Peter Seitz in the design studio at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, circa 1965
Having spent my professional life (thus far) working neither on the East Coast nor the West Coast of the U.S., but in what is euphemistically dubbed the fly-over zone, I've taken a particular interest in the history of graphic design in decentralized locales. Raised and educated in the Midwest during the 1980s, I can still remember the first Print regional annual (1981) and how odd it seemed not being in the "center" of things. I've always taken pride and pleasure in operating outside of official centers — New York City in particular — but am still struck by people's disbelief that "interesting work can happen there?" "There" being a relative term, a kind of free-floating non-place. Lorraine Wild, a product of Detroit (well Canada too, but the part near Detroit) captured this incongruity when she once described Cranbrook as a hot-house of avant-garde design flourishing in a rust belt.
This collision of progress and regression in one and same place embodies a kind of geographic oxymoron. It's a sensation that's been piqued again by a string of events over the last few years — little forays into the hinterlands trying to piece together how design had happened to be there — which have recently caught my attention.
A few years ago a friend of mine, Jim Sholly of Commercial Artisan, produced a sweet little booklet about his in-laws — Gene and Jackie Lacy, a husband-and-wife graphic design and illustration team practicing in Indianapolis, Indiana. Having lived and studied in this city, I was aware of the Lacys but was surprised nevertheless by the fact that not only had this publication been produced, it had been freely and widely distributed. A letter attached to the mailing offered a glimmer of insight: Gene and Jackie Lacy worked as graphic designers, illustrators and artists in Indianapolis from the 1950s through the 1990s — four decades spent creating a substantial body of work that, with few exceptions, remains virtually unknown outside a small group of family and friends. ... The Lacys were not widely known beyond Indianapolis and like so many of their contemporaries, may never be recognized for their contributions to graphic design. Hopefully, this modest mailing goes some distance to rectify that oversight. Although numerous graphic design magazines regularly profile contemporary designers and their predecessors, I am unaware of any national or regional efforts to document and preserve the work of people like the Lacys. In many cases this lesser known work is vanishing bit by bit every day.
As a designer, I was immediately drawn to this project and to the larger questions it raises. Who counts as history? Where are we looking for this history? And how once located, do we "preserve" it? While the history of graphic design is not limited to the stories of its practitioners, the work of expanding the canon, designer by designer, remains largely incomplete. It is rare to encounter a newly unearthed designer and remains, to date, far more common to see new interpretations of established figures. Although there are multiple reasons for this, I believe that one of the major difficulties is attributable to the very complicated, typically unpaid, and deeply investigative nature of such primary research. Such effort entails hundreds of hours of painstaking fact-finding, trying to locate actual examples of work, tracking down former colleagues, and, when available, gaining the trust of (and access to) a living subject's archives and recollections — all of which require negotiating complexities both personal and professional. Such projects, as rare as they are (and typically without bankable widespread interest) almost always come about as labors of love, and their success hinges on the good will and enthusiasm that comes from spouses, family members, former colleagues, students, and business partners.
For the last several years, Kathy McCoy has been documenting and chronicling the history of graphic design education programs in the U.S. — an historical niche market — first with Rob Roy Kelly at the Kansas City Art Institute and later with Ken Hiebert at the Philadelphia College of Art (now The University of the Arts). Tracing this history and its linkages reminds us that graphic design education was, in those early years, the byproduct of a European strain of modernism in the United States, and indeed, this was a characteristic of both of these programs. Yet while its location on the East Coast made PCA a natural place for a design program, the idea of a transplanted modernism taking root in the Kansas plains (or the plains of the Upper Midwest for that matter) always begs for an explanation: why there, why then, and finally, how did this come about?
McCoy's research struck me as yet another kind of history that is quickly evaporating as faculty members retire or entire programs vanish. I was more than eager to participate in a parallel endeavor, and was granted my chance this past summer, when the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) approached me about shepherding a book project to document the work and contributions of Peter Seitz.
Seitz arrived in Minneapolis in 1964 to become a designer, editor and curator at the Walker Art Center, a position I would occupy more than thirty years later. Educated in the legendary, radical design program in Ulm, Germany, Peter ventured to the United States in 1959 to obtain his graduate degree from Yale University. After the Walker, he went on to establish several successful design studios in Minneapolis, including probably the first truly multidisciplinary, collaborative design studio in the U.S., appropriately called InterDesign. He then taught for more than thirty years at MCAD, during which time he championed the use of the computer to help solve design problems as early as the 1960s.
Such details are essential in order to reconstruct a sense of how modern design might have arrived in Minnesota. Rob Roy Kelly, who had worked at the Walker before Seitz, had been teaching at MCAD (where he was the first to use the term "graphic design" to designate the curriculum) before going to Kansas City. Once there, Kelly was the first to bring graduates of the design program in Basel, Switzerland, to teach with him — including Inge Druckrey and Hans Allemann, both of whom would later end up at The Philadelphia College of Art. Piecing together these important individual stories begins to construct a fuller history of our discipline, and its points of convergence and divergence. It is this process of connecting the dots that allows us to avoid the lone heroicism of much design history, and by expanding our attention to the whole we can begin to understand the interconnected nature of design's past, present and future.
Because this history is gradually vanishing, there is a renewed sense of urgency in documenting the lives of those graphic designers who were so influential in the formation and maturation of the field in their respective cities. Hopefully, projects like these will help to create something greater than the sum of their individual parts, by providing answers to more widespread historical questions: how, for example, did modern graphic design spread across the central United States? Such answers contribute significantly to a more substantial picture of graphic design history, by focusing long-overdue attention on those so-called local practitioners — people whose work helped pave the way for all of us. This is not necessarily about writing History with a capital "H," but about identifying an alternative history — a history from below. While no less legitimate, such histories would refer more specifically to the grass-roots nature of the work, and to its decentralized locations, its oral histories and its many marginalized subjects. It is a term and concept that should be embraced rather than shunned, because the groundwork of history and the field it supports has its foundation in this very metaphor. While the story of Peter Seitz provides one example, we can rest assured that there are many more stories just like his in cities across the country — modernism in the fly-over zone, if you will — which add a critical human dimension to design's rich cultural heritage.
Andrew Blauvelt is design director and curator of architecture and design at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. A practicing designer, he also writes about the history, theory, and criticism of design for a variety of publications.