Vintage Heller: The Unseen Lester Beall
Editor’s Note: Over the years, Steven Heller has written thousands of installments of his blog, The Daily Heller. With Vintage Heller, we’re exploring entries from the archives. This post first appeared in October 2016.
“Concordia Leaders of Design Series Lester Beall Exhibition and Presentation Lecture,” Oct. 10–Nov. 4, is the first exhibition of Beall’s work in ages. Beall passed away in 1969, and was posthumously voted into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame in 1973 and designated an AIGA Medalist in 1992. He’s perhaps best known for creating identities for the International Paper Company, Caterpillar Tractors and Connecticut General Life Insurance; his editorial work for PM magazine, Scope and Fortune; and his stunning poster series for the Rural Electrification Administration. This exhibition reveals much of the corporate identity for a range of manufacturing products and services, the work that would not necessarily fall under his Modernist pioneer umbrella. The exhibit, which features known and unknown artifacts, is the work of Concordia design professor John DuFresne and design history curator Michael Skjei. I asked Skjei to discuss the past, present and future of the exhibit.
Images by Micahel Skjei interpreting Lester Beall.
Why do you think it has taken so long for an exhibition of Lester Beall’s work to be featured as a solo show? I have no idea. … Beall, like so many of our graphic design pioneers, are rarely the subject of museum exhibitions, [especially] outside of NY (city and state); there are very few graphic design archives in the U.S. I suspect that this is more from a lack of awareness than interest. It surprises me since Beall’s work is so prolific, diverse and timeless, not to mention entertaining.
Exhibition photos by Bethany Aleshire.
The last exhibition that you did, to my knowledge, was on Alvin Lustig. Why did you do this one? The Beall exhibition is the third graphic design pioneer exhibition I’ve curated/co-curated. All three—The Early Years of Paul Rand, The Lustigs: A Cover Story, 1933-1961 and Lester Beall,1903-1969—were done simply for awareness and educational purposes; the first two exhibitions opened at the College of Visual Arts, and Beall’s at Concordia University, both in St. Paul, MN. I want designers and design students to experience the actual design pieces as I once did.
Years ago, as a young designer I had the fortune to view Lou Danziger’s graphic design collection in Los Angeles. To hold historic design ephemera in your own hands was, to say the least, awe inspiring. To view a few photographs of a designer’s work in history books can never do the work or the designer’s career justice.
How would you define Beall’s role in American design practice and history? To me, Lester Beall is as influential as Paul Rand, Alvin Lustig or Alexey Brodovitch … maybe even more so, in that he owned, managed and directed an actual design office (not a boutique). His staff was larger, he allowed them creative input and his projects/clients were broader in scope and more categorically and functionally diverse.
Is he as known today as he should be, given his accomplishments and based on a style that continues to inspire? Hell no, and I don’t understand why!
What was the most surprising and/or difficult piece you obtained for the show? There are two categories that stood out and surprised me. The amounts of packaging he and his firm designed; his visual approach and display functionality of some of his retail packages were years ahead of their time. The other stand-out category for me was his newsstand magazine design and art direction … i.e., Brides magazine, and Modern Screen magazine—very different yet both audience appropriate.
What would you say is the takeaway narrative of this event? What do you want people to feel? All I want people to get out of the exhibition is enjoyment, and hopefully for some … inspiration.
Are there plans for this show to travel? We certainly hope so … it’s framed and ready to go, but as of yet it’s not going anywhere.