In a recent feature in the Guardian, design critic Olly Wainwright claimed, “Graphic design has always been the poor relation to its more lordly cousins.” As evidence, he cited the vast number of institutions and awards dedicated to the likes of architecture and fashion, suggesting that they were in stark contrast with graphic design’s more limited visibility. While organizations like AIGA in America and D&AD in the UK are undoubtedly representative of the industry, Wainwright makes a valid point. Institutions dedicated solely to celebrating graphic design, both its practitioners and its varied output, are few and far between. Design museums the world over are largely focused on product and furniture design, punctuated only by sporadic exhibitions that feature the work of only the biggest names in graphic design.
London’s Kemistry Gallery has spent the last ten years combating this lack of focus by holding regular exhibitions featuring the work of both large and small names from the industry. It’s become an institution in east London, so when news that rent hikes in the area had pushed the gallery out of its home, it’s not an overstatement to say mouths hung ajar. Fortunately, there’s a happy ending.
After a successful Kickstarter campaign, the gallery is returning, and this time with even more ambitious plans to become a National Centre for Graphic Design. We spoke with founder Graham McCallum about how graphic design has finally “come of age,” and why there’s never been a better time to open a new home for its practitioners and admirers.
Aside from being forced out of your original home, what was behind this ambition to open a National Centre for Graphic Design?
The options were to permanently close and rest on our laurels, find a similar premises, or aim for something more ambitious. We saw it as an opportunity to attempt something bigger and better. Having invested ten years of our lives in the gallery, a larger premises with space for a café, shop, and a place to hold talks seems a good thing to aim for.
The reception has been incredible. Did you expect such a fervor?
I think graphic design has, in a way, come of age. Anybody with a computer can have access to programs that can reproduce what were at one time a range of quite specialized skills. Graphic design, a once arcane profession that was the preserve of the few is now fully democratized. As a result people are more aware of design; there are many design blogs (such as this one) and sites like Pinterest where things can be easily shared that are boosting interest.
Why do you think something like this doesn’t already exist in the U.K.?
The U.K. has a very fine Design Museum, but its remit is to cover all design disciplines and so exhibitions specifically about graphic design are quite few and far between. When they do hold graphic design exhibitions they have to go for the really big names like Saul Bass or Wim Crouwel. We’ve been able to show the work of complete unknowns and upcoming talents that wouldn’t as yet warrant a large exhibition. We’ve also given shows to figures such as Germany’s greatest postwar poster designer, Hans Hillman, whose work has never before been exhibited in the U.K., plus similar names such as such as Polish designer Jerzy Treutler.
As a discipline, why do you think graphic design in particular doesn’t receive as much attention or “respect” as other disciplines like art or architecture?
I think graphic design is seen solely as a commercial enterprise, there just to serve the interests of a client. It’s also disposable, used, and then thrown away in most instances. However, the work we’re interested in rises above the merely commercial imperatives. The greatest work reflects the age in which it was made and influences the wider world. For example, a Saul Bass poster can now be seen as the wonderful thing it is, but when it was first produced it would have been more difficult to appreciate it in the context of the day.
Do you think those attitudes are changing?
I hope so. If the interest in our gallery is anything to go by, there’s now a growing and educated audience who really appreciate the work. Our “100 Years of Graphic Design” exhibition has a constant flow of visitors and the talks we’re giving in the evening sell out in 24 hours.
Does the Centre have a new home yet?
That’s the next stage of the mission. Our local council, Hackney, have been really helpful and understand what we’re trying to do. We’ve looked at a few interesting buildings, but the location is also crucial. The U.K. Arts Council has given us a grant to do a feasibility study and the current exhibition is part of that. Once we’ve submitted the results of the study, that’s when the search will really start
Obviously the new Centre will show exhibitions, but what other roles will it fill?
One possibility is to build a graphic design archive, a resource that would be properly cataloged and preserved and that could be accessed for research purposes. We want to spread the word that graphic design makes a huge contribution to our culture that’s not often not seen. We’re surrounded by it in our daily lives yet, in a way, it’s hidden in plain sight, taken for granted and not seen as the exciting and progressive force it is.