For Paula Scher, Type is Image

Posted inFine Art

A recent article on the website HURS began with this headline: That Great Logo? Paula Scher Probably Designed It. Although unquestionably accurate, the headline fails to include her fine art, which is as recognizable and lauded as her design work.

For those who seek to be entranced by the full body of her work, we’re lucky: Paula Scher was commissioned to create Type Is Image, a major solo installation inspired by five decades of her work. The immersive exhibit opened last month at Die Neue Sammlung— The Design Museum in Munich.

Type Is Image is part of the prestigious series Die Neue Sammlung has created, inviting important contemporary designers to create a site-specific installations. Director Dr. Angelika Nollert and Curator Dr. Caroline Fuchs commissioned Scher to design and produce an installation of her work with typography. Guided by her belief that “words have meaning, and type has spirit,” the exhibition gave Scher the opportunity to design an immersive environment that showcases type, design, and art from over 300 projects.

Paula Scher is the first graphic designer invited to exhibit in the museum’s massive two-story high, 3700-square foot central gallery. The work on view includes her record album covers from the 1970’s, decades of posters and branding for The Public Theater, signage and identity systems for NYC Parks, the New School, the Atlantic Theater, and many more. The show also includes a collection of original preliminary drawings and drafts exhibited for the first time. Lucky for us, the installation also includes Scher’s hand-painted maps of the world, including a new map of Munich that covers the floor of the gallery. Making its public debut is a Porsche automobile that Scher handpainted with typography, a private commission she carried out in the early days of the pandemic.

I had the opportunity to interview Scher about the exhibit. The following is our conversation, which is accompanied by exclusive images of the show, seen here for the first time.

Type is Image is a major installation of 300 of your projects spanning five decades of your work that has just opened at Die Neue Sammlung, The Design Museum at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich. Can you share how the collaboration with The Design Museum came to be?

During COVID, I was commissioned by a German collector to paint a map on a 1977 Porsche. I was contacted by a man named David Benedek, who has an agency that specializes in branding and promotion. He called me at Pentagram and brokered the Porsche commission as an intermediary between me and the collector.

I painted the Porsche in Seymour [Chwast]’s archive in our Connecticut house, which has a cement floor and a garage door. It took a year and a half to paint, and I was in physical agony from lying under the car for half of the time painting the sides of the Porsche, which curved under the car.

When the Porsche was completed, I tried to show it in NYC and couldn’t find a place that could accommodate it for a variety of reasons.

Meanwhile, David Benedek, who lived in Munich, had gone to the Pinakhotek to show the director and curators the Porsche. Initially, the Director, Angelika Nollert, and the Curator, Caroline Fuchs, had no interest in the painted Porsche because the museum has a spectacular selection of designed cars, and the Porsche I painted did not really fit into that category. However, Angelika and Caroline were interested in my design work, particularly my environmental graphics. They had never given a show to a single graphic designer in that space before. They explained to me that they regularly invited a designer to create a site specific exhibit of their work. The show stays up for a year or more (mine closes in September 2024). They sent me images of some of their previous exhibits, and there was one from a lighting designer and someone who worked with glass. They were very impressive and equivalent to exhibits at the Cooper Hewitt.

Given the distance between where you live in New York and the museum in Germany, and how did you go about creating the narrative arc or the journey through the show?

I went to visit the museum on one of my European trips. It is phenomenally beautiful, but the space for my proposed show was bizarre. The ceiling height was about 30 feet, making the space seem smaller than it was. On one side, the ceiling dropped to 12 feet, which looked very low in comparison to the rest of the space. There are giant dumbwaiters in the space where the ceiling is high, and they move up and down very slowly.  There is a curved wall cutting into the rectangular space and a curved staircase behind it.

At the entryway to the exhibit, the ceiling drops to 12 feet, runs down a long wall, and turns a corner. It seems very separate from the rest of the space. Jungin You, a designer on my signage team, created a Styrofoam model so we could position work on the walls and see how they looked. The 12-foot wall running around the corner seemed to be a perfect place for Public Theater posters. But when we put the teeny posters in proportion to their real size on the model with space between the posters, like any gallery would do, it looked expected and boring. Also, some of the posters differed in size making it look sloppy.

It was at that point that I realized the posters didn’t have to be the size they were; they could be printed out digitally, and we could create a Public Theater wall that would be totally filled with large season posters, and then be surrounded by many other posters reproduced at smaller sizes. There would be no white space. The wall would be totally filled and continue around the corner, very much like how posters are wheat-pasted on walls in New York City.

This was the beginning of how Jungin and I figured what was going into the show and where. The space determined it. The curved wall worked well with my signage and boardwalk design for Rockaway Beach, we put blowups of the black and white number series silkscreened posters on one of the dumbwaiters, and the red and white Type Directors Club Annual work I had done on the other dumbwaiter.  The numbers and the TDC posters were the same size, but originally the TDC typography was designed for a book and some digital media, while the number series silkscreened posters were originally big, but not as big as in the show. Nothing was actually the original size, except the originals that appear in the cases. The stairs were the perfect place for the New School alphabet, and we hung a broad selection of posters from the ceiling attached to the word “Type.” The hanging posters matched the ceiling height of the dumbwaiters and were double-sided and easily visible. 

There were three columns in the space that we perfect for three different identity designs that all used a letterform for their logos: Berkeley Theater, The Women’s History Museum, and the Atlantic Theater, On the long side walls, we displayed giant photography of environmental graphics. We would meet with Angelika and Caroline once a month and show them the work.  They made terrific suggestions. They explained that the photography of the environmental design should really be flat on the wall, not framed, because if it was framed, it would seem as if we were showing photographs, not describing environmental graphics.

At different intervals, we had maps on the floor, but the color was either too dark or too light. Various areas of the gallery looked too empty and we suggested building display cases to hold live samples. At the same time, Caroline was trying to establish a collection of my design and began buying my old record covers on eBay.

Many of your original sketches and preliminary drafts are exhibited for the first time ever. Can you talk about the state of your archives and what it was like to revisit some of your early work and include it in this show?

We have an archivist at Pentagram in the New York office named Claudia Mandlik and she does a terrific job cataloging our work. She can find most of what I ask for; unfortunately, the work catalogued is my 32 years at Pentagram. CBS Records and Koppel and Scher are a mess. Caroline bought my record covers on eBay. Rory Sims— who used to be my associate— and Jesse Reed— who used to be Michael Bierut’s associate— found my record covers in places that have old covers.  I think they have more of them than I do.

I wanted to show Koppel and Scher work and the CBS record covers on one of the three digital screens in the show, but all of the resolutions were terrible, and I took them out of the show. However, Claudia found that so many drawings and New York Times op-ed illustrations from the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000’s, as well my original painting for the 1988 AIGA Annual cover.

You custom-designed tables and display cases that are held up by a variety of letterforms. What was the process of making these three-dimensional elements in the show?

The whole show is about scale and dimension, simplicity and complication as well as typography. We had originally designed six cases, but the museum only could afford to make four. They were most expensive objects in the show. The legs of the cases were typography lingo that are cut out of wood and painted gray and they support the top cases. We drew them and the amazing German fabricators built them.

I am an environmental graphic designer as well as a two-dimensional designer. The show is really about designing an environment as much it is about working with type. It is a show about my work, and part of my work are environmental graphics. What I love about the three-dimensional work is that finished work always comes out looking exactly like our final Photoshop rendering. I can’t say the same for the two-dimensional pieces! 

This installation features your hand-painted maps as well as a new map of Munich that covers the floor.  How did you make it?

I made a small black and white painting of Germany on white paper. We scanned it and blew it up; Jungin touched up the funky parts on the computer, and we made some computer color studies, got the color where we wanted it, and gave it to the museum to make. The museum works with the best contractors I have ever seen. The large-scale printouts are the best I have ever seen. The floor material is something used for dance floors in German clubs. It should last for about two years. It really ties the whole space together, and the color looks spectacular in the space.

After we had designed many of the show’s components, and selected the floor, and had shown how much of my hand written work would be featured, Angelika changed her mind about the Porsche. She suggested that if we had images of maps as part of environmental graphics, we could include them in a significant way, and then the Porsche wouldn’t be an odd addition. I am so happy it is there.

The museum highlights your belief that “words have meaning, and type has spirit,— that people recognize type and understand the emotion, wit, power, and beauty behind it without reading. What spirit do you hope museumgoers will experience being immersed in Type is Image?

I think this is a joyful exhibit. Some of it is a demonstration of the breadth of my work, some of it is about the power and beauty of typography as both a communication tool and abstract form, and most of it is really about how an exhibit design creates a special environment that enables the viewer to discover what the meaning of it for themselves. We worked on the exhibit for nine months and it was one of the happiest working experiences of my career. So much of the joy was in working with Angelika and Caroline, who were so insightful and supportive, and special thanks to David Benedek, who introduced us.

The exhibition is accompanied by a new large-format poster book containing 101 double-sided posters that can be removed and hung. Will this be for sale?

The museum is selling the books for 45 Euro.

Will the show be moving to other museums around the world?

No… this was totally designed for a specific space. It will be on exhibit through September 22, 2024.

Learn more about the show on Die Neue Sammlung’s website.