“Think of them as a time continuum.” That’s how R. Roger Remington, Vignelli Distinguished Professor of Design, described the way the three archives at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) work together. The Cary Graphic Arts Collection covers the earliest writings to about 1920, the Cary Graphic Design Archive continues into the 1960s with the New York modernist generation, and finally the Vignelli Center for Design Studies brings us up to the 21st century.
The incredible Cary Graphic Arts Collection was established in 1969 when RIT acquired the private library of Melbert B. Cary, Jr., director of Continental Type Founders Association and proprietor of a private press. An endowment that accompanied the original of 2,300 books allows RIT to maintain and expand the collection, which now exceeds 45,000 volumes on type design, graphic design, typography, and illustration as well as printing processes, papermaking, calligraphy, and bookbinding. Among the highlights are a cuneiform clay tablet from 2030 BCE, 15th century incunabula books, William H. Page’s Specimens of Chromatic Wood Type (1874), William Morris’s Kelmscott Chaucer (1896) and the press on which it was printed, and an assortment of books from the 1920s and ’30s featuring avant-garde typography like Russian Constructivist El Lissitzky’s For the Voice and Italian Futurist Fortunato Depero’s Depero Futurista.
At the heart of the Graphic Design Archive are the modernist pioneers of American graphic design. When I asked Professor Remington what inspired him to establish it he said, “I was concerned that so few of my students knew about the history of their field. If you’re going to be a professional, you need to be interested in and curious about what has gone on before and who the people are who prepared the way.”
The gift that kicked the archive off was a 1970’s traveling exhibition of the work of Ladislav Sutnar sponsored by Champion Paper. Then in 1984, Lester Beall’s family donated his complete archive, a comprehensive collection of original source materials that spans his 40-year career, including process sketches, comps, finished work, corporate identity manuals, and even Beall’s canvas and leather portfolio case. The archives of information design pioneer Will Burtin and editorial art director Cipe Pineles are also extensive. Collections from other 20th-century graphic designers and typographers vary in size and scope. Among those represented are Saul Bass, Herbert Bayer, Jacqueline Casey, Elaine Lustig Cohen, George Giusti, Rudolph de Harak, William Golding, Leo Lionni, Alvin Lustig, Bradbury Thompson, and George Tscherny.
The Vignelli Center for Design Studies opened in 2010, the culmination of Remington and Massimo’s 30-year friendship and their shared commitment to design education. The cornerstone of the archive is the vast collection of interdisciplinary work by Lella and Massimo. In addition to the Vignelli collections, work by Bill Bonnell and Pierre Mendell are housed at the center along with the RitaSue Siegel archive and the Product Timecapsule Collection.
The Vignellis believed that “design is one” and that a designer, no matter what field he or she practices in, should be able to design anything. The collection documents their foray into graphic programs, publication design and packaging, transportation design, furniture, product, and exhibition design, jewelry, silverware, and even clothing. The Center, which was designed by the Vignellis, has two galleries for exhibitions and a study room where students, researchers, professional designers, and scholars engage with the work. Through the Vignelli Center for Design Studies, the Vignelli’s commitment to design excellence lives on through preservation, various initiatives, and design education, with RIT students benefitting firsthand.
“We call it activating the archive,” said Remington. “These aren’t collections that just sit in a moldy storeroom. Our design students learn about the history of graphic design by examining real artifacts. Some faculty use archival materials as a basis to launch contemporary design assignments.” For example, Professor Bruce Meador’s students studied the original Unigrid System brochure that Vignelli designed as a supporting structure for the National Parks Service site folders. Afterwards, students applied the Unigrid as a method to organize design elements in their own work.
While the archives support the design curriculum and the scholarly interests of faculty and staff, they’re also open to the public. “All are welcome to come and use the collection,” said Dr. Steven K. Galbraith, curator of the Cary Graphic Arts Collection. “It’s good to get in touch with us in advance so we can pull items and have them ready when you arrive.”