Mar 30, 2018
THEME: Point of View

What We’re Reading: Women’s History Month Edition

The library is open.

March is Women’s History Month. In the past, we’ve asked women at our firm to share stories of female mentorship and inspiration. This year, we wanted to know the stories women at the firm are reading now as a continuation of our ‘What We’re Reading’ series (see previously). Update that reading list, because we have a host of new additions you’ll want to make.

Emily Shea Cartusciello

Interior Designer, Los Angeles

I’m currently reading Alice Waters’ memoir, Coming to My Senses. She was born in the 1940s, and it’s been fascinating to realize that not only was she a pioneer for women in her field but for food culture in the U.S. overall. The book is interspersed with stories and snippets illustrating how Waters’ experiences have shaped her vision and the concepts for her groundbreaking restaurant, Chez Panisse. Her writing has a really nice simplicity, and I’ve been savoring all of the visuals she creates. It’s not a design book, but it is a story of passion, inspiration, and creation, so in that way, it relates to the work we do.

Lindsey Peckinpaugh

Associate Principal, Chicago

I have been reading Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis. Like so many other celebrated short story collections, Davis’ work is perfect for picking up and putting down in small increments even over protracted periods of time. Some of Davis’ stories are barely stories at all. They are succinct, keenly observant shots right into your bloodstream that elevate seemingly mundane details. Others are a beautiful and achingly descriptive journey, like “The Seals,” which describes an evolving relationship between sisters and how they navigate loss. Coming from a long line of deeply connected women, and being the youngest of three sisters, I have such an appreciation for how Davis describes the complex and emotional bonds among sisters as we age, grow into our own lives, and create ways to remain bonded to each other.

Anna Beznogova

Architecture Intern, Toronto

One of my favourite books is Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés. The book uses folk tales as a device to explore female archetypes and to empower women to lead heartfelt, healthy lives. It is part literary analysis, part self-help manual (based on Jungian psychology), and part social commentary. Estes speaks to the interdependence between our psychological well-being, the values of our social groups, and the health of our external environments (both natural and manmade), which I found when writing my master’s thesis in architecture. She argues that undervaluing of women and the degradation of the natural environment are not coincidental—that they stem from Western society’s misperceptions of qualities that are associated with the feminine. Estes does not shun masculinity by any means, rather she calls for a healthy balance of traits within each individual (regardless of gender) and within the natural environment. This book inspired me to learn more about the ways in which systems-thinking can be used to understand the world and improve resilience.

Monica Kumar

Interior Designer, New York

The female author I come back to consistently is Pema Chodron. Her words have been my companion at the most difficult times in my life, to the point where the simple act of picking up her book will put my mind at ease. She writes from the Buddhist perspective on living gracefully with oneself: accepting all aspects of who we are in this very moment. For designers especially, her writings on the “fine art of failing” remind me that living with honesty and vulnerability takes enormous courage. When that courage is hard to find, I turn to Pema.

One of my favorites passages, from The Wisdom of No Escape:

“There’s a common misunderstanding among all the human beings who have ever been born on the earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable. You can see this even in insects and animals and birds. All of us are the same.

A much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life is to begin to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our inquisitiveness is bitter or sweet..”

Laura Taylor

Interior Designer, San Francisco

I read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar just after I moved away from home, and it really jumpstarted my existence as an independent adult. The story gripped me quickly because its heroine, Esther, faces a similar moment in her life. Overwhelmed by the paths available to her, she freezes and chooses no path at all. For many months after, she remains trapped in an identity crisis—beneath the “bell jar” of depression. The story is serious but it’s also a clever and enjoyable narrative on adulthood, womanhood, and mental health. The story remains surprisingly optimistic, which feels ominous, knowing Plath’s own fate. Plath’s voice remains true to her origins as a poet, with beautifully written passages rich in descriptive metaphors. One in particular compares Esther’s future to a sprawling fig tree, and explains why I often think to myself, “I’m having a fig tree moment.” Everyone should read the Bell Jar. If nothing else, it will help me make #figtreemoment a thing.

Susan Heersema

New York

I am reading Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel.  It is rare to find a book in the post-apocalyptic genre written by a woman, so I was intrigued.  The story focuses on a ragtag travelling theater troupe that call themselves The Traveling Symphony.  They loop around the ruins of the United States performing Shakespeare plays for the communities that are too devastated to have time for luxuries or the arts.  The communities are often damaged and dangerous, and the characters are forced to commit atrocious acts to survive, yet the scenes are peppered with tender and loving reminders of the things the characters miss most from their lives before the pandemic.  I guess you could say this book is a melancholy love story to modern life and a reminder about how the arts define our humanity, and I am enjoying it a lot!

Andrea Perez

Interior Designer, London

I have just finished reading The Battle for Home: The Memoir of a Syrian Architect, by Marwa al-Sabouni. The author, a female architect in Syria, draws on her personal experience of her country’s ongoing conflict, and looks at how built environments can be a factor in avoiding, resolving, and even starting conflict. It raises some really interesting points on community identity and on how architecture, planning, and the quality of designed spaces can aid reconciliation. Al-Sabouni makes it clear that rebuilding Syria’s sense of identity within a damaged society will require respect for cultural backgrounds and traditional functional architecture. She did a really interesting TED Talk back in June 2016 where she shares some of the ideas captured in her book.

Brenda Smith

Associate Principal, Atlanta

Two books I’m carrying around recently share a similar message of what is possible if we stand by our principles and pursue our passions.

The first book, by Grace Bonney (of design*sponge), is In the Company of Women:  Inspiration and Advice from over 100 Makers, Artists, and Entrepreneurs.  A holiday gift, this gorgeous book deserves a place of honor on one’s coffee table, and is a great for short reads when one needs a creative boost.  Full of  professional journey-stories, and beautiful imagery, each 4-page section features a creative trail-blazer from tattoo artists to architects.  The fact that each profile is of a dynamic, smart, powerful woman, is icing on the cake!

Denisse Velez Rivera

Interior Designer, Minneapolis

I had a friend send me Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman last week, and it was exactly what I needed to read. A minute well spent.

We’re sharing it below:

Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou

But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Maya Angelou, “Phenomenal Woman” from And Still I Rise. Copyright © 1978 by Maya Angelou. Used by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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