In celebration of Women’s History Month, March Object of the Day posts highlight women designers in the collection.

Images and words that reflect the authentic and varied life experiences of women are seldom valued or visible in public, printed communications, undermining our connection to the dominant culture. Lacking the graphic skills valued by that culture limits access to professional work and the skills developed within women’s subculture are rendered available to society at large.”[1]

In 1973, the graphic designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville established the Women’s Graphic Center Program as part of the Feminist Studio Workshop in Los Angeles, California, to teach women technical processes like offset printing and publishing. The Feminist Studio Workshop, co-founded by de Bretteville, artist Judy Chicago and art historian Arlene Raven, was “created by women to end the isolation and silence experienced by women and encourage a sense of community and caring within our shared culture.”[2] In 1971, Chicago founded the Feminist Art Program at CalArts, while de Bretteville simultaneously initiated the school’s Women’s Design Program. The Feminist Studio Workshop was the culmination of the work accomplished at these preceding art programs, amplified by  the excitement of the national Feminist Movement. The Women’s Graphic Center at the Workshop was a commercial enterprise that published books, exhibition catalogues and other printed ephemera to raise funds for the institution’s diverse projects. The Women’s Graphic Center resolved to provide a community in which women could discover and communicate their own experience, while learning functional printing techniques.

This poster from 1980, Speak Your Own Language, in the Drawings, Prints and Graphic Design department here at  Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum was designed by Frances Butler, a former textile designer who co-founded Poltroon Press in Berkeley, California in 1975. Butler established herself as an experimental graphic artist; she created large scale chapbooks, used photo engravings, and tested ancient printing techniques. In 1980, Butler was a visiting artist at the Women’s Graphic Center, and this poster is an advertisement for two of her workshops, “Sequential Design: The story in folded turned or spaced pages” and “Experimental Color Printing, Letterpress, collotype, and stencil.”

Using an almost pointillist style, Butler illustrates an exterior, walled lawn with trees and Anthony Caro’s yellow painted steel sculpture “Midday” (1960). On the right, a woman stands, dressed in black and holding a bag. A purple square is printed on her body and a semi-circle sits just above her head. Small, esoteric text is scattered throughout the poster, and although it may connect to the accompanying imagery, Butler does not make it explicit for the viewer. The poster demonstrates Butler’s mastery of several different printing processes and her proclivity for visually and intellectually complex designs. She proceeded to become an influential writer on graphic design and professor of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley and UC Davis, pursuing her interest in the history of graphic communication and perception. Not only does the title of the symposium, “Speak Your Own Language” express the objectives of the institution, but it also speaks to Butler’s idiosyncratic visual vocabulary. The Woman’s Graphic Center offered women designers like Butler the freedom to collaborate with their peers and exhibit their eccentric, explicitly female aesthetics.

[1] Woman’s Building archive, n.d. [1980], Collection, Archives of Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.

[2] Introduction to the Woman’s Building,” Woman’s Building archive, n.d. [1980], Collection, Archives of Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.


Lily Gildor is an MA candidate in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies program offered at Parsons The New School of Design jointly with Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. She is a Master’s fellow in the Drawings, Prints and Graphic Design department.

6 thoughts on “Speak your own Language

this is a letterpress poster, not a lithograph

P.S. the unrecognizable structure is an Anthony Caro sculpture at MoMA NY

Thank you very much for letting us know. The blog has been updated with the correct information.

Hello Ms. Gildor,
I thank you for your notice of the Woman’s Graphic Center in Los Angeles, and my work for it. But I must speak up for the historic technique of letterpress printing (see Gutenberg) yet again. I printed this poster on a Vandercook proof press, using a magnesium plate for the image. This plate was made using a photographic negative of my drawing, but was a relief plate, not an intaglio or an offset lithographic plate. I then printed each subsequent color from a separate relief plate.
A quibble, but since letterpress, like other superannuated commercial processes, is now becoming an “Art”process, it deserves definition.

Thank you very much for the additional information and we apologize for the error. We’ve updated the post.

Pitiful that the writer made these two serious mistakes.

Where’s the research and the proofreading?

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