Blogs The Gradient

Educational Tossing and Turning: 26th International Biennial of Graphic Design in Brno

This past summer the 26th International Biennial of Graphic Design in Brno appointed “education” to be its overarching topic. As any physical manifestation of education is merely a side effect or support structure, this decision poses an inevitable representational dilemma. We may, for instance, look at a school through its architecture or its visual output, […]

This past summer the 26th International Biennial of Graphic Design in Brno appointed “education” to be its overarching topic. As any physical manifestation of education is merely a side effect or support structure, this decision poses an inevitable representational dilemma. We may, for instance, look at a school through its architecture or its visual output, but we cannot ever accurately grasp the formative experience it engenders. Education, essentially, is an intangible process. As such we should maybe focus less on the form the Brno Biennial took and more on the issues it revealed.


SINCE ITS INCEPTION IN 1963, the Brno Biennial has always been an educational endeavor. Looking to bring contemporary examples of international graphic design to the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia), the biennial both wanted to imbue the general public with an appreciation and awareness of “applied graphics” as well as inform practicing graphic artists about the current international state of their profession. Or as Karel Holešovský put it in the catalogue of the 1st Brno Biennial, they aimed to “contribute to a decisive and further improvement of the level of applied graphics to international standards.” Each year was accompanied by a symposium of lectures and a publication that reflected on current tendencies and important issues, which ranged from topics such as “Graphic Design in the Service of Industry and Trade” to “The Social Responsibility of the Graphic Designer.” Until now, the Biennial has basically been a polythematic potpourri of individually curated exhibitions. This year, however, was different. For the first time there was a curatorial team—Czech designers Radim Peško, Adam Macháček, and Tomáš Celizna—that devised one topic to run through all of the different structures and formats that make up the biennial. All of them being teachers in various international schools, they felt that “Graphic Design, Education & Schools” was the topic that had an urgency to be addressed.

By turning to education the Brno Biennal not only acknowledged and reflected on the training that goes into becoming a graphic designer, but it also drew attention to its own discursive and pedagogical potency and responsibility—to not simply show and tell, but to also reflect, discuss, and question.


Disruptions, disorders, and discussions in the OFF Program. (Photo: Brno Biennial)Biennial Talks: Armand Mevis and Linda van Deursen talk to curator Moritz Küng about their exhibition and their experiences as teachers. (Photo: Brno Biennial)
Left: Disruptions, disorders, and discussions in the OFF ProgramRight: Biennial Talks: Armand Mevis and Linda van Deursen talk to curator Moritz Küng about their exhibition and their experiences as teachers. (© Brno Biennial)


The exhibition “Personalities in Czech Graphic Design” showed a retrospective on Czech designer Rostislav VaněkFramed objects and blownup captions in Our Art: Mevis & Van Deursen. (© Kamil Till & Andrea Velnerová)
Left: The exhibition Personalities in Czech Graphic Design showed a retrospective on Czech designer Rostislav Vaněk, presenting works from his school years, to printed matter, his signage for the Prague metro and ČSA, and finally his typedesign. Right: Framed objects and blown-up captions in Our Art: Mevis & Van Deursen. (© Kamil Till & Andrea Velnerová)


Children’s drawing workshop in the space of “From A to B to C.” (© Kamil Till & Andrea Velnerová)Postcard of Saint Jerome to take home from The Study Room.
Left: Children’s drawing workshop in the space of From A to B to C. (© Kamil Till & Andrea Velnerová) Right: Postcard of Saint Jerome to bring home from The Study Room.


“WE WERE IN THE FIRST PLACE trying to explore the Biennial as a format: its possibilities, dynamics and of course limitations. Among the many objectives we set up for ourselves, we aimed to compose the Biennial as a sort of platform and prepare conditions where discussions could happen and thrive,” Peško, Macháček, and Celizna explain their approach. While usually an educational side-show to the main exhibitions, in the case of this year’s Brno Biennial the lecture program and its friend next door, the newly added OFF Program—a non-curated open space that invited people to contribute with and take part in side-exhibitions, workshops, interventions, lectures, presentations, and activities—felt like the center that everything else revolved around. Education was taken out of its supporting role and superimposed onto the whole event.

The only two exhibitions that lived outside of the curatorial topic of education showcased the works of awarded designers from previous editions of the Biennial. In 2010, Czech designer and typographer Rostislav Vaněk was recognized with the prize “Personalities in Czech Graphic Design” for his life’s work, and Dutch design duo Mevis & Van Deursen were singled out as the “Grand Prix” winners in 2012. The two awardees could not have approached a monographic exhibition more differently. While Vaněk smilingly shrugged off my question about whether he had found it difficult to make an exhibition of his own design work, Mevis & Van Deursen, together with Swiss curator Moritz Küng, made a statement towards the impossibility of exhibiting graphic design. Ironically, in both exhibitions, things ended up behind glass—untouchable and reduced to mere surface. With its self-critical approach Our Art: Mevis & Van Deursen followed in the footsteps of Peter Bil’ak’s Graphic Design in the White Cube, presented at the Brno Biennial in 2006. Both point to the problem of isolating works that were created serving a different function and context within the walls of an exhibition. Whereas a traditional graphic design exhibition such as Vaněk’s generously gives people a lot to look at, a conceptual one like Mevis & Van Deursen’s might give them more to think about.

Some rooms we walk through looking, others we inhabit reading or working. Ogled by Saint Jerome, the “poster boy of scholars” as Pieter Verbeke and Elisabeth Klement called him, the visitors of The Study Room were invited to sit in silent self-study and draw inspiration from a selection of books that an invited group of designers and theoreticians had shared from their private library. And Rudy Guedj allowed the blackboard walls and white chalk drawings of his From A to B to C to do more than outline the history of art education. Instead of simply cladding an empty room they also served as the backdrop for a set of workshops.

UP UNTIL TODAY, the International Exhibition—the Brno Biennial’s most longstanding exhibition format—presented an international selection of professional works of design. This year’s edition, however, marked a curatorial contrast: in the name of education, only works produced by students were admitted. That way, outspoken credit was given to works of graphic design that result from educational and not professional conditions, and new unknown names were highlighted instead of old well-known familiars.

Investigating the Brno Biennial itself, specifically in regard to education, Seoul-based designers Sulki & Min Choi analyzed developments within the International Exhibition over the last ten years. Their statistical study Off-White Paper—presented through a printed publication, a slide-show, and a lecture—unveiled, for instance, how the Swiss government spends the most money on higher education, how Japan’s graphic design programs have the largest number of students but apparently about the same amount of teachers as the significantly smaller Swiss schools, how the Dutch design schools have the highest percentage of foreign students, or how foreign students at the Royal College of Art in London pay the biggest fees. Thus, their innocent Isotype charts silently hint at political and monetary power structures that permeate graphic design education today. During their lecture, Sulki & Min Choi also revealed a different title they had at some point thought of for their project: “Did you go to school for that?”

In contrast to the International Exhibition that focused on materialized results, Nina Paim’s Taking a Line for a Walk examined the questions that prompt student work: assignments. Designed in collaboration with Emilia Bergmark, and with text by myself, Paim’s exhibition sought to reveal the hidden layer of language that is embedded in any designed outcome. Following Alice down the rabbit-hole: a selection of assignments collected through research and an international open call were exhibited as larger than life sheets of paper pinned all over the walls, objects used in teaching were presented as a board game, and painted murals, objects, videos, and audio works produced by students specifically for the exhibition enriched the seven rooms with delicious distractions. The result was a sort of “Cabinet of Wonders” for design instruction. Some assignments lay out clear rules or give precise instructions, others simply stimulate a process or throw out questions. In any case, assignments elicit thinking and ask for solutions, while they also indirectly define and formulate ideas about design.


The statistical study Off-White Paper sheds light on developments within the International Exhibition over the last 10 years, collating data on the participants and their education. (© Brno Biennial)The International Exhibition: Student Work presented 391 selected works by 229 participants from 24 different countries. (© Brno Biennial)
Left: The statistical study Off-White Paper sheds light on developments within the International Exhibition over the last 10 years, collating data on the participants and their education. (© Brno Biennial) Right: The International Exhibition: Student Work presented 391 selected works by 229 participants from 24 different countries. (© Brno Biennial)


Blown-up assignment sheets pinned to the walls of Taking a Line for a Walk. (© Brno Biennial)An ‘object lesson’-riddle in the exhibition Taking a Line for a Walk.
Left: Blown-up assignment sheets pinned to the walls of  Taking a Line for a Walk. (© Brno Biennial) Right: An ‘object lesson’-riddle in the same exhibition.


THERE WAS A TIME when professionals would look to schools for inspiration, but today the roles seem to be reversed. Students now look at work produced in the market economy to see how things should be done, instead of thinking for themselves about how things could be done. Assignments also often aim to bring professional reality into school. They generally do so by emulating real-life conditions or bringing in actual commissioned work, hoping to prepare students for what working out there will be all about. But, it is debatable whether it is healthy that design education has moved from speculation and discourse to imitation and marketability. If we train the designers of tomorrow to simply follow the norms of today, how can graphic design move forward? Economists and politicians have meanwhile figured out the potential of “design thinking” to find innovative solutions to intricate problems, but designers themselves seem to have somewhat forgotten about the fact that their real asset lies in their own ability to think critically. Instead, there is a tendency to simply copy the trends that the market dictates.

It is natural to be influenced by the work of other contemporaries and by current aesthetics and working methods. But while such information used to come through biennials such as the one in Brno, and a few exhibitions, journals, magazines, and books here and there—things that usually went through a careful process of selection and reflection—today’s graphic designers seem to primarily draw their inspiration from globally accessible pseudo-journalistic blogs. Generally quick to read and image-heavy, those websites are riddled with superficially researched, non-critical laudations on design work, overusing expressions such as “cool”, “stuff”, or “check this out.”

This formalistic and trend-driven approach to design among the younger generation was also quite apparent in the student work displayed in the Biennial’s International Exhibition. Despite their individual quality and visual fervor, the works displayed on non-black blackboards and other school furniture revamps ended up looking like a colorful sea of sameness. Peško, Macháček, and Celizna point out how this “tedious similarity of the student work […] does not so much concern the decisions of the selection jury, but rather reflects the state of graphic design today.” With the majority of submitted works having been books, posters, and other printed matter one could also get the impression that graphic design schools are still stuck in the Gutenberg era, not putting any emphasis on digital, online, or new media.

The selection jury further attested to how “there is not such a big difference to the professional competition of two years ago” and that “there were many professionally produced catalogues” and “not so much ‘student’ student work.” Usually, the jury-members select one designer represented in the International Exhibition for the “Grand Prix” award, but despite the asserted professionalism of the student work they decided that—as it usually awards a distinguished body of work—there was no winner to be named this year. When it comes to recognition there apparently still is a difference between student work and professional work—even if there is none to be seen.

THE RISING PROFESSIONALISM in student work stands in stark contrast to the worldwide exploitive ploy of hiring graduates as underpaid interns, which graphic design has also been buying into in recent years. Few ever really talk about this openly, but it is a reality for many graduates today—and not only for graphic designers. A recent article in The Economist calls it the “Generation i.” It further informs us that in the United States “a checklist devised by the Department of Labour stipulates that in order to be unpaid, an internship must be ‘similar to training which would be given in an educational environment’, must not displace employees and must not give the employer any immediate advantage from the intern’s labours.” When I moved back home to Switzerland in the beginning of this year, I was offered many internships, but not many jobs. “We only work with interns” or “I see this more as an internship—at least what concerns the salary” or “we usually hire people that already did an internship with us” were only a few of the answers I received. And that was after I had already invested one year gaining valuable experience through an underpaid internship. This phenomenon is certainly also symptomatic of the precarious state the graphic design profession itself is in. For instance, many smaller studios working mostly for cultural clients seem to carry much of their workload on the back of highly able and motivated interns. With too many graduates eager to work for those small “big” names, the level of skills that the hired interns present would certainly not warrant the low salary they are being paid. If higher professionalism in school is equaled with lower employability after school there must be something going horribly wrong.

While their graduates are struggling to find jobs, design schools seem to be flourishing. With the marketization and international standardization of higher education, and the proliferation of graphic design as an academic discipline, fees are rising, bureaucratic structures are tightening, and schools are evolving from intimate small-scale places to academic machineries with buildings akin to corporate headquarters. And there is no shortage of interested students. The romanticized ideal of the creative profession looms strongly, global individualism is further growing, and the number of students who want to step outside of their homelands and their comfort zones to advance their design training is still rising—as can be measured by the equally ascending number of foreign students at internationally acclaimed design school programs (often paying the much more expensive international fees) or the fast multiplying supply of graphic design summer schools (most of which don’t come for free either).


A poster-diptych designed by Rostislav Vaněk for the Brno Biennial of 1980 announcing that year’s focus on “Illustration and Editorial Art.”Since the beginning the Brno Biennial has also always had an accompanying publication. This year’s was designed by recent graduates Fabian Harb and Johannes Breyer. (© Brno Biennial)
Left: A poster-diptych designed by Rostislav Vaněk for the Brno Biennial of 1980 announcing that year’s focus on “Illustration and Editorial Art.” Right: Since the beginning the Brno Biennial has also always had an accompanying publication. This year’s was designed by recent graduates Fabian Harb and Johannes Breyer. (© Brno Biennial)


OUTSIDE IN BRNO, with a water fountain calmly rustling in the background, I sat in conversation with a friend. A graphic designer and teacher himself, he mentioned something about “education” being a “hot” topic these days, and how he has started to grow tired of these discussions that don’t yield any actual changes. To this current art-school-cool (or by extension design-school-cool) curator Dieter Roelstraete also attests in a recent article “whereas in 2007 former Städelschule director Daniel Birnbaum could still observe that ‘words such as school and academy rarely spark enthusiasm in progressive circles,’ much of that sought-after enthusiasm is now likely to be guaranteed by the mere mention, no matter how perfunctory, of the words ‘academy’, ‘education’ or ‘school’ […].” Just as art and design education has grown into a market, so has talking about it.

We only have to count the amount of books on art and design education being published to realize that the educational turn has long become a trend. However, our usual understanding of the word “trend” is rather derogatory and negative. We may also look at it in another way, namely, that the turn, which started out as something ideological and inquisitive, has found some actual footing. That the seeds planted by art have matured into a forest that now even stretches out into the related field of graphic design. And with the rapid technological, economical, political, and social developments affecting our profession as much as they are, it was high time for education to become and remain a “hot” topic within the circle of graphic design. Reflection and action should always inform one another. And as long as we do not blindly step into the alluring trap of self-involved or profit-oriented educational mannerism—and create one curated library or one alternative school after the other without thinking about it twice—there is absolutely nothing wrong with continuously addressing the current problematic and future potential of design education.


Corinne Gisel is a Swiss graphic designer and writer, currently working and residing in Zurich (CH). Since graduating from the Gerrit Rietveld Academie (NL) in 2012, she has mostly been working in the fields of arts and culture as an independent graphic designer, working by herself or assisting and collaborating with other designers. In June 2013 her collaboration with Nina Paim (BR) was nominated for the Swiss Design Award. Her approach to design is characterized by a high sensibility for research, editing, and language, which also manifests itself in actual writing about design. She was invited by Krabbesholm Højskole (DK) to be a designer and writer in residence during spring/summer 2015.

Download 15 issues of Design Quarterly

In case you missed it, as part of our 75th anniversary celebrations Andrew Blauvelt has put up a selection of Design Quarterly issues that are available in their entirety for download. Learn a bit about the history of Design Quarterly and dig into issues about Julia Child’s kitchen, the design process at Herman Miller, Muriel […]

DQ_coversIn case you missed it, as part of our 75th anniversary celebrations Andrew Blauvelt has put up a selection of Design Quarterly issues that are available in their entirety for download. Learn a bit about the history of Design Quarterly and dig into issues about Julia Child’s kitchen, the design process at Herman Miller, Muriel Cooper on computers and design, an issue by Richard Saul Wurman that is not about hats, and more.

Abbott Miller, Ellen Lupton, Andrew Blauvelt, and Others on Mickey Friedman

So much of what makes the Walker a great place for design is because of Mickey Friedman and her tenure as design director, design curator, and editor of Design Quarterly. Since Mickey passed away earlier this week, a number of design voices have been offering personal reflections on Mickey’s influence on them, as well as fascinating […]


So much of what makes the Walker a great place for design is because of Mickey Friedman and her tenure as design director, design curator, and editor of Design Quarterly. Since Mickey passed away earlier this week, a number of design voices have been offering personal reflections on Mickey’s influence on them, as well as fascinating glimpses into the Walker’s design culture during her time here. I highly recommend you read Andrew Blauvelt‘s personal and compelling article covering a wide range of Mickey’s contributions to the design field, from groundbreaking exhibitions such as De Stijl, 1917–1931: Visions of Utopia, Tokyo: Form and Spirit, and Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History, to her generous and forward-thinking editorial approach with Design Quarterly, and her creation of Walker mainstays such as the Insights Design Lecture Series and the design department’s fellowship program. The Walker is also collecting short contributions from a variety of Mickey’s peers—the entirety of which you can read here—and I wanted to pull out a few below.


Ellen Lupton, curator of contemporary design, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

Abbott Miller and I had the amazing pleasure of working with Mickey in the late 1980s on her groundbreaking exhibition Graphic Design in America. She was the first real curator I had ever met, and she had so much to teach a young aspirant like myself. Her grace, intelligence, and kindness—and her patience with two green young writers—will always stay with me. Mickey Friedman thought with her eyes. She had a way to spinning stories, ideas, and insight out of objects and rooms. She had both extraordinary taste and the desire to illuminate the whole world with better design.


Exhibition view of Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History, 1989

Exhibition view of Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History, 1989


Abbott Miller, designer, writer, and partner at Pentagram

Mickey had an amazing sense of adventure, independence, and generosity in her thoughts and actions. That combination led her to champion, explicate, and consider design from truly diverse vantage points. From the “spoon to the city” meant that Julia Child, Tokyo, and Frank Gehry were all expressions of design. There was a modernist current to her interests, but not as a stylistic vocabulary. She was interested in the public life of design, the formal experimentation of contemporary designers, but also the “commercial vernacular” that was evident in her Graphic Design in America exhibition.

I co-authored an extended timeline-essay for her Graphic Design in America catalogue: I remember that Mickey came to New York to discuss the show with Ellen Lupton, who was curating great exhibitions on graphic design at Cooper Union. We saw her outline for the catalogue she was planning, and after she left we wrote her a letter nominating ourselves as the authors. Her response was along the lines of “I was thinking the exact same thing.” It was a leap of faith that she had probably made many times in her career, trusting her instincts and having confidence in her choices.

I’ve been fortunate to have had multiple occasions and experiences touched by Mickey, Martin, and their daughter, Lise Friedman, who was the editor of the first magazine I designed. I know multiple projects can be traced back to Mickey, directly or indirectly, and that I am one of many designers whose lives have been deeply influenced by her intelligence, charm, and vision.


Phil Freshman, former editor, Walker Art Center

Mickey Friedman hired me to be the Walker Art Center’s first-ever staff editor in the spring of 1988, and I moved here from Los Angeles with my wife and five-month-old daughter that June. I soon settled into the routine 70-hour-per-week Walker norm and made common cause with the cast of dedicated maniacs who made up the then 60-person staff. One reason I’d been hired was to edit Mickey’s magnum opus, the book accompanying her long-planned exhibition, Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History. She rightly wanted to keep close tabs on the writing (by a large and far-flung set of contributors) and the editing. But before that engine even got started, there was Adam Weinberg’s Vanishing Presence photography catalogue to edit, plus a Frank Stella book for Liz Armstrong. And because I was the only editor in the joint, I was handed just about every printed piece the Walker cranked out, from the members’ calendar to booklets, brochures, program flyers, and broadsides for the film/video, performing arts, and education departments, annual reports, and assorted whatnot. There was also the little business, in the summer of 1988, of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, which opened that September—requiring its own thick set of “ephemera.” After five or six such breakneck months, I asked Martin and Mickey if I could hire a part-time assistant. They shook their heads and shut their eyes. “Edit faster,” Martin intoned.

Editing faster, and editing for precision and clarity, was something at which Mickey excelled. She hated fluff, flatulence, posturing, and imprecision in writing as much as I did. But the wonder of it, to me, was that she could drain waste out of a piece and rewrite lead and concluding paragraphs at warp speed and with seemingly little exertion. I would hand her my first pass at a tortured essay from the graphic design book at, say, 10 am, and within a couple of hours it would be back on my desk, its major problems fixed and the path forward made clear. I learned much about achieving clarity by looking at her edits, and I learned how to struggle less doing my own editing. Although Mickey and I got crosswise many a time, she never told me how to edit nor failed to support me if I was at an impasse with a writer. Although she thought, like Martin, that there was no limit to the amount of time and energy I (and the rest of the staff) should devote to the Walker—that was the way the two of them lived, after all—I saw that in everything she did the aim was excellence and quality. It was remarkable, indeed admirable, how often and squarely she hit those targets.

I was at the Walker until the Friedmans left, at the end of 1990, and stayed the first four years of Kathy Halbreich’s tenure. As tough a customer as Mickey could be, there were definitely days during that post-Friedman time when I missed her no-nonsense and her sharp eye.


Exhibition shot of Tokyo: Form and Spirit

Exhibition shot of Tokyo: Form and Spirit

Glenn Suokko, independent graphic designer, former senior graphic designer (1998–1990), Walker Art Center

Working with Mickey Friedman remains one of the most stimulating and important experiences of my career in design. We worked together on the major exhibition, Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History, and it was while working on his particular—enormous—project, that as a graphic designer fresh out of graduate school, I learned from Mickey about the integration of design, art, culture, history, and experience—and so much more. She was unrelenting in making everything exceptional and had amazing taste. I thought she was the most insightful, brilliant person I had ever met. We often had lunch together in Gallery 8 and while enjoying a salad and the special of the day, carried on our work in planning and creating the exhibition, book, and programming. We always worked on Saturdays, because this was the day when we could really dig in and get a lot done without distraction. Every so often on a Saturday, Mickey or Martin would suggest we take a break and have lunch at their house. Mickey always made the most delicious lunches with simplicity and ease. She was so gracious and these are treasured moments in my memory. After lunch we’d head back to the office and work more, and often wind up having dinner and seeing a performance in the theater that night. With Mickey—as with Martin—work and friendship, experience and wisdom, good food and wonderful projects, all seemed to just continually flow into one another in the nicest way.


Peter Seitz, former design curator (1964–1968), Walker Art Center

I worked in the mid-Sixties for nearly five years at the Walker Art Center as design curator, editor of Design Quarterly, and graphic designer, writing, lecturing, publishing, and producing all visual communications and curating design exhibitions, even designing graphics for the early Guthrie Theater. I practiced an inclusive approach to design, something Mickey not only carried on but excelled in it. Her focus on urban design, her involvement in getting good national and international designers and architects in designing in and for Minneapolis, resulted in this area to become known as a center for good design.

After leaving the Walker I was not dismayed when I learned that Mickey took over the design curator position and right away hired two more designers to assist her. We all miss her; the design community lost a great professional and a friend.



Mickey Friedman with Walker designers at the opening of Graphic Design in America, 1989. Left to right: Jeff Cohen, graphic designer; Glenn Suokko, senior graphic designer; Robert Jensen, design director; Mickey Friedman; James Johnson, chief graphic designer; Lorraine Ferguson, chief graphic designer; Peter Seitz, design curator; and John Calvelli, graphic designer. Photo: ©Walker Art Center

ICA’s Excursus: Interview with Alex Klein and Mark Owens

Emmet Byrne: What is Excursus and how did it come about? Alex Klein and Mark Owens: Excursus was a two-year, four-part initiative at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia positioned at the intersection of art and design, programs and exhibitions, and the archive and the museum. It took the form of a […]


Emmet Byrne: What is Excursus and how did it come about?

Alex Klein and Mark Owens: Excursus was a two-year, four-part initiative at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia positioned at the intersection of art and design, programs and exhibitions, and the archive and the museum. It took the form of a rotating installation on the ICA mezzanine, a curated series of intimate events, and an online residency on the Excursus website, which also acted as a form of real-time documentation. Each of the four invited participants— Reference Library, East of Borneo, Ooga Booga, and Primary Information—work in a space between artistic domains that don’t always have a comfortable place within a traditional gallery setting, such as publication, distribution, archival research, and programming.

Alex was hired in 2011 as ICA’s newly-created program curator, and Excursus was a way to explore and activate the “discursive space” of the museum as it approached it’s 50th anniversary and to challenge the notion of how a program could function and how we might gauge its success. ICA is a non-collecting institution with a long history of ground-breaking exhibitions—Andy Warhol, Paul Thek, and Martin Kippenberger each had their first U.S. solo museum shows at ICA, for example—and thus ICA’s extensive archive is in a very real sense its collection. Each of the participants was thus invited to delve into the ICA archive and to make connections both with their own concerns and the exhibitions currently on view in the main galleries.

An “excursus” is a literary term describing a digression or supplement to a primary text, and the project was conceived very much in that spirit, with every element, from the installation to the programming, emerging from these conceptual and material connections. The aim was to provide a platform that could be responsive and flexible–both in terms of form and authorship–and that could could bridge the gap between extra-institutional and institutional activities while still maintaining a strong framework and a grounding in the physical space of the ICA.


EB: The project has a very strong design sensibility, from the participants selected, to the design of the space, to the design of the ephemera, and of course the catalogue. Was there a philosophy at work behind the design of the whole program?

AK & MO: Certain binaries seemed to anchor each season of the project: East Coast vs. West Coast, black-and-white vs. color, social vs. contemplative, etc. Although each iteration of the project revolved around a kind of kit of parts–a flexible space for discussion, a display system for the event broadsides, a set of flat file drawers to display archival material, an auratic object of some kind, and a projection in the lobby–each of the invited participants contributed a strong visual aesthetic that was linked to the thematic of each of their installations. Thus, the form of each installation, from the materials used to the seating and furniture, reflected a distinct sensibility that changed radically from project to project and sat apart from the rest of the museum identity and the exhibitions in the main galleries. For example, Reference Library’s Andy Beach used custom-designed furniture in unpainted wood in combination with Martino Gamper’s bright plastic Arnold Circus stools in shades of blue and a Wharton Esherick Hammer Handle Chair on loan from the Hedgerow Theater in nearby Rose Valley. This then gave way to East of Borneo‘s exploration of California arts pedagogy circa 1970 with seminar tables, vintage David Rowland 40/4 chairs in period colors, and an actual Metamorphokit table, designed by Peter de Bretteville and Toby Cowan, shipped directly from the CalArts library. For her installation Ooga Booga’s Wendy Yao recreated the unmistakable look and feel of her two Los Angeles stores, complete with a hammock, bookshelves, and a custom table and benches designed by Manuel Raeder, which are now installed at her Mission Road space. Finally, Primary Information drew inspiration from ICA’s seminal 1975 Video Art exhibition with a more spare, conceptualist, black-and-white aesthetic, punctuated by Sarah Crowner’s dramatic Vidas Perfectas curtain (2011), originally produced for a Robert Ashley performance, which created a literal backdrop for the activities that ensued. In this way, the design of the projects themselves marked out a distinct physical space that was at once rich with material and metaphor, but also flexible and open.

Below: Various images of the four installations/residencies.





EB: How did the graphic identity for the project come together?

AK & MO: To serve as a frame for the four installations the Excursus identity took the form of a diagrammatic mark that served to describe a set of relationships — between Art, Design, Archive, and Conversation — that summed up the matrix of concerns that shaped the project rather than a wholly separate visual language. The mark itself appeared at a range of scales, including on gallery notes, print materials, and the ICA’s sidewalk sandwich board, as well as on tote bags, a flag hanging in the Ooga Booga space, and a large window graphic in Reference Library’s installation.


AK & MO: In addition to the mark, an identity within the overall identity system was created for each of the individual iterations of the project. In each instance this was employed through a series of Riso-printed broadsides produced at PennDesign’s Common Press that announced upcoming events and through the color palette of the website. Each of the four modules were designed in consultation with the invited participants to reflect the aesthetic and ethos of each resident while also maintaining a consistency that sat next to but largely apart from the museum identity and website. In addition, the Risograph posters designed by Mark Owens and the WordPress website designed by Other Means meant that updates and announcements could be made relatively quickly and inexpensively and allowed for a kind of responsive design process that is rare within institutional settings. ICA has the distinct advantage of being located at the University of Pennsylvania, which gives the museum an immediate audience among students, faculty, and staff, as well as a proximity to the nearby neighborhood of West Philadelphia and close connections with the city’s broader artistic and academic communities. The responsive design process allowed for events to be conceived, organized, and advertised in a matter of weeks or even days, rather than the longer timeframes required for most museum programming. By the same token, the website functioned as an online residency, which allowed each of the participants to participate throughout the duration of their Excursus, long after their installation was complete. In this way, Excursus gained a following both among ICA’s local audience here in Philadelphia, and a much more dispersed audience who followed the project online. Of course, there is no substitute for the actual experience of visiting a museum, but taken together the printed material, website, and catalogue now serve as a both a record and an archive of the project.


Above: Posters for Excursus I: Reference Library residency


Above: Posters for Excursus II: East of Borneo residency


Above: Posters for Excursus III: Ooga Booga residency


Above: Posters for Excursus IV: Primary Information residency


Above: Excursus website design by Other Means

EB: What were some of the most unexpected moments, and were they documented?

AK & MO: One of the aims of Excursus was to explore questions of audience and exhibitionality in ways that could put some critical pressure on the terminology of “engagement” as it is currently being discussed in the broader cultural field. As a result, some of the most surprising moments occurred in the context of a “program” involving only two people, or in the unplanned interaction between participants. One instance that particularly stands out was the Madchester event organized by artists Anthony Campuzano and Dan Murphy in conjunction with Oooga Booga’s installation and the concurrent Jeremy Deller exhibition, Joy in People, which was then on view in the museum. Campuzano and Murphy led an afternoon discussion on fandom and their own teenage fascination with 1990s Britpop and the Manchester music scene centered around the famous Hacienda nightclub. Purely by chance, legendary Hacienda DJ Dave Haslam happened to be in town and had come by ICA to see the Deller show. Campuzano recognized him walking around the galleries, and was thrilled to have him participate in the conversation and offer his own first-hand accounts. The entire afternoon was documented and archived on the website, as were all of the events. Although the documentation is no substitute for the in-person experience we were very conscious of photographing the project along the way so that people could follow it from afar. Because there were so many events, participants, and archival materials, the website and publication have played a crucial role in making the connections between the projects more legible and ultimately as a new archival document.


 Above: Excursus I-IV catalogue

EB: What was your guiding principle behind the presentation style of the catalogue? Why did you decide to go with the image-heavy, bit-like approach instead of a denser, text-heavy book?

AK & MO: Excursus was a project with many moving parts, including four installations, archival material in flat files and vitrines, over 50 events, and more than one hundred participants. In order to make all of these components legible in a modest 128-page catalogue it made sense to atomize the elements and to separate them out. So, the documentation of each Excursus opens with a full-spread image of the space and is then divided into installation, archive, and event sections followed by a complete checklist. What results is a Whole Earth Catalogue-meets-Sky Mall page structure that both reflects the density of the material but also isolates each element and allows the reader to appreciate both the material quality and rich variety that resulted from each participants’ response to the Excursus prompt.





Above: Selected spreads from the Excursus catalogue

EB: Between the catalogue, the internet residencies, and any other archive of the project, what is your hope for the project in the future?

AK & MO: Very much in keeping with the mission of ICA, Excursus was meant as a radical proposition and a provocation to probe the boundaries of the museum and to test what might be possible. As such, it required an enormous amount of effort and attention and by necessity demanded that it have a finite timeline. That said, Excursus‘s commitment to intimacy and flexibility, to questions posed by distribution and publication, and the successful occupation of an interstitial space in the museum, has infused some the current thinking at ICA and has led to other exhibitions and programmatic activities that might not have been possible otherwise. Going forward it is our hope that the website and the catalogue will remain as a record of the project and that it will spur continuing dialogue and encourage others to take up similar questions in new and exciting ways.


Designing for Christian Marclay’s The Clock

Despite being called a “tour de force,” “monumental,” and even “Wagnerian,” the premise of Christian Marclay’s The Clock is very basic. The movie is 24 hours long and features thousands of clips from other movies, each clip featuring a clock or a watch or a timepiece. Each clip is ordered as to play at exactly […]


Installation view of The Clock, 2010. White Cube Masonʼs Yard, London (October 15 – November 13, 2010) © Christian Marclay. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York and White Cube, London. Photo: Todd-White Photography

Despite being called a “tour de force,” “monumental,” and even “Wagnerian,” the premise of Christian Marclay’s The Clock is very basic. The movie is 24 hours long and features thousands of clips from other movies, each clip featuring a clock or a watch or a timepiece. Each clip is ordered as to play at exactly the same time of day as featured in the particular film, therefore operating as something of a giant clock itself, running all day and all night, always in sync. It’s a fascinating experiment with time.

As a designer working on the exhibition’s marketing materials, I was used to being presented with a batch of images to work with. But as hugely popular as The Clock has been, there have only been a few images ever released. An obvious reason is that any particular moment in the film would simply look like the particular film it was excerpting, leading one to the conclusion that The Clock might be impossible to capture an image of. Another reason might be the thousands of film rights that were never collected in the making of this cinematic collage, complicated even further when used for marketing purposes. Marclay’s response to this: “If you make something good and interesting and not ridiculing someone or being offensive, the creators of the original material will like it.”

Going for a typographic solution seemed necessary, not only because of the limited amount of imagery available, but also because it would seem very arbitrary and reductive to use five film stills from a movie made of more than 2,073,600 consecutive frames, with no consistent narrative nor leading characters in it.



Final designs

It’s interesting to think of The Clock as an anti-movie, not only because of its extensive format but also for its “anti-entertaining” qualities. Typically, a film spectator goes to the theatre to escape time or reality, but when watching The Clock, you instead focus quite specifically on the passage of time, in real time. A sort of memento mori. The Clock is no Hollywood production to be watched at the Egyptian Theater, but a challenging and meditative artist film screened in museums where people catch some parts of it sitting on very rudimentary Ikea couches.

Some early sketches proposed the idea of an “anti-trailer,” in a very dry sense of communication, even “spoiling” the whole movie on the inside of the postcard with a count of every minute in a single day, basically the full script of The Clock.


The “anti-trailer” sketches.


This idea was later dismissed in favor of a different concept in the design, where textual description is abandoned over a system that would allow the design to have its independence. This graphic system was meant to be deployed on invitations and informations cards, posters, a title wall, and a few other collateral applications such as badges.



After examining a wide selection of typefaces to use, mostly looking for geometric typefaces, the choice was set on Neuzeit Grotesk, designed by Wilhelm C. Pischner in 1932. It’s modest appearance seemed to fit the idea of emphasizing a system over one strong appearance.

The postcard is totally oversized compared to what usual postcards are. It measures 12 × 12 inches when unfolded, referring to Christian Marclay’s early records cut-and-paste works or LP covers collages and other works using vinyls as primary material.



Intermediary sketches.



Emma and Dave (of Discover Signs) installing the title wall at the entrance of the gallery.


As Marclay, I grew up in Switzerland. One of the only 24/7 grocery store chain’s logo was in some corner of my mind as a good example of how to represent a continuous activity through the day


You can mostly find these shops in train stations where you can see the iconic clock designed by Hans Hilfiker in the 1940s. The Swiss Railway clock would stop for two seconds, for technical reasons first, but also “to give you a break and anticipate the forthcoming minute”, and then start again with its two bold hands ticking the new minute.

Then, using the “L”, the central letter of the words “the” and ”clock” put together, became an obvious solution. The two words merge into one single “image”, embedding the dynamic system in itself, as would be the title of Marclay’s artwork being at the same time the modest name and the “container” of the concept for this 24-hour movie.


Christian Marclay’s The Clock is on view in the Burnet Gallery at the Walker Art Center until August 25. Some extended screenings are scheduled, check here for more informations.

Postal Works by Clive Phillpot, from Please Come to the Show

    Sara De Bondt, who recently spoke at the Walker as part of our Insights lecture series, is co-founder of Occasional Papers, a non-profit publisher dedicated to producing affordable books on art, design, architecture, film and literature. Their most recent publication, Please Come to the Show, which launched June 10th, is edited by David […]




Sara De Bondt, who recently spoke at the Walker as part of our Insights lecture series, is co-founder of Occasional Papers, a non-profit publisher dedicated to producing affordable books on art, design, architecture, film and literature. Their most recent publication, Please Come to the Show, which launched June 10th, is edited by David Senior, bibliographer at the Museum of Modern Art Library in New York. The book was published on the occasion of Senior’s MoMA Library exhibition recently traveling to the Exhibition Research Centre in Liverpool and the catalog “consists of a wide range of MoMA Library’s exhibition-related ephemera—invitations, flyers and posters from the 1960s to the present—presenting them as an historically overlooked but integral aspect of exhibitions. Often the first point of contact between the audience and artist, such items form part of an essential lexicon for graphic designers, curators, art historians and anyone interested in the event-based nature of showing art. Filled with full-colour reproductions of numerous examples from the MoMA Library collection, the book includes new essays by Gustavo Grandal Montero, Will Holder, Antony Hudek, Angie Keefer, Clive Phillpot, David Senior and Suzanne Stanton.”

Below we present Clive Phillpot’s essay “Postal Works” from the catalogue. Clive is a writer, curator and former art librarian.

Please_Come_To_The_Show_1 Please_Come_To_The_Show_2 Please_Come_To_The_Show_3 Please_Come_To_The_Show_4 Please_Come_To_The_Show_5 Please_Come_To_The_Show_6


Postal Works
by Clive Phillpot

I have moved house and consequently weeded my belongings maybe ten times since 1976, but through all that time I held on to a postcard announcing what is probably a performance (that I never witnessed) by Kevin Atherton at 8pm on 14 October 1976. The card informs the reader that ‘A Work Opened Up’ will be performed at the Battersea Arts Centre. Why have I kept this particular piece of paper, measuring six by three and a half inches, for so long?

The card has an internal border of a black line that breaks briefly on the top at the point where a paperclip has been attached, then, above the centred textual information, is another paperclip opened up and straightened out into a bendy line and fixed to the card with adhesive tape. This art announcement is unusual in its incursion into the third dimension, but its fascination lies in both its minimal sculptural quality, and its enigmatic content. How does a straightened paperclip connect with what happened after 8pm at the Battersea Art Centre? The lack of a ready answer contributes to the suggestiveness of the mailed work and to its ongoing curiosity.

As well as these qualities the card has usefulness, even after the event, as a record of an artist’s work and a record of one of the events at a particular venue at a certain time, just like most items in files of art documentation. The fact that I have filed and preserved Atherton’s announcement for such a long time counters its intrinsic datedness. Like nearly all the items in this exhibition it was conceived as something short-lived, that is, ephemeral. Printed ephemera are so-called because, they resemble the Ephemeroptera, the biological order of the mayflies that emerge (in the month of May) from their larval form in streams, take flight and last but a day before their lives are done. In turn printed ephemera would initially appear to have no further function once the event that they announce has occurred.

This exhibition, too, contests the status of the pieces of paper that it brings together, since years after their appearance they have been preserved and are now displayed and their content, their design, their artistry, fêted. It will also be apparent that these humble announcements and invitations actually communicate very specific items of information that have enduring value as particles in the art historical food chain.

The world of art museums and galleries has had a need for invitation cards for many decades, but with the radical changes in art in the 1960s, when artists began to take charge of the ways that their work was publicised and written about, the exhibition announcement became another arena in which the artist could work. This was a time when artists’ magazines burgeoned, as did book art, mail art and artists’ postcards.

While art announcements take many forms, the simple postcard, usually sent in the mail as is, without an envelope, is very common, and provides a small harmonious forum for verbal and visual statements. To illustrate the potential of the form one might highlight a microcosm of artists from England, who have similar interests and who have utilised the postcard form to make artworks that also announce exhibitions. They are Richard Long, Hamish Fulton and David Tremlett, each of whom has worked in remote regions of the world, and with the land itself. Richard Long has stated that ‘everything that I show in a gallery or put out in other ways, is art in its own right’. And indeed, in his recent 2009 exhibition at Tate Britain, he not only showed over eighty sculptures and wall works, but also perhaps three times as many printed works, including artist books and postcard announcements. His card for his exhibition at Sperone Westwater Fischer in New York in 1978 epitomises the announcement as artwork. It depicts his circle of driftwood on a shore in the arctic, placed in the foreground of a vertical photograph which also shows waves in the Bering Strait and a forbidding sky. The whole image, a study in greys, has a white border and two lines of lettering in white. This is a rewarding and compelling image; a small artwork. (Strangely the same photograph, bled off and without lettering, was issued in a postcard edition by Gebr. König in Cologne, but this has none of the iconicity of the New York announcement.

The idea of the artist’s postcard —a sibling of the announcement as artwork —was also made more visible in the 1960s as the mail art network expanded. For instance, a bit later, in 1977, Image Bank, the alternative space in Vancouver, published their Image Bank Post Card Show. This exhibition in a box contained works by such mail art stalwarts as Guglielmo Achille Cavellini, Dadaland, General Idea, Ray Johnson and Mr Peanut, as well as other sympathetic artists such as Gordon Matta-Clark and Sol LeWitt. Others who encouraged artists to make postcards included Klaus Staeck who had himself made postcards and stunning posters; his Edition Staeck published cards by Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, Dieter Roth, Claes Oldenburg and several more artists. Yet another extended phenomenon was Eleanor Antin’s 100 Boots. This series of 51 black and white postcards surprisingly depicted the odyssey of 100 boots as they made their way across America. Each card showed the boots en route, in a field, in a farmyard and so on, until they arrived at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Such postcards intermingled in the postal system with announcement cards and so ended up in ephemera collections as well. Getting back to announcement cards, however, there were artists who not only devised work for such cards, but also embarked upon serial card works. One of the most notorious is that by Robert Barry in 1969 in which he composed cards for exhibitions of his work in the USA and across Europe, which announced: ‘for the exhibition the gallery will be closed’. Thus after exhibiting elusive phenomena such as radio waves and inert gases he began to exhibit nothing, drawing attention to this fact by utilising these mailed announcements. Another series of interrelated cards were Joel Fisher’s announcement cards for a string of exhibitions in the mid-1970s, also across Europe, in which he paired a photo of one of his eyes with an eye of the gallerist presenting his work.



8manshow 8manshow2 8manshow3-edit 8manshow4 8manshow5-edit RayJohnsonenvelopclive
Five cards from the 8 Man Show series, by Ray Johnson. New York: 1962-68
From the MoMA Library Collection

Other artists played more complicated games with announcements. For example Ray Johnson made a set of ‘five cards in diminishing print size’ for a series of ‘invisible shows’ each referred to as the ‘8 Man Show’, apparently at three different galleries. The exhibitions were, however, inventions, as were some of the artists who appeared to have exhibited: thus ‘Ray Johnson’ metamorphosed into ‘Ray Charles’, ‘Kay Johnson’ and ‘Ray Johnsong’, while ‘George Brecht’ reappeared as ‘Mrs. Brecht’. And the galleries, also fictitious, started as the ‘Robin Gallery’—probably a play on the Reuben Gallery —and then its successors the ‘Woodpecker Gallery’ and the ‘Willenpecker Gallery’ (which alluded to the artist John Willenbecher).

Other art world phenomena that contributed to the flood of printed and mailed ephemera included the publishing of artists’ magazines. Thus there are cards announcing parties or benefits to celebrate the appearance of magazine issues: the Image Bank issue of Art-Rite for example, or the various cards for Just Another Asshole. Then there is a card to announce the press conference at Grand Central Station for the release of Les Levine’s compelling subway poster ‘We Are Not Afraid’. There is another for the ‘Eat-Art Show’ at the Art Caféon Second Avenue. Yet another is for the exhibition of work by Frank Kozik at CBGBs on the Bowery. The venues —and the occasions —are multifarious.

Today we may be witnessing the end of the growth in postal announcement cards after only a few decades, for most exhibition venues are cutting back on the production of cards and other items to publicise their exhibitions or events. Email announcements have more or less taken over. Some of the more corporate galleries still issue dinosaurial card announcements but these are generally larger, thicker and more ostentatious than before.

An array of art world printed ephemera tells us a lot about the times in which they were produced. If one thinks, perhaps, of printed ephemera from the nineteenth century, the look and means of these earlier specimens is vastly different from, say, the printed ephemera of the late twentieth century, for the older ornamental typeset sheets with their inventive layouts gave way to the immediacy of offset, duplicated and xeroxed material often literally revealing the hand of the maker. So along with the art in ephemera and the information in ephemera, we can discover the look and feel and facts of the times that they document.•

Please Come to the Show
Edited by David Senior
Published by Occasional Papers
With the support of the MoMA Library and the Exhibition Research Centre, Liverpool John Moores University
ISBN: 978-0-9569623-7-9


Booksfromthefuture Summer School 2014

   Booksfromthefuture is a ten-day summer workshop in London on book design that focuses on self-initiated, practice-based inquiry. Participants of the programme will each design a section of the 1884 science fiction novel Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, to be published by Booksfromthefuture in collaboration with designer Dante Carlos. In this setting, thinking and making will be experienced simultaneously rather than as separate phases […]

flatland1  flatland2

Booksfromthefuture is a ten-day summer workshop in London on book design that focuses on self-initiated, practice-based inquiry. Participants of the programme will each design a section of the 1884 science fiction novel Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, to be published by Booksfromthefuture in collaboration with designer Dante Carlos. In this setting, thinking and making will be experienced simultaneously rather than as separate phases of the design process. As a re-imagining of story and format, participants will discover both individual and collaborative methods that blend research and practice into a single act.

Booksfromthefuture mentors designers and artists to become independent thinkers and practitioners with the experience and confidence to initiate and sustain their own projects, collaborations and futures.

15 places available
7–18 July 2014
Application deadline 20 May 2014

For more information on how to apply, visit booksfromthefuture.

Call for Applicants: Walker Art Center Mildred Friedman Design Fellowship 2014–2015

Above: 75 years of design at the Walker Art Center APPLICATION DEADLINE: May 14, 2014 The Walker is pleased to announce that its 2014–15 Mildred Friedman Design Fellowship is now open for application. Since 1980, the Walker’s Design department has maintained a graphic design fellowship program that provides recent graduates the opportunity to work in a professional […]

Above: 75 years of design at the Walker Art Center


The Walker is pleased to announce that its 2014–15 Mildred Friedman Design Fellowship is now open for application.

Since 1980, the Walker’s Design department has maintained a graphic design fellowship program that provides recent graduates the opportunity to work in a professional design studio environment. Selected from a highly competitive pool of applicants, fellows come from graphic design programs throughout the United States and abroad representing a diverse range of design programs, such as Art Center College of Design, California Institute of the Arts, Cranbrook Academy of Art, Eastern Michigan University, Ecole cantonale d’art de Lausanne, Minneapolis College of Art and Design, NC State University, Rhode Island School of Design, Royal College of Art, Werkplaats Typografie, and Yale University, among many others.

Ideal candidates will be firmly grounded in visual design principles and the print design process with some experience in interaction design. In addition to print-based projects such as exhibition identities, wayfinding, and collateral materials, this year’s fellow will also work on select online publishing initiatives. The fellow will join an accomplished team of professionals known for creating industry-leading work. Immersed in the Design, Editorial, and New Media departments, fellows gain a deeper understanding of design, work on projects with rich, interesting content, and are expected to produce work to the highest standards of design excellence. See here and the above video for examples of the studio’s design output. The fellows will also be key contributors to the Design department’s blog, The Gradient—so an interest in the discourse of graphic design and contemporary culture is highly desirable. Fellows are salaried, full-time employees and are involved in all aspects of the design process, including client meetings and presentations through production and development. DURATION OF FELLOWSHIP: August 1, 2014 – July 31, 2015

How to apply
For consideration, submit the following materials by PDF attachments only: a letter of interest, a resume, names and contact information of 3 references, and a PDF portfolio containing 8–10 examples of graphic design work (no larger than 19 MB, otherwise your file will be rejected). Email application packets to No phone calls please.

For more information, visit our fellowship page.  Also check out the Walker’s job listing.

We look forward to meeting you!


andrea_hyde_art_direction2andrea_hyde_9_artistsandrea_hyde_brad_mehldauFamous_DavesIMG_0013IMG_0594IMG_0965IMG_1083IMG_13671525349_10153979180620088_1002136145_nIMG_1935IMG_1950IMG_1952IMG_3759.JPG-1024x768IMG_4988IMG_6701IMG_6713IMG_6773IMG_6799IMG_6863photo 1[1]IMG_7436IMG_7438IMG_9282IMG_9749IMG_9796IMG_9799job_wouters_4219_W1.jpg1Luna_Mauer_lecturephoto 2photo 1[3]photo 1[2]photo 1MOA_ride_wouters_02Luna_Maurer_MOA3Luna_Maurer_MOA2Luna_Maurer_FrankLloydWrightphoto 2[1]photo 3[1]photo 2[2]photo 4photo 5photo-21photo.JPGaaaphoto 5[1]photo.JPGfasdftumblr_mn2nhzCtn91sryu20o1_1280photo11photo8photo10photo7photo5photo4photo3photo(11)

Listen: Muriel Cooper on “Art and Technology in the Information Age” (1987)

A designer and educator, Muriel Cooper (1925–1994) is best known for the modernist sensibility she brought to designs for MIT Press’ publications and, later, for her pioneering work at MIT’s Visible Language Workshop, where she expanded thinking on design and typography in the digital realm. The subject of the exhibition Messages and Means: Muriel Cooper […]

A designer and educator, Muriel Cooper (1925–1994) is best known for the modernist sensibility she brought to designs for MIT Press’ publications and, later, for her pioneering work at MIT’s Visible Language Workshop, where she expanded thinking on design and typography in the digital realm. The subject of the exhibition Messages and Means: Muriel Cooper at MIT, on view now at Columbia University, Cooper visited Minneapolis in 1987 to speak on “Art and Technology in the Information Age” during the Walker’s Insights Design Lecture Series. Click on the image below to listen to this previously unpublished audio, just digitized by the Walker Archives:



For more, read Dante Carlos’ interview with Messages and Means co-curators David Reinfurt and Robert Wiesenberger.

Muriel Cooper: Turning Time into Space

We hope to make the tools and to use them. “She often wandered around barefoot… and climbed up on tables when she was excited about a project… Muriel was clearly in her element, making trouble,” recounted MIT Press editors Larry Cohen and Roger Conover. Muriel Cooper, who was best known for articulating the graphic language […]

We hope to make the tools and to use them.


“She often wandered around barefoot… and climbed up on tables when she was excited about a project… Muriel was clearly in her element, making trouble,” recounted MIT Press editors Larry Cohen and Roger Conover. Muriel Cooper, who was best known for articulating the graphic language of MIT for more than 40 years, also challenged the limitations of contemporary communication. As a troublemaker, she conceptually (and literally) transformed conventional principles of design into new strategies for visualizing information. And her enthusiasm for shaking things up was matched by her eagerness for working with emerging technologies, a precursor to our increasingly seamless relationship with information and tech. All while barefoot.


Installation view of Messages and Means: Muriel Cooper at MIT; Photo: James Ewing Photography

Captured through memories, ephemera, video clips, publications, and other works, Cooper is the focus of the exhibition Messages and Means: Muriel Cooper at MIT, currently on view at the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery at Columbia in New York City. I recently had a chance to catch up with co-curators David Reinfurt and Robert Wiesenberger to talk about this project.

Hello David and Rob. Can you tell us a little about yourselves?

Robert Wiesenberger: Hi Dante. I’m a PhD candidate in art history at Columbia. Officially, I study 20th-century architecture, though I also tend to focus a lot on design, variously defined. This fall I began teaching a seminar on graphic design history in the MFA program at the Yale School of Art.

David Reinfurt: I am a graphic designer in a fairly expanded sense. I am often working on projects which aren’t strictly graphic design, or not in the way it is conventionally understood, and these can be set in art contexts as often as not. Much of my work is together with Stuart Bailey under the name Dexter Sinister. I also work with Stuart and Angie Keefer on The Serving Library, an online and printed publishing project. I also teach at Princeton University and this feeds my practice. Finally, I also do projects on my own or with other people, such as this one with Rob.

MRC photo : foot on table 1969

Muriel Cooper in conversation with unidentified males at MIT, 1970s

Who was Muriel Cooper?

RW: Muriel Cooper (1925–1994) was a graphic designer who spent the bulk of her career working at MIT. In the mid-50s, she started as a designer in the Office of Publications. By the mid-60s she was the first Design Director at the MIT Press, where she rationalized their production system and designed classic books like The Bauhaus (1969) and Learning from Las Vegas (1972), along with about 500 others. In the mid-70s she founded the Visible Language Workshop in MIT’s Department of Architecture, where she taught experimental printing and hands-on production. And by the mid-80s, she was a founding member of the MIT Media Lab, designing early computer interfaces.


Muriel Cooper, Poster to promote The Bauhaus, 1969

Why were you interested in collaborating on an exhibition about her work?

DR: I first bumped into Muriel’s work shortly after she delivered a talk at the fifth TED Conference in Monterey, California in 1994. She presented radical new work in computer interface design, showing a constellation of three-dimensional typographic interfaces developed with her students and colleagues at the Visible Language Workshop in the MIT Media Lab. I had just started a job in the brand-new area of “interaction design” at IDEO in San Francisco, working for a former student of Muriel’s. At this point, her work was everywhere — the cover of ID Magazine for example. And it was the model for what we were trying to do there. She passed away unexpectedly soon after the TED talk and I had often been surprised (dismayed) that the provocations she offered were not taken up more fully in the following years.


Muriel Cooper with David Small, Suguru Ishizaki and Lisa Strauseld, still from Information Landscapes, 1994

RW: My first exposure to Muriel was on my bookshelf, looking at her designs for classics of art and architectural history in the ’60s and ’70s, and her seven-bar colophon that still appears on the spine of every MIT Press Book. The story only got better when I learned about her work with interfaces.

Muriel-install--Walls-2-3 Muriel-install--Book-flats Muriel-install--Bauhaus-2 Muriel-install--Asterisk

Could you walk us through the exhibition? What can we expect to see?

RW: This show brings together Muriel’s photos, sketches, prints, mechanicals, books, and videos. In many ways, preparing it was a media archaeology of the very recent past: We salvaged some incredible materials, from a variety of sources, and in an amazing range of formats (slides, digital and audio cassettes, laser discs, etc.).


“Graphics and New Technology.” Slide talk by Muriel Cooper at MIT’s Visible Language Workshop, 1981. Download this podcast via iTunes or iTunes for iPhone/iPad, or view in the iTunes store.

The GSAPP exhibitions team did a smart job creating a custom steel structure that suspends three long walls in the gallery, two of them angled. The works are sandwiched between sheets of clear plexi, and appear to float. We tried to mix media, as Muriel would, and treat all media in the same way. We also wanted to mix visual and verbal material, reveal process and show some of Cooper’s teaching materials. Work by students and colleagues runs through the show — traditional notions of authorship weren’t terribly important, and it was an extremely collaborative environment. In many cases, Muriel is the author of the process or system, or created the environment in which it was produced, whether or not she designed the graphic you’re looking at.


Muriel Cooper, Sketch for the MIT Press colophon, 1963–1964

RW: The three panels broadly — over-simplistically — reflect the three overlapping phases of her career: As a designer (for the Office of Publications and MIT Press), as a teacher (for the Visible Language Workshop), and as a researcher. The chronology is loose, but generally follows these three successive phases. Still, we don’t want to suggest a lockstep teleology toward new media, that all Muriel’s work culminated in the digital. We think her concerns with production and rapid feedback were quite consistent throughout, that the tools (many of which she made or modified) finally caught up with her.

DR: Central to our approach is Muriel’s idea of responsive graphic systems and design processes that embed an explicit feedback loop. Describing Messages and Means, the course she taught at MIT and which gives our exhibition its name, she said:

Messages and Means was design and communication for print that integrated the reproduction tools as part of the thinking process and reduced the gap between process and product.”


Muriel Cooper and Ron MacNeil, Messages and Means course poster, designed and printed at the Visible Language Workshop, MIT, c. 1974

RW: We included a handful of Muriel’s key books on art, design, and architecture in the show. She also produced beautiful books on chemistry and geophysics, but she was really involved with the debates on architecture, design, cybernetics, artificial intelligence, and so on; this environment at MIT and in Cambridge more broadly, full of Bauhäusler and remarkable researchers, both shaped her, and was shaped by her. These few, full books in the show (we show many other book covers) form a kind of spine for an intellectual history that runs through it. They’re overdetermined, in terms of both form and content.

Muriel Cooper for Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, A Significance for A&P Parking Lots, or Learning from Las Vegas (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972).

Muriel Cooper for Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, A Significance for A&P Parking Lots, or Learning from Las Vegas (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972).

For example, Nicholas Negroponte’s The Architecture Machine (1970) is interesting both as a design object and as an insight into the AI (artificial intelligence systems) being developed at MIT at the time — for him about architecture, for her about graphic design. Muriel worked with Negroponte and his Architecture Machine Group, which evolved into the MIT Media Lab, where Cooper taught. The idea with these books is that, given the premium on “visual communication,” you really can pick them up in the gallery and get a good sense of what they’re about. 

What was the exhibition process like?

DR: We spent a ton of time in archives, making some kind of order, and trying to understand various artefacts — what were they, who made them, how were they intended? Talking to Muriel’s many, still-active colleagues and students was crucial to figuring out what was what. The selection process was frankly quite tricky: Selecting a small group of outstanding objects was difficult as her interests remained consistent, but neither the media nor the situations stayed still. So it was challenging to pick what to show. Plus it was the first time a show like this has been organized since Muriel died in ’94. (Though there was a small exhibition convened in that year, at MIT, by Cooper’s friend, Tom Wong, who also consolidated her papers at MassArt.)


Muriel Cooper and MIT Press Design Department for Donis A. Dondis, A Primer of Visual Literacy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1973).

Colophon Artwork

Muriel Cooper, mechanical artwork for the MIT Press colophon, 1963–4

What was the MIT’s relationship to design at the time she began working there?


Gyorgy Kepes

RW: MIT was doing serviceable design work when Muriel began there. Gyorgy Kepes, a former colleague of Moholy-Nagy’s, and since 1947 a teacher at MIT, thought MIT’s design presence could be much stronger and suggested that they hire a dedicated designer for their Office of Publications. Both there and at the MIT Press Muriel created systems to standardize formats and production and give a consistent look to publications. And her earliest work at MIT — which we debated whether or not to include — is in fact quite “pretty” in a mid-century way that Paul Rand would be proud of (and indeed was proud of; Cooper met Rand during a brief stint at ad agencies in New York, and he later recommended her to work for the MIT Press). It’s not really representative of her later work, which is rougher, and more about process and dynamism, but does suggest her formation, and a point of departure.

It is not hard to imagine Moholy using a computer.


Muriel Cooper, self-portrait with Polaroid SX-70, video imaged and printed at the Visible Language Workshop, MIT, c. 1982

Cooper claims that the Office of Publications — renamed “Design Services” under her tenure — was the first dedicated design program at an American university. We couldn’t confirm that, but it certainly was one of the first. Likewise, no academic publisher had the kind of dedicated design department that she established at the MIT Press, and nobody else’s typography was as modern. Clearly Cambridge was an exciting place for design. When Cooper started at MIT, Gyorgy Kepes was teaching there, and Walter Gropius was the head of the Harvard GSD.

… make more intelligible the highly complex language of science… and articulate in symbolic, graphic form the order and beauty inherent in the scientist’s abstract vision.


Letter from Muriel Cooper to Jeffery Cruikshank on the Visible Language Workshop letterhead. Excerpt from the exhibition booklet, with extended captions keyed by panel number. Download the PDF here.

Were there other designers at the time who were exploring themes Cooper was also interested in?


Jaqueline Casey

RW: Definitely. Muriel hired her college classmate Jacqueline Casey to work at Design Services. She would soon head the office until her retirement in 1989. Casey, Ralph Coburn and Dietmar Winkler were the core of that office, and they also had guest designers, one of whom, from Basel, pretty much got them on their Helvetica kick.

3054 Jacqueline-Casey_poster1 3117_0 3111

They recall that people like Gerstner and Müller-Brockmann also came through the office. So Muriel imbibed a lot of this “International Style” typography from her colleagues, and no doubt from what she was reading. It’s not something she, or anyone else at the time, would’ve gotten from an American design program. It’s a visual language she used, but also reworked significantly.

Experiment and play as a part of professional discipline is difficult at best. This is not only true of an offset press but of all activities where machines are between the concept and the product.

 murielcooper003_web murielcooper004_web murielcooper005_web murielcooper006_web murielcooper007_web murielcooper008_web murielcooper009_web murielcooper010_web murielcooper011_web murielcooper013_web murielcooper014_web

Design Quarterly 142, Walker Art Center Archives

Design Quarterly 142, Walker Art Center Archives

What do you think was her interest in transitioning between spaces, from print to digital, or from flat to dimensional?

DR: Muriel was frustrated with the limitations of the printed page, and always interested in quicker feedback, non-linear experiences and the layering of information. She used an offset printing press, as she said, as “an interactive medium.” So when she first encountered computers, it was clear that these would present even greater possibilities.

RW: Integrating word and image on screen (“Typographics”), in a way that filtered and communicated information based on the reader/user’s interest, was her goal. The computer screen offered more depth, and information environments — real or simulated — offered more possibilities for orientation within this space. It was crucial to her that information be usable. She saw the designer’s job as creating dynamic environments through which information would stream, rather than designing unique and static objects.

Do you think she was aware of how deep our contemporary relationship would be with technology and interfaces?

RW: Muriel seems to have always had the newest gizmo, whether it was a special digital watch or the highest-resolution computer displays available outside NASA —  and whether or not she always knew exactly how to use them (she was a bit of a klutz). It also seems that she predicted so much of our connection to interfaces and the need for them to be intuitive and anticipatory. Yet even she may have been surprised at the extent of it. And very likely frustrated. Not so much at their usability — so many products are pretty and intuitive — but at their inflexibility, their resistance to being hacked, or to using them to make new things. I think she would also be deeply troubled by their intrusiveness, and current questions of privacy and mass surveillance. As she noted in an essay for the Walker’s Design Quarterly in 1989 (one of the few that she would publish), artificial intelligence in computers presents important ethical questions for the designer of these systems. Coupled with her awareness of the corporate and defense sponsorship model for the MIT Media Lab, which was indispensable for her research, the question of the ends to which her research might be put was not far from her mind. In addition to being a technologist, she was, I think, always also a humanist.

Some people believe that the computer will eventually think for itself. If so, it is crucial that designers and others with humane intentions involved in the way it develops.

Does the exhibition addresses any contemporary issues in design around communication and information?

DR: We don’t make the connections explicit, but we think they’re absolutely present at every turn. Muriel’s words, in some of the documents we show, are incredibly prophetic, and her process is no less relevant today than it was then.

As curators of the exhibition, has this project influenced your own thoughts about your relationship with design?

DR: We had an idea that this exhibition would document her work, her persistent concerns, and her generous spirit while also serving as a charge or challenge to those thinking about these things today to pick up these ideas and develop them.

RW: There’s so much work to do in studying and presenting graphic design to a broader public. We hope this show generates  interest in Cooper, and in the field — but as the kind of inter- or anti-disciplinary one she envisioned. At one point, in our earlier descriptions, we called the exhibition both an archival project and a manifesto for future production.


This stands as a sketch for the future. Best wishes, Muriel

Messages and Means: Muriel Cooper at MIT runs from February 25 to April 17, with galleries open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 12 to 6 pm at the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery in Columbia University. Afterwards, the exhibition tours to the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And as a bonus, here is Muriel presenting an Insights lecture at the Walker in 1987, pulled from our archives and unpublished until now.