The Heart of the Matter

EXHIBITION
Graphic Design: Now in Production
Through September 3
Building 110, Governors Island
www.cooperhewitt.org

New York City

Perhaps more than anyone else, graphic designers have influenced, and been influenced by, changes to how we receive, understand, and communicate information at the turn of the millennium. In the process, the boundaries of what they do have blurred and shifted. Curated by Andrew Blauvelt, the design director and curator of Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, and Ellen Lupton, the senior curator of contemporary design at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Graphic Design: Now in Production takes stock of the profession in a time of change. The exhibition was on view at the Walker Art Center earlier this year, and it reopened on May 26 on Governors Island, in New York City. Recently, Alice Twemlow, the chair of the design criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, spoke to the curators about trends in graphic design, and the challenge of exhibiting them.

As graphic designers have become filmmakers, artists, and product designers—which you show in this exhibition—one could almost argue that the discipline has dissolved. Did you feel like you had to reclaim a core for graphic design?
ELLEN LUPTON: We tried to identify practices that are influential, that are controversial, and that are leading the field. We’re interested in showing work that is on the edge.

ANDREW BLAUVELT: What is graphic design? I think that’s the question. Is it a process? Is it a tool? Is it a medium? It takes on different personalities depending on how people are playing with it—whether they are professionals, amateurs, or even artists who’ve appropriated graphic design as a strategy in their work.

EL: Graphic design brings a different focus to all those activities. There is a certain kind of form, communication, and structure that is particular to it. A graphic designer making films or products has a distinct point of view. Take someone like Peter Buchanan-Smith, who’s creating products. It’s about him reclaiming the axe, an object that had suddenly become coveted by urbanites, and then building a whole brand aesthetic, a story world, around it. I think that’s very much a graphic designer’s take on a product—it is as much about branding and myth making as it was about creating a new object.

I wonder if you could address the “now in production” aspect of the exhibition?
EL: There’s been a discussion going on for 20 years now about designers who want to identify themselves as authors. They want to show that they’re not just interested in making things pretty, but that they can initiate projects and sign their names to them. We came to this notion of production as a shift in that dialogue. Production involves hands-on making; it’s more pragmatic and situational. Designers are seeing their profession as a tool kit that they use in a lot of different situations. So unlike the elitist overtones of “authorship”—wherein the designer wants to elevate his position—“production” offers a way to embrace the lowness of making, the everydayness, the character of design as a form of doing. Designers are creating tools; they’re working collaboratively. They’re becoming publishers, which is very different from being an author. Publishing is more about making something happen to the world, as opposed to undertaking a solitary intellectual pursuit. We felt that captured the mindset of the field at this moment in time.

These are classic questions regarding shows about graphic design, but I’d like to hear your response to them: What were the challenges in displaying the projects? How do you isolate work that’s supposed to be seen in context?
EL: I think graphic design looks really beautiful when it’s taken out of context, as do many other things, like chairs, or silverware. So many of the things that we live with and abuse and ignore each day become beautiful in a museum. I think we did that for graphic design with this show. The installation at the Walker was very different from what we’re doing on Governors Island. The Walker is a sublime museum space. Anything that you put in that building takes on an aura of significance. Governors Island is a rougher space; there, the exhibition appears crowded and urban, much like New York. I think it will be quite different in terms of how people experience it, but the artifacts are the same. In both cases, we’re asking people to stop and look at graphic design, which does mean taking each piece of work out of its habitat, and treating it as an object.

In the colophon of your gorgeous catalog, you introduce, in passing, this idea of the “pre-modern.” That’s a really interesting term. Is it an attempt to excavate past the layers of postmodernism and modernism, to something else?
AB: I was actually thinking about that in terms of publishing—that’s how that word popped into my head. A lot of designers who are working as publishers identify with William Morris, or even the Renaissance—when the publisher could be both the author and the designer, and there was a certain amount of ambiguity and hybridity between those roles. I meant “pre-modern” in that sense. There is also the problem of discussing the place of postmodernism in today’s work. Curators are now considering postmodernism, but it was a taboo affiliation for many years. The truth is that the claim to authorship is clearly a postmodern notion from the 1980s and 1990s—for graphic design, at least. Also, the ideas regarding creativity and appropriation that are now prevalent were classic post-modern gestures. Today, they have less to do with power relations or identity politics—they’ve really transformed design into this cultural stream of material that is available to use and to reuse, to remix and to repost.

You write in the catalog, “Aggregated rather than authored, Graphic Design: Now in Production is disordered and nonhierarchical, preferring to cluster and group rather than argue and explain.” As curators, are you just laying things out, rather than providing a critical reading of the material?
EL: That comment speaks to the new modes of reading and writing that characterize our time—content feeds, comment streams, Wikipedia, and the overall hunting-and-gathering mentality of Google Books and beyond. Our catalog is a diverse assemblage of content types—long-form evaluative pieces, as well as short definitions and excerpts that are inserted into the visual flow of the book. Most of the writers are practitioners who have contributed to a critical discourse about design, such as Peter Bilak, Michael Rock, Lorraine Wild, and Rob Giampietro. The book was compiled more or less as we went along. It conformed to no single point of origin, master narrative, or outline. Thus, in its structure and methodology, the book itself is a response to the way we read and write now.

The exhibition, on the other hand, is organized in a more straightforward fashion, as it’s assembled around recognizable genres of graphic design: posters, magazines, books, typography, branding, and so on. Here, the critical viewpoint comes from the selection of projects, as well as from the theme of production. Take, for example, the section on posters, which was largely organized by Andrew. The poster is the genre of graphic design that’s most often seen in museums, and yet it is a medium whose purpose and means of distribution have changed—the elements of LUST’s Poster Wall for the Twenty-First Century are “designed” by a digital system that responds to input from users. In the branding section of the exhibition, we show not only innovative visual strategies, but also the Brand New project, which invites visitors to make judgments between logos, and Metahaven’s Facestate project, a dystopian identity for an invented system of government via social media.

Have you discovered any new regional centers of graphic design, beyond New York, London, or Los Angeles, through your research for the exhibition?

EL: I think the Internet is the new regional center. The way images circulate is key to the way people understand and learn about design now. Design is largely removed from affiliation to regions; it is a free-circulating hive.

AB: To quote Thomas Friedman, the world is flat, and it is flattened by the Internet. But what’s surprising is how rapidly the discourse develops, and how quickly everything is emulated. So it’s hard if, as a curator, you’re trying to find out who did something first. But I don’t think we took that approach.

EL: Look at the revolution in independent publishing. There are all these small publications, magazines, and people creating books on Risograph printers, but the primary manner in which that material is experienced is through photographs on the Internet. There’s a fascination with print, with books, zines, and paper editions, yet the discourse about them is largely online.

It was interesting to see how difficult we found narrowing down the book and magazine sections. You would think that print is dying, but we just could not stop with that material, because it is so rich, and it feels so new and so varied.

To what do you attribute this mass of book and magazine production? Is it just a knee-jerk reaction to the ephemerality of online media?
EL: No, I think it actually relies largely on the Internet to succeed. It’s like the avant-garde movement in the 1920s, which was this really small group of artists and designers who were spread out across Europe and Los Angeles.

But they communicated through magazines and the postal system, creating a network. Now, yes, you can publish your own book, but then you use the Internet to tell people about it. The very thing that was supposed to kill print is providing it with health insurance. Books remain a very seductive medium to create and consume.

Are there any other themes in the show that we haven’t talked about?
AB: It just has a lot of energy and excitement. It’s a visually stimulating show. If I step back a little, there’s probably too much material, but that’s indicative of the present day, too. There’s a lot of stuff being made, and it is being made more enthusiastically.

I like the fact that the exhibition is full of artifacts and real things. Even if they are filmic or digital, they are crafted. You encounter so much talk about the disappearance of design, and I just don’t understand it. You hear so much of this from designers—that the new design will be invisible or immaterial, that it’s all collective, or that it is assigned to no one.

EL: Or that it’s all systems or services. This is really a show that celebrates graphic design as a visual practice and phenomenon. It is very luscious and aesthetic.

That’s what I meant about reclaiming a core for graphic design, and you’ve done that—you’ve shown that there is this tangible, material culture.
EL: What comes across in the show is that the people who we are featuring really love graphic design. They want to be doing this. It is not a cynical thing, or a career choice. This is a medium of expression that you can devote your life to, and find others of like obsession. I think people can walk into the show and feel that, and want to be part of it.

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