Charles S. Anderson

2014 AIGA Medal
1958, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Recognized for creating a design language that elevates the vernacular into a playful, modern design style and pioneering the role of designer as entrepreneur.

Charles S. Anderson is a designer with the heart of a linguist. He has collected and transformed thousands of anonymous commercial-arts artifacts from the Depression era and beyond into a bona fide graphic-design language that is easy to comprehend and fun to apply. He elevated authentic vernacular into a playful design style, which ultimately grew into a successful business. That business, CSA Archive (now CSA Images), made him a pioneer design entrepreneur who, in the tradition of Push Pin Studios and M&Co, split his practice into a client-service studio and an entrepreneurial resource that both licenses quirky illustrative design to the world and produces products from the same collection.

Anderson graduated from Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1981. By 1985 he had joined the edgy Duffy Design Group, where he ultimately became a partner. Influenced by a curious mixture of mid-century New Bauhaus Modernism, which he was exposed to through his teacher and first employer, Peter Seitz, and carnivalesque pop culture, which he learned through studying design history, Anderson exemplified a Minneapolis style. He further placed the Midwest on the design map, blending nostalgic pastiche with contemporary aesthetics of color and form.

The mid-1980s was a period of artistic, technological and demographic transitions, and Anderson was in its vortex. On the crest of the postmodern wave, his work confronted Modernist institutional conformity that had dominated corporate identity since the ’60s. He was the alternative.

In 1989, with only a single client, the French Paper Company, the enterprising Anderson formed Charles S. Anderson Design, now entering its 25th year. Anderson’s long-running promotional campaign for the company, with its hybrid vintage type and iconography—he called it “the bonehead style”—comically critiques the ubiquity of these passé materials by engaging them as valuable artifacts, not just kitsch novelties.

The cartoony printer’s cuts and trade characters that Anderson lovingly revived had sunk to the nadir of graphic achievement, so his quotation of common visual advertising clichés actually uncovered a lost aesthetic that had been dismissed as artless by the Modern masters of graphic design. In popularizing these forms, Anderson also contributed to design culture by building on what designer Art Chantry has referred to as American commercial folk art.

CSA’s work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Ginza Gallery, Tokyo; the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, New York; Museum für Gestaltung, Zürich; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and many other institutions.

While Charles S. Anderson Design continues to specialize in identity, packaging, product and interactive design for myriad clients, CSA Images develops products that appeal to editorial and advertising needs yet have also been adapted for home furnishings and apparel. But commerce is not the only reason for CSA to exist: Inspired by the history of design and illustration, Anderson curated the archive from a personal collection of “stuff” into a virtual museum of eclectic commercial relics that has grown online into one of the leading design resources for the “creation and preservation of print and pop culture.”

Anderson has influenced designers who wed the past and present into contemporary stylistic manifestations. Yet his work has a personality and character that is unique to him. If we measure our AIGA Medalists by the breadth of their shoulders, many stand firmly on his without breaking his back.

Charles S. Anderson will be presented with the AIGA Medal at The AIGA Centennial Gala on April 25, 2014, in New York City.