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The Art of Graphic Design at Chicago Design Museum

Wednesday, June 18, 2014 Rob Samuelson

The Chicago Design Museum opened its summer exhibition, "Starts/Speculations," with a party at Block Thirty Seven on State Street in downtown Chicago last Friday. Halfstacker Rob Samuelson attended and chatted with ChiDM executive director Tanner Woodford for a discussion about the art of design.

David Ettinger Photography

"Wow!  The bartenders here have vests," I think to myself.  They give me a fancy, not-Coors-Light beer, a Threadless IPA from party sponsors Finch's Beer Co.  Projectors on the walls display sayings like "Unite-Inform-Inspire" and "Let's do something impossible."  I see the Chicago, Illinois State, and U.S. flags waving from the Marshall Field building across State Street as the twilight filters through the huge windows.  The fading sunlight looks neat bouncing off the person-sized white orbs that hang from the ceiling.  DJ Jennie Hayes plays reggae songs while a diverse, well dressed crowd of 400 or more surrounds me.  Everyone is relaxed and engaged, talking politely, sipping drinks, and taking funny-faced pictures at the event's postmodern photo booth.

These Chicagoans are here to celebrate their city.  Its art, architecture, and pizza have been discussed the world over, but its place in the history of graphic design has not always received the same treatment.  Chicago Design Museum executive director Tanner Woodford says the exhibition opens his eyes to the work done by graphic designers around the city.

“We have a very strong community,” he says. “We live in a very culturally rich city and I get really excited about adding to that conversation and forming a platform that allows independent Chicagoans to facilitate conversations about design.”

David Ettinger Photography

Woodford says he wants to highlight the work of that community.

“[The exhibition is] focused on graphic design in Chicago over the last 100 years and over the next 100 years, and there are several, I would say unique achievements that have come out of our city.”

One way the exhibit bridges to the past is a projector showing newsreel footage of Chicago's 1933 World's Fair, including film of children laughing at mechanical dinosaurs.  That World's Fair theme, "The Century of Progress," may have rang a bit hollow at the height of the Depression, but Woodford says it came true in myriad ways in Chicago design.  For example, the world famous recycling logo was originally commissioned by the Container Company of America, a Chicago-based corporation, in the 1970s as part of a “call to students to design a mark or logo that accomplishes a series of goals,” namely the reuse, reduce, recycle mantra we all know today.

“We're showing a poster they produced to send to students to accomplish those goals. The reward for winning the contest at the time was $2,100 in tuition. It's really kind of an interesting moment of a unique story from Chicago that impacted the entire world,” he says.

But Chicago has provided more to the discipline than that one major accomplishment.

“Our design legacy clearly is always evolving and it's really hard to point to work being done today and say, 'This work is timeless and is going to further our design legacy,' but I think that we have certain people in the city, working and thinking and collaborating at the moment to create really beautiful and long-lasting legacies.”

David Ettinger Photography

Woodford says that legacy is informed by the city's workmanlike nature.

“I think Chicago has a sort of DIY culture. We're the city of broad shoulders. We're used to rolling up our sleeves and making things happen, and certainly the Chicago design community strives to be an institution that does that. We learn by doing. We try to involve the right people and empower them to make really good decisions. Chicago is unique in that way. I think you do have a lot of people that are constantly innovating.”

Reflecting that spirit is the design of the exhibit itself.  There is a plethora of open space, gray concrete floors, sparse black tablecloths, and exposed ductwork.  It's a simple gathering space for people interested in ideas and the actual pieces on display.

One key piece ChiDm shows as inspiration to current and future graphic designers is a letter written by Daniel Burnham, architect for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, and Edward Bennett, known for his 1909 urban plan for Chicago, describing the essential elements of design. Woodford says that, despite the exhibit's focus on graphic design, the work of those in other disciplines like Burnham and Bennett is important to the discipline.

“Architecture and urban planning was recognizing the classic design, and it played a role in how they talked about something as massive as the plans for the city of Chicago, and I think that's still true today going both ways,” he says. “I think certainly graphic designers need fashion designers or architecture designers and vice versa. The tighter the community, the more we collaborate.”

But the collaboration features an element of give and take. There is a discussion between the artistic and the utilitarian that Woodford says the exhibit looks to display.

“I always reference Donald Judd. He had a quote that design had to work and art does not. I think that it's an interesting overlap. You could say there's utility to art as well. It's just a different utility. I think design is for clients and because of that there's a certain utility that is created.”

Halfstack readers can see how Chicago graphic designers have navigated those art-utility waters through September 30 at Block Thirty Seven.

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