There’s always been a certain mythology associated with California—that moving there somehow inherently holds the promise for limitless potential. Within the context of graphic design history, that notion was never more apparent than during the late 20th century. Catalyzed by emerging digital production techniques and the rejection of modernist design principles, graphic design during this period underwent a radical shift in both thought and form. So what was it about the cultural environment of California that made the West Coast the best coast for avant-garde design?
In the new exhibit West of Modernism: California Graphic Design, 1975–1995, currently on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), associate curator Staci Steinberger has assembled a collection of posters and publications produced by leading designers of the postmodern era including Emigre, Ed Fella, April Greiman, Rebeca Méndez, Deborah Sussman, Jeff Keedy, and Lorraine Wild. The show draws entirely from acquisitions made by LACMA since 2014 as part of a new initiative of the museum’s, which seeks to integrate graphic design into the larger narratives of international art and design history.
“One of the reasons that this period of graphic design is so interesting is that so much was changing,” Steinberger says. “Not just in the way that technology was transforming the daily activity of creating design, but also in the intellectual and ideological debates occurring within the discipline. We wanted this exhibition to show how California and its progressive design schools were central to that changing story.”
Wild, who is a 2006 AIGA Medalist, worked with Steinberger to collect many of the pieces for the show. She moved to Los Angeles in 1985 to take the position as graphic design program director at CalArts. “For me, the feeling of working in California was that there were wider possibilities for form, that there wasn’t the allegiance to corporate, International Style Modernism as there was on the East Coast,” says Wild.
One of the signature pieces in the show that encapsulates Pacific New Wave design is Greiman’s 1985 poster for AIGA. Because it was a collaborative piece to which Michael Cronan, Linda Hinrichs, Michael Manwaring, Michael Vanderbyl, and Eric Martin all contributed, it serves as a microcosm for the work produced throughout the state’s disparate yet connected design communities. “It really represents two strong streams of work in this period coming from Northern and Southern California, with designers like April Greiman and Deborah Sussman working in L.A., or studios like Emigre up north in San Francisco,” Steinberger says.
But it wasn’t just geography that allowed for greater aesthetic freedom; the clients with whom these designers worked also made a difference. Academic and cultural institutions like CalArts, CCA, Art Center, Sci-Arc, and LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) served as laboratories for designers to experiment with emerging printing technologies, new layout conventions, and vernacular elements.
“In L.A., there was certainly the omnipresence of the entertainment business, which possessed the willingness to accept somewhat iconoclastic or less obedient design solutions,” says Wild. “But the fact is, in the early 1980s, design schools became the place where the incipient change in technology was being thought of and being addressed before it was happening out in the profession.”
On display in the center of the gallery is an additional piece by Greiman: a long, accordion-fold flyer for CalArts, designed in collaboration with Jayme Odgers. It’s one example of experimentation that is less about expressive typography and more about Greiman’s utilization of pre-Photoshop digital image manipulation techniques. “You know you’re looking at a collage, but it’s got this seamlessness to it that comes from the software on which it was composed,” says Wild. “However, even though they were using digital layouts and typefaces, it’s an object that feels very physical. The use of ink and color and folded paper stock gives it a visceral quality that says the designers are still working from an analog place. It’s such a different experience from today, where so much of our work remains exclusively digital as disembodied PDFs.”
Elsewhere on display was Rebeca Méndez’s work for Art Center, which was instrumental in reshaping the institution’s visual identity while also contributing to postmodern discourse and practice. Citing one of Méndez’s publications, Steinberger explains, “It’s actually perforated down the middle so readers could move around the pages and create all these multiple narratives. The typography also changes the letterforms to emphasize different elements and add layers of meaning to what the author is saying. It’s not just about reading it one way.”
Another defining factor that set California apart from the East Coast design world at the time was the sheer number of women practicing graphic design out East. Retaining greater autonomy in one’s work was a driving force behind postmodern design theory, but it also was relevant from a feminist perspective. Sheila Levrant de Bretteville’s poster for the Women’s Graphic Center illustrates just that, as it advocates the need for women to learn how to print and set type in order to create their own content. Levrant de Bretteville asserted that embracing digital technologies would facilitate greater access to those tools.
However, Steinberger says not all the designers featured in the show were early adopters of the computer and digital type. “There was a lot of hesitation and some dismissal. Many said the computer was a passing fad, while others were deeply concerned about how it was changing the work process, and how it was impacting people they’d collaborated with for years, like typesetters.” Steinberger explains when curating the show it was crucial to acknowledge that dialogue of opinions since it was one of the first times that design was discussed and debated in a more general context.
Though the number of pieces on display is relatively small—in all, there are 31 posters and publications—the show doesn’t feel homogenous. What unifies the work is, “the degree of passionate engagement with the material, and with the things that graphic design could do at that time, which are different than what we see today,” Wild explains.
“I would never want anybody to try to replicate this work now—although the multi-colored inks are nice,” she says. “But there’s been a stripping down of graphic language in recent years, almost a return to standardization and uniformity of design, as if typography doesn’t really matter. It’s true when you’re living under the impending sense of a cultural emergency, maybe it doesn’t. Still, there’s something about the energy and dedication in this work as both a practice and a delivery system of content that I find really moving. I hope younger designers who view this work see that, too.”