At the heart of the exhibition Engineer, Agitator, Builder: L’Artiste Réinventé there is a gallery dedicated to the work of Kurt Schwitters, the German artist, performer, publisher, poet and graphic designer. There is a poster out there that attracted us both, not because of the content (neither of us understand a word of German) but because of how it looked.
Kurt Schwitters. Poster for Opel Day: Grand Parade of Cars and Flowers (Opel-Tag: Grosser Auto Blumen Korso).
Among the more than 300 works on display, the Schwitters poster is one of the few black and white objects. Some might find it sterile, but for us, the contrast between the austere palette and the playful design cues only prompts us to decode its logic.
The layout seems systematic and logical at first, but the more you look at it the more quirks you discover: How did Schwitters determine the width of these generous indents? Why are some “O’s” more daring than others? And why is there text placed vertically at the bottom left? The playfully composed “Opeltag” at the bottom right is like a visual onomatopoeia; you can almost feel the words forming in your mouth as you read it.
Kurt Schwitters. Poster for Opel Day: Grand parade of cars and flowers (Opel-Tag: Grosser Auto Blumen Korso) (detail).
Fortunately, there is a label and audio guide in which curator, designer and educator Ellen Lupton elaborates on Schwitters’ typography:
“In this poster for a motor show, Schwitters was experimenting with the creation of a new alphabet. It really annoyed him that the letters of the alphabet were so arbitrary. He wanted to reform the writing system so that the shapes of the alphabet were more related to the sounds of speech. So if you look closely at the shapes of the letters on this poster, you will see that all the vowels are drawn with curves and the consonants are drawn with straight lines.
(And in the exhibition catalog, you can read an in-depth exploration of this poster by researcher Megan Luke.)
How can something so mundane be so formally engaging?
The content, however, couldn’t be drier. The text is a calendar of events and places, listing things as mundane as the departure and arrival times of a train. So how can something so mundane be so formally engaging? Schwitters’ emphasis on creating letter shapes in a manner disconnected from content proves that shaping the shape can be a meaningful act in itself, an idea designer Michael Rock articulates eloquently in his essay. “Fucking content. “Rock asserts that” stellar examples of graphic design, design that changes the way we view the world, are often found in the service of the most mundane content: an advertisement for ink, cigarettes, candles or candles. machines, “claiming that good design isn’t t” in the story, it’s in the storytelling. Schwitters’ poster embodies that idea, and that’s part of why it stood out on us. He uses it to explore his big ideas on a modest platform.
Kurt Schwitters. Poster for Opel Day: Grand parade of cars and flowers (Opel-Tag: Grosser Auto Blumen Korso) (detail). 1927
The design process is often more complicated than a tidy gallery display, and thinking of designed objects as more than products opens Pandora’s Box. How do we start to evaluate this poster and what frame of reference do we use? Is it aesthetic beauty? His contribution to the history of design? His ability to convince people to attend the Opel car parade? Its impact on the development of Schwitters’ vision? This is part of the enigmatic beauty of the designed objects. They don’t give you all of this information at once, but provide you with clues that are open to discussion, interpretation, and research.
Schwitters’ drive to question convention and improve the way we communicate touches on some of design’s most powerful qualities. In each act of manufacture, the designer has the choice: to respect the established standards or to question them. While his design for this poster defied conventions of language, production constraints ultimately forced Schwitters to stop this particular project. In the end, what we have left is a timeless reminder that even mundane projects are opportunities to express our beliefs and produce a great poster.
Engineer, Agitator, Builder is on view until April 10, 2021 and is organized by Jodi Hauptman, Senior Curator, and Adrian Sudhalter, Consulting Curator, with Jane Cavalier, Curator Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints, The Museum of Modern Art.