Still from the short film Le Baiser/The Kiss (1999) by Iñigo Manlango-Ovalle. [A modernist house with walls of windows. On the outside, a window-washer works; on the inside of the house, a person works on a computer.]


After graduating college, I worked in a cafe with a few Hispanic custodians who worked the late night shift. Their shifts started at 3pm and ended at midnight. My shifts would also start at 3pm, but end around 9pm. My Latinx co-workers were considered “back of the house,” and I was considered “front of the house.” But because I am also Latina and can speak Spanish, I could float to “the back” to update the staff on which ingredients we needed to prepare the food out front: guacamole, tomates, salsa, pán, lo que sea. Most of my day, however, was spent interacting with customers, stocking pastries, folding boxes, scrubbing the grills, and stacking the patio tables at night. Meanwhile, the back crew would deal with  prepping food, washing dishes, sweeping the crumbs from corners, and mopping the floors, staying late to clean everything for the next day. 

Carmen was one of these Latinx workers. About my age and from El Salvador, she confided to me that she wanted to fall in love and ditch custodian work forever. She complained about her fingers aging from the bleach that she used to scrub the floors, and how she never had time to go out and buy herself something nice to wear. Once she told me, offhandedly, that when she cleans the bathrooms at night, she entertains herself by making toilet paper origami in the shape of flowers and birds. But there was desperation in her voice when she told me, “I do these stupid nice things for others and NOBODY notices them! A NADIE LE IMPORTA.” 

I didn’t know how to respond to this confession. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the bakers and early shift arrived shortly after she left, hours before the cafe doors were open. When I worked as an opener, I was often the first to use the restroom, and I was the one who would often find the untouched toilet paper origami swan or boat or rose, lo que sea. Carmen wanted appreciation from our customers, not from another co-worker, but her labor and the flowers she left behind were something the customers would never see. 

🧻 Toilet Paper Origami - 4 Cool Designs. [A still from a Youtube video that shows four different ways of making origami from toilet paper: a rose, shell, bow, and boat.]

Carmen’s toilet paper origami was folded away in my memory until my first year in an MFA program for media design, when we were assigned a project about the “futures of work” within a re-imagined future Los Angeles. As I brought up Carmen’s story, we discussed “resetting” the city and its spaces. Resetting usually happens at night, before the rest of the city wakes up. We like for maintenance to happen behind the scenes or after hours, and for the maintainers to remain an invisible workforce, even though it’s one that all others depend on. Similarly, iPhones now have an option for software updates to happen while you sleep. It's seldom to see the hand of service; it’s rare to have service people, like Carmen, as the starting point.

I now work as a designer in the technology sphere, and I also teach interaction design. Within media design education, students are often asked what near-future visions they can imagine with the technology that will comprise the city and the home. What I’ve seen is that designers will design future visions, but so often discard the people that will help build it for them. With my work, I opt to focus instead on the maintenance worker, but that has always felt lonely in comparison to research into the efficiency of our cars, deliveries, services, and other “solutions.”

Although I am no longer in the service industry, I’m still propelled to ask: 

What is our debt to the service workers who maintain and upkeep our systems? 

And to whom should we really be in service?


Housewifization is a term coined by Marxist feminist theorist Maria Mies to describe the process by which the division of labor has relegated women to the role of housewife. The chapter “Housewifization and Colonization” from Mies’ book Patriarchy and Capital Accumulation on a World Scale (1986), details the phenomenon and its development under a capitalist patriarchal system. Mies elaborates that housewifization means “the externalization… of costs which otherwise would have to be covered by the capitalists. This means women’s labour is considered a natural resource, freely available like air and water.”

While the very word centers on women, Mies describes that her term can be assigned to anyone, regardless of gender, who works outside of labor protection laws. Dissatisfied with solely concentrating on women in industrialized countries, her famous research study on the lace makers in Narsapur, India focused on women who were labeled as “non-working” housewives, but paradoxically produced lace fabrics for export to developed Western countries. With wages that were incredibly low, the lace makers were not considered as productive workers because their work fell into the informal sector and thus, the work was not fully counted in statistical data towards the Indian economy. Mies’ research unravels how the belittling of certain individuals doing work that is not valued by society is central to maintaining capitalism, and she details the violent processes of globalization. 

I first found Mies’ writing as part of my MFA research, which helped ground the concepts I was playing with in my practice. But since her initial work, the word “globalization” feels dated. I needed a design framework that also factors in the service workers of today’s gig economy, same-day shipping, and server farms. 

Inspired by Mies, I made up my own term, one that emphasizes the hyperconnectivity of our current globalized world: House-Wi-Fi-zation


  1. The process by which new domestic labors and laborers arise as a consequence of digitalization and technological services;

  2. A framework for examining who the service workers are (beyond a gender binary) behind the maintenance and labor tasks created by our technological conditions;

  3. A creative strategy for addressing the hidden costs of digitalization and its effects on those outside of labor protection laws.

When I play with the word housewifization, I’m hoping to reshape the image created in our minds when we envision who is doing the work and what actions laborers are doing. Thinking critically about the work we as designers put out in the world is essential at a time when entire systems are triggered with the click of a button. Clicking “place your order and pay” sets into motion the labor of logistics workers in an Amazon warehouse with unhealthy working conditions. Placing a food order on a delivery app results in a delivery person racing through the city by bike, rushing to meet the demands of both restaurant and customer. 

Just as Mies’ housewifization centered on women and others working outside of labor protection laws, House-Wi-Fi-zation is my attempt to provide a framework for centering unprotected workings during the design of new technologies. House-Wi-Fi-zation is a concept intent on exploring the invisible labor of maintenance and bringing it to the forefront, so that designers do not contribute to deeper inequity. 


Cues from artists can help us arrive at what systems-thinking within House-Wi-Fi-zation could be.The conceptual artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, shortly after becoming a mother, confidently gave herself the title of MAINTENANCE ARTIST. With the title came her famous Manifesto on Maintenance Art 1969! gracing us with all of its expletives — “Maintenance is a drag, it takes all of the fucking time.” I first saw Ukeles’ work in a photograph that documented a performance piece in which she individually cleaned the steps of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum in Hartford, Connecticut. In the photo, Ukeles is bent over and scrubbing the steps. Only a handwritten sign tells the patrons to walk on by because she’ll be cleaning all day.

“Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside” (1973). Image courtesy Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut. [The artist kneels at the top of some steps and pours a bucket of water down them in order to clean.]

I was excited to come across Ukeles’ work and her self-identification as a Maintenance Artist, and I gained even more respect for her work when learning about how she moved away from individual experiences of maintenance to how it works institutionally, across systems. In 2017, Ukeles sat with ArtForum for a video interview following a survey of her work at the Queens Museum, the first exhibition to contain Ukeles’ entire art practice. In the video, she discusses her work alongside sanitation workers as an Artist-in-Residence at the New York Sanitation Department. During her residency —  which she still holds today, albeit unsalaried — her first project “Touch Sanitation Performance” (1979-80) spanned an entire year where she personally thanked and shook hands with the thousands of sanitation service workers. She describes how in the ’70s the department was an all-male workforce:

The sanitation workers themselves would say to me, “You know why people hate us?” So I’d say, “Why?” They’d say, “Because they think we’re their mother.” [Ukeles laughs for a bit] “They think we’re their maid.”

Ukeles' work is foundational for understanding maintenance art, and many contemporary artists have followed her in centering service workers in their work. One such artist is Jay Lynn Gomez, who centers Latinx workers in her paintings and, in some cases, inserts the POC service worker into renditions of famous paintings like David Hockney’s Mulholland Drive: The Road to Studio (1980). In Gomez’s version, the foreground of the painting contains two Latinx workers on the back of a pick-up truck, resting after having tended the scene. By positioning the landscape workers front and center, we as onlookers observe how they anchor the frame and, most importantly, have constructed the landscape for us to behold. 

Gomez, herself a child of undocumented Mexican immigrants, was also a nanny to wealthy families in west Los Angeles, helping with intimate labor tasks to uphold their lifestyles. Since part of the idea for House-Wi-Fi-zation is that it asks designers to fill in the mental gaps of our audience, I’m particularly moved to see how Gomez can make POC’s, especially Latinx service workers, the subject of her pieces. 

Jay Lynn Gomez, Mullholland Drive (The Road to David's Studio) (2015). Image courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery. [A bright, colorful painting of an abstract landscape in the background, and workers taking a break in the back of a pickup truck in the foreground.]

I’ll end with an example from the film Roma (2018) by Alfonso Cuarón which follows the life of Cleo, an indigenous-Latina live-in-maid within one of Mexico City’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Cleo, played by Mexican actress Yalitza Aparicio of Indigenous ancestry, is mopping the tiled ceramic floor in the movie’s opening scene. The splashing water illuminating the ceramic is meditative. Later at night, we see when the family’s father comes home. As he carefully pulls into the driveway, the car tires roll through dog shit, breaking the purity of what Cleo had earlier cleaned. He’ll yell at his wife about the shit that was not cleaned up and Cleo will in turn have insults thrown in her face. Cleo will mop this corridor again. Throughout the movie, she cleans again and again and again. 

A still from Roma (2018) by Alfonso Cuarón. [A black-and-white film still showing Cleo, the family’s maid, cleaning the driveway again.]


Just as I was once moved between the front and back of house at the cafe, I hope the conceptual framework of House-Wi-Fi-zation can act as a liaison — between the invisible service and gig workers and the systems that, without them, would not function. Imagine what could be built if we collectively center those who are forgotten, and look toward the hands of service as the starting point in our design processes. Our systems could slowly look more equitable, rather than just more efficient. We could incorporate a multiplicity of stories and humans into what we create, rather than one prevailing perspective. When we go to design our futures, we must be in service to those who continue to be excluded and marginalized. It's not lo que sea

Thank you Carmen. This is my rose to you. 

This piece was originally published in the Annual 2023.

Stephanie Marie Cedeño (she/her) is a visual & interaction designer, artist, and writer oscillating between applied and experimental contexts. Currently, she lives and works in Berlin as a Product Designer and teaches interaction design at ArtCenter College of Design and the University of Applied Sciences, Berlin. Most recently, she worked as an Artist-Designer alongside the Lenbachhaus museum youth group Kollektiv Crèmbach co-designing artistic digital interventions. She received her MFA from ArtCenter College of Design’s Media Design Practices program and BA from Boston University.