One of the Cantor Center’s big shows this summer is about Mid-century Corporate Design. It’s good and tracks the rise of corporate design after World War 2 when the emergent consumer culture* meant that products had to distinguish themselves in ways beyond function and value.
*Note, there was a ton of government investment in infrastructure which had to happen in order to enable this culture and while that’s all outside of this write up I viewed the entire exhibition with this in mind.
So of course we start with Bauhaus in order to get a baseline of both product design and corporate design. But it quickly gets into Walter Paepcke and the Container Corporation of America and the International Design Conference in Aspen. This is the highlight of the show and there’s lots of very interesting stuff here both in terms of the relationships between corporations and designers and the implication that exporting American products is exporting American design—and by extension, American principles.
I was reminded of the Covert Operations show—in particular Taryn Simon’s work—and how much of America’s image abroad during this time could be tied to American art and design. And by extension how corporate design, more than any other media is a reflection of both who we are and what what we value.
This is especially apparent in the Container Corporation of America’s advertisements. I can’t imagine the controversy which would occur if they were printed today. I can’t imagine a company having the guts to print these today. Yet, they represent exactly what America™ claims to be while also serving as examples of how modern design—especially in the advertising space—is now broken.
As much as the Aspen conference subject matter is concerned with “accepted” taste, it’s also aware of how design has to pick a position and can’t be left to corporate defaults. Nowadays it feels like few, if any companies care about picking any positions. Even supposed design leaders like Apple are mysteries when it comes to their politics and the way their products ship with glaringly obvious design flaws with regard to who it was designed for is dismaying.
If one of the tenets of good design is that everything has been considered, what does it mean if our best design now is so constantly distinguished by a lack of consideration?
That so much of this show focuses on things—companies and events—that Paepcke touched has me wondering if design itself has regressed or if the designs on display have always stood as exceptions to the rule. Or perhaps it’s a bit of both where not everything was as excellent as what’s been selected but corporations have also devalued design because “anyone” can be a “creative.”
This regression is especially apparent in the realm of corporate identity and logo design. There are many mid-century corporate logos and identities on display here—many of which are now sadly extinct. Of these logos, while some are indeed dated, most of them display a level of clean clear graphic design which I just don’t see much anymore.
Sure, I see new corporate identities and style guides all the time. But nothing like the way they all convened at the 1964 World’s Fair and all too often biased toward digital technology and reproduction. And for sure, the world has changed from the age where the only concern was print and spot colors were cheap and plentiful. I totally understand reworking logos so that they are more consistent across printing and display technologies* but too many modern logos contain elements which just don’t work outside of a full-color environment.
*the absence of any print/display notes on how the old logos were intended to be reproduced is something the exhibition was missing.
Seeing logos which can work in 2-color instead of 4-color printing is great. Maybe spot inks aren’t needed anymore for print but they’re still useful for silkscreening tshirts or embroidering bags or even neon signs. Seeing logos which work as just black a and white—let alone logos which can be truly reversed to knock out a background color—is turning into an increasingly rare occurrence. All the mid-century logos do this and it’s what makes their designs so strong.
Also of note
On the topic of logos, There’s a great sequence of Bauhaus designs of the AEG logo which were made with paper cutouts. I enjoy seeing the cut-out paper since it’s both a more tactile way to create a design and it results in a much stronger color presentation and reproduction.
The Olivetti designs in their red dot school purity are always fantastic to see in person. Similarly, a lot of the Henry Dreyfuss designs are great to see in person. Although in all these cases, as with the Dieter Rams show, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the younger generations had any idea what these products did now.
I do love seeming any drafting and industrial design sketches. Especially the ones on medium grey paper which use white pencil for highlights along with various darker colors.