General History of the Department of Design Media Arts

The Department of Design Media Arts is within the School of Arts and Architecture at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), a public university within the larger University of California system. The rough history of how this came to be follows:

  • 1919 - UCLA was founded.
  • 1929 - UCLA moves to Westwood.
  • 1939 - The College of Applied Arts was established with six departments: Art, Music, Business Education, Physical Education, Home Economics, and Theater Arts. The Department of Art included history and studio, pictorial arts, and design.
  • 1960 - The College of Applied Arts was reestablished as the College of Fine Arts with the goal of balancing theory and practice. During this time, the Department of Art included history of art, history and studio, pictorial arts, and design. The Business, Physical Education, and Home Economics departments were removed from the College.
  • 1965 - The Dickson Art Center building is completed.
  • 1988 - The Department of Design and Department of Art were established as separate academic units as the College of Fine Arts was restructured. Art History also moved to the College of Letters and Science.
  • 1991 - The School of the Arts and School of Theater, Film, and Television were established out of the College of Fine Arts.
  • 1994 - The School of Architecture and Urban Planning joins the School of the Arts to become the School of Arts and Architecture.
  • 2000 - The Department of Design was renamed the Department of Design | Media Arts.
  • 2002 - The department moves down to Westwood while the Dickson Art Center is repaired after worsening damage from the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
  • 2006 - The remodeled Dickson Art Center opens as the Eli and Edith Broad Art Center.


From 1939 to 1960, design education at UCLA was one aspect of the Art Department, along with history and studio and pictorial arts. Emeritus Professor James Bassler wrote about the role of design at UCLA during this era:

During the 1950s and 1960s, the history of Design on the UCLA campus generally reflected the interests and values of the University and the society at large. Working within a traditional Department of Art, Design responded to the educational mission of the University by offering a variety of studio fundamentals, graphic, craft and methods courses, constructed to prepare future teachers.

Emeritus Professor John Neuhart told us, “probably the most outstanding area of the department at that time [early 1950s] was in ceramics.” Ceramic was led by Laura Andreson (1902–1999), who taught at UCLA from 1933-70. In an interview for the Smithsonian, Emeritus Professor James Bassler recounts how Andreson would dig clay on campus:

And this was the time when Laura was still—they were still digging clay on campus. They would go down—well, right in front of where Perloff is now and the music department, but there's that bridge—you've heard that story about the bridge. Well, there used to be that big canyon there, which is still essentially there. And Laura would take the students down and dig clay on campus. And that's the clay they'd use to make mostly slab pieces and mold pieces....

When the UCLA College of Fine Arts was established in 1960, it included departments for Art, Music, and Theater Arts and Dance. The Department of Art included the areas history of art, history and studio, pictorial arts, and design. Bassler summed up the end of this era as follows:

...during the 1970s and early 80s, individual area disciplines in Design flourished, due largely to the talents and energies of the faculty and students. Under the pioneering vision and spirit and Professor Kataoka, graphic design explored image making with video and computer. The craft areas of ceramics and fiber/textiles, realizing greater confidence and stronger conceptual footings, began to blur and challenge the line separating them from Art.

The Department of Design

In 1988 the Department of Design was established with a focus on four areas: ceramics (Adrian Saxe), fiber/textiles (James Bassler), industrial design (Nathan Shapira), and graphic design (Mits Kataoka, Bill Brown). The mission of the department was defined in the 1991 department self-statement:

The primary goal of the design curriculum is to produce technically well-prepared and conceptually experimental designers who can challenge conventional design standards and accepted design practice. This includes the ability to originate new forms and expressive possibilities through creative research.

In addition to the focus on traditional craft media, the Department of Design has a long history of fostering new technologies, including computer animation, photography, and video. For example, Professor Kataoka hosted visits from Nam June Paik and computer graphics pioneers John Whitney Sr. and Robert Abel were affiliated with the department.

The Restructured Department of Design, Enter Computation

After the department's 1991 review, admissions were suspended pending a substantial restructuring and approval of a new curriculum based on the lack of a “coherent educational framework.” A proposal for restructuring the Bachelor of Arts degree was submitted in 1994, followed by a proposal for restructuring the Master of Fine Arts degree in 1996. The restructured department began admitting new BA students in fall 1995 and new MFA students in fall 1996. The basis of the restructuring came from the point of view of the “role of the computer as a universal design tool and a universal form of communication and expression.” During this time, Rebecca Allen was recruited back to the department in 1996 (she had taught at UCLA from 1986 to 1992) to serve as Chair. In 1998, Allen wrote:

The traditional distinction between two- and three-dimensional design has evaporated. Today's digital designers must be facile in two-, three-, and even four-dimensional design principles. They must be able to create non-linear designs that integrate two- and three-dimensional visual elements with sound, movement, time, and space. Unique forms of interactive art and design are emerging from an ever-expanding spiral of media experimentation. The Internet and its offspring such as the World Wide Web are spawning new forms of community, often blurring the traditional distinction between creator and user. The new forms of media art and design raise profound theoretical and societal issues about media technology and visual culture.

At the same time the department was moving aggressively toward digital technologies, it was also putting an increased emphasis onto the importance of design history, theory, and methodology in both lower- and upper-division undergraduate classes. The restructuring created a new energy in the department. As the 1999 department review states, “The design majors exhibit an extraordinary esprit d' corps.”

From Design to Design | Media Arts

The critical event in forming the current Department of Design | Media Arts was the Design Review Committee initiated by Dean Daniel Neuman and led by Robert Winter, then the Associate Dean for Technology, Curricular Innovation, and Research. The committee was Rebecca Allen, Mits Kataoka, Sylvia Lavin, and Peter Nabokov. The “Design Review Committee Report,” written by Allen and revised by Winter in November 1997, set the groundwork for the current direction of the department. There are many statements in the report that still ring true 10 years later. The goals outlined for the department's students, are still accurate:

To prepare students for a life's work of creativity and imaginative problem solving; to stimulate students to a self-reliance that unleashes creativity within themselves; to encourage a sense of experimentation, vision, and curiosity essential in an increasingly unpredictable world; to foster the ability, through awareness of major theoretical issues, to navigate fluidly through technological and social change; to emphasize procedures and conceptual thinking rather than narrow skills that can become instantly outmoded; to prepare students who can emerge as leaders in the rapidly expanding new media community.

This shift was formalized in 2000 as the name of the department was changed to the Department of Design | Media Arts and Victoria Vesna was brought in as the Chair. In an essay published in the School of the Arts and Architecture Newsletter Spring 2001, Vesna discussed the meaning of the | in the department's name:

That is a | not /. A slash denotes and/or, which is not what we had in mind. The symbol “|” is called a pipe, and comes from computer science; it is not yet part of the literary vocabulary. Indeed, it is difficult to find it on your keyboard unless you are a programmer. To us it represents communication technologies; it is the line that blurs the boundaries between disciplines and creates new hybrids yet to be defined and named. The pipe symbol also marks the goal of moving beyond the idea of working between disciplines, the traditional interdisciplinary approach that in the end simply reaffirms the existing delineations. Instead, it points to an active collaboration of people who willingly let go of their roots and work together to develop more complex ideas of how culture operates.

The newly formed Department of Design | Media Arts grew quickly. In 2000, Professors Erkki Huhtamo and Christian Moeller joined the faculty. Jennifer Steinkamp and Rebeca Mendez joined in 2003, with C.E.B. Reas following the year after. After three years of lecturing within the department, Willem Henri Lucas joined the faculty in 2008.

2007 to the Present

Professor Vesna stepped down as the chair in 2007, following a successful department review. Professor C.E.B. Reas started as the Chair in Fall 2007 and, with the faculty, refocused the goals of the department. In a response to the 2007 review, Reas wrote:

We see our department as a hub for interdisciplinary education and creative work. Rather than focusing on Design or Media Art, the department is putting its energy into joining these areas. The fields of contemporary Design and Media Art are broad and share many common areas of historical, theoretical, and practical focus including visual and mass communication, interactivity, and using the computer as the primary tool and medium. Using the careers of our faculty as examples (we all have experience in two or more subfields that bridge Design and Media Art) we are positioning ourselves as a unique program that reflects the eroding boundaries between these areas within contemporary culture.

Reas served as the chair of the Department until spring 2009 when Willem Henri Lucas became the chair. During that time the department pushed forward in a number of areas. Peter Lunenfeld was hired to teach design and media art history and theory courses. Video games were further integrated into the department with the hire of Eddo Stern, followed by founding the joint School of Arts and Architecture and School of Theater, Film, and Television Game Lab, directed by Stern. The Fabrication and Electronics Lab was established from the former shop and SenseLab to enhance the department's fabrication and electronics capabilities.


In Spring 2008, to learn more about the history of the Department of Design | Media Arts (DMA), then Chair Professor C.E.B. Reas asked DMA graduate student Casey Alt to interview five people: emeriti faculty Mits Kataoka and John Neuhart, our current senior faculty member, Vasa Mihich, and the two most recent department chairs, Rebecca Allen and Victoria Vesna. These interviews were transcribed by Brenda Williams, and Professor Reas further edited each. The result is hours of audio and over 100 pages of history, stories, and opinions about the past, present, and future of the department. These interviews were cross-references with Web searches and internal departmental documents.


The foundation of this document was a series of interviews with John Neuhart, Mitsuru Kataoka, Vasa Mihich, Rebecca Allen, and Victoria Vesna. Department records, obituaries, and several online histories of UCLA provided more details.

  • 1985 Academic Senate Review of the Department of Design.
  • 1999 Academic Senate Review of the Department of Design.
  • 2007 Academic Senate Review of the Department of Design | Media Arts.
  • Design Review Committee Report. Submitted by Rebecca Allen. Chair, Department of Design, 4 Nov 1997. Revised by Robert Winter, 15 Nov 1997
  • Internal document written by James Bassler.
  • Oral history interview with James Bassler, 2002 Feb. 11 and 14, April 9 and June 6, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
  • Thomas Jennings: In Memoriam. John Neuhart, Mitsuru Kataoka
  • Archine Fetty: In Memoriam. Mitsuru Kataoka, Jon Neuhart, Nathan Shapira
  • Interview with John Neuhart by Casey Alt, transcribed by Brenda Williams
  • Interview with Mitsuru Kataoka by Casey Alt, transcribed by Brenda Williams
  • Interview with Rebecca Allen by Casey Alt, transcribed by Brenda Williams
  • Interview with Victoria Vesna by Casey Alt, transcribed by Brenda Williams
  • Interview with Vasa Mihich by Casey Alt, transcribed by Brenda Williams
  • UCLA Arts History.