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African American Designers in Chicago

Chicago is having a hot moment for design. The Chicago designer Virgil Abloh—famed for leading Kanye West’s ‘Donda’ design agency—was recently hailed as the world’s most influential designer since becoming the director of Louis Vuitton earlier this year (but hey, working with Kanye West previously probably didn’t hurt, either).

Showcasing the Art of African American Designers

Abloh is not the only African American designer who has made his mark on Chicago, as there have been many others in a long list of names that date back a century, which a new exhibition seeks to highlight. African American Designers in Chicago: Art, Commerce and the Politics of Race opened November 2 at the Chicago Cultural Center in Chicago.

Dawson O Sing a New Song: Charles C. Dawson (1889-1981). “O Sing a New Song,” 1934. Lithograph, 21 ½ x 13 ½ inches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Reba and Dave Williams, 1999 (1999.529.58) Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Over 50 design works—from posters to sewing machines—highlight prominent African American designers who worked between 1900 and 1980 in graphic design, editorial and product design, billboard ads, Ebony magazine covers and the first black-founded ad agency.

The exhibit doesn’t cover contemporary design, it ends in 1980 (so don’t expect to see any of Abloh’s designs), though there is politically-charged graphic design in the exhibit. There are posters and flyers from the Africobra movement, as well as the design works of Emmett McBain, a designer who did pro bono graphic design work for organizations and social services that helped African Americans in Chicago in the 1970s.

A few consumer products in the exhibit include magazine covers, chairs and drawings that showcase the design process from sketch to finished product. One highlight is the works of industrial designer Charles ‘Chuck’ Harrison, the first African American executive to work at Sears in 1961, through 1993. Harrison’s road wasn’t an easy one. During his job interview with the department store, he was told he couldn’t be hired because he was black, so was given freelance work instead. But he eventually did get on staff and he designed over 750 household products, from toasters to stoves.

Charles Harrison (born 1931). Design for a portable phonograph, 1972. Colored pencil on tracing paper. Charles Harrison papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University Library, University of Illinois at Chicago


Spotlighting Chicago Designers

Jackie Ormes (1911-1985). Patty-Jo doll, 1947. Courtesy of Nancy Goldstein.


With a focus exclusively on Chicago designers, this exhibit highlights designers who shaped the look of black publications like the Chicago Defender newspaper and the Johnson publishing house, founded in 1942 by African American business mogul John H. Johnson, which founded Jet and Ebony magazines alongside the now-defunct Black World, Ebony Man and Black Stars.

The exhibition also features the works of the first African American woman cartoonist, Jackie Ormes, who not only penned cartoon strips throughout the 1940s and 1950s, but designed a black doll called the Patty-Jo doll, which was released in 1947.

“Our thesis is that Chicago is a special center for design for African Americans because it was one of the major sites in the north they came to from the rural south in the mid-20th century,” said Daniel Schulman, the visual arts director at Chicago’s department of cultural affairs. “It has a large, vibrant and politically powerful design community.”

Through the Ages

The exhibition is divided into four sections, starting with Futures: 1900–1920, a time when the African American population in Chicago was only 15,000 in a city of a million. “We know from census records, newspaper advertisements and business directories the existence of dozens if not hundreds of black Chicagoans who worked as ‘artisans’ in fields from milliners, dressmakers and tailors to printers and sign painters,” said Schulman.

The Renaissance: 1920–1945 section traces the Great Migration and the growth of African American designers in Chicago in a time when thousands of African Americans left the Jim Crow South for what they hoped would be a better life in northern cities, settling in the south side of Chicago (Bronzeville), which became a vibrant arts community that would rival Harlem.

Charles Dawson (1889-1981). Advertisement for Slick Black, early 1930s. Lithographic poster. Private Collection. James Prinz Photography, Chicago.


Among the designers in this section, there are advertisements created by Charles C. Dawson, who designed the graphics promoting Slick Black, black hair color tins from the 1930s. Dawson was also part of the New Negro art movement, which surfaced around the same time as the Harlem Renaissance black arts movement in New York, and continued throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

The exhibit also covers Abundance: 1945–1963, postwar Chicago life, which offered new opportunities for African American designers. The Johnson publishing company, founded in 1942, defined the postwar era of African American design and became iconic for defining black style.

Also on view is a comic called Home Folks by Jay Jackson, a cartoonist for the Chicago Defender, who won several awards for his cartoons made during the Second World War. A panel on view called Debt and Taxes shows one character complaining: “What do they mean ‘income tax,’ it should be ‘out’ go tax!”

Jay Jackson (1904-1954). Home Folks, “Debt and Taxes,” 1954. Ink on board with printed paper. Private collection. James Prinz Photography, Chicago.


“It’s a masterpiece,” said Schulman. “It shows young, middle class African Americans in a wonderful midcentury modern interior talking about how expensive things are, the dream of prosperity that was commonplace as a selling technique in the 1950s, this mass consumer market and postwar prosperity. In popular media, you don’t always see African Americans taking part of a stream of plenty in the 1950s.”

Unknown designer. Together for Victory. Silkscreen on board, c. 1942. William McBride Papers, Vivian Harsh Collection, Chicago Public Library. James Prinz Photography, Chicago.


The last section in the exhibit, Revolutions: 1963–1980, features how design evolved during the Civil Rights movement. “It coincided with a dramatic restructuring of the American economy that would transform the conditions and meaning of African Americans design in Chicago,” said Schulman. “Black Chicagoans adopted a variety of political responses, from organized protests for housing and jobs to mass uprisings against white-controlled power structures. The more militant politics of Black Power would infuse the visual culture of Black Chicago, in places such as the pages of the venerable Chicago Defender and outdoor posters for churches, theaters and community organizations.”

Herb Nipson and Norman L. Hunter. Cover Design, Ebony Magazine, September 1963. DuSable Museum of African American History, Eugene Winslow Papers. James Prinz Photography, Chicago.


The First African American-Owned Ad Agency

Probably the most important part of the exhibition highlights how, in 1971, the first African American-owned advertising agency was co-founded by Emmett McBain and Thomas J. Burrell. With clients like McDonalds and Coca-Cola, the work at Burrell McBain Advertising created design that catered to the black consumer without turning off their white audience.

Thomas Miller (1912-1920). 7-Up Cans, ca. 1972. Private collection. James Prinz Photography, Chicago.


“It was enormously important,” said Schulman. “It was one of first black owned firms to land major national accounts like cigarette manufacturers and campaigns for companies that included African Americans in mainstream roles on TV and in magazines, which brought their image to a broader public. It was a new and powerful conception of black commercial, political and social power.”

Images courtesy from “African American Designers in Chicago: Art, Commerce and the Politics of Race.” Chicago Cultural Center, October 27, 2018 –March 3, 2019.



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