Graphic design in the mechanical age

Any Williams College student with eyes and an entry knows that we live in one of the few remaining environments where posters are an essential form of advertising and communication. We’re also exposed to a constant flow of generation-X design when we watch the tube, surf the net, and pull from our SU boxes a steady diet of glossy flyers promoting VISA cards and Columbia House. A good poster catches our attention; the oversupply of damaged fonts, elderly retro images, and Microsoft colors makes us want to retch. Fortunately, the Williams College Museum of Art offers a reward and a cure, at the impressive exhibition “Graphic Design in the Mechanical Age: Selections from the Merrill C. Berman Collection.”

On display are 210 pieces of graphic design from the 1920s and 1930s. The majority are posters, both commercial and political, with a good representation of product packaging, designs for signs, books and magazines, brochures, collages and photomontages, and assorted ephemera. While the selection varies broadly, as it should, through eras, locations, and purposes, the overall impression of the design on exhibit is one of cleanliness, bright color, angularity, compositions that are exciting and (often simultaneously) elegant, and inventive uses of typography and photography.

The pieces are from the collection of Merrill C. Berman, who over the past two decades has been a skilled and exacting leader of a movement to collect, study and display graphic design. This exhibition is a collaboration between Mr. Berman, the Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum (part of the Smithsonian), and the Williams College Museum of Art. It is co-curated by Deborah Rothschild, of WCMA, Darra Goldstein, Williams Professor of Russian, and Ellen Lupton, of the Cooper-Hewitt. These women have worked literally for years to create this show, the most impressive and large-scale event seen at WCMA in my time here. It will be traveling to New York City, Seattle, Spain, and Japan after it closes here in November.

The exhibition space, consuming two large rooms, quietly echoes the flavor of the show. Designer Amy Reichert produced a winding, angular setting in which posters appear as the viewer walks around corners, much as they might have 75 years ago. There are several brightly colored, tall, triangular kiosks on which we see, as elsewhere, posters behind glass frames. It is only because of the rarity and fragility of the posters that we can’t see these structures as they might have been in Moscow or Paris, plastered like the bulletin boards in Baxter. Similarly, the museum hush is not quite the aural environment for these works, and the viewer might wish to imagine street noise of both horses and automobiles, distant jazz, political orators and factory whistles.

The motif for the show is a clever play on El Lissitzky’s 1920 “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge,” a Russian revolutionary poster showing a red triangle penetrating the white circle of the counter-revolutionaries. For the show, similar forms are arranged to show a red “Avant-Garde” triangle entering a circle of “Commerce,” “Politics,” and “Social Change.” The exhibition is laid out in kind, demonstrating the formative effect of avant-garde movements (Dada, Futurism, Constructivism) on the three areas of graphic production. Seeing such a genealogy is perhaps a good lesson for those questioning the raison d’etre of current “avant-garde” experiments, whatever they may be.

Also near the beginning of one’s progress through the exhibition is series four preliminary designs of Bart van der Lack’s 1919 poster for a Dutch salad oil. In each stage of design is seen the abstraction, flattening, and coloring that moves the poster from a detailed scene with some depth, to a plane with an array of geometric shapes. The letter-forms make similar progress, and through the drafts we see a method of working that atomizes and specializes representational elements almost until incoherence. Whether this produced an intelligible, universal graphic language, to be used in a society undergoing similar revisions, is a question to bear in mind throughout the show.

These are not the only pre-production designs in the exhibition, and this is one of its great strengths. These preliminary sketches, and the final maquettes, inform us of the conceptual and material evolution of the designs. For instance, what appears to be an area of gray pigment in a postcard by Valentina Kulagina is, in the maquette, a chunk of cardboard cut to size. This is certainly in keeping with the designers’ methodological goal of engineering; the distinction gives one pause to consider what, in this exhibition, is an original, and from what authority it speaks—the power of the design, the political and economic power behind the production, the esteemed placement within a museum?

The pre-production designs also reveal an irony between their time and ours. Many of the marks in the designs were made by hand, guided by drafting tools. These mechanical tools served to correct the irregularities of the unaided wavering hand. Compare this to today, when this very computer on which I write is equipped with several fonts that mimic handwriting, and how many liner notes have you deciphered from imitations of the song-writers scrawl? You can always count on bands to err on the side of integrity, and in both eras there is a peculiar sort of integrity: mechanistic designs produced by a hidden hand, and folksy designs produced with computers.

It is the current over-saturation of design ploys such as the latter that should make “Graphic Design in the Mechanical Age” a popular show among Williams students. Our eyes flitter over so much design every day that a trip to this show may amount to a healing pilgrimage for our sense of sight. This is dynamic, proselytizing work that casts its aesthetic before it, which is where you should stand.

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