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The Goldsholls, Chicago Design Pioneers

In the 1950s, Chicago-based design firm Goldsholl Design Associates made a name for itself with innovative “designs-in-film.” Headed by Morton and Millie Goldsholl, the studio produced television spots, films, trademarks, corporate identities, and print advertisements for international corporations like Kimberly-Clark, Motorola, and 7-Up. Although they were compared to some of the most celebrated design firms of the day, the Goldsholls and their designers are relatively unknown today. The Block Museum’s exhibition Up is Down: Mid-Century Experimentation in Advertising and Film at the Goldsholl Studio reexamines the innovative work of Goldsholl Design Associates and its national impact.

The Block Museum of Art is participating with Art Design Chicago, the Terra Foundation’s yearlong celebration of Chicago’s design legacy with the exhibition Up is Down: Mid-Century Experiments in Advertising and Film at the Goldsholl Studio (September 18 – December 9). Up Is Down is the first major exhibition to explore the trailblazing work of mid-twentieth century artist/designers/filmmakers Morton and Millie Goldsholl (Morton, 1911–1995; Millie 1920–2012) and their Chicago-area advertising firm, Goldsholl Design Associates. The exhibition is organized by Amy Beste, Director of Public Programs for Film, Video, New Media & Animation; Sound, School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Corinne Granof, Curator of Academic Programs, The Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University. Recently, I discussed the exhibition and the Goldsholl”s role in design history.

The accompanying exhibition catalog Up is Down: Mid-Century Experimentation in Advertising and Film at the Goldsholl Studio is available here.

Millie Goldsholl, stills from Up is Down, 1969. 16mm film, 6 minutes. Goldsholl Design Associates. Chicago Film Archives.

What was the impetus for doing an exhibition on the designers Morton and Millie Goldsholl?

Amy has been interested in Morton and Millie Goldsholl and the breadth and inventiveness of their work—spanning design, advertising, film, television, and experimental art—for a long time. She had written an essay about their work and organized a number of screenings featuring films by the Goldsholls and designers who worked at their firm.

The Block Museum has a record of bringing attention and new research to under-recognized subjects. While Morton and Millie and the designers at their firm were highly regarded during their firm’s heyday, their work has been largely overlooked in the histories of design, art, and film. For example, your inclusion of Morton Goldsholl in The Moderns is one of the few contemporary overviews of Goldsholl work. The Block’s exhibition and book are the first in-depth exploration of the work of Morton and Millie Goldsholl and their firm Goldsholl Design Associates.

Millie Goldsholl, stills from Up is Down, 1969. 16mm film, 6 minutes. Goldsholl Design Associates. Chicago Film Archives.

Perhaps most importantly, the show also allowed the museum to shed new light on the pivotal role Chicago has played in the history of American design and art. While the Goldsholls produced work that had a national impact, their story is uniquely tied to Chicago. The Goldsholls’ working process evolved out of their experiences in the 1940s at the School of Design, which was founded as the New Bauhaus by László Moholy-Nagy. The school fostered experimentation with materials like plastic, plywood, and light, as well as visual design. Through their trendsetting designs for such clients as Kleenex, Revlon, 7-Up, and Motorola, the Goldsholls’ brought European-inflected avant-garde aesthetics to broad audiences. The exhibition and book are part of a much broader effort to highlight Chicago’s art history, spearheaded and organized by the Terra Foundation for American Art. Over the last year, Art Design Chicago has helped realize dozens of exhibitions, events, and research.

Morton Goldsholl, dust jacket and title page for Basic Color by Egbert Jacobson. Paul Theobald & Company, 1948. Courtesy of Display, Graphic Design Collection.

Although the Goldsholls were known in New York (and Morton had an exhibit at the Composing Room), they weren’t been well known in the canon of design. Why do you think this is?

This is something we have thought a lot about as we put this exhibition together, and even more now, when we hear from designers, filmmakers, and others who’ve seen the show but don’t understand why they haven’t heard about Morton, Millie, or the firm’s other designers before. It is, surprising when you consider the stature of some of their projects and the incredibly innovative way the firm was working at the time.

As you note, Morton Goldsholl and Goldsholl Design Associates was widely recognized in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s—their work was included in design magazines such as Print, Art Direction, and Industrial Design, and was compared to the work of more celebrated designers like Saul Bass and Charles and Ray Eames. Morton was on the board of the International Design Conference in Aspen and participated in some of the most important conferences and symposiums of the day. He was recognized with nearly 400 awards over the course of his career, including the National Society of Art Directors’ Art Director of the Year title in 1964.

One of the things we wonder is if the Goldsholls’ Chicago location may have played a role in limiting its legacy. As a small studio in the Midwest, the firm didn’t have access to the same design community or even resources as its peers in New York or Los Angeles. For example, one of Morton Goldsholl’s best-known designs was the 1950 logo for Good Design, a series of exhibitions organized by Edgar Kauffmann for the Museum of Modern Art and the Merchandise Mart in Chicago in the 1950s. It now serves as the logo for the Good Design awards and is still widely reproduced, but often unattributed.

Goldsholl Design Associates, stills from Kleenex X-Periments, “Sneeze” for Kimberly-Clark Corporation, c. 1960. 16mm film, 2 minutes, Chicago Film Archives.

Additionally, we think the kinds of materials the Goldsholl studio produced—packaging, print advertisements, sponsored films, television commercials—also played a role. While they were seen and available everywhere, they were also highly ephemeral. Many of the studio’s designs were in circulation only briefly, unlike, say, Saul Bass, who made titles for popular Hollywood films, or Charles and Ray Eames, who produced furniture.

Finally, the way Goldsholl Design Associates was organized may have also contributed to their lack of recognition. The ethos of the firm was notably inclusive, collaborative, and progressive and comprised a staff of designers, calligraphers, filmmakers, and an engineer. Their holistic approach to design and corporate branding gave the firm a unique profile, and their work crossed boundaries of graphic design, package design, showroom design, in-store marketing and displays, corporate identity, and promotional and educational film. They were working across media in ways that were sometimes hard to categorize and define.

Goldsholl Design Associates, trademark for IMC, 1959.

The Goldsholls were important in Chicago design, what were a few of his most significant works?

Goldsholl Design Associates worked with a number of growing multi-national corporations based in Chicago and the Midwest. One of their most important Chicago-based clients was Motorola. Goldsholl Design Associates led Motorola’s rebranding in 1955, including the iconic Motorola batwing logo designed by Morton Goldsholl that is still in use today. The “M” was based on the shape of sine wave (the mathematical expression of light and sound waves) and projected a modern, futuristic identity for Motorola. Afterward, Goldsholl became known for logos that were simplified, clean, and endlessly adaptable for multiple kinds of uses.

The Goldsholls also worked extensively with the Wisconsin-based Kimberly-Clark Corporation, including designing packaging and advertising for its Kleenex Tissue and various paper divisions. One of the firm’s most interesting projects was the 1959 film Faces and Fortunes which outlined the importance of visual identity for corporations in the postwar consumer-oriented world (selling Kimberly-Clark products along the way). Using live action, animation, and camera tricks in imaginative ways, the film considers the critical role of design in mid-century.

Goldsholl Design Associates forged another long-term relationship with St. Louis-based 7-Up. Starting in the mid-1960s, Goldsholl and his designers redesigned 7-Up’s cans, bottles, and packaging, and eventually the logo itself. Instead of solid lettering, the firm employed a series of dots—expressing the effervescence of the drink itself. The firm’s mid-1970s “See the Light” commercial for Sugar-Free 7-Up animated the dots into strobing geometric patterns, stylized lemons and limes, and blinking glasses of fizz, evoking the electric light bulbs of theater marquees and electronic displays.

Goldsholl Design Associates, trademark for Motorola, 1955.

What is the lesson that you’d like visitors to the exhibition to take away?

While the Goldsholls worked at the cross-section of art, design, film, advertising, and television, their contributions are part of a largely unknown history and legacy of Chicago design. They flourished in Chicago in part because of its manufacturing base, printing industry, and industrial and educational film industry, and in part because of Chicago’s unique design community, which had been influenced by the modernist aesthetics of the School of Design. They helped change the look and industry of design. When the Goldsholls’ started the firm in 1954, they were working against trends that favored illustration and demonstration. They brought a very fresh perspective to their projects, informed by an interest in experimentation, new materials, abstraction, and collage.

Millie Goldsholl, “Light Modulator,” 1945, in Vision in Motion by László Moholy-Nagy. Paul Theobald & Company, 1947.

Are there other Chicago-based designers that equal Goldsholls’ significance?

The history of Chicago design is filled with under-recognized designers. Some of the most significant are the city’s African-American designers. A key figure is Thomas Miller, who started at Goldsholl Design Associates in 1954 and stayed for over 30 years. He led the firm’s work on 7-Up as well as numerous other projects, mentoring other designers along the way. There is little written on his life or work, and it would be terrific to see more. The exhibition African American Designers in Chicago: Art, Commerce, and the Politics of Race, organized by the Chicago Cultural Center, will help place Miller’s achievements in a much larger context along with dozens of other African-American designers in the city.