On Saturday 21 July 2012, as part of the Design Museum ‘takeover’ series GraphicDesign& invited everyone – not just artists and designers – to contribute to their ambitious GraphicDesign& Everything interactive archive, either in person or via Twitter. It was to be the start of a quest to prove how interconnected graphic design is with all other subjects, the caveat: they needed the help to everyone to create it. Is this the ebay equivalent of curation I wonder?
On hearing about this event I was intrigued. Isn’t graphic design ephemeral? What are the consequences for trying to create an archive of everything? I feel anxious at the thought of those items that are not, or will never be, included. The founders and main protagonists of Graphicdesign&, Lucienne Roberts and Rebecca Wright, have deliberately named this one-day experiment a ‘laboratory’ as the outcomes are not fixed or predictable, only as the process evolves can the results be analysed and conclusions drawn.
Museums are the habitat of the curator, and today there is a tension between the formality of the Design Museum and the broad-based performance of the Graphicdesign& Everything project, where material can be physically and virtually submitted from anyone and anywhere. Roberts and Wright have provided a structure for how material is to be categorised in the archive (and all Graphicdesign& activities) by implementing the quirky Bliss Bibliographic Classification system conceived by the American librarian Henry Evelyn Bliss in the first half of the twentieth century. Roberts and Wright say ‘we’re interested in everyday occurrences of graphic design in context – professional and vernacular, familiar and unfamiliar, old and new, weird and wonderful – and the subject/s to which they connect’. This may be a loose curatorial position, but the arbitrariness of the exercise is – at this stage – where the real value resides.
David Shaw, the web developer for the project, briefed a cohort of students from Kingston University who volunteered themselves to undertake the laborious process of photographing and uploading images of the graphic design ephemera. Technical issues relating to image size were resolved to facilitate a more rapid and fluid uploading process. This was a precarious moment, if there were to be a large volume of people attending the event at once, could the system cope? Only time would tell.
The students are given a list of the Bliss Bibliographic Classification system’s 23 ‘top-level’ categories, which they will then have to allocate to the objects being recorded in the archive. For each item a card needs to be completed by the person submitting the entry.
The day got off to a productive start, the website was projected onto the wall behind the team, visitors could watch the archive build in real-time. Everyone is uplifted to see the first submissions via Twitter. At this point, it is difficult to make connections between objects, the random nature of the exercise is being visualised by the objects themselves.
The music playing in the café and forming a backdrop to the event is a welcome addition, and maintains a consistent energy for those on the production line. I particularly liked the inclusion of Nina Simone’s My Baby Just Cares For Me, this feels like an appropriate track to play at the creation of an archive.
In the afternoon, everything was running smoothly, no major technical issues, to the relief of all concerned, and a steady flow of material was being captured by the team. It was time for the round table discussion with three graphic design enthusiasts Liz Farrelly, Caroline Roberts and Lawrence Zeegen. I sat down with Liz and Lawrence, before the discussion where the editor, writer and educator Liz Farrelly was busy completing her graphicdesignand indexing card, where she struggled to find fashion in the Bliss category for her Jaeger label comprising a woven logo and washing instructions – in multiple languages. Only when the material and cultural significance of the object was unpacked could Farrelly begin to assign the appropriate Bliss categories: Arts, Music, Literature; Botany; Economics; Generalia, Phenomena, Knowledge; Human Sciences, Medicine; Physical Anthropology; Psychology; Technology and Zoology! For Farrelly this object represented ‘good value’ as it facilitated many ticks in the Bliss category boxes.
Caroline arrived and Rebecca Wright welcomed and thanked everyone for attending. Roberts, independent design writer, editor and commentator began the discussion with a 1978 copy of the Argos catalogue, Farrelly reminded us of the complexities of constructing a catalogue in the analogue age of phototypesetting and paste-up. The brown and yellow hues redolent of the 1970s provide a uniform backdrop to the products. The utilitarian aesthetics of Argos instigated a lively debate by Zeegan about social class where he positioned Argos in relation to Habitat, where a more middle-class aspirational approach to selling products was reflected in the colours, photography and ultimately the products themselves. The discussion made a foray into museology and how products once considered everyday, or simply disposable would now be considered collectable and desirable, this was contextualised in relation to the focus of the days events by Wright who asked if we need to ‘work our way through older objects first’, reflecting the days trend to deposit mostly historical items into the online archive. Other items brought in by Roberts, that were not discussed were: The Observer’s Book of Cacti & Other Succulents by S. H. Scott; Bird (book) drawings by Kat Macleod and designed by 3 Deep Design; BOAC Junior Jet Club Kit; A Coast to Coast Walk by A. Wainwright and Cut a promotional flick book for GF Smith.
Farrelly was unsure what to bring, Wright suggested ‘bring things that you come across on the way’. Farrelly made the most of her day trip from Brighton visiting the Barbican’s current exhibition Bauhaus: Art as Life, and used the opportunity to purchase a roll of Lazy Oaf tape printed with Wassily Kandinsky’s test of form and colour relationships, (students at the Bauhaus were asked to match a circle, triangle and square with the primary colours yellow, blue and red).
Farrelly is seduced by the workings of the Oyster card secluded in an IKEA branded wallet whose promise of ‘travel is a means to an end – home!’ slogan is printed on the inside. Roberts reminded us of the paradoxical nature of the IKEA/Oyster association, most of their stores are accessible only by car. Global brands like IKEA seize every available opportunity to advertise their brand, however on an optimistic note, Farrelly points out the advantage of the Swedish national colours – yellow and blue – ‘it is easily found in a handbag’ she says.
Zeegen, who is Dean of the Design faculty at London College of Communication, told us that he is more interested in the graphic designs of non-graphic designers, who have had no real training, this position connects most of the objects he brought with him to place in the archive. An African hand-carved and painted Coca Cola bottle was a modest expression of the hand-made one-off verses the mass-market brand. A robust, military-style tin can containing ‘Emergency Drinking Water, property of U.S Gov’t’ was a chilling reminded of Cold War concerns, the colours, I decided, were more reminiscent of Farrow and Ball’s Elephant’s breath and Pitch Black.
The Russian sign appropriated from a disused engineering works in Moscow is red and white, and authoritarian in its visual language, some guesswork is needed as to what it says, the cyrillic alphabet keeping its message secret. For Zeegen, the velcro dots on the reverse were disappointing as they lacked an industrial feel ‘why can’t they look more Soviet’ he questioned. The fret-cut perspex lettering on a sign spelling out ‘Hot Salt Beef Sandwiches To Take Away’ prompted a conversational dérive into Zeegen’s Jewish immigrant roots, London’s Brick Lane, Bagels and the notion of what happens when signs no longer become functional, and are removed from their original context? Zeegen picked up the dog xing sign (I was pleased to say I was not the only one having problems translating ‘xing’ into ‘crossing’), from Cliff’s Variety Store on Castro Street in San Francisco, I imagine this to be the American equivalent of the Clas Ohlson store here in the UK. For typographers the unorthodox ‘counters’ synonymous with the greengrocers hand-lettering style (a rarity these days with the demise of independent retailers) must be something of an oddity, for Zeegan it represents the essence of vernacular, one day he hopes a willing fruiterer will construct an alphabet for him.
Wright thanks everyone for their contributions and the task of photographing the objects for the online archive resumed. The afternoon progressed and by five o’clock the archive had amassed nearly 300 items, an achievement considering the amount of data that was was captured for each item. We pack up the pop-up lab, and to a rousing chorus of goodbye, the museum staff appear sad to see us leave. In the words of Foucault, its time to take ‘care of the self’ so we all head off for a drink, creating an archive is thirsty work indeed.