Is Graphic Design, Not Simply Posters, Museum Worthy?

Let me please introduce ourselves: We are MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design. I work there as a curator together with several colleagues, under the leadership of our Chief Curator, Terence Riley, and a group of passionate members of the Acquisitions Committee. We need to re-examine our collection of graphic design and bring it up to date with the current state of communication design. The portion of the Modern’s collection that falls under our jurisdiction comprises about 3,800 design objects, circa 1,000 architectural drawings and models, the mighty Mies van der Rohe archive (20,000 items ca.), the Jan Tschichold collection of ephemera, and short of 5,000 posters. Despite some odd spikes into the eighteenth century, the A&D collection defines modern in architecture and design from the second half of the nineteenth century until our days. We are passionate about contemporary design and architecture and destined to revise and update the idea of modern as we go, for in the words of our founding fathers, and especially of director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the museum’s mission is to celebrate the art of our time. However, while our holdings of architecture and objects are al dente, the same cannot be said of our collection of graphic design. Even though our posters collection is remarkable, posters do not exhaust graphic design.

Especially in recent years, posters have lost their preeminence to other forms of communication design and are in many cases mere vanity projects. Somehow, while our curators have always appreciated architecture and objects in strict design terms, by linking their aesthetic expression to their functional nature, our posters collection has not been able to assert the same autonomy from the fine arts. Rather, they stand as a quieter version of the same. Prompted by our department’s history, as well as by our own interests, we need to redirect our focus on graphic design.

It is good design form to be able to find opportunity in necessity. This necessary decision to amend the collection indeed presents a unique chance. We will take this as an occasion to discuss not only what graphic design means today and to us, but also the role of design in a museum of art, the nature of our collection, and all design curators’ pragmatic need to crystallize for conservation purposes a production that is more and more relying on interactivity and dynamics. Just like we do for objects, we want to be able to analyze goals and means, to follow a design process that is not just self-expression, but rather is directed towards other human beings. We want to find beauty beyond all constraints. We want to look at websites, interfaces, movie titles, typefaces, TV graphics, printed matter of all kinds, logos, packaging, and magazines. We want to find the right way to acquire them—should an interface exist on its original support? Should it be interactive and should the public be able to experience it? Should it be simulated on a more current machine? Should its use be caught on video? We have a lot of work to do and many favors to call in.

Along the way, we are determined to pick and storm brains and to document the process in many ways. This written account is one, and I begin here by framing the context with a discussion of design in MoMA’s collection. Museums exist to preserve selected objects that together build a consistent ensemble, and hopefully support and communicate a strong idea. In so doing, they are meant to educate and stimulate progress. Since design, both graphics and of objects, has a tremendous impact on everybody’s life and a better understanding of it will work to everybody’s advantage, a design museum is a meaningful and valuable construct.

At the Modern, all forms of design are introduced in strict relationship with the other forms of visual culture. Among Barr’s many innovations was the establishment of six curatorial departments—Painting and Sculpture, Drawings, Prints and Illustrated Books, Film, Photography, and Architecture and Design. Interdisciplinarity facilitates the understanding of design’s composite nature. The closeness to such an established discipline as architecture within one department, in particular, highlights the similarity among the design processes and gives depth to the criteria for judging the products by allowing them to go far beyond the consideration of the pure form. It so happens that many design curators at this museum, and I count myself among them, have been and are architects. On the other hand, the magnet of the fine arts has brought us to pay particular attention to aesthetics, by incorporating function in our original brand of sublime. I understand that this declaration might need further explanation.

Philip Johnson curated the Museum’s second design exhibition, which also established the collection of design objects, in 1934. Machine Art, a unique display of mechanical parts, tools and objects, revealed to the world a new concept of beauty—defined in 1934 as “Platonic” because of its classical aesthetic derivation and its abstraction—based not only on form, but also on function. In 75 years, the department has produced several ideas and exhibitions, and the collection has evolved tremendously. And so has design. In February of 1994, we celebrated the exhibition’s sixtieth anniversary with a renewed edition of the catalogue, for which Philip Johnson wrote a new preface. I quote from it: ”How much has changed! Chaos theory has replaced classic certainties. We prefer Heraclitan flux to Platonic ideas, the principle of uncertainty to the model of perfection, complexity to simplicity.” Design’s appreciation still has to pass many filters, logic and aesthetics among them, but both logic and aesthetics are definitely not what they used to be. Objects carry baggage of motivations, meanings, and intentions. In order to communicate effectively with the public, today a curator has to explain the process behind every object and the program behind every architecture.