For Women's History Month, we are highlighting the people and projects you should know about all year long.
Furniture plays an essential role in our day-to-day lives, yet many of us rarely consider the designers who create these functional, beautiful objects. This niche space is full of incredible designers, architects, and multidisciplinary artists, many of whom infuse their identity and culture into their work.
In honor of Women's History Month, Hunker spoke with six talented, trailblazing women furniture designers, including industry veterans and notable newcomers. Read on to learn more about their career trajectories, design philosophies, and heartfelt advice for other women hoping to break into the industry.
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1. Christina Z Antonio
Born in London and based in New York City, Christina Z Antonio has more than 20 years of experience as a multidisciplinary artist and designer. The London University of the Arts graduate founded her namesake atelier in 2005. Her impressive roster of creative partnerships and projects includes Tom Ford, John Varvatos, and The Standard Hotel in New York. In 2021, she received the Independent Designer Award from NYCxDesign and Interior Design Magazine.
Speaking to Hunker, Antonio describes her bespoke furniture creations as "multifunctional, sculptural, and tactile." She works with materials like leather, wood, resin, and glass to create everything from regal media credenzas to eye-catching light fixtures. Her aesthetic inspirations run the gamut, from the art deco movement of the 1920s and '30s to the emotions she experiences in everyday life. "I am influenced by my surroundings and the materials I touch," she shares. "The process is intuitive."
Above all, Antonio prioritizes "craftsmanship and detail" in everything she does. It's a fitting legacy for an accomplished furniture designer who hails from a long line of Greek artisans.
2. Tiarra Bell
Tiarra Bell's passion for design blossomed at a young age. Growing up in Philadelphia, Bell was always fascinated by her father's work as a contractor, but it wasn't until high school that she met her first real mentor, architect Alex Gilliam. She went on to intern with Public Workshop and Tiny WPA, two of Gilliam's organizations, and apprentice under furniture maker Charles Todd of Mount Airy Custom Furniture.
The woodworking apprenticeship solidified her plan to study furniture design, which she pursued at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). "I learned to not only make an object that is aesthetically pleasing but to create a body of work that communicates a message," Bell tells Hunker. She graduated with her bachelor's degree in 2020 and founded her design company, Bellafonté Studio, in 2021.
After graduating, Bell also leaned more heavily into her Christian faith for guidance and inspiration. She describes prayer, biblical scriptures, and her relationship with God as fixtures of her "nontraditional" design process. "I'm intrigued by how something that's not visual, such as words, ideologies, or ethics, can become something that you can plainly see and touch," she says of her unique, organic pieces. Through furniture design, Bell is able to "express the inexpressible."
In 2022, Bell was named one of Dwell's 24 Best New Designers. Her work has been featured everywhere from the Carpenters Workshop Gallery in New York City to Milan Design Week '22. Her success is especially meaningful to her as a Black woman who did not grow up with the resources she needed to succeed in life. "Statistically, all the odds were [stacked] against me," she says, "but God has given me a gift that has opened many doors."
Bell advises other women designers who are interested in furniture design to embrace what makes them unique. "Think about your identity, your background, your life story, or even questions that arise within your heart," she says. "Then, try to capture the essence of that within your designs."
3. Alexis Moran
A fourth-generation Bay Area native, Alexis Moran has built a career out of designing intuitive, naturally beautiful pieces for high-profile clients. Moran first discovered furniture design while studying industrial design at Georgia Tech. "I much preferred the materiality, human interaction, and scale of furniture to the handheld and machine-made products I had been studying," she tells Hunker. Inspired, she moved back to the West Coast to study furniture design at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
Moran founded her namesake design studio in 2010. Her breakout project was designing the first conference tables for Dropbox. Since then, she has amassed a sprawling client list that includes the likes of Google, Instagram, and Central Kitchen. She also appeared on the design reality show Ellen's Design Challenge in 2016.
Whether she's designing bespoke office tables, shelving units, or full-on restaurant interiors, Moran always marries function with beauty. She often works with natural materials like wood and describes her design style as "natural minimalism."
Nearly all of her work is custom, so Moran collaborates closely with her clients to realize their visions. "I do a lot of listening and observing to understand what is wanted and needed," she shares. "Once I have assessed the parameters, I lay my aesthetic and experience over the pieces."
4. Nina Cho
Although she is based in Detroit, artist and designer Nina Cho was born in San Francisco and raised in Seoul, South Korea. Her design career began at Seoul's Hongik University, where she studied woodworking and furniture design. The multidisciplinary program gave her the chance to explore different materials while also building a solid technical foundation in woodworking. "I was encouraged to tell my own story and design unique furniture inspired by my identity," Cho tells Hunker.
After graduating, Cho relocated to Michigan to pursue a master's degree in 3D design at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. She had the freedom to continue developing her unique design style, which she summarizes with a translated Korean adage: "It is modest but not humble and impressive but not extravagant." Indeed, her robust portfolio — from geometric mirrors to sleek, sculptural chairs — encapsulates this ethos.
In 2020, Cho was awarded the sixth annual American Design Honor by WantedDesign, presented with Bernhardt Design. Her work has been recognized by Dwell, Artsy, and Sight Unseen.
As a woman in a male-dominated industry, Cho advises other women furniture designers to pace themselves. "Don't rush to create something only to get attention, but try to think of your career as a long marathon, especially if you are an independent designer running your own design studio," she recommends. "There's definitely space for design with a female perspective."
5. Nifemi Ogunro
Nigerian American designer Nifemi Ogunro always knew she wanted to work in a creative field, but her parents had their own dreams for her. It wasn't until she stumbled upon industrial design on Google that she realized she could make a career out of artistic expression and honor her family's wishes.
In 2020, Ogunro worked under the artist Michael Beitz, who showed her the power of furniture design. "Since then, I've known that building objects and finding new ways to communicate narratives through them is what I feel happiest doing," the New York City-based designer tells Hunker. "I believe my job as a designer is to take forms that we know well and find something that can make them special again."
Ogunro's functional sculptures — think everything from side tables to chairs to hair combs — are raw, organic, and honest in their expression. As an artist, she is interested in how sustainability and social issues intersect with design. "A lot of my inspiration for my designs comes from everyday life but also film, music, comedy, and poetry," she shares. "I often have a song that I associate with a piece after I've completed it."
Ogunro was recently recognized as one of Dwell's 24 Best New Designers of 2022. Her advice for other women in furniture design is simple but powerful: "Be honest. If something doesn't sit right with you, advocate for something better. Do not settle, and do not sell yourself short."
6. Sophie Collé
Sophie Collé is the child of a painter (her mom) and a scientist (her dad), so you could say she was destined for a career in design. The Maryland-born artist and designer got her start studying industrial design at Virginia Tech. She had a "love-hate relationship" with the program, which emphasized design in response to societal crises. "I fell in love with furniture because of the amazing vintage chairs in our school architecture library but never had the confidence or time to pursue that while I was actually in school," she tells Hunker.
After college, Collé worked at Maryland's Glenstone Museum and drew constantly in her spare time. She later moved to New York City to pursue furniture design full time. By the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Collé had amassed countless sketches from her stint at the museum. She ended up using her time in quarantine to actually build the playful pieces she'd drawn while living off unemployment.
"I started posting my furniture and some of my home renovations," she recalls. "I remember once, I left my Google Form open by accident and got 32 orders overnight. That's when I decided my work might actually be worthy of a real business!"
Today, Collé sells her whimsical creations through her namesake LLC, Sophie Collé Design. Her work is campy, colorful, and "joy-provoking," with her inspirations ranging from radical Italian design to kitschy vintage patterns. She's especially fond of objects that are "totally functional but look like toys" — for instance, her popular cow print tissue box.
She encourages other women considering a career in furniture design to carve out space for themselves. "It can feel like a lot of progress is made because some has been, but especially in this country, it is easy to go to a firm's website and see that every studio is still full of white men," she adds. "It's a small industry that is hard to break into, but there is so much opportunity for all of us who choose to be in this realm."