Sourced from mostly North America and Europe designers, “Graphic Design: Now In Production” provides a valuable, although somewhat cursory opportunity to survey the dispersed practices populating the design world today. As the first traveling museum show in America focusing solely on contemporary design in the 21st century, this exhibition is important primarily because it’s the only one of its kind (at least in America) proposing a survey of the field. While there are precedents, like “Graphic Design In America” from 1988 and “Mixing Messages” from 1996, there are no other recent exhibitions against which we can judge “Now In Production’s” curatorial framework or critical reception. This results in the exhibition feeling a bit rushed, as if it were making up for lost time. However, in presenting us with so much, the curators, Ellen Lupton and Andrew Blauvelt allow visitors to reflect on a diversity of design practices, presenting design as a challenging provocateur and an embedded fixture of everyday life.
The exhibition is most engaging when its work blurs graphic design and fine art, client-based needs and individual projects. For example, Michiel Schuurman pushes the capabilities of the Adobe Creative Suite to extremes, producing Op-Art indebted, typographically charged, posters pulsating with dizzying moiré patterns. Sure, they communicate like posters, with times and dates for events, but they do so in a way that flirts with psychedelic incomprehension, questioning just how we read information.
Christophe Szpajdel’s hand-lettered logos
One of my personal favorite bodies of work is Christophe Szpajdel’s hand-lettered logos for dozens of death-metal bands from all over the world. Szpajdel takes email orders for these designs, prints out the request, and draws his mirrored, tendril-y creations on the back of the paper. The collection testifies to how one man can define the aesthetic predilections of an entire musical genre, and highlights the important merger of digital communication and good ole fashioned hand skills.
Unfortunately “Now in Production” doesn’t allow for visitors to page through most of the exhibition’s impressive collection of books and magazines, which exist sealed in transparent display cases. I would understand if these were truly rare publications, but many, like illustrator Mira Kalman’s engaging The Principles of Uncertainty, are available at most bookstores (including the museum’s) for less than $20. Letting the reception of these publications continue to exist only in places of commerce is a truly lost opportunity.
Additionally, problematic displays weaken the show. This is the case with an installation featuring the popular Brand New website, which blogs about the re-branding of companies big and small. With this installation, visitors use yellow tokens to vote on logo changes for companies from Starbucks to the New York Public Library. Sadly, the experience resonates as uncritical of the mechanisms shaping brand allegiance and simply mimics a shopping experience. It’s also worth noting that in light of the recent Hammer Biennial Mohn prize, this installation appears as another example of false populism, the facade of participation masking real decisions dictated from the top-down.
Overall, this exhibition’s chimeric ambitions propose a fortunate solution: major museums, as caretakers of an ever mutating cannon, must fill the holes in their peripheral vision and mount more exhibitions dedicated to charting the field of contemporary design. The graphic design and fine art worlds need to further embrace cross-pollination with the understanding that such hybridization can only help us all evolve together.