Published

12 May 2011

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Collecting History

The following is an article we contributed to Eight:48 Issue 5.

Collections tell stories. Often, they represent a personal narrative or reveal some interesting character traits of the collector. We are collectors of a different sort. Although the act of collecting is a personal journey, our graphic design collection is not a preview into our lives or our history. Rather, the collection is a way for us to gain valuable insight into another history – a critical period of graphic design. Our curated collection, partially cataloged online at thisisdisplay.org is made up of important building blocks of graphic design’s historical record including: books, periodicals, advertisements and ephemera – many of which are overlooked and have not made it into the “official” graphic design canon (at least not yet). From the rational to the playful, our collection tells a distinct point-of-view about mid 20th century graphic design, typography and some of its pioneers.

Collecting History

As designers, “being able to design is not always enough” (Steven Heller, Graphic Design History, New York: Allworth Press, 2001). We can improve and inform our practice by having a sense of graphic design history. Both contemporary and vintage books on design history are required reading and should be included on any designer’s bookshelf. Written by scholars and astute practitioners in the field, many of these books are comprehensive and include the necessary facts needed to chronicle important periods, milestones, pioneers and their ideas and achievements. Other books are purely inspirational and this is valuable also. But for those of us who want to dig deeper, reading books is only part of the story.

Some collectors are content to simply own the object but for us that falls short. To appreciate and understand graphic design history is a combination of collecting / organizing / cataloging and seeing / thinking / reading. It’s not enough to own the object – it’s also about what the object can teach us. Learning from our collection has made the experience of collecting worthwhile. Our issues of Typographische Monatsblätter (TM) are a fitting example of this type of learning. In 1961, Emil Ruder (1914–1970) designed a rhythmic series of ten covers with typographic variations on a fixed theme using Adrian Frutiger’s Univers. Experimenting with different type sizes, weights and positioning, Ruder kept a basic theme intact. Our initial impression was that the covers were beautiful but we didn’t fully understand Ruder’s approach or the design’s formal qualities. It was only after reading Ruder’s chapter on Variations in his 1967 tome, Typography – A Manual of Design that our understanding began to take shape, “Variation involves singling out a mean value and calls for the ability to put this mean value through as many variations as possible.” (Switzerland: Arthur Niggli Ltd., Teufen AR, 1967). This combination of reading the text while examining the physical issues helped us “see” a unique perspective and discover a greater understanding of Ruder’s reasoning.

Another admired designer in our collection is Ladislav Sutnar (1897–1976). Through his book Ladislav Sutnar – Prague – New York – Design in Action (Prague: Museum of Decorative Arts: Argo, 2003), we were aware that he was Art Director from 1941-1960 for Sweet’s Catalog Service, where he worked with researchers, writers and designers to develop a wide range of visual solutions for American industrial products. But it was only after we began collecting his Sweet’s catalogs that we fully understood his visual principles in action. For non–architects like us, the sight of a 1940’s Sweet’s Catalog File is quite daunting. They are huge and unwieldy, containing hundreds of product catalogs such as: asphalt tile, unit heaters, condenser tubes, miniature precision bearings, cork products and more. Most of the catalogs in the Sweet’s File are dull, cluttered and forgettable. But the designs of Sutnar stand out and are identifiable, functional and visually dynamic. The rigorous process of collecting Sweet’s Files in search of Sutnar’s catalogs helped us better understand his pioneering ideas about information design – through coordinated visual systems of geometric shapes, navigational signals and Constructivist colors. Sutnar said, “the designer must think first, work later” (Steven Heller: Ladislav Sutnar: Pioneer of Information Design, AIGA Medalists, 1997, http://www.aiga.org/content.cfm/medalist-ladislavsutnar) and this is evident in his work for Sweet’s, which are as relevant today as they were more than 65 years ago. Sutnar was a master at making complex things simple, an arduous task even by today’s standards. These catalogs are not only visually stunning but when analyzed in conjunction with important texts, become essential artifacts to better understanding graphic design history.

For similar reasons that we’re attracted to Sutnar’s catalogs, we’re also interested in other types of industrial catalogs and advertisements. Through our study of Studio Boggeri, we learned that many designers were converging in Milan, Italy during the post-war years (1945–1969) to take advantage of opportunities in the corporate sector. Companies such as Pirelli (international tire and rubber manufacturer) were establishing in-house advertising and communication departments open to creating relationships with a diverse group of designers. Pirelli’s advertising is little known and rarely recognized in the written histories of seminal U.S. graphic design history books. Curious to uncover this work, we sought out and purchased issues of Pirelli Magazines from 1949–1968, which enabled us to add a diverse group of Pirelli advertisements to our growing collection.

During this time in Italy, while many corporate communication programs focused on the standardization of their visual identities including: graphics, color, typefaces, layout and marketing messages, Pirelli created a visual identity based on diverse, unique styles and sensibilities. Countless advertisements and other publicity items were created for Pirelli by renowned graphic designers (British, Dutch, Swiss and Italian) such as: Albe Steiner, Walter Ballmer, Ezio Bonini, Aldo Calabrese, Confalonieri and Negri, Alan Fletcher, Max Huber, Lora Lamm, Bruno Monguzzi, Bruno Munari, Bob Noorda, Armondo Testa, Pino Tovaglia, Massimo Vignelli, Unimark and many more. The uniqueness of the Pirelli designs visually illustrates the individual, playful and poetic nature, which has come to represent this period of “Italian Style”.

For us, one of the primary responsibilities of owning a collection is conducting research about the objects we acquire and finding out how they can far exceed their role as inspirational “eye candy”. Ultimately, the collection becomes a valuable tool to design practice, education and research. This requires both passion and motivation (among others things) to uncover the names of designers, the year an item was produced, it’s provenance, the relationship it has to other objects and how it tells a story. Doing so takes patience, meticulous research and the contributions of the many resources at our disposal – libraries, museums, scholars, private collections and design schools. Slowly, we share our collection and research online for inspiration and education. Thisisdisplay.org is our small, yet important attempt at designing an organized and accessible digital catalog for our growing collection. Display enables us to combine all the things we love – collecting, cataloguing and preserving. Hopefully it will inspire and motivate others to seek out and research their own interests.

Eight:48 is a newspaper from the online store, Counter-Print. Each issue focuses on a different theme relevant to the current creative scene.