Mohawk Paper Mills in Cohoes, New York acquired the Strathmore brand in 2005, and their incredible archive came with the acquisition. Yet it was virtually hidden in a Mohawk warehouse until late 2013, when according to Mohawk creative director Chris Harrold, “we finally dug in to the six pallets of material.” Up to that point, the archive had been forgotten and was almost thrown out.
There are still over 40 boxes of material yet to be opened that tell a history of Strathmore and their sustained commitment to design for more than 100 years. A few of the artifacts are on view at Monotype’s Century: 100 Years of Type in Design exhibition at the AIGA (160 Fifth Avenue) remains open until July 31 and is curated by Monotype type director Dan Rhatigan. Strathmore has also used some of this history for the packaging of their recent Strathmore Notes project.
The other day Harrold and Rhatigan brought some of the riches to show and tell and discuss the parallel tracks that both Mohawk and Monotype are following regarding the history of type and paper. This is part of our conversation.
Chris, what is the chronological range and who are the leading players?
Chris Harrold: The earliest object I’ve discovered dates from 1898, which is a small paper sampler designed and illustrated by Will Bradley. This piece marked the beginning of Strathmore aligning with and commissioning illustrators and designers to demonstrate how their paper could be effectively used to convey a message beautifully. This approach remained a key driver in the company marketing campaigns throughout the 20th century.
Some of the notable contributors are Dwiggins, Oz Cooper, Fred Cooper, Walter Dorwin Teague, Helen Dryden, George Trenholm, Lester Beal, and Pushpin Studio.
What have you learned from the gradual reveal of this material?
Harrold: This process has revealed a 100 year story rich on several levels. Not only is there an obvious narrative of 20th century design and style, but there is also a parallel track of typography and most interestingly color from the late 19th century to the end of the 20th century.
We’ve also uncovered the rather elaborately produced in-house employee newsletter, The Strathmorean, published monthly starting in 1913. These are an archive unto themselves rich in social history.
How does this discovery benefit Mohawk as a company and design in general?
Harrold: We’ve had the pleasure of sharing the archive as we curated the objects to be included in the Century exhibition with Monotype. Not only does the collection reveal some spectacular and hardly-ever-seen design work, but it forcefully demonstrates the power of print. People have this almost emotional reaction when they see these beautiful objects in a way that they don’t if send them a pdf. I think we understand now that the history people remember is printed. That’s a good thing for Mohawk and for design.
Dan, You’ve included this material in the Century exhibition at AIGA’s national headquarters. What is its importance in type history?
Dan Rhatigan: The selection of Strathmore material exhibited in Century shows a wide range of styles of both type and lettering from across the 20th century, providing a particularly eclectic cross-section of evolving styles and sensibilities across those years. The range of design work commissioned by Strathmore also hints at what designers themselves responded to, as these pieces were made to appeal to designers as potential customers, rather than to the public at large.
If the show as a whole is a look at how designers have worked with type over the years, then the Strathmore collection—like the all the specimens from type foundries and works commissioned by the AIGA—shows us what designers were making to influence the tastes of their own peers.
To those who argue history is “back then” and young designers are “here and now,” how would you explain the archive’s relevance today?
Rhatigan: An understanding of history is a vital component of making new work, as it forces you to be conscious of where you are able to contribute something in your own work and really explore the means and media available to us today, rather than retreading what has been done before without question.
There is also a strong emotional component, though. It can be so viscerally exciting to see (and in some situations, touch) such beautifully made objects, especially at a time when so much of what we experience of design is electronic. Objects like the Strathmore items are a reminder of how powerful it can be to engage readers and audiences with experiences that can’t easily be replicated on screens.
The enduring appeal of the work in an archive like the Strathmore collection raises the question for new work: what can you make today that can still provoke such an emotional reaction 20, 50, 100 years from now?
As someone who is revitalizing historical documents, how should the audience interact with this material?
Rhatigan: In an exhibition like Century, where materials are protected from being handled and possibly damaged, I worry less about “should” than I think about how about how audiences might get new perspectives from these historical documents. We hope that people will be curious and critical enough to think about how and why these things were conceived and made, but we also hope audiences will be inspired to connect this history to the new work they see and make today, and might tomorrow.
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