Sheila de Bretteville: Designer, Educator, Feminist

by Kate Andrews | June 27, 2007

Sheila de bretteville educator feminist

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, the head of the Graduate Program in Graphic Design at Yale since 1990, is also a practicing designer, public artist and Feminist.

In 1971, de Bretteville founded the Woman’s Design program at Cal Arts, and later co-founded the historic public space ‘The Woman’s Building’ with Judy Chicago and Arlene Raven 1973, and the Communication Design program at the Otis Art Institute of the Parsons School of Design in LA in 1981. Her many public works reflect a deep commitment to social activism through the engagement of community voices and respect for collected local memories. In 2004, she was awarded an AIGA medal for outstanding contribution to the field of design.

Below, some of de Bretteville’s thoughts on design education, finding a voice, and learning to be quiet long enough to listen to others for inspiration.

Considering the evolution of post-war Feminism (a new awakening in the 70s, a refiguring to address issues of race, class and sexuality with postmodernism in the 80s and 90s), what do you think ‘Feminism’ means today?

By the 1970’s, my own history made me predisposed to align myself with those actively looking at how design could be more egalitarian and participatory. I had a tendency to be most concerned about whoever was being excluded. I was in my late 20’s and early 30’s during the resurgence of Feminism, and came into my own as I turned my attention to myself as a woman and looked at everything from the perspective of gender. I thought of the Feminist perspective as a kind of grid that enabled me to filter through what I saw, heard and read, enabling me to see what I had not previously noticed or known.

It did not take long before I understood that there were as many differences within the sexes as between them, and that the roles class, race, economics, language, biology and acculturation played were all to be contested, re-approached, and mined. The 70’s in Los Angeles were a very fertile and freeing time for me, far from my own east coast and European origins. The women I knew and worked with then are all still very important in my life, and the process of reassessing everything from a new perspective is a process I value and repeat very often.

Today, a Feminist perspective still refers to seeing that support and value is given to women and the work that women do. But, there was, and is, so much more than that! Staying attentive. Resisting becoming comfortable with whatever it is we think and do. I take enormous pleasure in ideas that are new to me, upending what I think and do and looking at the why, where, what and for whom again.

My work continues to be centered on making a place for who and what is left out, listening to the other person, and being not only receptive to change, but initiating change. I learned this willingness to shift and change through Feminist thinking and activism. Whether it was starting the Women’s Design program at Cal Arts in ’71, or leaving Cal Arts to create the Woman’s Building and its Women’s Graphic Center in ’73, designing and contributing to the editorial collective of Chrysalis in ‘75, or later, in the 80’s, giving shape to the differences journal my Barnard College friend Naomi Schor started, it might appear that my Feminism was cultural rather than pragmatic. But from the start, Feminism to me meant not assuming you know what the other (woman) thinks, feels, and needs without asking her. At the Woman’s Building, my dear colleague, the late Arlene Raven, and I asked all the hard questions we could, trying not to leave any assumptions about women unturned.

Today, I still pay more attention to differences, rather than the similarities between women; designers whose work is edgier than mine, and women who think entirely differently than I do play a significant role in the way I think about issues and ideas relating to women, cities, art and design.

For instance, the work my friend, the progressive legal theorist Reva Siegel, has been doing in the 21st century has shown me how a gender conventional, anti-abortion activist like Phyllis Schlafly played a significant role in raising the visibility of pro-choice efforts in the 70’s—effort that is apparent in the new woman-protective legislation now, as well! Reva’s serious consideration of the voices of those hostile to Feminists efforts to secure women’s equality in the 70’s caught my attention, as her lucid analysis reveals the hidden trajectory of these sex-based movements into our present and future.

How does Feminism relate to the issues facing contemporary practicing woman artists and designers?

I still see some of the same issues making women’s experience more complex and difficult, primarily our relationship to the intensity of the demands we put on ourselves, and the work we do when we have small children. My office at Yale has also been a pumping station for the many new mothers who teach and come to critiques at our graphic design program here at Yale. My predecessor neither had a private office, nor understood why I felt I needed one, although he gave me one because I requested it. In addition to the production of milk and tears, there has also been a change in the tone and content of conversations in my office. These have included parenting and the passing on of kid’s clothes, as well as form making and in depth discussions of design, pedagogy and career issues. There are also the sleepless young fathers among our faculty and critics, and the changing patterns within their lives with little children that have to be taken into account as well. Much of what I know about teaching and organizing a program comes from being a parent myself, and from asking questions as a way to tease out the voices of others, rather than making a series of pronouncements, which is the way critiques take place at many schools.

It is a trope that there is a softening of impulses to control that accompanies becoming a parent. But, perhaps more importantly, there are few people with small children who can simply go ahead with thinking they are the sole arbiters of their world, and that their view is the only view. In the 70’s, I thought about time a great deal because I had a young child, and my husband and I shared responsibilities as we had no au-pair or relatives to help us. My pink poster (‘Pink’, 1975) was an expression of the way I felt my day was broken up into 3 hour segments, as much as it’s form was influenced by notions of decentering, and the revaluing of women’s work, such as quilting.

In 1971, the need for Feminist design education was urgent enough that you started a Woman’s Design program at Cal Arts. Are there other issues that are absent from contemporary design education that similarly need to be addressed today? Is it still possible (or necessary) to have program devoted to a neglected perspective or area of study?

Neglected areas of inquiry abound. Lack of imagination has designers replicating the education they had themselves when they teach, rather than re-imagining different kinds of programs and projects.

When I was about to teach for the first time, my friend Wayne Peterson, a designer I met while studying at Yale, gave me all the assignments he had ever been given. Seeing how they would generate the same generic design ‘solutions’ showed me how inappropriate they were to what I wanted my students to learn, and what caused me to make up new problems for them myself. Of course, some worked well and others not, as it was not someone else’s well worn pedagogy.

What kind of ‘new problems’ did and do you want your students to learn?

I wanted the students to see and hear themselves in the work they made. I deeply value the direct and unique voice of each individual being heard as a basic unit of democracy.

I work to help our students acquire a solid basis from which they can each shape their own professional body of work, perspectives and life, rather than replicating mine, or those of their faculty and critics. I agree with Rob Storr that ‘it’s time for the post post-modern generations to make up vocabularies and metaphors of their own.’

We guide each student to develop their own formal strategies, rather than encouraging everyone to be the same. Stanley Fish’s article for the NY Times, ‘Devoid of Content’, focuses on grammar in a way that is similar to our goal with form; once you have a grammar worked out, you choose what to say, not the client or teacher. We leave the content choice to the student, and focus on the development of their visual method for approaching and choosing content.

Your predecessors as head of the Graphic Design program at Yale were all known for longevity and staunch adherence to a particular school of design thought; you’ve now been at the helm for over 15 years. Do you ever worry about the program stagnating? How do you keep it relevant?

Each year we try to mix things up a bit differently and introduce new voices and projects into the program. I meet each year with students and faculty, mindful to critique the program, as well as to address the need for new faculty, equipment and the like. These meetings are not only about what is and is not working, but are also part of avoiding a paradigm inherent in teaching that we do not want here. We are constantly working at not setting up an official culture that must be cast-aside in order to establish one’s own identity, and create one’s own body of work.

Do you think it’s ever possible for a University not to impart an ethos on its students?

All environments and experiences affect us, so our work is to make the patterns of power clear and keep communication open. If we do the hard work of asking and listening, not hiding what we think but rather being as clear, transparent and conversational about what we are doing and why, we have opportunities to change a pattern that is hierarchical; this is hard work. Communication cannot be one-way. I am hardly alone here in working to have our students rebel and resist replicating inherited ideas and stylization; rather than replication, they should aim for considered, vital responses to the world they live in.

Being self-reflective means being self-critical, and that goes for this program, as well as for my projects and teaching. Our students help us not to become stagnant, as they reflect the ever enlarging field of graphic design; they come from backgrounds in interactivity, animation, book design, and advertising, and leave with entirely different bodies of work—as different from what they had when they entered as from each other’s at the end. That gives them the strength to collaborate, and know that they can find their visual voices inside the collaborative work. Most of our students enjoy collaborating with one another, as well as generating their own work. That collaboration has often resulted in working together after they graduate.

How does collaboration build a practice? Is working with a team similar to working with an audience?

Designers are most often distant from their ‘audience’ in the sense that their work goes out and nobody from their ‘audience’ necessarily talks to them about it after it is done. The Internet has changed that in many ways. Many students and designers here and elsewhere have been actively working with designs that enlarge interactivity to reflect the ways communication actively exists between people, enabling viewers to participate as authors. You only have to look at our Yale School of Art website to see how broadly the ‘audience’ can participate.

What work excites you most these days?

Right now I find that I enjoy work that is edgy, participatory, ineffable. I admire Irma Boom’s books, especially SHV, Julia Borne’s work with the edgy clothing designer JOFF, 2×4’s I like you symbols of violence, Laylah Ali’s Greenheads, and Xu Bing’s installations. I continue to admire and enjoy the work of Gordon Matta-Clark, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Of my own work, I am fond of my Little Tokyo (‘Omoide no Shotokyo,’ 1989) project’s color, as well as it telling it like it is regarding U.S. racism and internment of its citizens, all the voices and the sparkling materials in my ‘A’ Train Station (‘At the Start…/…At Long Last’, 1990), and of course, my latest work, ‘Step(pe)’ (2006).

This piece is entitled ‘Step(pe)’ because it is a new concrete threshold to the old water Tower in downtown Yekaterinberg, Siberia. CEC ArtsLink sent me to work there as part of their cultural exchange of artists, a process that has gone on since the 50’s as an almost antidote to the Cold War. On the plane over I read Dale Pressman’s book about Siberia, and was captivated by the folk songs called chastuschki: two stanzas of four lines each that can talk about political conditions, such as perestroika, but also about what happened that day or in your relationships.

With an interpretor I worked with a half dozen 20 to 30 year-old art students to write a contemporary chastuski about their concerns and issues. My only request was that they have ellipses and question marks to invite the viewers to think of their own responses. Then, at night, I realized if we only made the first letters of the words visible there would be even more indication of our desire for audience participation, while also reflecting the tower itself, which was quite effaced by history. On the way to the opening, I picked up some chalk at a nearby kiosk, and two of the initiated wrote in the words. It was a rainy day, so those words faded away by nightfall. I just learned that the museum in Yekaterinburg has organized the city’s poets to write in relation to this piece, so it is generative in ways I never imagined!


Designer and writer Kate Andrews was the original editor of Notes on Design blog, founded in 2007.


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