Art Seen: Chicago

CHICAGO DESIGN MUSEUM // STARTS/SPECULATIONS

by Ann Meisinger

The Chicago Design Museum is a peculiar entity; it is a permanent institution in a semi-permanent location. The space functions as a support base for the design community, and is looking forward to a decidedly non-for-profit future. After several years of itinerant status – doing yearly pop-up exhibitions – the museum opened their 2014 show Starts/Speculations: Graphic Design in Chicago Past and Future while simultaneously celebrating a newly acquired lease on the third floor of the mostly empty downtown mall, Block 37. The opening of the (semi) permanent space follows the successful fundraising efforts of Tanner Woodford, co-founder of the museum, through Kickstarter, and a long list of sponsors that includes influential advertising company Leo Burnett, and Adobe, among others.

Entrance_credit David Ettinger Photograpy

Entrance view of the Chicago Design Museum, 108 N State Street 3rd Floor, photo courtesy David Ettinger Photography

Woodford gets questioned often about the organization’s use of the word museum. In short, they began using the word “museum” to achieve a sort of clout when talking about the organization, but this eventually evolved into an understanding of what a museum does, how it is structured and what curatorial work might entail. With a more complete understanding of just how a museum operates, the curatorial committee, made up of members Robyn Paprocki and Morgan Walsh led by Exhibition Director Matthew Terdich, has assembled what Woodford thinks is the most well curated exhibition for the institution to date.

The exhibition presents itself in two parts – Chicago’s past graphic design, and the possibilities for the communication of information in the future. The past begins with a letter by Daniel Burnham that articulates the visual design standards for the 1909 Plan of Chicago and continues with an overview of the New Bauhaus and the influences of European modernism in Chicago. There is a vitrine and wall hanging dedicated to publications that called Chicago home like Ebony, Jet, and Playboy, as well as a fascinating array of graphic design materials that were produced for Chicago’s unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Olympics. A series of annual reports produced by the independent investment research firm Morningstar are also on display – and while the covers of the nine issues are beautifully designed, each with their own theme, it is not possible to see what design elements the interior pages may contain.

The portion of the exhibition that focuses on the past is well executed, and tells a story of the production of graphic design in Chicago while still highlighting some beautiful examples. The future section does not find its footing quite as easily. The question asked of the contributing designers was “How will technology change communication in the next 100 years?” As stand alone works of art, many of the pieces included have resonance with the larger premise of the museum, and the exhibition’s mission as a whole. Together however, the works in this collection are only able to loosely speculate on what that communication might entail, and in their multitude of ideas, the future unfortunately falls away.  L E V E L, by The Post Family (2013–2014) presents a series of differently scaled stools for viewers to use, in an effort to eliminate hierarchies – literally leveling out the participant’s vantage points by bringing everyone to the same height and perspective. In another work, entitled See by Plural (2014), a swirling multicolor projection interacts with viewers through a sensor that picks up the outline of bodies and creates a sort of stop motion animation. Placed in a retail center like Block 37, See evokes the banks of video cameras and monitors that live feed your image in electronics stores. Both pieces perhaps unintentionally mimic a consumer experience, mirroring the site of the museum itself.

Future_ credit Jennifer Yu Photography

Installation view, left “Future Fork”, Jonathan Peterson (2014); right “See”, Plural (2014), photo courtesy Jennifer Yu Photography.

One of the unsung stars of the exhibition are the vitrines that house the artifacts. Designed and constructed on site by Roman Titus, Exhibition Design Director, they are solid and beautifully crafted objects. Each of the vitrines is a rectangle composed of plywood and glass, supported at the bottom by two pieces of plywood that run the width of the rectangle and one that runs the length. These large pieces manage to recede while one is viewing the letters, maps, newspapers and other ephemera inside but create a presence when viewed from afar. The effect is one of refined industrial materials that compliment the objects inside.

The Chicago Design Museum has a very clear vision for its own future; that future includes an archive of exhibitions, but also a sort of communal workspace. This very young organization has an opportunity in our post recession reality to rethink what a museum might look like. Its stakeholders are not a collection of wealthy donors, but instead a broad range of supporters – in a very gratifying way, some of the elements of the exhibition mirror its non-profit and entrepreneurial hybridity. The presentation of the Morningstar Annual Reports, and the museum’s current location within a retail center lend a decidedly, but not altogether unpleasant, commercial flavor to a nearly all volunteer organization that is well on its way to non-profit status.


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Starts/Speculations: Graphic Design in Chicago Past and Future runs through September 30, 2014.

Ann Meisinger is a writer, curator and researcher based in Chicago, Illinois with a Dual Masters degree in Arts Administration and Art History, Theory and Criticism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is currently a curatorial assistant at SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries working on the September 2014 exhibition, A Proximity of Consciousness, and is a co-founder of the curatorial collective, Third Object.  

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