A mixed box of delights

Phaidon’s Archive of Graphic Design offers an exhaustive survey of the medium, but is not without its problems

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The grandly titled Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design comes in a huge box that looks like a piece of military equipment – with hinged lid, camouflage finish, a nest of webbing wrapped around it, and carry handles. If you ever need to check out great moments in graphic design history while taking heavy fire in a battle zone, this is definitely the set to have with you along with your kevlar vest and field radio. Pretty weird, but then what would one use to lug around 500 separate sheets of thick paper and a bunch of divider pages?

The book – we’ll stick with that description because this is, in essence, a 1,000-page picture book – has been years in the making. When the sealed box arrived, I wondered where it would be best to start, though as things turned out, I first saw the archive displayed on the walls at designjunction during the London Design Festival, where it looked exciting but random. Once unpacked, the pages turned out to be in chronological order, so I took that as my cue, starting at the beginning with a collection of Zen Buddhist texts from Korea, printed in 1377, and working through to Leftloft’s 100 Notes – 100 Thoughts project for this year’s Documenta exhibition in Kassel. This is the best way to get a feel for how the book handles each decade. After that, the archive’s open structure encourages you to organise it in any way you like. The reversible dividers, should you decide to use them, are titled to allow classification by category or time period. Phaidon plans to publish more pages later and there’s room for them in the box.

Before saying anything else, it would be churlish not to acknowledge that this extravagant hamper is stuffed with a banquet of the most refined graphic pleasures. I was reminded many times of how I came to admire graphic design in the first place and why its history gripped my attention.

If readers who knew little about the subject were to spend time with the book, they would emerge from this induction course with a profound sense of the field’s significance and penetration into every area of civilised, organised modern life. The archive has museum-worthy masterpieces by innovators such as Rodchenko and Lissitzky, Tschichold and Sutnar, Rand and Bass, but it also has less obvious though ubiquitous graphic inventions that have transformed everyday reality: the printer’s fist, maritime flags, the copyright symbol, the radiation warning sign, the zebra crossing, the recycling symbol.

The chronology throws up some wonderful juxtapositions. Reading about the 1930s, I turned from USSR in Construction magazine, which used avant-garde design in the service of the Russian revolution, to Fortune, the powerhouse publication of American capitalism. It would be hard to state the geopolitical clash of ideologies in that era in more electrifying graphic terms.

There were many points, though, where I wondered how the decisions about what to include or leave out came to be made. The book has no named, over-arching editor and is presented as the conception of Phaidon and its editors. The project began with the efforts of design writer and Phaidon author Kerry William Purcell, who compiled a database, made an early selection of works and commissioned many of the large team of writers who provided texts of around 350 words for each piece. Purcell receives vague thanks “for his help” but no precise credit and someone else is credited as commissioning editor, along with three project editors. A number of consultants apparently offered “guidance”, including Steven Heller, Emily King and Teal Triggs – again no details.

The brief foreword mentions the reviewing of thousands of examples, but there is no way of telling who had the final say about anything; nor does the foreword offer any coherent rationales for selection. There are no initials at the end of the texts so you can easily discover the author and no information about contributors; the writers’ names are listed in a separate booklet. A highly resourced publication that presents itself as a major statement about a field needs to do better than this. Or should we view the book, despite its monumental scale and the involvement of academics, as simply an expensive form of entertainment?

Many of the selections – the Stenberg brothers’ film posters, the Michelin Man, Futura, Olivetti’s typewriter ads, the CBS eye – are inarguable because they are part of graphic design’s acknowledged canon. This means they have often featured in exhibitions and earlier books. The archive’s compilers and writers are dependent on this path-finding research (where else has the information come from?) but the book has no bibliography or suggestions for more detailed reading. Some designers are favoured with multiple examples: Rand has eight, Rodchenko seven, Otl Aicher five; Gerard Unger has three typefaces. Meanwhile, significant figures such as Henryk Tomaszewski (posters), Reid Miles (record covers), Pierre Faucheux (books) and Roy Kuhlman (book covers) don’t rate a single piece. Roman Cieslewicz gets in for a magazine but not for any of the extraordinary posters on which his reputation rests. Is Irma Boom’s design for Hella Jongerius: Misfit – published by Phaidon, which awards itself five inclusions – really more significant than Herbert Bayer’s 1953 World Geographic Atlas, one of the colossal masterworks of graphic design history? (They do show other Bayers.)

Moving closer to the present, the book finds no pressing reason to include Jan van Toorn, April Greiman, Studio Dumbar, or Cornel Windlin. The blind spots or biases extend to whole sectors. Music graphics rates only a handful of examples (while at least 24 design magazines make the cut). Postmodern graphic design is very poorly handled. Czech posters of the 1960s remain a terra incognita. It might be argued that plenty of things will always be left out of any survey. But these are major oversights and imbalances that have somehow made it through the editorial processor. Viewing chronologically, it was alarming to see how graphic design appears to fall off in invention and impact after the 1960s. I don’t believe it does in reality; it’s the book’s quality control, or perhaps its grasp of the contemporary era, that’s less certain. You can see why the editors might include Shepard Fairey’s Obama poster (remarkable for impact rather than design) but his body of work has many better posters. From Nova magazine in the 1960s to i-D in the 1980s, the examples selected are not always the finest or most telling.

Phaidon publishes very few graphic design monographs compared to its commitment to art and photography books. Six standard-sized Phaidon blockbusters would be roughly equal in weight to the archive. What graphic design needs is more meticulous studies like the publisher’s books about Rand, Massin, Müller-Brockmann and Max Huber.

There is no obvious call for this box-monster and I found it unwieldy and awkward to consult. I wish Phaidon had devoted its resources to giving us a brace of groundbreaking monographs instead.

The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design is published by Phaidon; £140. It includes 500 individual cards featuring 3,000 colour illustrations in total. See phaidon.com for more details.