In a visual collision delighting design nerds and subversive librarians alike, Berlin’s Museum der Dinge (The Museum of Things) presents “Ephemera,” 450 graphic advertisements arranged in what it calls a “cosmos of pictures of day-to-day life” (on view till July 5). Spanning 100 years and multiple countries, the exhibit presents print advertisements not according to the usual archival categories of chronology, designer, or industry, but rather “from a kind of plundering of our own archives…visually testing a new organization” as curator Lena Schramm puts it.
“Ephemera” is a bold curatorial experiment with an inventive premise. Schramm explains, “We weren’t aiming to present characteristics of specific decades…[or] scholarly cultural analysis. Rather, we wanted to create an overall picture of graphic advertising in all its banality, focusing on paper as medium. We’re surrounded by graphic advertisements daily, yet it’s difficult to contemplate the bigger picture this creates. In the exhibit we hung advertising graphics densely together like a corkboard. This takes so-called ‘low’ material—whose preservation by museums isn’t always guaranteed—and allows its sheer density and heterogeneity to act on the viewer.”
What themes emerge in this dense, bewildering corkboard of throwaway images? Schramm describes a visual feast (or mess, depending on your point of view) of advertisements grouped by visual motif. As Schramm explains, “various themes emerge, repeated from decade to decade. For example, using the female body as a lure and incentive to buy something, or representing a product with a globe to demonstrate claims of its universality and world- or product-category domination. None of these trends are particularly new, just ongoing phenomena used to stoke desire for daily necessities.”
“Almost all the graphics we chose seem downright strange to a modern viewer,” Schramm continues. “Oddity was a selection criterion, actually. Not only for this exhibition, but also in developing the entire collection. Much of the advertising graphics were collected in the 1970’s with an anti-consumption slant…with the passage of time, the design and language in these images seems even more embarrassing and absurd. It makes you aware of how many products are truly unnecessary.”
Museum der Dinge doesn’t feign neutrality on the question of good design or its role in educating the public on same. As a long-time resident and design journalist in Berlin, I’ve visited the permanent collection several times, and I firmly dig the museum’s calmly matter-of-fact stance and its sober, decidedly un-slick atmosphere. A small yet storied institution of industrial design, the Werkbund Archive at the Museum der Dinge preserves the archives of the Deutsche Werkbund, a collective of German artists, designers, and manufacturers founded in 1907 to promote ethical design principles: quality, trueness to materials, functionality, and sustainability. (If you’re thinking Bauhaus, you’re spot-on—the two institutions are closely linked.) The museum itself was established as an autonomous entity in the 1970’s, both to preserve the Werkbund archive and foster ongoing inquiry into what constitutes “good design.”
Schramm points out that the exhibition’s “uniform hanging of advertisements treats everything equally,” which is consistent with the museum’s practice of displaying “historically relevant design objects [next to] objects that come from rather kitschy or ‘trash’ contexts. Only in comparison does the viewer notice these differences…There’s no pre-determined assessment, just encouraging visitors to see and compare visually.”
Fans of graphic design, however, are left with nagging questions: what’s the relationship between ephemerality and quality? Does a throwaway medium like paper (or pixels) necessarily limit a design’s enduring value? Is this exhibit a sneaking indictment of all graphic design, or a subordination of graphic to product design?
Hardly. When asked what a “thing” museum is doing exploring purely graphic design, Schramm invokes the Werkbund’s own golden rule of functionality. “The relationship of advertising graphics to objects can be reduced to a very simple common denominator: graphic design connects the product to the consumer,” Schramm notes. “If the consumer buys the product, commercial art has fulfilled its function. Therein lies its transience, too. Posters, flyers, etc. all wind up in the trash—or in the hands of collectors who discover something interesting in it.”