British-born Anna Karlin studied at Central Saint Martins in London and then took a degree in communication design at Glasgow School of Art before finally turning to furniture design. Now based in New York City, Karlin draws heavily on her urban environment when developing her work, which includes jewelry, interiors, furniture, tabletop objects, and art direction for clients including Adidas and Fendi.
Though the self-taught designer has a clear, personal aesthetic, her work—from totem-like brass-plated steel stools designed to be dotted around a room like chess pieces on a board to Windsor-style wooden chairs and a curving chaise longue supported by a sculptural, oversized steel sphere at one end—is created in-house through close collaboration with fabricators and craftspeople to retain the integrity of her ideas throughout the design process.
Karlin also works hard to keep a piece’s narrative alive; she strongly believes that all forms of design should tell a story and that all disciplines contribute to each other, and therefore no one area must remain untouched. Such a holistic approach has proved successful. She is now represented internationally by a network of design galleries and works with leading interior designers and architects to place her pieces in some of the most prestigious buildings across the globe. Karlin is also one of the female designers featured in the new Phaidon book, Woman Made: Great Women Designers. In this interview, she discusses good and bad design, the importance of fashion, and why she would have loved to have worked with Ray Eames.
Woman Made As a female designer, do you have to work harder for certain commissions or turn down certain requests in order to avoid gender bias?
Ann Karlin It’s not as specific as that. Women are seen as craftspeople, and men in the same position are considered creative geniuses and artists. Men’s work due to this gender bias and the consequential perceived value carries more gravitas in general public perception. This issue is also self-perpetuating. The way female designers talk about themselves and their work is markedly different to that of the opposite sex. I do not wish to emulate the male voice, but I do have to remind myself to inject clarity into my own discourse and erase some of the self-deprecation that we, as women, have ingrained in us.
WM What is the one thing that still hasn’t been designed correctly for a woman?
AK Labour wards in the USA. They are about money, not about women’s safety and or comfort. It’s archaic and, for many women, dangerous. The medical system, in general, has a long way to go in terms of gender equality.
WM If you could collaborate with one designer in the book, who would you work with?
AK I know somewhat physically impossible! But Ray Eames. I would let her lead the way, as I would have so much to learn from her. I would also be fascinated to see how she navigated the gender dynamics of a mid-century design studio and business environment especially working alongside her husband.
WM What is the one piece of design you could not live without?
AKI know this isn’t strictly one piece of design, but clothing. I love the alchemic effect of it. The aura of the work I make can change depending on its placed context, which is 90% beyond my control. What I love about clothing is that each outfit is a world unto itself. Every time you get dressed, you can communicate a different narrative, feeling or emotion. I love that the finished outfit is a work entirely unto itself. I by no means have a ‘uniform’ and fashion is something I love about being a woman.
WM Do you mentor/advise fellow female designers? If so, what do you suggest they look out for?
AK If a student or young designer emails to see if I could chat to them, I try my hardest to say yes, either in person or at least a phone call. I think it’s so important. I never had a mentor, and in the early years of starting all this, I used to really wish I had—so I try to give back where I can. Something I always return to in these conversations is to advise everyone to stop looking at the big picture: the five-year plans and the end goals. They just serve to intimidate you, hinder the true creative process, stifle originality; and it means you miss the nuances of your own journey. You can’t plan for what is going to happen in your career, but if you put your head down and work really hard and produce good work—opportunities will emerge, and the path will make itself. Work hard and be nice to people is another crucial piece of advice. Making work is collaborative, so unless you hand make all your work in isolation, people skills are important!