Stand the test of time

Graphic design is never as poignant hung on a gallery wall as it is in situ, but exhibitions enable you to see the work differently.

Like many people in the design industry, I suspect, I am an inveterate hoarder of graphic ephemera. If a leaflet, poster, postcard, magazine, or piece of packaging tickles my fancy, I carefully stow it away.

For example, on a shelf in my office, there’s a cardboard box which once contained garlic. It’s in the shape of a tiny red-and-black coffin with a die-cut crucifix on the front. In suitably gothic type, under a drawing of a fang-toothed aristocrat, the legend reads: ‘Fresh garlic – Dracula’s worst nightmare’. Sadly, my local Budgen’s has now switched back to a more humdrum format.

I regularly frame posters, record sleeves and even dust jackets, but most of my graphic treasure trove is stashed in cardboard boxes. Perhaps they’ll be used as future points of reference, but more likely they’ll just yellow around the edges.

In saving them though, I have completely changed the context of these objects. Their original function has become superfluous – the biscuits eaten, the show over, the fashions past it – they’ve become admired purely for their aesthetic form.

By its very nature, graphic design is transient. Books are an exception, perhaps, but more typically, a piece of design gets its job done quickly and then becomes as redundant as yesterday’s newspapers. This is what made wandering around the Barbican exhibition, Communicate: Independent British Graphic Design Since the Sixties, such a curious experience. To see so many familiar works so expertly mounted on the walls seemed somehow contradictory.

In the introduction to his book Museum Without Walls, the French thinker André Malraux remarks that ‘[Museums] have imposed on the spectator a wholly new attitude to the work of art. They have tended to estrange the works of art they bring together from their original functions and to transform even portraits into “pictures”.’ In other words, a fresco in a museum doesn’t have the same emotional resonance that it would in the church for which it was painted; as one of a thousand portraits in a gallery, a rendition of one of the rich burghers of 17th-century Holland has much less significance than when it hung proudly on his living room wall.

The same holds true of graphics. Devoid of their original function, they become shadows of their former selves – reduced, to borrow Malraux’s word, to mere ‘pictures’. I found myself calmly admiring the typography on one of Ken Garland’s classic 1960s CND posters – when I should have been imagining it roughly pasted to a neglected wall, part of the windswept urban landscape, desperately calling people to action at the height of the Cold War. But here, pristine, impeccably framed, a piece of ersatz art with a small group of students huddled around it taking notes, it had been transformed into a curiosity, a once-proud poster now robbed of its purpose. Then there was the inevitable question of contrasts and comparisons over 40 years and many different disciplines. As John Berger notes in Ways of Seeing (featured in the exhibition), ‘The meaning of an image is changed according to what you see immediately beside it or what comes immediately after it. Such authority as it retains is distributed over the whole context in which it appears.’ How do you relate a Designers Republic poster to a Derek Birdsall book design? A Jonathan Barnbrook polemic with the graphic wit of Alan Fletcher? Outside of a fascinating yet contrived situation like this, you’d never have the chance to pit one against the other.

Best of all, you could appreciate these works at their true scale. I’d seen many of them before in books and magazines, but seeing them as physical objects was revealing, though the fact that you couldn’t actually touch them reinforced their newly elevated status. As did the little captions underneath explaining their provenance – ‘Courtesy of the designer’, or ‘From a private collection’. (Do my crammed boxes constitute a ‘private collection’?)

Where Pop Art transformed humble, everyday objects into art, questioning established values, it was all done with a sense of irony and mischief. But shows like ‘Communicate’ alter the original meaning of graphic design almost inadvertently. Bereft of its raison d’être, the appeal of a piece of graphics becomes a visual or historic one. And while the style and zeitgeist of a particular era can be compellingly brought to life, we’re reminded that graphics is about conveying timely information; that once its moment is past, it becomes something else entirely.

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