They collect books, magazines, posters, and ephemera for inspiration just like many other graphic designers, but Kind Company’s Greg D’Onofrio and Patricia Belen aren’t your average graphic design hoarders.
Their collection of book jackets by American designer Alvin Lustig, ads for Milanese tire company Pirelli, and classic design periodicals like the Swiss Typographische Monatsblätter are just a slice of the mid 20th-century graphic design the duo have amassed over a decade. With over 3,000 pieces of works housed within drawers, archival boxes, and bookshelves stored inside their 650-square-foot home office on the Upper East Side of New York City, the couple have literally built a house for modern graphic design.
Their design archive started simply as a way for the self-taught designers to learn about the profession and its history. An early piece they acquired in 2002 was an edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, a sparsely illustrated two-part volume with only a few hand-drawn stars on the red and blue covers.
“The cover design intrigued us, so we bought it for 50 cents, took it home, and wondered who this ‘Lustig’ person was whose signature was printed in the lower lefthand corner,” said D’Onofrio and Belen.
Curiosity led them to discover the works of design pioneer Alvin Lustig, and eventually build a digital archive to share the late designer’s works with an emerging online community in 2005. Through the process they met his wife, Elaine, a designer and artist who piqued the duo’s interest in collecting modern graphic design works.
“Our collection presents graphic design as a fundamental component of the dissemination of Modernism throughout countries such as the United States, Italy, and Switzerland from the late ’30s to the mid ’60s,” they explained.
This was the period when Modernism’s distinctive, abstract graphic language entered into the design of mass culture as evident in the industrial catalogues, advertisements, and pharmaceutical packaging on Display, a public online archive D’Onofrio and Belen built after completing the Lustig archives. Presented as a website with an excellent Instagram account, Display is the duo’s ongoing effort to share their private collection.
While D’Onofrio and Belen have a wide span of Modernist design works in their collection, they’re particularly interested in “Italian Style” works by the likes of Studio Boggeri and Franco Grignani, Swiss functionalism as practiced by designers such as Karl Gerstner and Max Bill, as well as the information design of Ladislav Sutnar. According to them, these are lesser-known examples of how the avant-garde idea of Modernism was applied in graphic design.
Beyond simply a collection of rare and beautiful designs, Display is a tool to understand what the duo call “an epoch of innovation and creativity” in graphic design. Each work up on the archive (which will soon be revamped) is catalogued with information on the publisher and designer as well as its physical dimensions. If you want to go beyond the visual offerings, the website even goes as far as publishing articles by the designers plus transcripts of their lectures and essays to provide context and insights into the thinking behind the showcased designs.
“One of the primary responsibilities of owning a collection is conducting research about the objects and finding out how they can far exceed their role as inspirational eye candy,” say D’Onofrio and Belen. “The collection is a valuable tool for our design practice, education, and writing.”
Like the Modernist works they collect, Kind Company practice the principles of clear communication and visual experimentation as seen in their recent works for Elaine Lustig Cohen’s website, as well as a catalogue on the American book designer Philip Grushkin. Beyond a design reference, the couple’s collection of first-hand materials have been useful for teaching students and curating design history exhibitions, including an upcoming show on Sutnar’s groundbreaking work for the Sweet’s Catalog Service between 1941–1960.
Institutions have benefited, too. Works from Display were loaned to Zurich’s Museum für Gestaltung for their recent showcase of Swiss Style designs, and are also part of curator Donald Albrecht’s ongoing exhibitions of Paul Rand’s work at the Museum of the City of New York, as well as another on Jews and midcentury Modernism at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
“Personal collections are valuable because they’re often eccentric and reflect a unique perspective, something not characteristic of institutions,” says Albrecht. “Greg and Patricia’s Display is also valuable in that collections of graphic design are rare, and their generosity in showing and lending it is key to putting on exhibitions.”
That Display has become a valuable design resource is a sign of how far D’Onofrio and Belen have come. They recall chancing upon an entire set of Neue Grafik/New Graphic Design/Graphisme actuel in their early years, but were clueless about how significant the out-of-rint journal was in the dissemination of the International Typographic Style, (a.k.a. Swiss Style).
“It’s funny, but not only were we not aware of them, but we couldn’t afford them all, even at laughably cheap prices, so we passed on the lot,” they said.
Fortunately, the collection was still there when they returned weeks later to buy them. And the rest is (well-documented) history.