In our DesignTalks Spotlights, we’re going into the Who, What, When, Where, and Why of what you should know about each of our DesignTalks speakers and why we are so excited about their work.
We covered Christien Meindertsma in our first post, Alexander Taylor in our second post, and Ersin Han Ersin in our third. We will now look into the thoughtful work of Michèle Degen:
Michèle Degen is a young Swiss designer whose work seeks to break norms through visual and experimental methods. For Degen, design is about “connecting disciplines and merging thoughts, translated into a communicational outcome.” Her methodology is based on offline research, directly interacting with everyday circumstances.
What has she done? What is she doing now?
Degen graduated cum laude from the Design Academy Eindhoven in 2016. Past projects during Degen’s studies explored how humans value stones and the creation of printed patterns derived from material research on sand. Another project of note, Sheeker, is a sneaker sourced entirely from Drenthe Heath sheep. The production of Sheeker “offers an alternative to the oil-based polymers, widely used in the footwear industry; the sole is made of bioplastic, composed of bones and collagen, and the top part is created from felted wool in its natural colour.”
Degen’s degree final project for Design Academy Eindhoven, Vulva Versa, caught the attention of the international design scene when it was first exhibited at Dutch Design Week last year. Vulva Versa is a curved handheld mirror that easily fits into the palm of one’s hand. It is intended to help women see their own vulva, and to facilitate the intimate exploration and appreciation of one’s own body without a sense of indecency or shame. Degen will be sharing the story behind and of Vulva Versa during her talk at DesignMarch this year.
Currently, Degen is based in Rotterdam and works for different organizations in the Netherlands on data visualizations and storytelling.
Why is her work important?
Degen aims to stimulate conversations and challenge our perspective on normality and the seemingly ordinary: Why do we accept what we do as a standard or norm? Is our way of thinking about an object or topic so ingrained that it has become dangerously deadlocked?
Degen’s Vulva Versa is more than a functional object. The project provides important social commentary on at least three levels: 1) our tension between our identities as private selves and consumers, 2) the gap between self-perception and media-driven perception of the norm, and 3) cultural taboos that hinder open discussions about our intimate bodily parts, especially for women.
Vulva Versa serves as a general conversation starter by questioning the manipulated perfection we are constantly surrounded by and susceptible to as consumers. Even more, it questions how our identity as consumers has infiltrated even our most intimate lives and bodily parts. If even vulvas are held to specific visual ideals, can we honestly find any parts of our lives and selves that consumerism and the ideals of commercial industry do not impact?
Vulva Versa also operates as a feminist tool. It helps to dismantle any sense of personal indecency a woman may have about exploring herself by fostering curiosity and facilitating the literal viewing of her own individual vulva. While it may feel counterintuitive, the prevalence of media images is so pervasive that a woman may spend more time looking at images of digitally or cosmetically altered bodies than at her own or other women she actually knows. This skewed view of individual variation can build a sense of shame—one that may never get broken down because cultural stigma stunts open dialogue about the female human body.
By implicitly, yet clearly, asking such questions, Degen brings into an uncomfortable light that we have all been complicit in erasing our variations in favor of media-driven prototypes or in celebrating our variations only as a commercial tool rather than a positive everyday reality. By encouraging women to openly look at themselves, and by generating conversations in everyday society about the vulva, Degen nourishes healthy self-dialogue and interpersonal discussion about how we can take pride in our individual bodies, femininity and womanhood, and connect over our shared experience of variation.
Text by Michelle Site. Images courtesy of Michèle Degen.