Author’s preface: At the outset, this project was defined as an intensive effort to examine and reassess the work of Shelia Levrant de Bretteville. The initial motivation was driven by the connection of the rise of feminist voices in design, the Woman’s Building, postmodern design, and experimental pedagogy. We recognize that many female designers worked in the 1970s and ’80s, however we saw that few had as large a contribution on contemporary graphic design today as Sheila Levrant de Bretteville.
In the process of researching the historical contribution of de Bretteville, it became clear that while several publications exist that address the history of graphic design and female designers, an in-depth exploration on the topic has not been documented. There is tendency within design history to glaze over important accomplishments and accolades by women. If anything, we can say there has been false nostalgia as to the honest history of what happened. The commentary of these times is scattered in hard to access publications and with this, our research questions the cultural and academic recognition written in history books in current circulation.
Acting as facilitators, instigators, and participators, this essay was conceived with a level of framing extended towards feminism, equality, women’s rights, challenging the status quo, and encouraging students to think proactively and experimentally. It was our feeling that if we are going to talk about graphic design in our contemporary landscape, it is imperative to go beyond presuppositions and intellectual establishment and clear the haze of historical contribution. The impacts of these examinations interject important conversations into the creative and academic fields. De Bretteville’s teaching and practice changed the face of contemporary graphic design, and should be adequately acknowledged in history for her monumental work.
Historical perspectives are important for the enrichment of the history of North American graphic design education. The history of graphic design in the contemporary construct is increasingly hard to unravel, let alone the history of the Design School at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Valencia, California. Nevertheless, let’s consider this a unique moment in the history of graphic design: an interesting moment as a result of the people who had been involved in shaping, inspiring, and educating graphic designers at a high-level; yet also interesting as a result of the dissemination of the methodologies and philosophies that CalArts developed within it’s graphic design program, specifically of those developed by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville. Clearing the Haze, is an attempt to contextualize the design education of the times rather than to explicate or theorize it. The context is of our own experience as graphic designers and former CalArts students, in a way linking our participation and passion to our own pedagogy.
In the fall of 1969, Sheila returned to New York after working in Italy in a design studio at Olivetti. She took a desk in an office shared by Robert Mangurian and Craig Hodgetts. Shortly after Craig was tapped to become Associate Dean of the School of Design at CalArts, Sheila was asked to come and work on preparing branding materials (letterhead, posters, etc.) to attract students for each school at the newly established CalArts. A special issue of a journal fell into her lap, making her editor as well as designer of the issue titled, Arts in Society: California Institute of the Arts: prologue to a community1 which came out in June 1970. The School of Design was seeking students for whom “ecology, technology, and human needs trumped taste and style”2 as the basis of meaningful work. At the request of Richard Farson, Dean of the School of Design at CalArts, Sheila joined the Design faculty as CalArts began its first academic year at an interim campus at Villa Cabrini in Burbank in 1970.
Having no previous teaching experience, Sheila drew from past assignments3 from her studies at Yale4 and from a former high school5 design faculty’s text,6 which included a chapter on design education, to create the curriculum. Additionally, Sheila reviewed the way in which she had been taught, in the light of her experience to the events occurring around her at while attending Yale—the civil right movements in the States, the protests of our war in Vietnam, the assassination of MLK and the Kennedys—in addition to her work collaborating with Emanuel Sandreuter on freedom of the press and TV posters for the Italian Communist Party. In Italy, Sheila read the teaching pedagogy of Paulo Freire and was convinced that teaching could be a horizontal exchange of information. She explored the best ways to open up assignments in such a way as to capitalize on the different experiences, knowledge, and skills which the CalArts students brought to the school.
Mashing up these international influences—Bauhausian/Modernism from Yale; a progressive/radical awareness; a more traditional graphic arts education from her Brooklyn, New York, high school years—Sheila reworked assignments in a prescient Postmodern graphic design pedagogical mode. Her choices can be seen directed to “enable the sexploration of visual phenomena.”7 Sheila knew that an able designer required a set of visual and formal skills in order for that student/designer to better access their own unique voice in a well thought through and well made manner. In this new context, students were encouraged to express their own experiences and make choices that reinforced their ability to speak through form. The intent was for all students to move toward producing meaningful content of their own.
The spirit of the early 1970s was one of collaboration where each person’s contribution was honored and the work done was not strictly circumscribed by media specificity. For example, Sheila taught a class with Craig Hodgets where two-dimensions and three-dimensions of form were created by each student. Another was an interdisciplinary class taught with Jivan Tabibian, a political scientist and Ben Lifson, a photographer. This multi-disciplinary class included an aspect of what has become known as “the object project,”8 and the beginning of her faith in the meaning of every choice in physical and visual form making. “The object project” asked each participant to bring in an object. As students went around the room and each person described the physical aspects to the object chosen, Sheila was astonished to see how much information was inadvertently being revealed about the person as the student described their chosen object. New to teaching, Sheila was unsure how best to deal with what was embedded in the physical form of the objects, which was much more than she had ever anticipated. She knew that each of us is intimately connected to the things that we choose, but it took a fair amount of time for her to recognize that she could use this intuitive attraction to objects, events, and situations to develop the intimate connection to the physical qualities of the work that students produce.
In 1971, two years later, CalArts moved out of the temporary quarters at Villa Cabrini and into the current CalArts Thornton Ladd9 building in Valencia, California. Sheila had outfitted the printing lab to not only have lithography and engraving but also a Vandercook flat-bed printing press, a Rotaprint Offset Printer, and a Diatronic photographic typesetter. This made it possible for students to have their hands on the means of making multiple copies. The first years at CalArts were open to having “Institute Students” who could take courses at all or any of the CalArts Schools and students like Albert Innaurato and James Lapine who became dramatists, along with Bia Lowe and Bernard Cooper, who both became fine writers—all took classes taught by Sheila.
During the summer after Sheila’s first year of teaching at CalArts, she was asked to create a special issue of the Everywoman newspaper.10 Sheila designed the layout in the format of Consciousness-Raising (C-R), which creates an equality of voices. The newspaper gave a two-page spread to each writer, each having an equal amount of space, regardless of hierarchy in the newspaper. The dissolution of hierarchy was also a way to counter patriarchy. Empowered by the new publication’s focus on women and as the only female faculty member at the CalArts School of Design,11 Sheila approached Victor Papanek, then Dean of the School of Design, to start the Women’s Design Program,12 in which reading and discussion had an equal place alongside design work. After some prompting, he agreed. The work of the program was published in the sixth issue of the British journal Icographic13 along with an essay by Sheila on the rigid separation between men and women in design and the workplace. Sheila’s writing, titled “Some Aspects of Design from the Perspective of a Woman Designer” asks designers to help to revalidate what have been designated as ‘female’ values and devalued as such.14 The publication also included comments from each of the students and their visual work, which included type studies, photography, and documentary video. Sheila’s critique of both design and contribution to feminism worked to establish an equality based on reframing not by gender (male and/or female), but as equal individual people, individual designers.
The Women’s Design Program ran in tandem with Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro’s joint Feminist Art Program at CalArts. Paul Brach, Dean of the School of Art, had agreed to offer the Feminist Art Program, a separatist program, at the behest of his wife Miriam Shapiro and Judy Chicago considering that there were no permanent women faculty members to mentor young women. Both the Women’s Design Program and the Feminist Art Program were investigatory, meaning that the class structure was about a way of exploring things they didn’t know about. It wasn’t just the transfer of knowledge from teacher to student: it was about the teacher and students exploring something together from which both were learning. Ultimately, both Chicago and Sheila decided that they would do better without CalArts and in 1972 they sent out brochures inviting students to their separatist program for the following year. In 1973 Sheila, Chicago, and Arlene Raven named their newly established program the Feminist Studio Workshop (FSW): the first independent school for women artists, which later became the Woman’s Building in downtown Los Angeles.
Woman’s Building: Women’s Graphic Center
The Woman’s Building rented the former Chouinard Art Institute building (which officially dissolved in 1972) from CalArts for $3,000 per year—a deal brokered by Sheila—and opened on November 28, 1973.15 Woman came from around the country to work and create in this new feminist, creative, separatist space, until the Building’s unexpected sale in 1974, at which time Sheila and Cheryl Swanack searched Los Angeles for a new Woman’s Building, eventually relocating to downtown L.A. during the summer of 1975.16 The Woman’s Building fostered a kind of utopian communalism which was a unique philosophy for the time. Being an artist meant “accepting the responsibility for being one (lone artist as individual producer).”17 Moreover, it was about something other than being an artist: it was about being a fully formed person, who was able to come to terms with the suffering and/or injustice she had previously experienced in her girlhood, through her family, and/or through her community of origin. During the renovation of both Woman’s Buildings (one at MacArthur Park, the other a public center in downtown L.A.), the help of men and children affiliated with the women there was enjoyed and welcomed.
The exhibitions and educational programs at the Woman’s Buildings were intended to form a participating community of like-minded women who were collectively seeking to remake themselves through the new formats offered at the Woman’s Buildings. The pedagogy that Sheila had fostered was one in which instructors and mentors respected and gave “unconditional love toward a student.” This encouraged students to freely change what they needed and wanted to develop.18 The program focused on Consciousness-Raising (C-R) (also called awareness raising), a technique that focuses the attention of a wider group of people on some cause or condition. “Using [C-R] techniques as the basis for developing an intensive, two-year curriculum that acknowledged the unique vulnerabilities and social pressures faced by young women.”19 C-R was an omnilateral, relatively leaderless, group-directed exploration in the verbalization of individual experience, which embodied a “person is political” motto, positioned within second-wave feminism. This radical pedagogy used self-expression as the paramount element in art-making, which, at the time, was atypical for an art school. It was as much about asking questions as finding answers.
Chicago left after the first year while Sheila and Raven stayed at the Woman’s Building. Housed within the Woman’s Building was the design program of the Women’s Graphic Center (WGC) which, under the guidance of Sheila, was considered one of most important features of the Woman’s Building. A number of the faculty were CalArts alums such as Helen Alm, who guided the printing in the WGC and Suzanne Lacy20 who taught performance.21 The WGC was built on the precepts of Sheila’s egalitarian pedagogical attitude—a sort of Marxist approach, which treated design as a public communication imbued with the efficacy of social change. In 1973, Sheila reprised her statement on the FSW brochure when she delivered a conference paper to the American Institute of Architects saying:
The process by which forms are made and the forms themselves embody values and standards or behavior that affect large numbers of people…. For me, it is this integral relationship between individual creativity and social responsibility that draws me to the design arts.22
Sheila wrote a number of compelling articles on woman’s rights and space often ending up in feminists publications published through the Woman’s Building such as Chrysalis, a magazine of women’s culture, a contribution to culture, media studies, and women’s studies before there were courses in women’s studies in colleges and universities.
Projects at the WGC focused on typography, printing, and criticality within the social sphere. The wooden typeface Kabel was discovered as a part of the building’s past and was used for the Woman’s Building entry signage. Traditional fine art printing (such as etching and lithography) were not included due to limited resources and space. Their focus was on self-publishing in the form of letterpress-printed, offset-printed and silkscreen-printed posters, postcards, broadsides, artist books,23 poetry chapbooks, stationary, and other kinds of small-press endeavors.24 Sheila again brought back “the object project” in a Feeling to Form class taught with social psychologist Jane Stewart, urging students to find suitable forms from which women could derive content as a way of upending Modernist precepts of form as content.25 Feeling to Form, then, was a literal reversal, extracting form from content, rather than content from form. This class arguably produced the most highly realized art at the Building, often in graphic form.
The art of the Woman’s Building sought action in addition to expression. Some of the best-known performance work was also the culmination of Sheila’s graphic design pedagogy. In particular, Leslie Labowitz’s and Lacy’s Three Weeks in May (1977), which updated a map with reports from the L.A.P.D., printing the word, “rape” on spots on a map of greater L.A., generated large-scale public awareness and media attention. The event combined a performance piece on the steps of L.A. City Hall with self-defense classes for women in an attempt to highlight sexual violence against women. As WGC student Emily King said, “printing gave work power and distance.”26
Sheila’s format of direct address in public spaces, offered an original and persuasive lesson in feminist pedagogy, personal growth, and the search for authentic forms. In this vein, Sheila developed and taught the class, Public Announcements/Private Conversations (1975), which then became a series of site-specific art projects produced from 1977 to 1978 in which participants were asked to “write, design, print, post their posters, negotiate with the owners of the public places, and collect responses about and for places in the shared environment… Within this theme each woman gives graphic form to her concerns, placing this work—and thus placing herself—in public view.”27 The project could then be tailored to each students needs and support the individual to find her own personal material and forms to express in. Through this class and others, form became a transformative experience, resulting in the perception of personal wholeness and collective unity at the Woman’s Building.
Eventually the continuing short-fall of funds, and a level of dissatisfaction within the Woman’s Building ranks caused the WGC to unravel. The program’s final year was from 1979–1981. Despite being hired in 1980 to create a program of Communication Design and Illustration at the Otis Art Institute/Parsons School of Design, Sheila stayed on the board at the Woman’s Building until 1981 when the FSW was terminated in favor of salvaging the Building itself. In an interview with Jenni Sorkin in 2010, Sheila says, “it made sense for the next generation to take it over. And maybe they’d have fresher ideas or a way to relate to the community that they felt stronger about coming there. I know that I couldn’t do it anymore. The Women’s Graphic Center as a commercial entity just didn’t capture my imagination in the way that the Woman’s Building as an entity did. It just simply didn’t. And it’s not that I wanted to get a job at Otis/Parsons. It’s more that I wanted to go somewhere else, do something else. And I like beginnings, and it felt like endings to me.”28 The Woman’s Building remained open as a rented studio space until 1991. Times had changed and the seemingly utopian collectivity proved to be an ideal that was not sustainable.
Otis & Yale
The educational model that was developed by Sheila at the Woman’s Building carried on at Otis Art Institute/Parsons School of Design (presently known as the Otis College of Art & Design) and helped to shape the Otis curriculum. Sheila initiated and chaired the Department of Communication at Otis from 1981–1990 which included an outreach design group called Brook7n where students created and completed community based projects. Working to bring in faculty from various backgrounds, Sheila hired Laurie Haycock and P. Scott Makela, Ave Pildas and Everett Peck, Jim Hieman, Leah Hoffmitz, Gary Panter and Georgianne Dean. Her work with Brook7n was collectively designed for non-profits, doing projects such as murals in Sam Good hospital and a billboard using a rebus (a puzzle in which words are represented by combinations of pictures and individual letters) to communicate to non-literate people about classes in reading.
The Communications Design and Illustration Department that Sheila had developed at Otis was a parallel department to the Communication Department at the Parsons School of Design. Both programs, headed by David Levy in New York, were designed to allow students to travel from New York to Los Angeles. This newly developed bi-coastal college for the arts was the first of its kind, but proved challenging. Sheila describes the difficulty of this time: “It took a while for me to figure out the flights [and] travel, because actually, a sustained program makes a lot more sense at that age level. But I didn’t know that at the time, and it was another activity.”29 Over the next nine years, Sheila worked through the logistical strains and developed a curriculum that contributed significantly to the field of design and visual communications pedagogy. In 1990, one year prior to the end of the Otis/Parsons partnership, and shortly before Levy’s departure in 1991, Sheila was appointed a full professorship at the Yale University of School of Art.
As Sheila replaced Alvin Eisenman30 as the new director of the graduate program in graphic design at Yale in 1990, she also became the Yale University School of Art’s first tenured woman. While most faculty and alumni affirmed her appointment, others were outraged. Paul Rand, who had been a member of the faculty since the late 1950s, resigned as an act of protest against Sheila’s appointment, and then convinced his long-time colleague Armin Hoffmann to do the same. Starting in the 1950s the Yale program, based in modernist theory, was instrumental in establishing the profession of Graphic Design in the United States. Acting as a conduit between Yale and the Kunstgewerbeschule in Basle, directed by Armin Hoffmann, the Yale program was unique for its time. The graphic design curriculum established at Yale became the model for most education institutions, changing its focus from advertising to graphic design during the 1960s.
Sheila’s design pedagogy at Yale was pluralistic and pushed design as a proactive practice (rather than focusing solely on corporate service). The program was person-centered (emphasizing the students’ desire to communicate, and focusing on what each student felt necessary to be made and said and to whom they wanted to say it). Students were assured that they would be able to see themselves within the large body of work that they produced in the two-year program.
As the director of Yale’s program, Sheila acknowledged her role as a leader but was quick to point out that although she called together faculty meetings, she wanted the faculty to talk about what they found interesting and to question issues of the moment. In an interview in 2008, Sheila spoke about her past experiences which continue to influence her design pedagogy today:
“Freedom to fail, sense of community, support, taking chances: these are lessons I bring from my initial teaching position at CalArts, 41 years ago. Our past experiences are really what we bring to the pedagogy of graphic design.”31
The lessons and guidance that have been experienced by hundreds of Sheila’s students throughout the years has meant that her influence has been disseminated across multiple facets of our visual and cultural landscape. Her contributions to postmodern design pedagogy opened doors to female voices in a male-dominated society, encouraged students to be more experimental, and supported non-traditional art environments. Without a more concise and complex understanding of the past, we fail to stay open to the future. It is in this vein that we strive to clear the haze of historical contribution and reach beyond the theoretical and formal exercises that most of us learn in art school today.
In realizing this project, we are deeply grateful for the generosity of our contributors and supporters, in particular Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Peter de Bretteville, Naomi Honeth, Michael Ned-Holte, Jenni Sorkin, and Lorraine Wild.
Editor/publisher’s note: For more on Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, see Lorraine Wild and David Karwan’s essay titled “Agency and Urgency: The Medium and Its Message,” published on pages 44–57 of Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia (Walker Art Center, 2015). In Wild and Karwan’s essay, de Bretteville is heralded as an influential designer that “led projects and developed strategies that exemplified the new experimental and reformist attitudes about pedagogy, which continue to resonate today.” De Bretteville is also described as being “part of a [group of] influential designers and architects from the late 1960s and early ’70s who began to question the hierarchical, authoritarian aspects of design and the fading modern idea that there were singular formal principles that were universally appropriate.” (p. 54)
1 Arts in Society: California Institute of the Arts: prologue to a community, Volume 7, Issue 3, 1970.
2 Sheila de Bretteville, phone conversation with the authors, April 20, 2013.
3 Wayne Peterson, a Yale colleague kept all the assignments given at Yale and sent Sheila de Bretteville copies.
4 Sheila de Bretteville received her MFA from Yale University, 1962–1964.
5 Sheila de Bretteville attended Abraham Lincoln High School, a public school in Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York, which includes many notable alumni, including Alex Steinweiss and Gene Federico who became influential graphic designers working in New York City after the war. Leon Friend was the chairman of the art department at Abraham Lincoln High School and “exposed students to working artists and visiting critics, including emigre designers such as Austria’s Joseph Binder and Germany’s Lucian Bernhard.” He also directed a student club called Art Squad, which “produced work in all media, including graphic design.” The work of Art Squad “was an awkward yet energetic interpretation of the modern style that reflected the influence of sources ranging from Bayer to streamlined product design.” (Wild, Lorraine, ‘Europeans in America,’ from Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History, 1989, 153.)
6 Friend, Leon, Graphic Design: a Library of Old And New Masters In the Graphic Arts, New York and London: Whittlesey house, McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1936.
7 Sheila de Bretteville, email with authors, April 17, 2013.
8 “The object project” is an assignment Sheila de Bretteville has been giving to her students since the beginning of her teaching career, and has become a requirement for first year graduate students at Yale from 1990 to today.
9 Thornton Ladd was a Modernist architect who designed CalArts and the Pasadena Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum).
10 Everywoman, designed by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, 1971. Everywoman was a collective newspaper designed for the Fresno Feminist Art Program by Sheila de Bretteville, who had encountered the program as an invited visitor.
11 “CalArts was a place of intensive masculine bravado; the premiere American art school of the 1970s, the place to make a Happening alongside Kaprow, the progenitor of the genre.” Sorkin, Jenni, Learning from Los Angeles: Pedagogical Predecessors at the Woman’s Building, 40–41.
12 The Women in Design program (1971–1973) came out of a question posed by Sheila de Bretteville, “what would happen if I only taught women?”
13 de Bretteville, Sheila, Icographic 6, Croydon, England, 1973.
14 de Bretteville, Sheila, Icographic 6, “Some Aspects of Design from the Perspective of a a Woman Designer,” Croydon, England, 1973.
15 Sorkin, Jenni, “Learning from Los Angeles: Pedagogical Predecessors at the Woman’s Building,” 47.
16 What followed was then a frenzied search for a new building that would offer the same public visibility, until the former headquarters of Standard Oil in downtown LA was secured as a location. Sorkin, Jenni, Learning from Los Angeles: Pedagogical Predecessors at the Woman’s Building, 48.
17 Sorkin, Jenni, Learning from Los Angeles: Pedagogical Predecessors at the Woman’s Building, 42.
18 Sheila de Bretteville, email interview with Ginger Wolfe-Suarex, interReview 08, 2007.
19 Sorkin, Jenni, Learning from Los Angeles: Pedagogical Predecessors at the Woman’s Building, 49.
20 Suzanne Lacy is another individual who came out of the CalArts design pedagogy and went on to hold several positions at academic institutions, including Dean of Fine Arts at California College of the Arts (CCA) from 1987–1997 and Chair of Fine Arts at Otis College of Art and Design from 2002–2006.
21 Starting in January 1975, twenty-two women began a 4-month intensive workshop learning offset lithography, screen printing, and letterpress.
22 de Bretteville, Sheila, conference paper delivered to the American Institute of Architects, July 1973.
23 Artist Books by the likes of Frances Butler, Poltroon, and Ed Ruscha (who began his student career as the editor of Chouinard’s student newspaper) made a distinct impression on students, including WGC student and artist, Emily King.
24 Self-publishing was crucial to progression of individual feminist communities in the 1970s, including the proliferation of lesbian press culture.
25 Such as the Bauhaus-style graphic models that permeated American Modernism via the emigres who brought them, like Laszlo Mohloy-Nagy at the Institute of Design in Chicago and Serge Chermayeff at Yale.
26 King, Emily, Artists’ Books by Women, 57.
27 Public Announcements/Private Conversations, course description, 1975. Woman’s Building files.
28 Jenni Sorkin interview with Sheila de Bretteville, an oral history with Sheila de Bretteville about the Woman’s Building, CCS AS-AP project, June 22, 2010.
30 Alvin Eisenman founded and headed Yale University’s graduate program in graphic design beginning in 1951—the first graduate program in graphic design in the United States. He remained the director of that program until he was replaced by Sheila in 1990.
31 !Women Art Revolution, video interview with Sheila de Bretteville, February 15, 2008, New York, NY, Stanford University Digital Collections.