An article by Paola Antonelli, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, posted on the AIGA's Voice
website, reveals that the museum is planning to broaden its architecture and design collection to include not just posters - its current area of emphasis when it comes to communication design - but graphic design in the fullest sense. One can only welcome this news and look forward to the first displays, but perhaps not without pausing for a moment to wonder why it has taken them so long. As Antonelli points out, while the museum's collection of around 5,000 posters is exceptional, "posters have lost their pre-eminence to other forms of communication". In Britain, that had arguably happened by the early 1960s. Television advertising was the principal reason for this fall from pre-eminence, so it's reasonable to surmise that the poster's decline in the US had probably happened even earlier. In which case, at a conservative estimate, it has taken MoMA 40 years to consider a change of direction.
(Of course, it depends on how you define "poster" and how you define "graphic design". The advertising billboard may not be pre-eminent, but it is still a ubiquitous and powerful graphic medium in a way that the more collectable and displayable small-scale poster is not.)
Antonelli probably gives a clue to at least one reason for MoMA's failure to keep pace with developments in graphic design culture, history and criticism since the 1980s, when she mentions that many design curators at the museum, like Antonelli herself, have been and are architects. Hardly surprising, then, if MoMA's department of architecture and design has had a tendency to concentrate on - or favour - architecture. Curators, historians and critics shaped by an architectural background usually also possess a taste for, and knowledge about, furniture and other three-dimensional forms of design. They tend to know much less about graphic communication, seeing it as minor by comparison, and when these blind-spots become institutionalised, they lead to the strange position in which graphic design found itself at the end of the 20th century: everywhere around us, yet strangely under-acknowledged.
Even the AIGA's awkward headline for the article - "Is Graphic Design, not Simply Posters, Museum Worthy?" - seems to suggest the distinct possibility that the answer, even among AIGA members, might turn out to be "no". In the article, though, this is not a question that Antonelli actually asks, since MoMA's answer is now affirmative. Antonelli says that the curators will be considering websites, interfaces, movie titles, typefaces, TV graphics, printed matter of all kinds, logos, packaging, and magazines. The aim, as with MoMA's other collections, will be to educate the public and stimulate progress.
The ability to see real pieces of design, especially historical pieces, in long-lasting museum displays, in the context of other parallel kinds of visual production, would be a huge step forward. A vast amount of significant visual communication, well known only to design historians and private collectors, has in material terms effectively disappeared. For instance, a reasonably well-educated design student might have seen illustrations in books of a few covers and spreads from mid-20th century issues of Fortune
magazine, but without encountering the originals, it's impossible to grasp the prodigious scale of the publication's achievement as a synthesis of editorial and design. Is it really the case that Fortune
is of a lesser cultural order and is less deserving to be known than the contemporaneous work of, say, a Surrealist or Abstract Expressionist painter? Again, I had no real sense of what an extraordinary feat of information design Herbert Bayer's 1953 World Geo-Graphic Atlas
was until I saw it in the "Graphic Design in America" exhibition - a model of its kind - when it travelled in 1990 to the Design Museum, London. If it isn't already on display at MoMA, then it should be. The museum wants to find "beauty beyond all constraints", says Antonelli. Quite apart from anything else, these mid-century designs are beautiful.
It might be argued that this is yet another case where graphic design's virtue, a key part of its vigour and appeal, is that it operates "below the radar" of official attention. While this may be true of some contemporary work, it would be a mistake to apply this way of thinking to the past. Recovering graphic design's material history will help us to understand our broader cultural history and contribute towards the education of a more aware generation of visual communicators. This has always been an argument for studying design history, but books of miniature reproductions aren't enough. Art and architecture, areas where MoMA excels, have long been the beneficiaries of first-rate conservation, display and elucidation. Graphic design has woven the fabric of our social communication and it demands just as much curatorial care.