We don’t always realize it, but graphic design saturates every part of our lives. It informs the decisions we make as consumers and serves as a structure for how we understand and engage with our environment—whether through navigating the labyrinth of subway lines via color-coded route maps or learning more about a piece of art from the labels adhered to an exhibition wall.
Within art museums, however, the significance of graphic design is increasingly about more than just a placard. Venerable art museums everywhere are incorporating it into their collections and programming. We spoke with three curators from leading U.S. cultural institutions about the importance of displaying design for non-designers, the challenges of sourcing these materials, and how they are thinking about graphics as a more expanded field.
Meet the participants:
Juliet Kinchin, curator, department of architecture and design at MoMA
Alexander Tochilovsky, associate professor and curator, Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography at Cooper Union
Staci Steinberger, associate curator, decorative art and design at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)
Does graphic design need to be exhibited separately from other art, or can/should it be more enmeshed?
Juliet Kinchin: Yes, it has to be done in every conceivable combination. I think there’s obviously a role for in-depth investigations of the medium, and in the context of posters specifically, but it’s always been MoMA’s mission to really try and mix posters with every other manifestation of modern art and design and expression, whether that’s film or performance or painting or photography.
When MoMA reinstalled its fourth-floor collection galleries with works exclusively from the 1960s, I worked on the area that was devoted to the year 1967. I structured the whole exhibit around creating an immersive psychedelic poster installation which included using projections of liquid loops from The Joshua Light Show. We wanted to try and create an experience that was more immersive than just treating posters as individual images. Graphic design is such a wonderfully flexible medium, and you can tell such rich stories through it.
Alexander Tochilovsky: I agree. I think it should be integrated into fine art exhibitions or those focusing on graphic design specifically. It always gives more context to what design’s role has been in shaping our culture.
Staci Steinberger: At LACMA, our graphic design initiative was conceived as an interdepartmental collaboration between our department of decorative art and design, which is where I sit, and our department of prints and drawings, but we’ve also collaborated with the departments of Japanese art, American art, and modern art. We’ve really tried to put graphic design within that larger narrative of art and design history. I’ve organized several installations including one within our current exhibition, Between the Lines: Typography in LACMA’s Collection, to be graphic design-specific.
How can curators make graphic design and typography accessible and relevant to non-design viewers?
Tochilovsky: Our audience is largely from within the graphic design community, so it’s definitely a balance making exhibitions for graphic designers that have appeal outside of a graphic design context. We’ve been careful not to make them too insular to the discipline.
I would say over the 33 years that the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography has been open, we’ve put on 70+ exhibitions dedicated to graphic design, and it’s been really an incredible opportunity to have that freedom. Our mission has always been to give a sense of design from a broader perspective so that non-designers can also look at these shows and get something out of them. Even though we have so much visual culture bombarding us on a second-by-second basis, people still value being able to look at design through a different framework and re-contextualize the images that surround us every day.
We did an exhibition on pharmaceutical design in the 1960s and it was really eye-opening for a lot of graphic designers. Many who I spoke to during the run of the exhibition—some of whom are even working in the pharma sector—were astounded that their narrow field of design had once been so adventurous and creative. We often associate a certain level of creative restriction with the pharmacy sector, but if you look closely, that assumption actually isn’t true. So we really value those moments when we have this ability to reveal something that has slipped off the radar; that’s one of the many things I appreciate about our archive.
“Graphic design is such a wonderfully flexible medium, and you can tell such rich stories through it.”
What are the challenges of exhibiting something like typography?
Steinberger: I actually think that people do get it. I think it’s more of an opportunity than a challenge for us as curators. We’re in a world now where everybody knows what a typeface or a font is; people are making those choices every day. And so the beauty of being able to show that in a gallery is that you isolate it so people can really study it and raise questions about things like, ‘Why was this aesthetic choice made?’ It allows people to think back on their own decisions they make as they create documents and publications on their computers, or to think about how they relate to their own consumption of media.
As Alexander said, media surrounds us everywhere. There’s advertising coming at us from every direction. So these exhibitions really give people that space to think about modern visual culture.
How is the process for acquiring graphic design pieces for your collections different from fine art?
Steinberger: Through our graphic design initiative, we realized that LACMA had some pockets of really amazing posters already in the collection. One example is The Rifkind Center, which is our center for German Expressionist art, and it has some really fascinating inter-war German posters but they hadn’t ever been considered a complete collection or thought about strategically. So once we launched our initiative, we were trying to think, “What is the L.A. perspective, or the encyclopedic art museum perspective for graphic design?” What can we bring to the conversation, since there are such wonderful collections at other institutions already collecting in this area?
Since 2014 we’ve acquired over 2,000 objects in graphic design, which is quite different than collecting fine art. This is partly because of the nature of the material itself. Graphic design is generally printed in multiples, and it’s also generally less expensive. So we don’t actually have a dedicated budget for this initiative. We’ve had to be pretty thoughtful and strategic in what we purchase. We’ve also been very lucky to have some generous donors and collectors.
When we think of graphic design collectors, they’re not always what you think of as traditional art collectors. Because the material is more accessible, there are people who might just have been working in the field who are able to help communicate with designers directly and get work from colleagues and friends. Our collection really spans the ’60s to the early ’90s, with a lot of work from California but also Japan and Scandinavia. And from that we were able to make connections with other designers, many of whom have been incredibly generous with their work.
Because graphic design is everywhere, we’ve actually acquired work by contacting designers through social media, through Instagram direct messages or Facebook. We’ve also made several purchases on eBay, things like Design Quarterly posters or Emory Douglas’ Black Panther newspapers. It’s funny, we’ve had to actually call meetings to discuss how a museum should purchase something on eBay. It’s just a very different process compared to acquiring fine art.
“Even though we have so much visual culture bombarding us on a second-by-second basis, people still value being able to look at design through a different framework.”
Kinchin: We recently made a transformative acquisition of Merrill Berman’s graphic collection, and that was an initiative across departments in the museum that I think shows the centrality of the importance of graphic design to modern and contemporary art. This is material that will be the subject of a major exhibition and publication, but I think one of the things it really adds also is being able to follow through certain designs in many different stages of the process and actually give a digital generation a chance to engage with the whole art of paste-up and type-setting and the physical processes that used to go into poster design. I think that’s really fascinating for a lot of people now.
Tochilovsky: I completely agree. The material that goes into the making of this work is one of the things we’re very eager to continue collecting. We have sketches by Herb Lubalin, we have some mechanicals. Those are the things that I’m incredibly interested in making sure that our collection can continue to grow because it’s one of the hardest things to find. Even within the greater market, there’s very little of the production work left because it used to be the first thing that would get thrown away. So it’s always a bit of a miracle when we find these things, but it really does help tell the story of how things were made before computers.
Kinchin: MoMA has built up a really strong poster collection right from the beginning. Graphic design was something that Alfred H. Barr, our first director, and others after him were very actively engaged with collecting. Acquiring the graphic ephemera collection from Jan Tschichold in a couple of phases has also been key. It contains such a range from the 1920s and ’30s—printed materials of all shapes and sizes and forms. It’s taken quite a while to bring a lot of that material online.
“Because graphic design is everywhere, we’ve actually acquired work by contacting designers through social media and purchasing it on eBay.”
More recently, we’ve been looking at the idea of graphics as an expanded field, so things like film titles or exhibition design where the graphic sensibility is paramount and it’s often an extension of a graphic design practice. We’re also focusing on building up a geographic range of material from regions of Central and Eastern Europe as well as Latin America while also trying to build up some of our African American collections as well. As Stacy and Alexander were saying, because graphic design is everywhere and there’s so much of it, how do you select and prioritize work? It’s just a never-ending but incredibly exciting area to explore.