“Maybe the maker community is a place for gender roles to begin breaking down and falling apart.”—Gael Towey

Gael Towey & Co.: Creative Director + Editor + Producer / New York NY

“maybe the maker community is a place for gender roles to begin breaking down and falling apart.”—gael towey

Do you see the maker movement as impacting traditional gender roles?
When you say, “makers,” I think of a completely different world of design. I think there are as many women makers as there are men makers. I don’t think men have cornered the market as makers, nor do I think women are necessarily the makers of things that are traditionally women’s work. For example, if we look at chefs starting restaurants, that was a traditionally male profession. Men would cook at restaurants, and women cooked from home. But I consider chefs to be makers. And I think that there are a lot of women chefs now, especially in Brooklyn.

The first year we held the American Made Award at Martha Stewart, it was actually pretty evenly divided. We expected to find more women, but there seemed to be just as many men candidates. There was a male candle maker and a male furniture maker. There were women fashion designers and a woman who was making cast-iron pots. So the stereotypical gender roles switched. You would expect the person forging the cast-iron pot to be a guy, but the maker was actually a girl. So I don’t know. Maybe the maker community is a place for gender roles to begin breaking down and falling apart.

I also feel that communication technology is giving a lot of women an opportunity that they may not have had before. I was recently at Shutterstock, and they told me that they found a group of women who were taking fantastic pictures of their kids, and posting them on a free public Instagram account. It turned out that there were a whole bunch of these women, whose kids played together, and they were all taking these pictures together. Shutterstock approached these women to buy images of their kids for their stock. They valued how the playing felt very natural, because it was natural, and that the lighting was really good. A lot of the pictures had also been sold to Johnson & Johnson. So here was an instance where technology gave women jobs that they wouldn’t have normally had. Anyone can take professional quality photography, regardless of gender. I think technology is helping to make gender roles irrelevant.

Do you think women receive equal credit for their work on a mixed design team?
I think it’s a case by case basis. For example, Elizabeth Diller is really the center of power in her relationship with Ricardo Scofidio. But I think it depends much more on the person’s personality and talents than gender roles per se. I have worked with a number of couples photography teams, such as Andrea Gentl and Marty Hyers. They almost always share a single camera, and they often shoot the same thing, so you don’t really know who’s taking what picture. If it’s an instance where they just want one picture, and it’s really art directed, then they both look through the camera, and work very collaboratively that way. It’s amazing how seamless it is. They have been working together for a long time. I know a number of couples photography teams that work that way. Gentl and Hyers shot my Gabriella Kiss film. That’s another example.

Gabriella Kiss lives and works with her husband, Chris Lehrecke in an 1820s church in Bangall, New York. Gabriella is a jewelry designer and Chris is a furniture maker. I think it’s amazing the way that, here they are, both living and working in the same place, but with independent studio spaces and separate design practices. Making jewelry is a pretty isolated task. Then after 27 years of marriage, they finally do a project together, their home. Gabriella and Chris couldn’t be more different in a lot of ways. Gabriella first started out working with her Pratt peer, Ted Muehling. They were never partners, but she worked for him for eleven years before starting her own practice. Ted still supports Gabriella by selling her jewelry in his store and giving her full credit. He definitely feels that showing her jewelry is an asset to him. So they have a unique kind of design collaboration in that it’s not the typical company collaboration with equal names. They both cater to the same jewelry market, and often sell out of the same stores, but they work in isolation and with two different names.

Do you find that artists and design craftsman are banding together a lot more, especially in New York? Is this a necessity of the times?
I think the design community does help each other out. We do refer people, especially husbands and wives. When a job might not be right, we refer it to our friends. I think that is very normal. AIGA and other professional organizations, design competitions, and speaking gigs, have always encouraged collaboration. It has always been like that, even before technology facilitated communication and the sharing of information. The more exposure you have, the better off you are. It doesn’t matter who does the exposing, or how often the exposing gets done. That whole idea of exclusivity, that magazines used to have, doesn’t really exist on the web. Say you’re Gather Journal, and the hotel that you promote is in a cultural center for artists. The cultural center will want Gather Journal to come, along with four other entities that do things like Gather. So it’s like a convention. Social media had created an incredibly active and physical social experience.

How have you worked with your husband?
Stephen and I worked together on a project for Kmart and Macy’s. Stephen designed the branding and packaging for the product lines. I was the creative director, and oversaw the design. So I was his client. Our roles were completely different. I wouldn’t call it a typical client/designer relationship, but we functioned that way. Stephen did treat me differently, because we both worked from home and stayed up until 1 AM, working together. In that sense, we might have taken advantage of each other. Because we were married, we could work all of the time. In terms of how Stephen and I work together, I would say communication and the ability to share information is extraordinarily important. From my side, I had a little bit of suspicion that, because he’s my husband, I might acquiesce to him, or want to do it his way. But I need people to trust my judgment, so I think I probably had more scrutiny because we were married. On Stephen’s side, I think that he felt the pressure and visibility that we were under to create these enormous programs. He was more on top of it, in terms of working hard and proving himself. So in many ways, our marriage really heightened our desire to work well and do our best for each other.

When you are in the editing process, it is long and tedious and you have to look at the same thing over and over and over. You can feel yourself becoming a little bit blind. So towards the end of your process, you need that clean eyesight on something that you might just be overlooking. And then sometimes you have a feeling that something is wrong, or there’s something that you really like but the editor hates.

Were there ever any disadvantages of being married to a person who does what you do?
Fortunately for me, Stephen is a great designer, so I’ve never had to deal with him doing bad work. I guess one disadvantage would be not knowing how to turn it off. When we were working on the Kmart stuff, it was such a high pressure thing that we didn’t try to turn it off, we just kind of went with it. We actually enjoyed working really hard. It was fun.

What was the makeup of the Martha Stewart group?
At Martha Stewart, my second in command person was a guy. In terms of the company, there were not that many heterosexual males. And most of the heterosexual males were in ad sales and finance. So there was definitely a gender thing happening. When I was still there, the head of sales was a woman. The head of marketing was a woman. We had mostly women CEOs. And honestly, most of the heads of departments were women. All of the editors in chief were women. Most of the editors were women, although certainly not all. I would say in terms of designers, men and women were pretty equally distributed. I don’t think you could say one was more dominant than the other. Or that anyone was better than anyone else. But it was a pretty heavily female and gay-male company, in terms of visual. Truth be told, most of the guys on the design side were gay. But it’s also very female subject matter.

I think that’s a good thing about the men and women that are there, that they are really living the brand. I mean these are all people who spend their weekends at antiques shows and all that stuff. I don’t feel that it mattered whether it was a man or woman working on a story. I think that personality traits, detail-oriented-ness, being good at color, being good at type, being good at shooting a still-life, and being good at entertaining a lot of people, is what matters.