What Matters: Beth Tondreau On Long Drives and Typewriters

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Debbie Millman has an ongoing project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers, and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer ten identical questions and submit a nonprofessional photograph.

Beth Tondreau started her small design practice after her posts as an art director and design director with publishers in Boston, London, and New York. Still practicing to get it right, Beth is an adjunct lecturer at City Tech in Brooklyn, studies Italian, and in the Beforetimes spent a fair amount of time with swing dancers.

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

I love making long driving trips passing through landscapes no matter how flat or mountainous. If the trip is somewhere other than the United States and involves a stick shift, I’m happier to be the passenger (and so are my fellow travelers).

What is the first memory you have of being creative? 

I think it was the small lake I made—really, a bowl filled with water—bordered by old grass from an Easter basket and inhabited by a paper frog, which I waterproofed by coloring with crayons before cutting out. Around the same time, a poem I wrote was published in Highlights for Children magazine. 

My first memory of creativity with inadequate craftsmanship was a charcoal drawing I was tapped to do for a kids’ TV (television!?!) show in Philadelphia. I knew it was important to fix the drawing to protect it, but I used deodorant spray instead of hairspray. The drawing smeared and smelled funny, but I think my so-called work aired nonetheless (pun sort of intended).


Although not a first memory, I requested and received a typewriter—a pink Tom Thumb—so I could publish, edit, write, and illustrate “Beth’s Bulletin,” produced in an edition of one or, if the carbon paper held out, two (OK, so the name was not at all creative). My mother kept some of the bulletins; they’re underwhelming. However, they show my early need to document or, for a shy child, to assert existence. One of my front-page stories was about a fire at the Overbrook School for the Blind in West Philadelphia. The fire was terrifying for those of us who walked kids from the Blind School to church on Sundays. Luckily, no kids were hurt; the one fatality was a fireman. What struck me about the kids from the school was not design at all but sound and touch. One student I accompanied regularly recited the weather and constantly fluttered his fingers; I was so impressed by his vocabulary, especially the word “precipitation.” 

What is your biggest regret?

Fearing and then failing to improvise. Years ago, when I was the sole representative of my cohort at a conference where attendees had prepared to tout their accomplishments, I didn’t jump in. Although it had been decided our group wouldn’t make a presentation, it became clear—as the roll call proceeded alphabetically through well-rehearsed songs, skits, and proclamations—that I was expected to take a turn at the podium. I scribbled notes, thought I’d beg indulgence and wing it, and even started to write a patter song in the style (I hoped) of Sondheim. BUT I chickened out. If I were in the same situation again, I hope I’d at least go down trying. 

How have you gotten over heartbreak?

Slowly, painfully, but eventually realizing it’s better to try to avoid being locked in a situation that undermines (fragile!) self-esteem.

What makes you cry?

Eloquence. Kindness Music. Sometimes loss of hope (like the ending of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, which, of course, is not at all mirthful).

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

Maybe a few weeks. However, I’ve noticed that when I feel underrated or patronized, I remind myself of accomplishments from an embarrassingly long time ago.

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

I’m still working that one out. Although I was brought up with a very strict and somewhat cartoon-like concept of heaven, I feel that an afterlife is the good we pass on. So, I guess that’s a “no” for now.

What do you hate most about yourself?

I dwell on shortcomings and procrastinate instead of just getting over it—and on with it.

What do you love most about yourself?

I’m honest and honorable and can generally laugh at myself. 


What is your absolute favorite meal?

If I’m not making it, duck breast and wild rice. If I’m making it, pasta and broccoli followed by cooked chocolate pudding.