Hero Image
How to Make Yourself a Feminist Design Power Tool
Lori Brown

Hélène Frichot
Routledge, 2017

In How to Make Yourself a Feminist Design Power Tool, Hélène Frichot provides a timely how-to, do-it-yourself guide cleverly presenting a series of arguments that are essential for the twenty-first century. Central to the book’s underlying message are two questions. One, what role does the designer have in creating and fostering an ethical aesthetic practice? And two, how does one break free from the often-rigid structures of both design education and professional design practice to create more locally engaged and open-ended methodologies for creative practice? Once we become aware of our internalized restrictive frames this can enable the emergence of new potentials for conceptual thinking and design.

The reference to the power tool is a subversive and yet playful tactic. Like jujitsu where you work with your opponent’s energy flow in order to overpower, the power tool has been usurped, pushed through the binary and flipped onto itself for feminist empowerment. The power tool, ubiquitous for the construction of things and buildings, is also about relations of power. This new tool is for all users who seek an ethical and aesthetic practice and our entree into a more informed theoretical and practice-based realm.
Frichot locates the ethics of the designer, and by extension of the discipline, front and center, provoking the reader to act now, where she lives, through her own personal design knowledge. As she writes, aesthetic expression is inherently connected to ethical responsibility; these cannot be separated. This is a productive framework to challenge oneself and through which to iterate one’s work, producing new ways to exist and live differently. As Frichot suggests, this allows for unknown and unexpected potentials to emerge. If one is to evolve the discipline in both small and large ways, establishing a theoretical structure that is then tested through practice, repetitively, is a useful method for education and exploration.

Feminist ethos, as Frichot mentions, is always hovering in the book’s background and central to disrupting the status quo and one’s unconscious schema. Feminist theory—a theory, that at its core, reveals relations of power and their social, political, cultural and economic connections—is the primary tool through which she constructs her manual. Feminist positionality acknowledges the complex and intersectional relationships of class, race, ethnicity, gender, and environment. Feminist theory and feminist practice provide ways to both interpret and engage critical issues we confront. The book’s framework, using theory employed for action, is presented in a series of six steps. These include Just Do It, Compose a List, Make a Manifesto, Construct a Conceptual Persona and an Aesthetic Figure, Chart Your Environment-World, Collectivise a Heteroglossary and Follow the Material. We are encouraged to question our relationship to our environment and explore wider and more diverse potentials for design practice.

Frichot makes an important connection between feminist theory and current material and aesthetic debates, illuminating why current architectural object-fixated trends cannot exempt themselves from their political and economic contexts. The book importantly intersects with debates about the Anthropocene and nonhuman impacts. She argues for the theoretical importance of feminist theory within our current environmental context. We can no longer foreground human exceptionalism. Rather, there must be a reorientation where humans are one among many living beings seriously considered within this new age.

An important aspect of this small yet powerful book is that theory is made accessible and actionable. This is especially useful for architectural education. Frichot traverses a theoretical field rich with insightful resources in the quest to design her own feminist power tool and many are familiar faces we have heard from. She builds upon feminist, queer, and material theory, ecology, and philosophy including thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Rosi Braidotti, Hélène Cixous, Elizabeth Grosz, Donna Haraway, and Isabelle Stengers. As Deleuze posits, theory “must be useful,” similar to a box of tools whose use is practiced over and over until something eventually transforms. Tools, for Isabelle Stengers, can be used to “challenge the status of a major dominate paradigm, aiming to create ‘a different practical landscape.’” Donna Haraway’s tools are located within stories that are repeated again and again to upend the “stabilized sets of beliefs that have marginalised so many.”  These theorists’ ideas demonstrate how feminist design power tools are useful to engage ideas, problems, and situations that we encounter on a daily basis.

Feminist design power tools parlay into feminist practices. Through a feminist practice, one experiments in order to discover what can be, not what is. As Haraway writes, feminist practices are “collective discourses,” not isolated ideas or individual groups. Feminist practices are concerned with the immediacy of location, the networks that exist across platforms that provide potentials of the unknown and engage both local and global geopolitical concerns. There is power in collective inquiry, leading toward collective action; open-ended exploration develops new modes of practice. She makes accessible these theorists, providing new insights into ways feminist theory and feminist methodologies have impacted and influenced a great range of architectural thinking, for decades. We generally do not hear enough of these connections, especially within the American context.

Through the use of a how-to DIY guide, Frichot is democratizing design knowledge and its creative application. How we are trained, historically idolizing a handful of master designers within an architectural canon, falls far short from the vast potentials we all weld as designers motivated to practice ethically for maximum impact. Design should not, no longer can be, for the elite. Through creating and then using one’s own feminist design power tools, we too can engage pertinent issues. In this feminist position, design knowledge is not to be guarded or defended by disciplinary expertise and practiced by the lone few; rather, design knowledge is shared, distributed, and embraced by a much wider and far more inclusive population to influence the future of our environment. We must be active, where we live, each and every day.

For those who are located firmly within the material sphere, please read on. In fact, the return to the material is argued as both a biopolitical and a bioethical position, intersecting political economies. To be materially minded, one can no longer ignore or disregard the implications of material sourcing and its impact on the future of the planet. We all must become materially minded within our contemporary condition. To do otherwise puts the entire planet at greater and greater risk.

Feminist theory requires us to examine how things work, how we live now, ethically, and ask what other ways are possible. What new scales of economies and existences will emerge with the use of our newly created feminist power tools? And how might we, as humans, reorient our thinking with nonhumans and factors that no longer center on us (if they ever really did)? The future is now for testing and discovery. We must challenge ourselves, our practices and planetary relationships. Frichot’s book is an important tool for those within the academy who seek to teach through the intersections of theory and design practice. She makes the material accessible and provides a structure for helping design students situate their ideas and design research in an active, responsive, and engaged way.

Do not delay. Go create your own personal feminist design power tool and then get to work!

How to Cite this Article: Brown, Lori. Review of How to Make Yourself a Feminist Design Power Tool, by Hélène Frichot. JAE Online. March 18, 2018. https://jaeonline.org/issue-article/how-make-yourself-feminist-design-power-tool/.