SFMOMA Reopening Celebrates Graphic Design

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SFMOMA reopened last month. Exciting! Of its 170,000 square feet — the architecture firm Snøhetta integrated a 10-story expansion with the original Mario Botta building — 3,500 square feet are devoted to architecture and design, including modern and contemporary architecture, furniture, product and graphic design. I was delighted to be able to visit two weeks ago and see “Typeface to Interface: Graphic Design from the Collection,” one of 19 special exhibitions on view.


“On the occasion of a major gift from graphic designer and collector Aaron Marcus,” reads the press release, “this exhibition presents a selection of nearly 250 works from SFMOMA’s permanent collection of graphic design since 1950. Typeface to Interface notes the shift from analog to digital in visual communication, and includes important examples of communication tools that have shaped our relationship with graphic design. Oscillating between structured formalism and free-form expression, the works on view illustrate the rapidly evolving field of graphic design. Advertising, wayfinding and information systems are displayed alongside artistic and conceptual experimentation, providing a view of the progressive discourse on what graphic design is and how it is used.”

I shot these photos with my iPhone — an object prominently displayed in the exhibition. My comments are in italics, with excerpts from the captions on the walls in quotes. (Please forgive the selfies that sometimes appear in the reflections.)


^ Corita KentInternational Signal Code Alphabet, 1968

My first encounter with graphic design was a high school field trip led by the art teacher to Immaculate Heart College to see the work of “the designing nun,” Sister Corita Kent. Finally I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up (not the nun part).

The caption reads, in part: “In Kent’s final year as head of the art department at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles…mixing the bold colors and geometry of the International Code of Signals—a universal system of symbolic flags for maritime communication, used mostly in times of distress—with ornate lettering and icons, Kent redefined each letter’s message to create an alphabet of hope, compassion, and joy.”


OlivettiPosters by Giovanni Pintori, Egidio Bonfante, and Marcello Nizzoli, 1956-196); Lettera

22 portable typewriter, manufactured by the Olivetti Company, 1950

“From the 1930s to the 1960s, perhaps no company better embraced the idea of living with machines than the Olivetti Company… it employed a forward-thinking business strategy that gave designers paramount control over the brand, hiring them to create advertising, architecture, and products for both practical purposes and proud display.”


Ray and Charles EamesComputer House of Cards for the IBM Pavilion at the World’s Fair, Osaka, 1970

As a design student at UCLA, the first design object I ever bought—and still display—was the original Eames House of Cards with its images of everyday objects including pencils, sewing tools, foodstuffs, toys and games. I didn’t know about these computer cards until I saw them at SFMOMA.

“Hired with the hope that this approach could help familiarize a wider audience with computers, the Eameses were charged with designing IBM’s pavilion at the 1970 World’s Fair… They made a new version using colorful details of computer components. This imagery, often drawn from the complex web of parts hidden from the consumer, transformed intimidating and unknown elements into fun and interactive graphics.”

60s Posters

Concert Posters, 1966–70Wes Wilson, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin, Bonnie MacLean, Victor Moscoso, Jack Hatfield, William Henry, Patrick Lofthouse, Wilfred Weisser, Lee Conklin and David Singer.

Who in the baby boomer generation was not inspired, energized and forever transformed by these posters and the music they represented and promoted?

“Created at the height of the Bay Area counterculture movement, these expressive posters offer graphic alternatives to the grid, the square, and anything remotely ordered, corporate, or institutional. The spontaneous, emotive, and even illicit announcements for the new wave of rock and folk music were posted on the street, yet they were not intended for the busy passersby. Information was hard to glean at a glance and was meant for individuals willing to commit to the challenge of losing themselves in psychedelic forms and colors to discover the text.”


New York Subway Guides and New York City Transit Authority Graphic Standards Manual, 1972, 1970Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda, Vignelli Associates and Unimark International

When I moved from LA to New York, THIS was the subway guide. It was controversial, and eventually replaced by versions less abstract and more “legible.” But none since measures up to it, and I still treasure my beat-up copy.

“When the Transit Authority hired Unimark International, it was ill-prepared for the dramatic overhaul the designers would propose: replacing the ineffective and uncoordinated signage and implementing a modular system of strategically placed signs that would help orient and direct millions of passengers and organize hundreds of stations around a clear and consistent aesthetic, creating a recognizable graphic identity for New York City transit that is still in use today.”


April GreimanPoster for Design Quarterly, 1986

When I int
erviewed April Greiman in 1993 for a “Clients and Designers” article in Communication Arts magazine about the work she was doing for SCI-ARC and its director Michael Rotundi (not yet her husband), I asked her: “Once upon a time, you published a nude image of yourself in Design Quarterly. What effect did that have on your career?”

Her answer: “I understand it was fairly scandalous at the time and caused a lot of debate, but I only got positive feedback. It’s a landmark and pivotal piece in the history of graphic design. The questions it brings up are, “What’s personal, what’s professional?” and ‘What’s fine art, what’s graphic design?” It was a big thing to decide to use a digitized nude portrait. But it isn’t me, it’s just ink on paper, a representation of a female form. If I’d wanted it to be a pin-up I would have made it a whole lot hotter.”

April 1
April 2
April 3

At SFMOMA I was able to spend some time with April’s poster, deciphering the details and typographic glyphs that might have been overlooked at the time.


Stefan SagmeisterPoster for AIGA Detroit lecture, Cranbrook, Michigan, 1999

When I interviewed Stefan in 1999 for his profile in Communication Arts, nudity was not “fairly scandalous” any more, but this poster was freshly cut and attracting SRO audiences at AIGA events. Everyone wanted to meet the audacious new designer from Austria who would carve the typography into his body.


Émigré Magazines, 1984–84Rudy VanderLans and Zuzana Licko

“Founded, designed, and published in Berkeley, Emigre magazine provided a space for experimental design discourse. It became an important forum that pushed back against the austere and seemingly omnipresent Swiss Style, featuring expressive typefaces created by Licko and others, as well as rule-breaking text layouts. Emigre also functioned as a type foundry and used posters, booklets, and video to showcase radical typefaces for both print and screen.”


Jennifer MorlaPosters designed for the Center for the Study of the Novel, Stanford University, 2005


Jonathan IveiPhone smartphone, 2007Apple Industrial Design Group, established 1991, Cupertino, California

“Apple’s iPhone transformed the smartphone market with pioneering new ways to input and access information. The video, produced by SFMOMA, offers a look at the software interface, including its innovative use of the touch-screen display.”


Martin VenezkyCollage for AIGA Student Portfolio Review, 2006

This stopped me in my tracks. It might be the only poster in the exhibition that is not a reproduction, but an actual piece of artwork, a collage of type elements pasted on a background. (Decided: my next Imprint piece will be fully devoted to Martin Venezky and his firm, Appetite Engineers.)


Michael BierutLeft: Posters for lectures, exhibitions, and symposia, Yale School of Architecture, 2000—2003, with Sunnie Guglielmo and Kerrie Powell

“Since 1998 Bierut has designed the graphic communications for Yale University’s School of Architecture. Dean Robert A. M. Stern hired him to create an identity that would reflect the institution’s mission and diversity. Instead of inventing a singular, unified mark for the school, Bierut set up a series of rules: the color palette must be black and white, posters must be 34 by 22 inches, and the same typeface can never appear in more than one piece. Working within these simple constraints and using more than one hundred different fonts in the ongoing series, Bierut and fellow designers at Pentagram have created an identifiable brand capturing the varied voices and opinions that position the school as an active forum for innovative ideas.”

Right: Poster for Light Years Beaux Arts Ball, The Architectural League of New York, 1999

Sang Mun

Sang MunZXX type specimen poster, designed 2012, printed 2016

“Mun learned to code during his government-mandated service in the South Korean military and was concerned with the amount of information intelligence agencies could intercept, process, and catalog. As a student at RISD, he created the ZXX typeface to counter the threat to civil liberties posed by the automated and systematic analysis of digital communications. ZXX is the label the Library of Congress uses for books with ‘no linguistic content,’ and Mun’s typefaces are designed to be legible only to humans, not optical character recognition (OCR) software.”


When you visit SFMOMA — Typeface to Interface will be on view until October 23 — I wonder whether you’ll have the same reaction to the selections (all from their permanent collection): I expected a design/ typographic history founded on Swiss Style with emphasis on Bay Area designers, but, I wondered, where are the New Yorkers? Where is work by Herb Lubalin and Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast? Other than the psychedelic Sixties con
cert posters, there is hardly a swash or ligature in sight, and little that is illustrative. I doubt that Milton will be staging a public protest, like he did in 1989, when he and the Push Pin style got only two pages in the Walker Art Center’s 264-page “Graphic Design in America” book, but still. Well, SFMOMA has 3,500 square feet and a wide-open future to exhibit other regions, other styles. (It’s also interesting to note that Susan Merritt, in the AIGA’s piece on the exhibition chooses to discuss different works…)

And, of course, when you visit — get there early in the day — take time to explore the entire museum and see the Warhol Elvis and the Lichtensteins and the Oldenberg apple and the amazing green Living Wall outside the Calder Motion Wall exhibit.

SFMOMA Bookstore

And be sure to visit the bookstore with its excellent selection of design books.I’ll be back later this month…

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