Chances are, if you’re a professional woman in New York, you’ve needed this–a quiet space to get through email before heading out for late drinks, somewhere to change clothes and prep for an event or date after work, or even just a place to hang out and meet women you may never have crossed paths with otherwise.
At least, that’s what Audrey Gelman is betting on. She’s the co-founder and CEO of The Wing, a coworking space-meets-social club for women that feels like a bit like a fantasy New York apartment–with on demand blowouts, to boot. Gelman is a powerhouse publicist and a former senior vice president of a political consulting firm; Lena Dunham is one of her best friends, and she inspired Marnie’s character on Girls. Gelman envisioned The Wing, which opened its doors on October 10, as a home away from home for its members, many of whom are high-powered professional women like Gelman. It has been designed accordingly, with domestic and sophisticated touches by interior designers Chiara deRege and Hilary Koyfman and an identity by an all-women team at Pentagram.
But how do you design a space for women in 2016–when the definition of “woman” is being constantly explored, dissected, and reimagined? How do you design a brand that appeals to a diverse group of women without pandering? How do you create an environment that doesn’t seem guided by the notorious “shrink and pink” approach to designing for women–but that still recognizes the power of a female-only space?
Luckily, The Wing’s designers has some historical precedent to guide them.
In the early 20th century, women’s clubs were all the rage. These spaces gave women excuses to socialize–but also to mobilize around social issues, including inadequate education, substandard housing, and women’s suffrage. In New York alone, there were more than 600 women’s clubs, and more than 5,000 across the country.
The Wing harkens back to this tradition, which had its hub on Midtown Manhattan’s “Ladies’ Mile,” a late-19th century shopping district that women could frequent without a male companion. Today, Ladies’ Mile is a historic district, and the Wing is located not far away (though Gelman admits that the original draw for the location was its proximity to the L and F trains).
From a functional standpoint, The Wing is nearly three quarters open working spaces, with couches, tables, and chairs. The space also has a personal section, with showers, lockers, a pumping room, and a makeup room, as well as a conference room, phone booths, library (of only female writers, of course), and cafe–addressing many of the needs of a working woman, sans workout facility.
From a design perspective, Gelman had some specifics in mind. “We wanted to do something very different, design-wise, from the traditional English sense of social clubs that are oaky and dark and have a lot of taxidermy,” she says. “We were inspired by a cool Danish woman artist’s apartment that you’d like to be friends with, with the layout of a hotel lobby,” referencing the aesthetic of the Scandinavian graphic designer Lotta Nieminen, one of The Wing’s members.
That meant an ambience that felt clean and modern as well as domestic. And for Gelman, that meant pink. “Sue me, it’s just a welcoming calming color,” she says. The space’s interior designer Chiara deRege agrees. “You almost don’t want to love the color pink, being a girl,” she says. “But it just so happens to be an incredibly flattering color. It can be chic, and it’s also kind of happy.”
To offset the space’s more traditionally feminine characteristics, deRege intentionally added what she referred to as more “masculine” furniture–Wegner papa bear chairs, Plattner dining chairs, and wishbone chairs. “By choosing what I think of as more male handsome pieces while sticking to this soft, more feminine palette, I hope we created an environment that is relaxed elegant,” she says.
It’s strange to talk about the gender of furniture in a space that seems to want to be an antidote to traditional, binary gender roles, and a safe haven for women who explicitly don’t fit into them. Revolutionary or not, The Wing does intentionally wear its gender on its sleeve, in some cases nearly literally, in the alcoves and textiles of the space itself. To its creators, the very concept of an organized space for women only remains radical in itself–the idea of allowing women to be themselves, whoever they are, and to meet each other in a matriarchal space.
The Wing caters to a very particular kind of woman. One, for instance, who can afford the $1950 annual membership fee, and has the kind of social clout and cultural savvy to be accepted into the club. Gelman described one member who was a “perfect fit” for The Wing: a doctor who works with HIV-positive trans women in her Chelsea clinic and who loves Drake. She wants to maintain what she called an “eclecticism” among the members–and yet remain inclusive, where women of all kinds might feel at home.
The two seem to be at odds. While Gelman says the space was designed to be welcoming and domestic with its sophisticated palette and soft surfaces, a more accurate representation is that it’s designed to welcome women of a certain class and education, perhaps not so different from the ladies’ clubs of yesteryear.
The task of branding such a business faced similar contradictions. How do you create an identity for a women’s organization without relying on stereotypes?
Emily Oberman, the Pentagram designer who led a female-only team to create a visual identity for The Wing, looked to historical modes of communication for inspiration. “It was all about a combination of something that feels both scholarly and elegant and feminine,” she says. Along with a pale pink that pervades the space and the branding, The Wing’s color palette also consists of a minty green, a deep navy blue inspired by the ink of a ball point pen, gray, and black, with a golden mustard accent. “It was actually inspired by paper goods, like the Pink Pearl eraser, like old carbon copy sheets from an old paper goods store, this idea of classic ways of communicating,” she says. (Oberman and her entire graphic design team now belong to the club.)
When asked about how “feminine” is a loaded word, Oberman laughed. “I was trying not to use it at all,” she says. “If you want to strike the word feminine from my vocabulary? Being feminine is not what The Wing is about and it’s not what the design is about either. The design is about strength and language and humor and diversity.”
By “diversity,” Oberman means the diversity of personalities in the club’s members. In an early stage of the design process, she and her team presented Gelman and co-founder Lauren Kassan with a series of “Ws” inspired by women throughout history that they believed embodied The Wing’s values of intelligence, wit, and style. While only one of them became the company’s logo, those 30 “Ws” became an integral part of the design language because they give a sense of individuality while still being part of a unified group.
The logo “W,” with its thick curves and swirls, implies both strength and style. “It has a little bit of softness and a lot of strength,” says Oberman. “It has a lot of silliness and a lot of integrity at the same time.”
Those multiple, co-existing facets of the identity are one of its strengths, Oberman says, because it encompasses what The Wing is trying to provide: “It’s a place to work and play, learn and forget, it’s about the duality of what you can do there, and that goes right into the duality of being smart and sassy in equal measure,” she says.”
Oberman and her team also helped in the creation of the language and messaging used throughout The Wing’s website, physical space, and branded products. The phrases and aphorisms have a certain sophisticated, old-timey cadence with a bit of modern sassiness, a combination meant to be both smart and funny without being clichéd. The company’s manifesto poster proclaims to its readers, “The Wing is a home base for women on their way” with the boldness of a newspaper headline. The membership kits arrive by mail and feature playing cards emblazoned with “Game Recognizes Game,” a Wing woman pin, and a tote that says “Bag Lady” on it. There are pins that say “1-800 Hotline Wing” and hats that say “I came to break hearts.” In the bathroom, all the towels will be embroidered with just one word: “Hers.”
The design and branding of The Wing have old-fashioned, heavily gendered elements to them, and the space remains exclusively welcoming to a certain kind of 21st-century working woman. Yet its presence speaks to the contradictions and intricacies of being female in this cultural moment.
“There was this really cool precedent that existed, but it was like a century ago,” says Gelman. “I think it was in some ways a similar time. That was leading up to the suffragette movement, and now we’re on the precipice of electing the first female president. You can chart a career without having to go through and work your way up a ladder where the rules are written by men.”
And while the century has changed, some of women’s basic needs and desires–from a quiet place to work to a community of like-minded women–have not. Gelman doesn’t believe that other coworking spaces or social clubs cater to the working woman in the same way The Wing does.
“I think that there’s a ton of people who need flexible work space but that a lot of the culture of those spaces has become bro-dominated,” she says. “A lot of these places have pumps for beer but not breast milk.”