Every summer, hundreds of thousands of visitors travel by ferry to Governors Island, a former Coast Guard outpost that has become one of New York City’s most popular public parks. In summer 2012, Cooper-Hewitt was proud to host our exhibition, Graphic Design: Now In Production, on Governors Island, and I was proud to be among the organizing curators.
Among the hundreds of books, magazines, typefaces, and digital media on view in our exhibition were a series of posters by Michiel Schuurman. While typical works of graphic design aim to present a message quickly and concisely, Schuurman’s work confronts the eye with a dense tapestry of effects. In his posters, the primary text emerges from a turbulent mass of waves, bubbles, or rivulets. Ripples of movement engulf each letterform before mutating into crystalline fragments towards the outer shores of the image. Posters like the one shown here—especially when viewed at full scale—require considerable patience from a reader to decode them at all.
Standing there one day in our gallery on Governors Island, I observed two young visitors struggling to make sense out of one of Schuurman’s posters.
“I don’t get it!”
I stepped in to intervene, flawlessly reciting the headline of the poster they were looking at: “Horsemoveprojectspace.”
“How did you do that?” one of the visitors asked.
Lacking any magical powers of observation, I simply pointed to the wall label. “The titles are written out here.” I went on to explain that this particular designer experiments with standard software tools, using them in unexpected ways to create complex graphic images. His goal is not so much to advertise an event as to create new visual forms and experiences, rather like the psychedelic poster artists of the 1960s.
The visitors nodded and moved on. I hope they learned something about graphic design. And, perhaps next time they visit an exhibition, they’ll see if a curator is around to help—if not in person, then in the proxy of a well-placed wall label.
The exhibition “Graphic Design: Now in Production” was organized by Cooper-Hewitt and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The exhibition launched in Minneapolis in October 2011 and was hosted by Cooper-Hewitt at Governors Island in New York City the following summer. It then continued on to a national tour: first stop, the Hammer in Los Angeles, through January 3, 2013. The exhibition includes four posters similar to the one shown here, from the Museum’s collection.