Eye for Design at MAD

Eye for Design at MAD

Eye for Design installation

Installation view of "Eye for Design," 2016. Photo: Butcher Walsh, courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design

This spring, ACC Library staff and interns had the opportunity to help coordinate the loan of dozens of historic exhibition catalogues, posters, images, sound recordings, and other ephemera from our archives to the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York for the exhibition "Eye for Design," which opened June 7. "Eye for Design" explores MAD's unique graphic identity created in the 1960s and 1970s (then known as the Museum of Contemporary Crafts and operated by the ACC) through historic exhibition materials.

We asked MAD’s Windgate research and collections curator Elissa Auther and assistant curator Samantha De Tillio, who together organized "Eye for Design," to give us their take on the exhibition. Here's what they had to say:

What was the impetus for your exploration of the Museum's graphic history?
Elissa Auther: As the Windgate research and collections curator at MAD, I recently launched an initiative to reactivate the permanent collection in ways that connect craft history with artistic practice today. "Eye for Design," which utilized our permanent collection and the archives of MAD and the ACC, is a jumping off point for this initiative. It not only tells the story of how MAD (then the Museum of Contemporary Crafts) created a unique identity for itself in the 1960s and '70s through graphic design, but also highlights how expansive the museum’s approach to craft was – a vision that presaged its rise in the contemporary art world and popular culture today. [Former museum director] Paul Smith’s exhibition program was incredibly avant-garde and covered forms of making from baking to sound to the creation of immersive experiences.

Samantha De Tillio: The curatorial staff at MAD have always loved these catalogues. We’ve referenced them frequently over the years and have been drawn to their illustrations and offbeat take on what an exhibition catalogue could be. They’ve even inspired us to reconsider the way we think of museum publications.

A number of things converged early in 2016, including Elissa launching an initiative to reactivate the permanent collection and our chief curator Shannon Stratton’s interests in alternative publications, that made this summer the right moment to dive into these publications and curate an exhibition from our archives. While there are so many angles to take in thinking through these materials, we wanted to start our exploration of them with the graphic design. The thing that strikes you first about these books are their colorful, hand-rendered covers so it seemed appropriate to start from a visual standpoint.

Is there anything you learned in your research for the exhibition that surprised you?
Auther: I was most surprised by the exhibition history. I knew many of the groundbreaking shows, especially the fiber-based ones like "Woven Forms" and, of course, "Objects USA," but in studying the archive systematically I realized that these shows were just the tip of the iceberg. The exhibitions that included sound, Fluxus-inspired participatory performance scores, counterculture-related craft, and immersive experiences, are my favorites now. They clearly position MAD/MCC within the broader avant-garde art world in New York City. That’s an untold story.

De Tillio: The exhibition history of MAD was surprising and one of the most enlightening aspects of working on this project. The expanded definition of craft championed by the institution really parallels the current movement of artists and thinking in this field. MAD/MCC was truly part of the greater avant-garde art world in New York City during the '60s and '70s, in a way that hasn’t been explored. I’m really excited to continue thinking through this connection, these exhibitions, and our institutions more experimental history.

What relationship did graphic designers such as Emil Antonucci, John J. Reiss, and Linda Hinrichs have with the handmade? Why not feature actual objects on the catalog covers, invitations, and posters that promoted these exhibitions?
Auther: Instead of featuring a stunning object from an exhibition on the catalogue cover, these graphic artists created a mood or attitude through hand illustration, shape, color, and typography. It was associative, not illustrative. What was expressed was more of an idea about hand making that was visually rich, creatively associated with other art movements (like Pop Art), and often playful. This also communicated the type of experience you could expect to have at the museum – something active.

De Tillio: As photography became increasingly inexpensive, particularly for color photography, its use became central to publications and print materials, both at the museum and other companies/institutions. Photography is indispensable for documentary purposes, and books with images – along with captions – are particularly valuable going back as a researcher. Objects, though, are hard to photograph and – until recently – run the risk of looking flat and static.

The illustrations of Antonucci and Richardson, the photo collages of Reiss, and the creative use of Pop Art on the part of Hinrichs were able to capture the character of the museum, and interpret the mission of the institution, in a way that a photograph couldn’t do. Even though the catalogues were not detailed records of the exhibitions they were made for, they were representative of the feeling that MAD/MCC created for the visitor.

How did the graphic identity of the museum in the '60s and '70s set it apart from other art/design/craft institutions?
Auther: The idea of creating a book or catalog that was merely illustrative of the plot line or the objects in an exhibition was anathema to the most talented graphic artists in the late 1940s and '50s. The graphic designer Alvin Lustig, who revolutionized book-jacket design with his modern art-inspired design, changed the conventions. So what was happening at MAD/MCC wasn’t atypical.

In fact, after Alvin Lustig’s death in 1955, his wife Elaine Lustig, who was a graphic designer in her own right, went on to create numerous book covers for Meridian and more than 150 exhibition catalogues for the Jewish Museum and the Museum of Primitive Art, among others. She too believed that the cover of books had to reflect the creative “voice” of the work in the interior. For the Jewish Museum, for instance, her catalogues for exhibitions of minimalist art expressed aesthetic preferences for elemental, clearly defined shapes, and the non-emotive relationship to the medium.

What do you hope viewers take away from seeing "Eye for Design?"
Auther: I hope they take away our free posters that highlight our favorite catalog covers! That, and I hope they discover something they never knew they were interested in – the largely understudied history of museum graphic design and MAD/MCC’s forward looking exhibition program of the '60s and '70s.

De Tillio: I hope they leave inspired by the design they see and inspired to rethink craft and all its expanded definitions.

"Eye for Design" is on view at MAD in New York City through September 18, 2016. For more on the exhibition history of MAD/MCC, check out our exhibition finding aid, which includes links to digitized archival materials featured in the exhibition.

Throwback Thursday is a weekly series highlighting visuals from the American Craft Council Library's Digital Collections database. Check back on Thursdays for more.