Not by Design

Graphic designer Terry Schreuer recently became the first female professor in her field, but her successful career began purely by chance.

One of Prof. Terry Schreuer's earliest childhood memories is of designer Dan Reisinger's El Al Airlines poster hanging above her bed. "I would lie in bed and in my mind I would trace the lines of the shapes," she relates. "Even then I thought it was simply a masterpiece. I couldn't understand how it was possible to condense an entire world so precisely. This is what attracts me to this day - our ability as designers to take something very complex and to say it in one syllable. Not even a word. And the more distilled and precise the syllable, the greater the achievement."

Fifty years later distillation still enchants Schreuer - in unexpected places, too. When she arrives at an airport, for example, what interests her is not duty-free shopping but rather the signage. "I go into Zurich Airport and I forget why I have come, because I simply get hypnotized by the signs for the toilets and the kiosks and every number that's on the wall. It's for good reason that Swiss graphics are the biggest there is. To this day I am captivated," she says with a smile.

Terry Schreuer: 'It bothers me that graphic design is seen as being at the bottom of the food chain.
Terry Schreuer: 'It bothers me that graphic design is seen as being at the bottom of the food chain.' Yaron Kaminsky

Since 2002 Schreuer has headed the graphic design and visual communication department at the WIZO Haifa Academy of Design and Education - the same department in which she studied from 1981 to 1985 and where she has been teaching since 1990. Last month she became the first woman in her field to be granted the rank of professor of design by the Council for Higher Education and joined a small number of male designers, including the two Israel Prize winners for design, Prof. Dan Reisinger and Prof. Yarom Vardimon. Though this is an extraordinary professional achievement, it comes as no surprise: Schreuer is one of few people in the field to win sweeping esteem from her colleagues, including department heads at competing institutions, students she has taught during the past 20 years and faculty of the department she heads. Nearly everyone who meets her, if only for a few minutes, is immediately impressed by the easy relationship she forms with the people around her and by her professionalism, which are intertwined.

'Detached from reality'

Schreuer was born in 1958 in Tel Aviv and attended the Ironi Aleph High School there. She initially studied English literature and art history at Tel Aviv University, and ended up in design studies at WIZO Haifa by chance. "All my friends had gone to Haifa to study architecture and I also had a boyfriend there," she says. "I went to visit them a lot but I was always terribly bored because they were in class and I had nothing to do. One day a friend told me she had read in the newspaper that there's a design school in Haifa. I went, I took forms and I registered. That's how it happened - it's all chance."

Her design studies, she says, were fascinating. "Today, too, when you go to study graphic design you have no idea what you are going to learn and, even if you ask someone, any explanation is a bit detached from reality," she says. "It's amorphous. You don't build a house, you don't design a chair, you do a lot of things that can't be explained. And therefore the studies, especially in the first year, are really like 'Alice in Wonderland.'"

A few months after she completed her studies, in 1985, Schreuer went to London with her husband, Amos, who needed to complete his studies there. As a new graduate moving to a foreign country she assumed she would not find employment in her field and like many young people thought she would do odd jobs. Nevertheless she went to a professional photographer who took pictures of her portfolio of works - the equivalent in those days of a personal website.

A few weeks after her arrival in England she met another new graduate, through acquaintances, who had just completed her studies in London. The two arranged to meet at the woman's new place of work - the Habitat interior design chain. "I knew the chain from my previous visits to London and for me it was like entering the Temple, no less," recalls Schreuer. When the woman got called back to work she asked Schreuer to leave her portfolio. "I left the portfolio for her at the reception desk and I went home," she says.

A few hours later Schreuer received a phone call to come urgently for a job interview. "What happened was that the director of the studio came to the reception desk and was waiting for his mail," she says. "There was a handsome black file case on the counter, he had to wait and out of boredom he opened it and leafed through it. That was it. I came for the interview and I was accepted and at the end of the interview he even asked me where I wanted to work - in design, in packaging, wherever I wanted."

What was it like working for Habitat?

Schreuer: "If WIZO was 'Alice in Wonderland,' this was 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.' I had a lot of formative experiences there. It was a big company of 300 employees but somehow, mysteriously, I became the expert on everything to do with Christmas. I was just about the only Jew in the building, but apparently I once did something that someone got excited about. I don't know. I sat on the fourth floor and they would come up on pilgrimages to me as though I were Jesus and ask me about Christmas. To this day I know all the carols by heart.

"One day they organized a greeting-card design competition among all the schools in England and they asked me to design the poster," she adds. "I had to do it awfully fast. I made a sketch, I ran to get it approved and the person in charge liked it and approved printing it as is. What was in the sketch? I drew Jesus as Moses. After that the children's cards started coming in and everyone drew Moses. Thus it happened that in 1987 Christmas was under the sign of Moses."

Of Terence Conran, the founder and owner of the Habitat chain, she says: "He was a tremendous snob and he wasn't very nice but he was a genius, so people forgave him. He always thought my accent was French and he admired French people so he liked me," she laughs. "He inspired awe, also because of his appearance, and people were a little afraid of him but it was impossible to say there was no reason for it.

"He made a revolution no less than Steve Jobs did in his world," she adds. "He came into the field after World War II, at a time when interior design in England was about dark and depressing Victorian houses - a kind of post-trauma. He understood a lot of things no one else had understood before him."

Beautiful isn't enough

After four years in London Schreuer returned to Israel with a sense that "the sky is the limit. You can't go backwards. I came back to work with [her former lecturer, graphic designer] Chava Modrokovitz, this time as a partner, after I had worked for her during my third and fourth years of studies."

What was the difference between working in London and in Israel?

"If in London I did the most beautiful things, because it was possible, when I returned to Israel I started seeing the world a bit differently. In England I had been a kind of tourist. When I came back here I wasn't a tourist any more, it was mine and suddenly the context interested me - places with a past, a present, history, Jerusalem, the Sea of Galilee. This excited me."

At the same time you also started teaching at WIZO Haifa.

"Yes. I remember I went into the classroom and I found my destiny. I didn't have a second's hesitation, I felt so comfortable from the first minute I was there. It was a revelation. You can't know this until you do it for the first time."

In 2000 Schreuer became head of the graphic design department in place of Eliyahu Shwartz, who had founded it and headed it for 27 years. Such long periods as department head are not common - not 27 years, and not Schreuer's 11 years. "I am finishing my third term in office and I know this isn't typical," she says. "I don't think WIZO is a typical place. The whole way this place works, the relations among department heads, between department heads and the president of the institution - it's not like anything, for better and for worse. I've been here for 20 years now and there haven't been dramas or subversions. I don't feel like I am going to work - I am going to be there with my friends. This sounds very cutesy but it's really like that."

What's the difference between your time as a student and now?

"When I look at what we are demanding of students today in their final project it amuses me a bit to think what they demanded of me. Conceptually they didn't demand enough of me. As a designer they demanded a lot of me, but conceptually they spoon-fed me. Today we demand that the students take a stance, say something - it can't be that you have nothing to say."

Beautiful isn't enough?

"Right. In my day beautiful was a lot. This is a fundamental difference. I believe that, in a place that is fighting for its identity, we have to raise people for whom the culture will be precious and they will be practiced in it and responsible for it."

Is that possible? The younger generation is about reality TV shows "Big Brother" and "The Voice," the younger generation doesn't read - you know all these statements.

"I don't think all of us are 'Big Brother.' I think in every group of students you can find people of all sorts and types. And even if people come along who know there is only 'The Voice' and 'Big Brother' in this world, but have fertile soil, I help them grow other things out of that soil."

Schreuer, it seems, views her new appointment as professor as a good opportunity to stress the importance of her field: "One of the things that has always bothered me about graphic design is that it is almost always seen as being at the bottom of the food chain. You come when you need something, you fill up with gas and you continue on to the really important things. You equip yourself here with a logo, with branding, and then you move on. I've always perceived this field as a profound one, as an intellectual discipline, no matter which way you look at it."

Do you have thoughts about the end of your term as head of the graphic design department?

"Certainly. Of course. It isn't going to be a replication of 27 years. After they hammered in the last nail for hanging the works in our last graduates' exhibition, I went home and said to my husband, Amos, that now I can rest or go home. Suddenly I had seen on the walls what I'd had in mind many years ago - there were no advertising campaigns or commercial brandings, but rather works by people who took a topic and investigated it very deeply and who really created a visual work from an amorphous concept that could be called challenging, disturbing, intriguing and it stays with you after you go home. For me, that's a great thing."