Back in the mid-1990s, during that part of my career devoted to design education, I had guest-edited a few issues on graphic design history for the journal Visible Language. With a rather self-conscious view of how history worked, it called for a more critical approach to the subject matter — a step beyond the kind of biographical hagiography that seemed to dominate the genre. With Philip B. Meggs’ tome in hand, conferences like Steven Heller’s Modernism and Eclecticism or R. Roger Remington’s confabs at RIT in the air and journals such as Design Issues in mind, it seemed like a natural moment to take stock of the burgeoning graphic design history movement that had begun in the 1980s. Although the thrust of the Visible Language project was to ask what a critical history might examine, in the end it was more interested in historiography than history — the process and the kinds of critical tools that could be brought to bear on subjects, rather the subjects themselves.
One of the early pioneers of writing smartly and historically about design was Frances Butler, who once remarked that the hard work of history is getting dirty in the garden — a metaphor for the kind of primary research on subjects that have not been previously addressed. While it seemed at the time that the formation of a canon in graphic design history was a potential problem, in retrospect the real antidote wasn’t only a bigger critical toolkit but also a little more crop diversity. After all, if the canon wasn’t big or inclusive enough then one should endeavor to expand it, not simply critique it. While putting together that project I had anticipated more submissions on new figures to the field of study. Unfortunately, that did not happen.
In 2007 I became involved with a project that profiled the life and work of designer Peter Seitz, a pioneering designer who helped shape the design profile and reputation of the Twin Cities. At the time, I knew this project would be of interest to me because it set about expanding the canon’s geographic diversity. What motivated my participation in that project was one that had been done a few years before by the Indianapolis-based studio, Commercial Artisan, on the lives of Midwest modernist designers, Gene and Jackie Lacy. James Sholly of Commercial Artisan had begun that project as a kind of labor of love, chronicling the legacy of someone close to him who had a profound effect on his local design scene.
I recently received the third installment in Sholly’s series that had sprung from that endeavor, simply titled Commercial Article No. 3. This issue chronicles the life and times of one Avriel Shull, a flamboyant Renaissance woman of many talents who started her own business in Indianapolis in 1948 while still a teenager — and whose skills ranged from prize-winning baker to master builder. The precocious Avriel had a major mural commission for a local hospital at age 15, finished high school and entered the local art school at 16. She began her first foray into architecture when she was 23 years old, causing the local newspaper to deadpan, “Artist Reads Book, Builds First House.” Taking a page from California developer Joseph Eichler, Avriel created her own subdivision of midcentury houses in Carmel, Indiana. The fact that the Thornhurst subdivision of mid-century homes she designed and built and built was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010 testifies to her place in history, but it is Avriel’s wide-ranging crossover successes and eclectic passions, however, which add great texture to design history.
It is easy to get lost in the tale of this amazing woman, but the real story to me has always been the nature of Sholly’s project. In an age when entire competitions and books are devoted to a category called “self-promotion” — the kind of self-initiated, self-financed and self-published projects that designers routinely produce about themselves — it’s nice to have a more intriguing and ultimately more useful model. It’s one thing to showcase your capabilities in some overwrought, overthought and overdesigned package and quite another to use your design skills in a project that might not otherwise see the light of day because it lacks a conventional client. Sholly decides upon a subject, locates a passionate author and a sympathetic editor, helps undertake the research and acts as both designer and publisher to realize these nuggets of scholarship. Frankly, it’s the kind of work that ought to be undertaken by more designers, supported by design organizations and perhaps even underwritten by them and other industry sponsors.
Compared to the kinds of activity one witnessed more than two decades ago, graphic design history today seems to have stalled. Certainly, there are more monographs than before, more course offerings in schools and a few more survey books, but the deep interest that the field once held for the history of its own practice seems to have waned. Where are the conferences? Where are the debates? Perhaps it’s the intense focus on contemporary culture, or the changing nature of that practice that captures most of our attention today — causing us to look forward rather than glance backward. Perhaps it was just a passing moment of professional maturation, an opportunity to take stock of the practice that graphic design had become, that enabled the frenetic activity of the 1980s and 1990s. Most likely, such interest was possible because that contemporary moment was better aligned with the past. History became a great source of inspiration for many designers in the 1980s, just as modernism (which billed itself as timeless) was poised to become history. What I do know is that graphic design as a practice, a profession and a discipline, doesn’t hold much of a future without a better and richer sense of its past.