Sheila Levrant de Bretteville on the 40th Anniversary of L.A.’s Women in Design Conference
While it’s true that much has changed regarding the norms of design and gender since 1970, when Sheila Levrant de Bretteville organized the pivotal Women in Design conference in Los Angeles, it can also be said that not enough has changed. And though many of the same issues regarding gender equality in the workplace, the salary disparity between the sexes, and the shockingly low number of female business leaders in all industries are still being hotly debated, for International Women’s Day this year we decided to touch base with Levrant de Bretteville to get her perspective on how far we have (or haven’t) come in the past four decades.
“The conference took place at the height of the resurgence of feminism,” she recalls. It was famously publicized with an “eyebolt” poster (above) that shocked even some of the more seasoned designers. “I remember hearing that Massimo Vignelli commented that the poster scared him—such tough women!”
Levrant de Bretteville’s centerfold for Everywoman magazine, 1970
Looking back on that poster today, it may be surprising to think it ever evoked such strong reactions (especially compared to some of Levrant de Bretteville’s more graphic work, above), but it succeeded in getting the attention of hundreds of women, who met and exchanged ideas—and then headed to the local hardware store to make necklaces out of the poster’s “keychain & eyebolt” iconography. Those necklaces have not only survived, they’ve inspired a new generation of female art and design leaders who have reappropriated the symbol for their own movements.
How did the idea for the keychain & eyebolt necklace come about?
In different cities and countries I would step into hardware stores and see keychains on rolls and bins of bolts. I’ve never seen hardware as male nor female—just everyday things. But on one occasions I noticed that the small eyebolt looked like the sign for female and decided to use that in the poster to publicize Women in Design.
The Women in Design conference was the only one of its kind at the time. Why didn’t you hold more in subsequent years?
It was an incessant struggle just to keep up the Woman’s Building—pay the rent, organize and fund events, teach classes, etc. Attracting varied audiences to a less than lively edge of town took a ton of my abundant energy. Other things changed, too. By the late ’70s the kinds of women’s studies classes we held in the evenings were being offered by local colleges and universities. And even though my son (the little “toe-headed boy” pictured above) and husband totally supported and contributed to the Woman’s Building, I needed to give them more of my time.
How has the necklace lived on past the conference?
I have my original one, as do many of the students who were at the Woman’s Building then, and I sometimes wear it when I give talks related to gender. Though we worked very hard at the Woman's Building to search for and honor women designers, we were, alas, less conscious then of the general whiteness of us. From my perspective, one of the best examples of young women coming together today are on the West Coast and in Sweden.
Recently, two young Swedish women who call themselves the Sisters of Jam, wrote to me requesting permission to make a large version of the eyebolt to hang (like a necklace) in an exhibition. They named it “Hello Sheila!”