Getting Out and Mixing It Up in the Rialto


TIME: Architecture & Design – March 19, 1990

Getting Out and Mixing It Up in the Rialto

A rich show traces a century and a half of American graphics, including back-to-the-future revelations


Not many decades ago, most newspapers and magazines and packages and signs looked the way they looked more or less serendipitously. They were the result of a proprietor’s quirky, untutored taste, or a printer’s feeling that Garamond was a classy typeface, or a general notion that things had always been done that way. Today practically everything is designed. Record-album covers and annual reports and dog-food labels are self-consciously wrought and overwrought, fussed with endlessly to get the connotations just right. This very page, with its six typefaces in ten sizes and thin horizontal and vertical rules and several photographs, did not come about by accident but as a calculated compromise among the competing demands of marketing, expediency, tradition and art.

Because graphic design does not pursue a purely (or even primarily) aesthetic agenda, no large-scale American museum show was ever devoted to the field until last December. Then the American Institute of Graphic Arts and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis mounted “Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History.” The rich, exhaustive exhibit — consisting of some 1,200 mass-produced messages on paper and tin and plastic generated between 1829 and 1990 — has now been shipped to New York City, where it is on view at the IBM Gallery of Science and Art through April 7.

 As in almost any survey of 20th century culture, World War II is a watershed: now, at the century’s end, American graphic designers seem inordinately inspired by elegiac European modernists of the years before the war (early Soviets, Man Ray, Dadaists) and by the tantalizing, electric strangeness of postwar Japan. As in architecture, the revival of old styles creates some time-warp curiosities. In one of the display cases, designer Carin Goldberg’s faux-1930s book jacket for a 1988 edition of Camus sits near books actually from the era — and the new piece seems more evocative of the bygone era than the real things.

 But the show’s most thrilling back-to-the-future revelations are the posters and advertisements and magazine layouts from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s that look contemporary. Lester Beall’s Depression-era posters for the Rural Electrification Administration are spare and abstract and unsentimental, the perfect brainy New Deal agitprop. Herbert Bayer’s virtuoso, typography-driven ads for the Container Corp. of America from the ’50s and ’60s look like avant- garde work from the late ’80s.

 Of the scores of designers represented in the show, none has been able to feed the voracious contemporary appetite for information faster and better than Richard Saul Wurman. His paperback Access Guides — to 13 different cities (1981-89) as well as baseball (1984) and Wall Street (1989) — brim to overflowing with a sense of fun and curiosity about the world, intermingling maps, drawings, data and a quirky sensibility.

 At its best, “Graphic Design in America” is like a dense, compelling Wurman guide, suggesting half-conscious connections between then and now, Europe and America, TV and print. Within a few minutes a visitor can see an 1864 American-flag campaign broadside, collections of Coke bottles through the years (the original was designed by Alexander Samuelson in 1915), a little bag that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for a San Francisco glass-and-china shop in 1942, the sweetly all-American Ritz cracker box, the computer-animated opening credits to the 1978 Superman movie and six pages from USA Today.

 There is little self-conscious artiness on display. The exhibits mainly exemplify rare, happy confluences of art and commerce, from Deborah Sussman’s chair advertisement for the Herman Miller company to Times Square’s unplanned riot of electric signs. Graphic design is a populist art, this show declares. It derives its energy and value not from precious drawing-board perfection but from getting out and mixing it up in the rialto.