the structure of language too - it is what I prefer. If it's integrated as part of the discussion then it should make sense."


Published: 22-Oct-2014 10:17
  • De_sign by Gabriel Anne Maher

    Gabriel Ann Maher - Design grid

  • De_sign by Gabriel Anne Maher

    Analysis of Frame magazine

  • De_sign by Gabriel Anne Maher

    Analysis of Frame magazine

  • De_sign by Gabriel Anne Maher

    Analysis of Frame magazine

  • De_sign by Gabriel Anne Maher

    Gabriel Ann Maher - DE_SIGN