Sheila Levrant de Bretteville was interviewed by CAFA ART INFO

2018 witnesses both the 40th anniversary of reforming and opening of China and the 100th anniversary of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. As an important part of the academic activities celebrating the centinnial of CAFA, the International Symposium of “Chinese Design 40 Years – Experience and Model” opened at the Auditorium of CAFA Art Museum, on March 20, 2018. The purpose of this international symposium is to find out the future of Chinese design and the road of education leading to design. It has brought together several generations of famous designers and masters and 25 famous experts & scholars in design and design education at home and abroad. CAFA ART INFO took this opportunity to interview with Sheila Levrant de Bretteville.

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, who received a B.A. in the History of Art from Barnard College in 1962, an M.F.A. from Yale University in 1964, and honorary degrees from the Maryland Institute College of Art, California College of the Arts, Moore College of Art, and Otis College of Art and Design. She is the appointed professor and director of graduate studies in graphic design at Yale School of Art. Her design work in books, magazines, and newspapers includes The Motown Album, the redesign of the Los Angeles Times and special issues of the Aspen Times, Everywoman, American Cinematographer, and Arts in Society. Her work has been exhibited in Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History at the Walker Art Center; in Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980 at the Hammer Museum and P.S. 1; and in WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Her posters and fine press editions are in the special collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Centre Pompidou in Paris and numerous university and public libraries.

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville

Interview Time: March 21, 2018

Interview Location: CAFA Art Museum

Interviewer: Shen Cai

Editor: Sue Wang

CAFA ART INFO:  Have you ever collaborated with Chinese designers or students from China? What do you think about the relationship between professors and students?

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville: I collaborated with people in the neighborhood and I only collaborate with people who make the things I do, but I don’t collaborate with students. I teach students. I try to keep these things separate. I think students should become who they are by themselves with the education we have rather than employ students. And I don’t think it’s a good idea.

CAFA ART INFO: Have you collaborated with other Chinese designers?

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville: Not yet. I had a project that I wanted to do in Chengdu but it didn’t materialise. And now I am going to Tongji tomorrow and possibly we could do something there. So it depends on the community wanting me to do something in that community. I would be delighted to do it with someone who is Chinese. Like the typeface, that the student that gave me his typeface which is romantic and it is actually traditional a character. So I have to choose words the same in simplified characters and traditional characters that used to be the typeface. I think more people are actually learning to use traditional characters. That is the original typography of China. So in that way I collaborate. I gave him the name of my title and my talk, and he translated them, his uncle actually, translated it, so it has new answers that Chinese have that English doesn’t have. In that way I really try to keep to teaching and making the same spirit that can be felt and goes… But I do not want to use students. Too many teachers employ their students and don’t pay their students but just use them. I don’t want to be part of that. I try to keep it separate…

Local students participated in Step(pe), Yekaterinburg, Russia (2005); New entrance for the Old Water Tower

CAFA ART INFO: I find your works always focus on characters, why do you chose this as your design language? I mean as a student of graphic design, we sometimes prefer using images to convey our thoughts.

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville: First of all, the history of graphic design or its original place is in trying to make the Bible or news available to everybody. So it is a very rich part of the history of graphic design. So I’m very intune to the way which different languages handle different subjects differently. There are words in some languages that are just not translatable. I really like that. I like what it is and is said in your language because there must be a reason why it’s not a single word and has to be something else. So I think there is something about the structure of language which carries culture and I’m really interested in that, graphic design culture as well as the culture of the place.

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville was working on Step(pe), Yekaterinburg, Russia (2005); New entrance for the Old Water Tower

Step(pe), Yekaterinburg, Russia (2005); New entrance for the Old Water Tower

CAFA ART INFO: What is the most important principle of design in your opinion?

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville: I think it has to fulfil both the needs of the people or person with who I am working with and also my needs. That both of us are getting something from the interaction. It is a two way process. I need to feel good about what I make and I need to know its resonant with the person or people that I work with, is the person I am doing the work with or more often the people it is for. I think like the Russian project. It’s in a poem form. The thing is that if you leave gaps, if you leave some space for someone else, then it becomes like we are having a conversation. you know you are not only asking questions for me to answer, we are trying to figure out where you are, where I begin, where we overlap.

Well, you have to invite the audience in. It’s not like anything else, it’s like here. The audience does not ask questions about everywhere that I have spoken. After you finished the audience asks questions and I try to answer and people get into conversation and they are in little groups. It’s a momentum that is creative by having a presentation that can also continue to be engaging with the audience, but that’s not the nature of this particular format.

Step(pe), Yekaterinburg, Russia (2005); New entrance for the Old Water Tower (A Picture in Sheila Levrant de Bretteville’s Lecture at CAFA)

CAFA ART INFO: What do you think the future of design will be?

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville: I think you have incredible opportunities. There is a real surge for design here. What you want to do is not to abuse it, not overuse it, not decorate everything. You know not to just impose what you want to do on things, we also try to make a plan.

It seems I’m hearing that a part of Chinese (traditional) culture is in danger, is lost and is westernized. We talked, yesterday, with the Japanese designer Toshiyuki Kita. Why has Japan been so innovative? I mean I know all the architects, I know all the manga makers. Every other people too, because the way I think they tackle it in this little country… he thinks it’s because the spirit of their culture is coming out for the world and I don’t doubt that. I think you really need not to look to the west. Look at the town from which you came, look at what is unique about it and try to bring some of that into your work because it’s a part of you. And I think if you are encouraged to do that then you have the chance of being unique yourself. It is ridiculous that this big country doesn’t … Your film culture is more unique than your design culture. Think of Jia Zhangke and others, people who are really able to use their particular way to make is unique to them all. And their source, their interests and their soul as Chinese people, why can designers do that? I think it’s the nature of education. I’m sorry but I think it’s too formulaeic it’s too much under someone else rather than their own way. Until that changes, I think it is very hard for students to find their own voices and bring it out in their work.

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