by David Senior
I stumbled across this item in the booth of a great, long-time bookseller named Laurence McGilvery when I was at the Los Angeles Art Book Fair this past February. It’s an example of a printed item that suggests something, even though at the time I wasn’t yet sure what that something was, and which has since led to surprising associations; following a path from the founding of CalArts to the origins of the Woman’s Building in LA, inspiring feminist work and beautiful minds, and reflecting the design and organizing activities of Sheila Levrant de Bretteville.
This poster was part of the promotional materials for a new arts school in Los Angeles, the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). In 1970, when the poster was produced, the school was still an abstract idea. About to open its doors to its first students, CalArts aimed to be an experiment that would frame art education within a wider context of different political and social movements, and embrace the heady impact of the counterculture and the student movements that sought to interfere with the status quo of existing institutions of higher learning.
The text for this poster was written by Richard Farson, the founding Dean of the School of Design at CalArts. The language he uses refers to an overarching pedagogical philosophy that theorized CalArts as a hub for rigorous experimentation in music, theatre, dance, film, art and design that could reshape a vision of society. Sheila de Bretteville designed this poster and conceived of the material elements that make it a curious object. She has since commented that while the text appealed to her, the use of the masculine pronoun was something that was unfortunate and off-putting.1 The last line was the precise message of import for her, evoking how this changing pedagogical emphasis could specifically affect design education to engage with discourses and fields of activity that would stretch designers’ interests beyond conventional commercial design work, beyond Madison Avenue, and towards concerns with social responsibility.
De Bretteville had come to Los Angeles from New York City in part to design and produce the graphic identity and promotional materials for this new institution that was attempting to remedy institutional methods of arts education. The proposal that appears on this poster created a compelling design challenge; what forms and messages could transfer a sentiment of deschooling for this new school? In a recent interview, she recalled that the process of making the poster was consistent with a kind of modernist trope that considered “how the thing is made as part of what the thing is about.”2 It was shrink-wrapped, much like commercial merchandise that one might encounter in a store, using a cheap, commercial method to contain the objects attached to the poster. The process of physically assembling more than 50,000 posters was part of the spirit of work. Each example of the poster that I have since encountered varies slightly in where the objects are set in the package. The toy jack conjures a sense of play, the pinecone evokes the natural world and its regenerative qualities and the printed circuit affirms a dialogue with new forms of communication and information processing. These elements present a vivid encapsulation of the key concerns of ecology, new technology and politicized ethics that were shaping new thinking in design, architecture and media studies in 1970.
Aside from being the beginning statement for the CalArts Design Program, de Bretteville describes this work as a beginning for herself as a thinker of design education through elements of radical pedagogy. She often cites reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) as a transformative experience and incorporates the strategies and language given voice by the women’s movement and other protest movements. In recollecting this period, de Bretteville comments that “my mind was completely captivated by participatory democracy and (I sought) to look for design, art-making or image-making that could represent that idea.”4
While her first experience as an educator came during this beginning moment at CalArts, she has since become a prominent figure in American design education, namely as Director of the Yale Graduate School of Design, a position she has held since 1990. In another recent interview, she reflects that because the administrators at CalArts were so busy creating a school, she had substantial space and freedom to create her own content for the graphic materials and her own curriculum.5 She began teaching her first students once the school commenced in the fall of 1970, and, as the only woman on the design faculty initiated a Woman’s Design Program in 1971, aligned with the Feminist Art Program founded that same year by Miriam Shapiro and Judy Chicago within the studio art program. Both women-only programs coupled an introduction to art and design processes with discussion of the theory and practice of feminism, radical women’s history and exploration of personal experience. These programs only lasted a year or so, but were absolutely singular in their attempts to create a space and a context for women to produce their own work and to make room for each other within CalArts.
While CalArts purged many of the more radical voices among the administration and faculty, just a couple of years after opening, de Bretteville and Chicago, along with art historian Arlene Raven, left the school and started the Feminist Studio Workshop in 1973. Part of this project involved creating the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles in November of 1973, a community centre that could house their program. De Bretteville, Chicago and Raven envisioned the building as a central hub for feminist organizations working in LA at the time. By 1974, through the organizing of the founders, the Woman’s Building housed an impressive list of spaces: Womanspace, a community gallery; the Feminist Studio Workshop; the Center for Art-Historical Studies; Gallery 707, a private gallery; Grandview Galleries 1 and 2, cooperative galleries; Sisterhood Bookstore, a branch of a feminist store in Westwood; The Performance Project; Women’s Improvisation, a theater workshop; Associated Women’s Press, publisher of five magazines (Sister, Momma, Womanspace Journal, Lesbian Tide and Women and Film); the LA chapter of NOW; The Women’s Liberation Union; the Women’s Graphic Center for printing and printmaking; and a restaurant.6
Curator, writer and activist Lucy Lippard described first visit to the building in 1974 as “immensely moving.” She noted “a sense of responsive life and community pervades the place.” There’s plenty to discuss about the Woman’s Building and the truly exceptional labour of the women who helped create it, and sustain it until it closed in 1991. In those founding years, de Bretteville’s labor within the collective group surrounding the building, the Feminist Studio Workshop, the Women’s Graphic Center and later, her design and editorial contributions to Chrysalis (1976–1980), a magazine for women’s culture, reminds us of the language of the flyer she designed for Cal Arts. In order to make a deliberate contribution as a feminist designer, she involved herself in a project of learning together with a community of women about behaviour and resources, ecology and women’s needs.