American Graphic Design in NYC

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Time heals most wounds—and that goes for historical omissions. When Mildred Friedman’s 1989 “Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History”—the first major and encompassing graphic design exhibition in America—was launched at the Walker Art Center, in 1990 I wrote (in EYE magazine):

Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History is a challenging book but it made a maddening exhibition. The book contains a diverse collection of provocative essays on how design and designers have responded to social and technological imperatives, a didactic time line placing design in a broad cultural and political context, and interviews with a number of significant US designers (conducted by this reviewer). The exhibition, on the other hand, was an ambitious but decidedly incomplete and curatorially misguided attempt to define graphic design through its various cultural manifestations.


Today I wince reading that paragraph. You see, there was considerable concern within the field over how graphic design’s history was going to be covered—and by whom. There were feminist, Marxist, Modernist, post-Modernist schools, and leading designers who had a stake in being part of the history. There were also historians and critics, including me, who wanted their documentation, research and theories recognized. And there were niches and cliques that sought coverage.

The exhibit did, in fact, raise hackles among those who felt slighted. But in the long run it was an important event, particularly because graphic design was sanctioned by one of America’s leading art institutions, and then owing to its long run at the midtown NYC IBM Gallery of Science and Art. This is where design guides, who were drawn from AIGA members and honorees, gave tours invoking their personal perspectives on design legacy and history using the exhibition as a stage and the content as examples.

This kind of analytic and public attention to the heritage of graphic design has yet to be duplicated in America on this scale. It is a testament to Mildred Friedman and the exhibit itself that it stands alone as such an important document of a remarkable moment when graphic design—despite the omissions—was taken as seriously as it was.

Here is the handout from the IBM Gallery. Copies of the catalog/book can still be found for sale online.


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