Underground Matriarchy

This article is a dialogue between two young women [Laurie Haycock Makela and Ellen Lupton] talking about the “underground matriarchy” in graphic design. The essay was written across fax lines between New York and Minneapolis in two distinct authorial voices. We each have chosen to focus on particular women, drawing on our own views of the landscape of contemporary design. Although some of these mothers could be our sisters, each has had a profound impact on the recent history of graphic design, not only through products which bear her own signature but through the creativity of people working in her midst. The cluster of designers we have gathered here is not a closed canon but an open set.

LHM: During a pivotal period in the mid-1980s, the insistence of something called subjectivity wedged open the tight rightness of “good” design. The radical efforts of renegade modernists such as April Greiman, Sheila de Bretteville, Lorraine Wild, and Katherine McCoy, however different from one another, created, for a moment, a powerful underground matriarchy that upended formal constraints and validated personal content and gesture. Ten years ago, “good” design still meant objectivity, obedience, cleanliness, and correctness. Into that impossible modernist environment, these women placed the concept of subjectivity. Messy, permissive, full of idiosyncratic logic, and essentially feminist in nature, subjectivity is at the heart of the explosive avant-garde in American graphic design today.

EL: Important design emerges from contexts that encourage innovation and experiment. Good design is not simply the product of individuals graced with a miraculous talent—designers are stimulated by schools, clients, companies, studios, colleagues, competitors, and other social networks. The danger in mapping out an “underground matriarchy” is that we will replace the Old Boy’s Network, which for so long has excluded women, younger designers, and people working at the margins of the professional mainstream, with an equally exclusive New Girl’s Network, defined by its own personal ties and ideological biases. For me, to chart the family tree of an “underground matriarchy” is not to recast the traditional Olympiad of individual genius with a new set of shining stars but rather to shift the focus of design journalism from the individual as creator ex nihilo to the individual as actor in a social context.

“Matriarchy” invokes the values associated with feminine culture—gathering instead of hunting, cultivating instead of conquering, nurturing instead of self-promotion. These values are not strictly tied to sexual identity, but have been linked in our society to the worlds of women. As the design profession—and public life more generally—becomes more inclusive, these values increasingly are shared by both sexes. Sheila de Bretteville, Muriel Cooper, Carol Devine Carson, and Mildred Friedman have contributed to the evolution of contemporary design both by producing their own creative work and by creating contexts in which innovation can flourish.

LHM: While I was in high school, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville created a poster for the then-new California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, called Taste and Style aren’t Enough. The low-tech, vernacular look to her poster was a deliberate commentary on the high-finish corporate aesthetic celebrated by most of her professional colleagues. Later, in 1980 at University of California at Berkeley, I was a student in Sheila’s senior studio, where we were given projects in which design served only as a formal language for expressing personal values.

Sheila de Bretteville: “I create matrixes that enable people to speak.”

As a teaching methodology, Sheila’s encouragement of self-reflective subject matter connected the student to the content, and the content to the form. From the early 1970s to the present, de Bretteville has consistently conveyed to her students the sense that their content is worthy, so their forms resonate with personal choice. Without a doubt, Sheila increased the value of plurality, interpretation, and collaboration in design, and those values inspire my current role as design director at the Walker Art Center, a major contemporary arts institution located in Minneapolis.

EL: Sheila de Bretteville became chair of the graphic design program at the Yale School of Art in 1990. In addition to encouraging her students to draw on their own personal experiences, she believes that designers should interact with their audience and should consider the social consequences of their practice. According to De Bretteville, producing design in collaboration with one’s audience is a feminist act, because it draws on values of intimacy and cooperation associated with women’s culture. She and her students have have studied ways that the media marginalizes groups based on sexual, ethnic, racial, and class identity, and they have produced projects with communities in the surrounding city of New Haven, a harsh urban setting from which Yale traditionally has stood apart as a bastion of privlege.

LHM: The success of Sheila’s approach depends on keeping a serious distance from style-related design trends. Her students shun design competitions as the irrelevant beauty pageants they tend to be. She distrusts pure form-making without commitment to a larger issue. For some designers, however, the bigger issues can only be expressed in abstract, formal terms. April Greiman—often criticized for creating an “empty” kind of beauty—wraps her talent around global themes: the overlapping of science, technology, and spirituality. Greiman exhibited her Space Mats (designed with Jayme Odgers) at our design gallery at UC Berkeley about the same time I was doing a typographic poem about my menstrual cycle for an assignment for Sheila. The place mats were produced without a client, and captured an erotic and exotic hyper-dimensional vision. Using a clicky kind of humor, April found a glamorous, funhouse, zen-like center to the practice of design. She threw the Swiss grid on its back, and lovingly fucked it with color and wild imagery. This was a galactic brothel compared to the retentive, methodological aesthetic of corporate design. April was undoing the bow-tie life of graphic design.

April Greiman: “I am not a feminist.”

To this day, however, April will tell you she is not a feminist. But I believe her visual seductions are motivated in part by an emotional freedom not indulged in by her male colleagues at the time. Kathy McCoy has said that “the modernist design paradigms of objective rationalism are typical of a male sensibility, safely disengaged from emotional involvement.” April’s work, if anything, depicted volumes of passion. When that passion turned to technology, she gave the future a new aesthetic and it was beautiful, sensual, and bright.

EL: April Greiman’s work is a painterly and personalized response to digital technology. As the progenitor of a distinctive signature style that has been widely imitated, Greiman is a legendary star who has helped fuel—inadvertently or not—the cult of personality cherished by many graphic designers. While her work is an exquisite revision of the formal languages of modernism, her approach to technology is often suggestive and metaphorical rather than structural, engaing the mythology of the machine rather than the revolutionary potential of electronic media.

A very different exploration of technology is witnessed in the career of Muriel Cooper, who founded the Visible Language Workshop, part of MIT’s Media Lab, in 1975. While Cooper’s untimely death on May 26, 1994, is a profound loss for the community of designers, her work will be carried forward by the institution that she created and the people she inspired. I was fortunate to spend time with Cooper and her students less than two weeks before her death, none of us imagining how short her future would be. She was a brilliant designer and a generous person whose ideas have a long life ahead of them.

The VLW has treated digital typography not as a tool for designing printed graphics, but as a unique medium with its own properties and possibilities. Most graduate programs in graphic design focus on the making of complete, self-contained works: books, posters, installations, and other objects whose “signature” status is modelled on the products of painting, sculpture, and photography departments. The VLW’s focus has been different: Cooper worked to build an electronic language that will support the work of future designers, helping them make complex, malleable documents in real time and three-dimensionsal space. The visual structures designed by Cooper and her students will enable readers and writers of interactive media to intuitively navigate through levels of data.

Cooper gave concrete functions such principles as layered information, simultaneous texts, and typographic texture—visual structures that are familiar as expressive, personal gestures from the “New Typography” of the 1970s and 80s. While many designers working at the stylistic edges of contemporary typography have approached technology in terms of impressionistic imagery—the territory traditionally reserved for graphic design—Cooper aimed to restructure the language of design in four dimensions.

Muriel Cooper: “I would like to see systems with enough intelligence and with enough rich graphical vocabulary that a designer could interact with technology in an empowered way.”

Many women are excelling today in the fields of interface design and electronic publishing, including Red Burns, Jessica Helfand, and Loretta Staples. While men are the visible spokesmen and economic leaders of such companies as Voyager, Microsoft, Apple Computers, and Whittle Communications, women are playing important roles in crafting environments for the new design media. Perhaps “interface” is an electronic couterpart for realms of culture that traditionally have been feminized—an interface, like a housewife or a secretary, presents a gracious, comfortable setting for the performances of others. Many tasks in the twentieth-century office known as “women’s work” involve mediating technologies. From answering phones, transferring calls, and taking messages to typing letters and making copies, female office workers historically have formed a human link between male managers and their machines. Women have served as bodily extensions for communications equipment. The contemporary ideal of the “user friendly” electronic environment reflects the continued desire to humanize technology.

*LHM: An interface is also like a teacher. As co-chair of the Cranbrook Academy of Art’s design program, Katherine McCoy sheparded dozens of students through the school’s now-notorious formal experiments. In the mid-80s McCoy allowed some of the first arguments of deconstruction to surface in critiques about graphic design. I use the word “allowed,” because while Kathy may pursue a more conservative course in her own work, her critiques were a designated free-zone for new thinking about design. Inadvertently or not, McCoy was willing to take the heat and the glory for staking out the potentially unbeautiful aesthetic manifestations of literary deconstruction, or, if you will, postmodernism.

Women seemed particularly well-equipped to grapple with the decentering of the times, or at least to be a center for decentered thinking. Kathy found her students agressively rejecting traditonal approaches to visual communication. She encouraged their private dialogues, strange and culty works with a fascinating influence of Dutch design, twisted by post-structural theory and a man named Ed Fella.

The intellectual comfort of the formal exercises that teach abstraction was literally abandoned at Cranbrook. A few hours in critique studying dot and line relationships in black and white may be revealing about lines and dots, but never about its makers. This new turn in design education was psychoanalytic and difficult to control. It was, however, a perfect antidote to the depersonalized endpoint of modernism many young designers were experiencing. Cranbrook became such a powerful design cult because people look for family refuge, and the McCoys ran a foster home for design addicts. They recently have decided to retire from Cranbrook after twenty years, now that those weird little mid-Western lab experiments have grown to powerfully influence international design trends.*

EL: The exemplary “matriarchs” we have discussed so far have come chiefly from the academic world, a place where women have found visible and influential places over the last twenty years. Although universities and art schools traditionally were dominated by men, women have made significant gains in the arts and humanities. Perhaps the institutional support and clear structures for advancement that schools offer have made academic settings more penetrable than large-scale design studios, where vast numbers of women continue to hover in mid-level positions. The academic world can put designers in the ambiguous position of producing both marginal and official culture: marginal, because academia provides a place outside of commercial practice from which experiment and opposition can be safely expressed, and official, because schools are charged with articulating principles that young designers will take with them into the marketplace, and which constitute much of the professional community’s dialogue.

Carol Devine Carson has had a tremendous impact on contemporary design, working not from an academic post but from a major publishing house. Since Carson became art director of Alfred A. Knopf in 1987, she and her design staff have transformed bookstore shelves across the country with their strange and sinister jackets. The principal designers in the Knopf Group have been with Carson since 1987: Chip Kidd, Barbara de Wilde, and Archie Ferguson. The fact that this amazingly productive (and now widely imitated) team of designers has stayed together for so long reflects the strength of the imprint’s management. Knopf has brought visually challenging graphics to a broad national public—these are not esoteric art catalogues or posters for design events, but mainstream consumer products displayed in shopping malls across the country.

Like colleges and universities, major publishing houses are large, bureaucratic institutions with defined hierarchies; for most employees in publishing, the field’s cultural prestige is countered by relatively low wages. According to Carson, the book business traditionally has made a place for women: “We have always done a lot of the real work in this industry. The difference in the past fifteen years is that it’s more common for women to be rewarded for the work they do.”

Carol Carson: “In the publishing climate outside of Knopf, there’s not much cultivation of authors and editors. People have to be trained to become editors, and a publishing house has to create an environment for that kind of care. Designers have to be cultivated, too.”

Arriving in New York from Nashville, Tennessee in 1973, Carson was an outsider to both the city’s design establishment and to the academic/modernist vanguard. At the time, art director Bob Scudelari was Corporate Vice President of Random House, serving to administrate design for all the company’s imprints, including Knopf and around a dozen others. In 1991 Carson became Vice President, Art Director in charge of the Knopf Group. She now directly controls design within the Knopf imprint, and supervises work at Pantheon and Vintage. In the old system, Scudelari was the chief spokesman for design, while the art directors were kept relatively cloistered from editors and authors. Now, Carson has direct contact with these forces (as well as with the meddlesome marketing department), giving her more control over the design process.

*LHM: I was teaching at California Insitute of the Arts when Lorraine Wild arrived from Houston in 1985 as the new chair of the visual communications program. Soon after, two more Cranbrook graduates—Jeff Keedy and Ed Fella—joined the faculty. Within a year, the fires were set. The four of us taught a graduate seminar whose students included Barry Deck, Barbara Glauber, and Somi Kim. Informed by theory and history, Lorraine set a tough standard for critiques that often mocked conventional design standards of meta-perfection and problem-solving. The students’ formal and critical skills developed within an authentic and radical contemporary art environment. The rigorous exchange between Cranbrook and Cal Arts and the emerging influence of Emigre magazine (and Zuzana Licko’s typefaces) all helped create a dizzying centrifugal force for our times, a virtual supernova in design evolution. All the while, Eric Martin and Scott Makela presided like magicians over the MacLab, introducing one and all to the wonders of new design technology.

In this extreme environment, Lorraine attempted to respond to brutally incongruous demands: in addition to directing the program, she wrote articles, gave lectures, maintained international contacts, designed books, and taught a design history course that would keep the interest of even the most informed design historiam. Sharing an office with Lorraine for several years made me a witness to countless momemts between a student’s tears and emergency faculty meetings, where she would look up with a pained smile and say “why are we doing this?”

The answer, of couse, was that if we were to make a difference in the design field, we literally needed to reinvent the setting for design education. For Lorraine, there was an element of absolute disgust at what she had been exposed to in the New York studios. She approached the CalArts program with a furious intensity, which she has recently redirected toward creating ReVerb, a studio for collaborative design. Through ReVerb, she has launched a constructively angry response to the objectivity and patriarchy which had pervaded the roots of her training. I admire her design work, because it speaks for many cultural institutions of our time in alternating fits of elegance and anarchy.*

Lorraine Wild: “We need more graphic design particular to the tribes, not less.”

Interestingly, men still dominate the profession—even at its avant-garde fringe. Consider, for example, the following excerpt from a conversation between David Carson and Rudy VanderLans in a recent Emigre.

Whose work in particular stands out to you?
R: The work of Rick Valicenti, Barry Deck, ReVerb, Jeffery Keedy, John Weber, Edward Fella, Scott Makela, Tibor Kalman, Fabien Baron, David Carson.

*With the exception of ReVerb, this is a list of guys who work very hard at gaining individual recognition for their work, for whom “the edge” is an important place to be.

This article points out that women seem to spend more time underground, gaining collective recognition for their work and regenerating the field in intangible and crucial ways. Simply put, the efforts of this “matriarchy” has made possible the kind of permissive, wild, personal, and pluralistic form-language that so many men are getting famous for right now. As our “fathers” stood at the front door, firmly protecting the rules of the house, the “mothers” quietly unlocked the back door, freeing all the children and their natural impulse to personalize what they make. Or, as Lorraine Wild puts it, “I feel like a termite, gnawing at the bottom. The meal is delicious, and why should I give a damn if the whole house falls down!”*

EL: The modernist design establishment has never been a solid edifice—it was always threatened from without by consumerism and mass culture, and pressured from within by the vanguardist obsession with individualism and novelty. In recounting the rise of subjectivity in design, it’s important to remember that men as well as women opened the back doors of the discipline. Wolfgang Weingart, Dan Friedman, and Gert Dumbar fueled the unleashing of typographic form in the 1970s and 80s, often working side by side with the “matriarchs” heralded in this essay. The current fascination with radical personalities (male or female) continues a long lineage of avant-garde confrontations that traditionally have been led by men.

As this article comes to a close, the reader may have noticed a difference in tone between the two authors’ voices. Laurie Haycock Makela has been lush and intimate, linking her subjects to her own life and experiences; in contrast, I have been rather cool and distant. My primary identity is as a curator and writer, working for Cooper-Hewitt, National Museum of Design in New York. Because I am a curator first, and a designer second, I feel obligated to look beyond my immediate circle of mentors and friends. My sober tone also reflects distrust for any cult of personality in design, even if the personalities are new.

But I have “mothers,” too. A personal mother for me is Mildred (a.k.a. Mickey) Friedman, who as design director at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis from 1970 through 1991 set an international standard for exhibitions and publications on design. Mickey has been a mentor, role model, and colleague for me, perhaps in ways that Lorraine, Kathy, April, and Sheila have been for Laurie. In 1989 Friedman curated the first large-scale museum survey of graphic design in the U.S.; while her strong curatorial vision provoked anger from the design community, the exhibition probably did more to raise public knowledge of graphic design than any event in history. We don’t always thank our mothers for their work.

LHM: When I interviewed for my position at the Walker Art Center in 1991, I was visibly and proudly pregnant, sitting betweeen Mickey Friedman and Kathy Halbreich, who had just replaced Martin Friedman as the museum’s director. I was excited and humbled by the transitions taking place. In my first few months working as design director at the Walker, I discovered that I had inherited unbelievable resources in the form of curators who embraced quality design and publishing, and audiences who had come to expect design to be part of contemporary arts programming. These attitudes were nurtured by Mickey Friedman during the twenty years that she edited Design Quarterly and produced exhibitions at the Walker, creating a place for educated dialogue about design when few existed.

After writing this essay with Ellen Lupton, I have found myself indebted to two women I really do not know: Mickey Friedman, for the setting she created for design research and presentation at the Walker Art Center, and Muriel Cooper, for her investigations of the infrastructure of new media. As Ellen suggested earlier, new media may be “feminizing” old media through concepts of interface, simultaneity, and interactivity. I am currently curating an exhibition at the Walker called Digital Campfires: Interactive Multimedia Environments, scheduled to open in 1996, which is deeply motivated by a desire to bring out the more “feminine” aspects of new media via content, aesthetics, collaborations, and, most importantly, non-linear thinking.

“Masculininty” and “femininity” are cultural constructions historically tied to the biological differences between the sexes. An important goal of feminism is to make the values traditionally associated with the world of women into values recognized across the social and sexual spectrum: to nurture, to include, to respond, to support, to enable. As the influence of women continues to flower in the coming decades, it may no longer be recognized as distinctly “feminine” or as the exceptional product of women’s achievement, because our work and values will have been integrated into the larger social network. Design competitions must begin including new categories, such as lectures organized or given, exhibitions curated, new curriculum planning, or special research in areas such as cultural iconography. In this way, we will give ourselves the opportunity to properly recognize all levels of accomplishment—from the surface of the page to the underground of the community.

Essay by Laurie Haycock Makela and Ellen Lupton, published in Eye magazine, 1994