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Sheila Levrant de Bretteville on designing for community, and strength in numbers

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Sheila Levrant de Bretteville: At long last…

On the wall at Inwood-207th Street station in New York, the very last stop on the 8th Avenue line, is a typographic mural by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville. In glittering letters it says “At long last…” – a simple statement that has reached out to countless returning commuters since its installation in 1999.

“I was at an event once and I mentioned the mural, and a woman spoke up and said ‘I love that mural! I see it every day when I get home from work’,” says Sheila, speaking to It’s Nice That. “It’s like her environment knows how tired she is. It’s so important to have your environment respond to your feelings and make them valid.”

Sheila is an enduringly important voice in the graphic design industry, having founded the Women’s Design Programme at the California Institute of the Arts in 1971, co-founded the first independent feminist art school in the US, and the Feminist Studio Workshop in LA in 1973. Since 1990 she has directed the Graduate programme in Graphic Design at Yale School of Art – which we recently published a feature about – and continues to run her practice SheilaStudio. Concurrent to all this is her strong belief in the power of design to support, activate and encourage community.

“I try to be inclusive. I think design can enable people to hear the views of a small group. That’s what my family came to the US for. The idea that people come in different colours and sizes and with different points of view, and relationships with power. It’s important for people to have that understanding that other people hear and see and feel you. All my work is community-based and tries to accommodate all points of view.”

Sheila’s original poster for the 1970 Women in Design conference, which she organised, is iconic for its “eyebolt”, a metal bolt in the shape of a Venus symbol. This, again, reached out to many women in the 70s, who headed to their local hardware shop to make “eyebolt” necklaces, and resurfaced during this year’s women’s marches as a token, like the pussy hat, of unity. “I didn’t plan that, it took on life as a symbol,” she says.

“You enable people to share ideas, but we can’t control what we make. Everything we design, every idea we have, every type we use has multiple meanings, and your beholding it can take on a different meaning. I’m never sure how my work will be read.”

She refers to a recent project for a part of New Haven, “a poor neighbourhood,” she explains, where she made a proposal to improve an underpass that wasn’t being looked after. “I wanted to improve the area and honour the residents, but now there’s so many developments happening round there, by the time it happens it could become part of the ‘gentrification’ that unfortunately makes it too expensive for existing residents to stay. These contradictions always happen.

“Design isn’t ineffective,” she continues, conscious of sounding negative. “I have worked during politically active times, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, but it’s always complicated. Design isn’t all peaches and cream. It’s certainly not as simple as California designing freedom!" she jokes, referring to her upcoming talk at the Design Museum’s current exhibition.

“But for my work at schools, the most relevant work has always come from the students not the faculty. I see it now at Yale. People feel free. They know it’s no piece of cake, but they feel liberated. It gives a sense of confidence. We have a president who’s acting confident, so we have to be confident."

Returning to her community values, Sheila concludes that the answer to better design lies in a broad point of view. “Designers also have to have a good sense of self-doubt, and be accepting of others. People can’t just know people like themselves, it’s the diversity among them that effects a wider view. To know what it’s like from another perspective. I can’t make great statements about change, I’m only one person. We need a lot of people. It can’t be one person’s view of what’s better for everyone.”

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville will be in conversation with Brendan McGetrick at the Design Museum, London on 6 June at 6:15pm. It’s Nice That readers receive discounted tickets via the promotion code EDU5. Book tickets here.

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Sheila Levrant de Bretteville: Women in Design poster with “eyebolt”