The Glaser Nobody Knows: The City of Indianapolis and the Milton Mural They Didn’t Like Very Much

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The Glaser Nobody Knows is a column featuring work by Milton Glaser that you may never have seen before. There are countless projects by the master, both produced and unpublished, that are unfamiliar even to design aficionados. All of the items in this column are part of The Milton Glaser Design Study Center and Archives at the School of Visual Arts, the chief repository of his legendary work.

In 1974, the General Services Administration (GSA) commissioned Milton Glaser to design a mural for a new federal building in Indianapolis, designed by architect Evan Woollen. Woolen adorned his Brutalist inverted ziggurat (coincidentally a form beloved by Glaser) with a series of thirty-five colorful blended panels all along its base, 672 contiguous feet long and 27 feet high – the most super of supergraphics. Entitled “Color Fuses,” it was intended to change color in both natural daylight and specially designed nighttime lighting.

The colors faded over the decades, and the lighting system, which never worked properly, was shut off to conserve energy. Finally, in 2012, the GSA embarked on a restoration; Glaser collaborated on what amounted to a re-do of the project. The GSA documented the restoration in this great video.

A little further digging reveals that Glaser’s mural was the subject of some debate in 1970s Indianapolis. As the project neared completion in 1974, the Indianapolis Star kicked off an article quoting the painting contractor Al Kite, “It’s going to be controversial all right.” Kite’s opinion may have been influenced by challenging the nature of the paint job. The article continues, “Ask how the painters are getting along with what may be one of the world’s longest continuous murals, and a secretary at the paint contracting firm of Kite Inc. answers, 'with very much difficulty.'"

Another article in the Indianapolis Star in 1985, eleven years after the mural’s installation, gives the impression that Indianapolis residents still had mixed feelings about Glaser’s project. Journalist Fred Cavinder wrote that many locals didn’t like the colorful mural and offered this nutty quote from architect Woollen: “I never could view it with too much detachment, but I suspect there are people in many walks of life who are disturbed by bright colors. They feel there’s something obscene about certain color combinations. They may equate the color purple with a sort of emotional abandon. They want their public places to be very somber.”

Huh. Looking at it now, it’s hard to understand what people got so worked up about. No matter, the controversy seems to have fallen by the wayside, and Glaser got the mural he imagined almost forty years later. In 1974, Glaser said his intention with Color Fuses was to “express a spirit of openness and thus a new sense of government.” Glaser was looking forward, as always.

Beth Kleber is the founding archivist of the Milton Glaser Design Study Center and Archives and the School of Visual Arts Archives in New York City. Kleber also curated the exhibition Primary Sources: Documenting SVA and the New York Art World 1966–1985.” She lectures on design history and research, and assists students and researchers with inquiries on everything from Push Pin Studios to the activities of the renowned artists who have taught at SVA. Kleber has also worked in trade publishing and began her librarian and archivist career at New York Public Library. For more from the Glaser/SVA Archives, head to Instagram.