MeBox storage system designed by Graphic Thought Facility (GTF) in 2003
The work of Graphic Thought Facility
, a London-based graphic design consultancy, is on show at the Art Institute of Chicago
until August 17. It’s the first time the Art Institute has staged a show solely on contemporary design and it’s also the first time it has devoted an exhibition to a single design firm. It’s interesting that for this double debut the museum rejected potential blockbuster fodder and instead chose the equivalent of an indie movie: a British graphic design firm, whose brilliant, but distinctly unostentatious work, is relatively unknown in the US design community, let alone among the general public.
For me the decision makes perfect sense: not only do I think GTF is one of the finest design firms currently practicing, and that the more people who are exposed to their work the better, I also believe it’s the duty of museums with design departments to take such risks and to function as test sites for new ideas, not just venues for prudent blockbusters. As the museum prepares to open its new Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing in Spring 2009, thereby significantly increasing the space available to examinations of architecture and design, this show helps to highlight some of the issues associated with the display of contemporary design.The Art Institute of Chicago's new wing, designed by Renzo Piano, will house the museum's architecture and design galleries
How best to present design in a museum has preoccupied curators ever since the South Kensington Museum opened to the public in 1857 as the repository for decorative art and “modern manufactures” objects left over from the Great Exhibition. Funding sources and intransigent museological traditions determine whether designed objects in permanent collections are displayed as works of art, as consumable commodities, or as instructional models for student designers: At MoMA’s 76-year old architecture and design department, art-display conventions prevail; London’s late 20th-century Design Museum takes its visual cues from the industrial showroom; while the V&A’s didactic installations signal its nineteenth-century origin as a design school. And, of course, the demarcation between gallery space and design store continues to erode.
“Graphic Thought Facility: Resourceful Design” features several case studies for the firm’s pragmatic and often lo-fi approach to the design of identities, books, packaging and promotions. Most of their clients are quintessentially British firms like the furnishings store Habitat, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, the Design Museum, and Frieze, London’s major annual contemporary art fair. Founding partners Paul Neale and Andrew Stevens met as students at the Royal College of Art at the end of the 1980’s, when the design community was in thrall to the Macintosh computer. Eschewing the slick surfaces and techno-focused explorations of most graphic production of the 1990’s, GTF developed an approach in which found materials and the handmade are prioritized and the constituent parts of the graphic design process are exposed and celebrated. Their catalogue for “Stealing Beauty,” a 1999 exhibition about design’s practical and philosophic engagement with the everyday, epitomizes GTF’s use of considered bricolage: copy-shop spiral binding holds together an array of ephemera associated with the exhibition—even a champagne label which is there in lieu of the sponsor’s logo—the bits of paper punched out for the binding are scattered across the cover like confetti.GTF's identity and signage for London's Design Museum, 2003, illustration by Kam Tang
Having already designed the framing graphics for numerous other graphic design exhibitions, GTF are acutely aware of the challenges that come with exhibiting graphic design. When you extricate graphic design from the urban commercial context for which it was intended and reinsert it in the rarefied atmosphere of a museum it loses what GTF refer to as its “tension of use.” A museum cannot accommodate graphic design’s multiplicity, or its ephemerality. Since only one example of each item is shown frozen in time, we are often presented with a poster trapped in continual promotion of an event that continues to recede into the past or a logo still trumpeting the core values of a now defunct corporation. Stripped of its functional qualities —its immediacy and expendability—graphic design in the museum tends to look awkward, like a market-stall crier taking tea in a hushed parlor.
Graphic design has been displayed in museums as art, as cultural or historic artifact and as consumable commodity, but rarely in a way that reflects its full complexity as a functioning entity embedded within systems of use. Here, using the display mechanism of the institutional bulletin board, GTF have presented their work as information. Installation shot of "Graphic Thought Facility: Resourceful Design" at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2008
Back in 1999, although they were invited to participate in “Stealing Beauty” as featured designers, GTF proposed instead to design the graphics for the exhibition, which took place at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art. This was partly to do with their desire to control the way they are presented and partly due to their reluctance to be in a position where they might be considered as artists. Here again, they’ve turned the invitation to exhibit into a design brief. Their solution is specific both to the site and to the nature of graphic design itself. Bulletin boards are of course explicitly concerned with conveying information, and their positioning in the corridor-like exhibition space, which leads to administration offices, feels entirely appropriate. Installation shot of "Graphic Thought Facility: Resourceful Design" at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2008
In art museums, works are expected to speak for themselves. In design museums, explanations need to go beyond the obvious, especially when dealing with graphic design, a field of practice that, though familiar, for most of the viewing public remains mysterious and somewhat mute. To fully appreciate GTF’s promotional campaign for the Frieze Art Fair
which takes place each year in London’s Regent’s Park, it’s useful (and delightful) to know how and why decisions were made: the stenciled letter logotype, for example, was inspired by the stamped labels on shipping containers used to transport the art to the fair. Additionally, rather than focusing on the art itself, each year the campaign’s photographic images highlight a different aspect of the park—its ducks and squirrels and soccer-playing or picnicking visitors. In 2006 GTF commissioned an aerial photography company to capture high-resolution aerial images of the park using a radio-controlled helicopter, fitted with a radio-controlled camera on an anti-vibration mount. The resulting images expose a usually inaccessible and other worldly view of aspects of park life. Particularly beautiful is the shot of empty boats on the pond. The low-level aerial viewpoint turns them into flattened abstract shapes and reveals the secret concord of their colored interiors, a pleasure usually reserved only for the birds. Poster designed by GTF to promote London's Frieze Art Fair 2006, photograph by High Spy
GTF’s brightly colored bulletin boards contain detailed labels on each project, the parts of which are pinned in place like butterflies using long metal pins specially sourced by the designers. But how else might these trophies be vivified? For those of us at the opening of the show last month, there was a Q&A with the designers Neale and Huw Morgan (GTF’s third partner) at which curator Zoe Ryan elicited commentary and anecdotes that helped explain the various projects included. For others, there is a very nice portable catalogue, the fourth in a series of similar catalogues the Art Institute has published in conjunction with Yale University Press
. I didn’t actually see anyone using it in conjunction with the exhibit on that opening night, but its guidebook format suggests that it could be.
Ultimately, this is not a groundbreaking exhibition. But in looking graphic design practice so squarely in the face, through the work of designers who do the same, we gain a clear portrait of one firm’s techniques and approaches, the way in which graphic design is valued and supported by London’s cultural and commercial institutions, as well as a practicable proposal for how it might continue to be meaningfully presented in a museum context at this exciting new venue in the United States.