Sheila Levrant de Bretteville

Interview

American graphic designer, artist and educator Sheila Levrant de Bretteville was the first woman to receive tenure at Yale University School of Art, in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1990, as director of the Graduate Program in Graphic Design. She had read History of Art at Barnard College, in New York City, and from 1962 to 64 studied graphic design at Yale University. She has been granted honorary doctorates from Moore College of Art, in Philadelphia, The Maryland Institute College of Art, in Baltimore, Maryland, the California College of the Arts, in Oakland, and the California Institute of Art, in Valencia.

De Bretteville’s ongoing interest in communal forms of art has informed her close association with feminist art. In the early 1970s, she became involved in many feminist projects: she co-founded the Woman’s Building, a public centre in Los Angeles dedicated to women’s education and culture, the Feminist Studio Workshop, and the Women’s Graphic Center. As a designer she also created the first design programme for women at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), in 1971, and initiated the Communication Design programme at the Otis College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles, in 1980.

In 1990 de Bretteville succeeded Alvin Eisenman and became the new director of the Graduate Program in Graphic Design at Yale University. She brought to the role an innovate teaching methodology, which was perceived to be at odds with the programme’s decades-long advocacy of modernist theory and its strong connection with the Schule für Gestaltung Basel and its teachers. Furthermore, this shift is said to have precipitated the resignation of influential figures and established teachers Paul Rand and Armin Hofmann from the program at Yale University.

With de Bretteville still at the helm, the programme remains renowned internationally, and as a designer she continues to inspire both through her creative work and her contribution to gender equality.

 

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville   I think you might be interested in reading the book Modernity Unbound, by Detlef Mertins. He is a Canadian architectural historian. He does a really beautiful job of mapping both the writers and the ideas of the history of modernity and modernisation in relationship to Modernism – because these three words mean entirely different things. And since you are thinking about Modernism, you need some of that prior history in order to understand the way in which it was translated in the US, and also the way some of the primary markers of modernist architecture, art and graphic design have been looked at in a much more limited way than actual Modernism encompasses. Modernism is more variegated and contains more dialectics and more controversies and contestations than the picture that people like to present of it as they move to postmodernism.

Louise Paradis   I do see this as a history project.

SLB   This is a rather personal view of what is of interest to me and it could give you some other historic positions than what you may already have located. There is also Marshall Berman who wrote All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity. He is a little bit narrow in terms of his periodisation – how he puts things forward – but the insights are fantastic. And actually Detlef Mertins refers to Berman’s book. That book stays of interest. I find that designers usually say ‘Modernist’, and seem not to differentiate between modernity and modernisation. Modernisation is really industrialisation. Modern is a bit more complicated, because it is a social view, but in everyday life when Modernism is mentioned so many players are left out. I think what postmodernism did was … contribute a new postmodern perspective, because many things were going on in the 1970s representing change: there was talk of revolution everywhere, maybe not in Switzerland but maybe a little bit of it with Weingart, but here the changes in the US in the late 60s to 70s were massive. Think only of the women’s movement, for example, women billed it as part of the liberation movement that was taking place all over the world, and I happened to be living in Los Angeles, where is was exceptionally vibrant at that time.

LP   Did you study at Yale in the 1960s?

SLB   I was here from 1962 till 1964 as a student, then I came back and worked at Yale University Press from 1966 to 1967, and then moved to Milan, Italy.

LP   When you studied here, was the teaching oriented towards a Modernist aesthetic and thinking?

SLB   To begin with, it was all men in terms of teachers. There was only one woman, Polly Lada-Mocarski, who taught bookbinding, and I became close friends with her. In my class, there were two women out of 15 or 16 people. One of the women, Linda Konheim, had been here the year before in painting, then switched to graphic design. Linda and I had gone to two of the US’s women’s colleges. At least two of the Seven Sisters colleges – Barnard, in New York and Radcliffe, in Boston – were started by privileged and activist women who wanted the women in their cities to have access to the same quality of education as men. So I came from a women’s college to a university that was all men. Barnard is not isolated, and I took many History of Art courses at Columbia, also in New York, including Impressionism taught then by Meyer Shapiro. I was called Miss Levrant at college, and when I came to Yale as a graduate student I was called Sheila, until one of my faculty members grabbed me in the darkroom and tried to kiss me. I kicked him in his balls and said, “You can call me Miss Levrant!” This speaking up when things are not as they should be is an attitude that hasn’t gone away nor has the dominance of men at Yale. On the other hand, if you look at the men who taught at Yale, they are not anywhere as monolithic or as modernist as might be pretended or desired. If you look at Bradbury Thompson’s work, for example, it is very eclectic, very representational, very decorative. He isn’t the strict modernist. Or if you look at the way Herbert Matter uses photography and space, his posters are often far more complex than, let’s say, Cassandre or Raymond Savignac. For example, there is a spatial complexity in the work of Herbert Matter. And even if you look at Paul Rand, who is probably one of the most economically successful of all as he worked almost exclusively for larger corporations, there is a playfulness and humour that was never quite accorded to Modernism – where it was about always doing more with less, about pruning rather than punning. Rand’s playfulness, on the other hand, had a mean-spirit undertow, especially in regard to women. You are making fun of something when you have humour, and when Rand made a joke it was usually at someone’s expense, and usually it was at a woman’s expense, so that the few women who were there just ended up in the bathroom crying each Friday when he came to teach, which is something that of course the men didn’t know about because the women hid it. I didn’t cry, I just spoke up, but that speaking up in the moment when something is not right is a New York trait.

LP   I am surprised. I always thought that in the US the situation was different for women. I talked with some women in Switzerland and they told me that it was very difficult for them as designers to be trusted or respected because it was very much a man’s world. I thought for some reason that it would have been better here.

SLB   There are some things that are better. I am here, the first woman to receive tenure at the Yale University School of Art as director of the Graduate Program in Graphic Design. I have been here since 1990. But that is a little late to finally decide that there are some women out there whose work is worthy to reward.

LP   How do you position yourself in relation to Modernism?

SLB   I am attracted to the quiet, the elegance and the open airiness of Modernism, as well as its reduction to essentials, which contributes to elegance. Elegance is always spare: you hardly ever hear that something very complicated is called elegant. It really misses the notion of decoration. Rand used to say, “You did not need a belt and suspenders”. That noted taking anything that wasn’t needed out, keeping only what you needed in, always resulted in a lot of space. And I like that kind of air, anything that has open space attracts me, both physically and visually.

LP   So you find it attractive graphically?

SLB   Yes, a lot. Though I think there is a part of me that has a fun and sparkle side; a Coney Island taste. I really like rhinestones over diamonds: I like the world of periphery. There is something about the marginal and the degraded that attracts my attention – and always has – for the vitality and spontaneity that Modernism didn’t have. It is more easily enacted personally in the way I organise programmes or initiate projects, like the Women’s Building, than it is in my work.

But if you look at postmodernism, it is, to some extent, more than superficial surfaces, and it is definitely more inclusive. It includes what has been overlooked and left out, and women are among those people and things too often overlooked. It is hard to be on this clean, neat, modern side – and I wanted some of it and still I identify with anarchy and overloaded spaces as I grew up amid some of that. Wacky, oddball and somewhat dirty design and especially industrialised pieces are by their use and nature seldom anything but clean. It just is. You have designers like Stefan Sagmeister, who looked at the vernacular, and his work benefitted from his impulses in that rougher direction.

LP   I have been looking at two people in particular in Switzerland who have been breaking the “Swiss design” rules. The first one is Wolfgang Weingart, who did it by playing with form and syntax. The second is Hans-Rudolf Lutz, who was more interested in vernacular and conceptual ideas. I was wondering if you were aware of them?

SLB   I was aware of Weingart. I would be curious to look at the social environment they came from, because inherent in Modernism is some aspect of class – economic class, social class – that you come from, or that you aspire to, or that you were always in. I know Dan Friedman and April Greiman, who went to the Schule für Gestaltung Basel. You can see the trajectory that Dan Friedman went in. He was gay, and that makes you an outlier on some level, especially because so many were closeted at that less gender-fluid time. He had that outlier position from which you can see differences amongst people. Whereas when you see yourself as empowered and a member of a privileged group it enables you to make certain other kinds of changes. There are people who feel empowered no matter what social class they belong to, yet some try to deny where they came from.

LP   Were you close to Dan Friedman and April Greiman?

SLB   I don’t know about close, but there weren’t that many designers at that point who took the kinds of chances and tried less acceptable forms as they did. There are many more now. Also there were not so many people in design, so most everybody knew everybody else to one degree or another.

LP   I met with April Greiman last year. She is very inspiring.

SLB   Yes, I think she has done very well and she is pretty consistently adventurous. And with her association with the New Wave she is at the centre of graphic design, as opposed to me. I am more at the edge of graphic design. I have never been that interested in the centre of graphic design. I find more vitality in the edge.

LP   You have talked about feminism. When would you say you became an activist?

SLB   If I do speak to my heritage, my immigrant family and their influence then I would say that activism was the spirit of the time in 1968 to 70. I moved to Los Angeles and was hired by CalArts to do all the branding for the new school, which was still being planned. It was the end of 1969, and there were already certain ideas about feminism in the air – the way women have been treated throughout history. That doesn’t mean that every person was thinking about it, but more and more people were thinking about the role that being designated female or male played in how you were treated as a person. I was pregnant when I worked at CalArts, and I became involved with women artists and worked on many projects. I had not thought about teaching once the school opened, perhaps because when I came to graduate school at Yale, there were no women teaching apart the binding professional, and when I returned to reshape the graphic design area of study one Swiss or German woman, Inge Druckrey, was teaching letterform design and was treated very badly. Inge eventually got a job at what is now called the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia.

LP   I read the interview Ellen Lupton did with you, which was published in Eye magazine.

SLB   Yes, that was way back in 1992. I was still in trauma, as this new leading position at Yale was quite difficult and challenging for me, although evidently it did not appear that way. Others said, “You seem to be handling everything really well”. To friends I replied, “If you can do it, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t actually hurt to do it.”

LP   What I found interesting about the interview is that you talk about the long relationship between Yale and Basel. Yale was the bastion of Modernism in the US and Basel was the mother ship, and that relationship stretched over some 40 years. And in 1990, you became a director at Yale and shook up the whole thing. You brought something new to the school.

SLB   I had heard that students wanted more formal training, and Alvin [Eisenman, SLB’s predecessor] brought Armin Hoffman to Yale. I am not sure who the people who invited me to come thought I was at that time. Certainly my own work still has a big dose of Modernism in it in terms of the elegant aspect of the kind of forms I tend to make. Even if I make it out of a broken mirror, which I have done, that aspect is still there. When I was interviewed for a magazine article, they asked me what I would do at this new job, and – being the feminist organiser and teacher – I said that I was bringing what had been left out from this programme. The response was raised eyebrows, so I said, “Surely you noticed how few women are here and that is a whole world out there that isn’t a reference for students’ work at all.” In that way, it wasn’t a good interview because it really isn’t what the people around the table appeared to want to hear. Perhaps they wanted to hear that their traditions would be respected and that there would be more of the same ahead. From the beginning, I listened and watched and never said that I was going to tear up the past; I was just going to add, not take away. But they saw it another way. They also thought that I would ask their permission regarding who to hire and what I would do, but instead I’ve asked for the involvement of everyone in what I do. Even though ultimately I make decisions that may not be the most popular, I try and check with my colleagues and my students; each year I ask the first-year students what worked and what did not in order to adjust the programme to respond to their needs and desires – if I can!

LP   From whom did you need to ask permission? And in order to get what?

SLB   It seemed to me that that was “business as usual”. I was thinking of hiring someone who had never been to Yale to teach a more person-centred kind of education never taught at the school. I did a couple of magazine interviews following my new position at Yale. Some of them claimed that I was going to bring the outside world in, and they felt it wrong to do that. They felt that Yale was a place for students who are trying to study graphic design and should not be bothered by what is going on outside in the world. But students are of course part of the world! And it is really ironic that one of the criticisms of the programme I’ve heard in the last couple years is that it’s gotten too far from the world outside; that we are not teaching applied design. There is a whole world outside that is changing massively and those students who feel connected to those changes do work about that content and we do not assign content. I never intended to change what was best about the programme; change of any kind apparently was not easy. One thing for sure is that I didn’t want our students making modernist posters of people hungry all over the world. I am much more interested in something that represents in fresh ways what students are paying attention to, what is more from your own experience, within your own culture.

LP   You are saying that students should search within their own experience to develop ideas and projects. Do you consider this process to be close to art in a way?

SLB   Yes, what attracts the attention of each student is part of each of them. What is close to art is not so much your own expression but rather that you take more authority about the work you make, learn to design the kind of practice you want to have. In order to find models for this kind of work, students often reach to the world of art or architecture, but it is really about their sense of agency and authority, and sense of centredness around what they want to have from their work. I don’t think I ever stopped being a graphic designer; I am just doing it differently. My inclination is try to understand where I am and what is needed, to be involved in creating the underlying structure of what I am doing and change it by what I embed. It is how I move in the world; it is the kind of work that I make. We are also sitting in the middle of an art school, which takes constant vigilance and re-ratcheting of how we are alike and how we are different – each of us in all the different areas of study in this school of art.

LP   If we go back to this moment when you became the new director at Yale, I believe there was a dispute with Paul Rand, who had been teaching there since long, from 1956 to 69 and 1974 to 85?

SLB   I think on some level he and Armin Hofmann were ready to retire. And they took offence at my being interested not only in form but in the content each student chooses to focus on for their form-making. They liked doing the Yale–Brissago Summer Program in Ticino, Switzerland, a month-long class in graphic design: Armin had a summer house there, and the students liked to go over there and be taken care of as well, in the sweet place. They had someone doing their laundry, they lived in the pension, they were nicely housed and fed, they did their work for a month, and everybody was happy as students of these famous and skilled men. During my first or second year, I brought a bunch of Yale caps with the letter Y and went to Brissago. I felt easy about saying, “You have this summer programme. Anything you want to do here is fine with me. You can have all the teachers you choose if you want. I will do something else. You just leave the programme at Yale for me to handle.” That appeared to be the end of whatever was at work, making being at Yale in New Haven different for them – which was me!

LP   Aren’t there generally more men than women practicing graphic design?

SLB   I would say probably in general it may be true, but here at Yale we have not even been counting, and our incoming class comes out about even. There do seem to be more women practicing graphic design in school, but then there are fewer at the top of the profession. A lot of women who are highly educated and highly capable are not rising to the top for different reasons– probably because they want a better work–life balance – and children. When I was thinking of coming here, I asked Alison Richard [who chaired the Department of Anthropology at Yale from 1986 to 1990] about women at Yale, and she said that she did a study about this subject and it seems that there was a variety of reasons why women faculty leave the university – not one particular stated reason. Possibly it is just too hard for women who are not wealthy and have more than one child to have intensely time-consuming jobs. It is not an accident that most women who have a certain high level of visibility don’t have children. It is complicated. Perhaps doctors and lawyers simply make more money and can have children and handle it, I don’t know, but for graphic designers it doesn’t appear to work.

LP   Who was on the committee that elected you as director?

SLB   People who had studied and graduated from this area of study, others who were teaching in different areas of the art school, in photography for example. Yale people, past, future and sideways. If you come here without a Yale degree, after 10 years Yale give you one, because the university has such a history of hiring their own graduates. I arrived with a BA in art history from Yale and when I was here one year I received a Yale BFA and after the second year an MFA from Yale. I remember one of the women who I mentioned before told me this joke which was pretty well known by the time I came here: “Yale, pale, male and stale.” Because this was such a bastion of male teachers who had also been Yale students. So I said: “I am pale. I am not male. And I am not stale.”

 

Conducted by Louise Paradis. The above conversation took place in New Haven, United States, in August 2011. It was copy-edited by Roland Früh and Ariella Yedgar.