Observer: We need more galleries that exhibit graphic design

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Exhibition showing the work of James Joyce at Kemistry Gallery, London

On the rare occasions that an exhibition of graphic design appears, it’s a safe bet that one complaint will always be heard. Graphic design, someone will say, just doesn’t work in a gallery. It isn’t art and it can’t possibly be properly understood out of context. It only has meaning out in the world in the places where it was intended to communicate. Curiously, the people making this criticism will usually be graphic designers.

This objection has always seemed misguided to me. If you are the kind of person who enjoys looking at exhibits in galleries— historical artifacts, period costumes, scientific instruments, archaeological discoveries—it is impossible to confuse the conventions of display with the sometimes very distant reality from which the object comes. The experience, aided by captions, maps, contextual images, reconstructions, and revealing relationships between the exhibited objects, will always require an act of imagination from the viewer. It’s too bad that we are not usually able to touch exhibits, considerably reducing access to, for instance, a book with many pages. But, even so, if it’s valid to study every other kind of object or artifact in galleries, why should we exclude graphic communication? The problem isn’t that curators sometimes have the temerity to display graphic design. No, it’s that in 2010, there are still so few places in which this can happen.

A visit to Melbourne last summer—and a private gallery there called, rather beguilingly, The Narrows—started me thinking about this issue again. The Narrows is on Flinders Street, a thoroughfare in an area of Melbourne’s central business district well-established as a location for galleries, fashion companies, and design studios. The gallery is a small but inviting space with a mini-bookshop displaying a few carefully curated volumes. Its name is a reference to a suburb in Darwin, the capital city of Australia’s Northern Territory, where founder Warren Taylor grew up. (It’s also, as Taylor knows, the name of the channel of water between Staten Island and Brooklyn.) Taylor studied visual arts and teaches visual communication at Monash University.

To encourage cross-fertilization between disciplines, he brings designers and artists together into collaborations, and he shows art and graphic design on equal terms. Graphic design subjects presented at The Narrows since it opened in 2006 have included the artist/designer Ed Fella, American type designer Tobias Frere-Jones, the Dutch studio Experimental Jetset, and posters announcing exhibitions at the Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich. Last December, the gallery showed work by John Warwicker, a member of the London design team Tomato. Warwicker is now based in Melbourne, and the exhibition coincided with the publication of his book, Floating World: Ukiyo-e.

All these figures are familiar, perhaps, to American or European designers, but Taylor has also shown an impressive commitment to less well-traveled areas of graphic culture, and he has the curatorial confidence to make his tastes public. An early project covered the work of American designer and graphic artist Ronald Clyne (1925–2006), who created more than 500 sleeves for Folkways Records, giving Moses Asch’s highly regarded label its graphic look. An exhibition in 2008 focused on the Swedish designer John Melin (1921–1992), an innovative figure who did brilliant conceptual work in the 1960s for the Moderna Museet modern art museum in Stockholm and deserves to be much better known.

These are inspired choices which make a valuable local contribution to the development of an informed, historically aware viewer of graphic design. Each exhibition is supported by a poster that usually features an essay about the subject on the reverse. Taylor’s strategic fusion of art and design under the same roof makes a lot of sense. Many designers are drawn to working for the art scene, where they find sympathetic collaborators, and designers’ visual and editorial talents make curatorial work a natural extension of designing in some cases.

For years now, a great deal of graphic design has occupied a productive but not always fully appreciated zone somewhere between art and design as it was once traditionally defined. The visual or conceptual complexity that gives this kind of project extra value for the viewer as communication means that it is entirely suited for more leisurely contemplation in the gallery. Galleries, like magazine articles and monographs, offer an opportunity to discover continuities and departures across an individual’s body of work that might not otherwise be apparent.

In London, the Kemistry Gallery, started in 2004 by the design company Kemistry and located in Hoxton in the East End, has specialized in showing more illustrative kinds of graphic design. In 2005, Kemistry put on an exhibition by Californian designer Geoff McFetridge (who had a joint show with Ed Fella at the Redcat gallery in Los Angeles in 2008). Since then, the gallery has organized exhibitions by, among others, Daniel Eatock, James Joyce, Anthony Burrill, the French designer-illustrator Geneviève Gauckler, and Zak Kyes, art director at the Architectural Association.

Where the style of presentation at The Narrows is generally spare and art-like, Kemistry’s shows are more immersive, with words and images often cascading across the walls from ceiling to floor in its ground-floor space. The shows tend to present buyable artworks, sometimes one-offs, though more often editions of prints specially produced by the gallery; any profits help keep the venture going. Galleries inevitably reflect their owners’ tastes and Kemistry’s prevailing visual mood is bright, fashionable, cartoon-like, and pop—if not populist.

Given the size of the graphic design scene in the U.S., and, indeed, the size of the country, it wouldn’t be surprising to find the most ambitious graphic design galleries here. But leaving aside institutional venues such as the AIGA’s gallery in its New York headquarters, which primarily shows AIGA-related exhibitions, and the many design school gallery spaces, I’m not aware of any private galleries in the U.S. that focus on showing graphic design. In other areas of professional advocacy, promotion, and discussion, American graphic design leads the world, so this is a remarkable, and regrettable, omission.

For the most sustained and wide-ranging example of a graphic design gallery we must look to Paris, where the Galerie Anatome, located near the Bastille neighborhood, has been mounting shows since 1999, making it a bewhiskered old-timer among other recent initiatives. As one might expect, the nonprofit gallery, run by volunteers, has shown plenty of French designers, including Philippe Apeloig, Michel Bouvet, Catherine Zask, and Peter Knapp. The latest exhibition highlights the work of Malte Martin, a designer-artist who combines studio commissions with bold typographic interventions in public spaces. Anatome’s international outlook is evident in shows devoted to Uwe Loesch (Germany), Wim Crouwel (Netherlands), Werner Jeker (Switzerland), Reza Abedini (Iran), and Jonathan Barnbrook (U.K.). In 2002, the gallery surveyed new Czech work and, in 2003, it presented “East Coast/West Coast,” a show about American design. In its curatorial energy and commitment to encouraging public understanding of the subject, Anatome provides a perfect model of what a 21st-century graphic design gallery might become.

Larger institutions exhibiting design, such as MoMA, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, and the V&A and Design Museum in London, still play a vital role. Only these institutions possess the resources and space to mount large-scale exhibitions, involving historical scholarship, extensive borrowing from other collections, and substantial publications. The bigger the institution, though, and the wider its remit, the less likely it is to be engaged in closely documenting, from year to year, the evolution of the field. The national museums are for grand overviews rather than the small-scale, immediate, topical responses needed to foster the sense of a thriving discursive culture, a community sharing a common aim, a vibrant and active scene. At Kemistry, the youthful crowd at private previews, often running to hundreds of people, spills out of the door and occupies the narrow street. A good gallery can act as an event-generator, as an exciting hub. There is room for plenty more.

[This article appears in April 2010 issue of Print.]

About the author:

Rick Poynor, a U.K.-based design critic and writer, contributes the Observer column to Print. The founding editor of Eye magazine, he has covered design, media and visual culture for I.D., Metropolis, Harvard Design Magazine, The Guardian, and the Financial Times. He is the author of many books, including Typography Now: The Next Wave (1991) and No More Rules (2003), a critical study of graphic design and postmodernism. His most recent book is Jan Van Toorn: Critical Practice.