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The Design Museum of Chicago & the Importance of Public Art

Part Retrospective, Part Reflective, Park Exploration

by Tanya Pietrkowski

Photo by the Design Museum of Chicago

Life is art and everything around you is designed. Design influences how we see the world in ways we don’t think about seamlessly. But, the Design Museum of Chicago (DMoC) gives you that opportunity to see the art, form and function through a new lens. In many ways, DMoC helps us access public art and think about its societal function in our own lives.

At a time, where we are divided in so many ways, the installation and dissemination of public art is one way to bring us together in our common humanity. The work of artists, designers, and the DMoC are a meaningful focus, especially given the increasing threats to public discourse through banning books, history classes and the open discussion of issues that matter to people.

DMoC is a natural extension of the city’s artistic tradition. DMoC also has the ability to tie the engineer, the scientist, the designer, the artist, the environment, the history, the materials and the participants all together in seamless ways to create new observations and dialogue by the next generation.

DMoC started as a pilot project and is celebrating ten years now. The museum has brought together partnerships by some of our most prestigious designers and artists into the public realm. Executive director and founder, Tanner Woodford reflects that public art has a way of “creating unexpected cultural experiences.”

Tanner shares, “One of our first pop ups in 2012 was in an old warehouse in Humboldt Park. We got 1,500 people together to be inspired by design.”

This first installation included five different exhibitions that celebrated signage, including an invitational showing of hand-painted signage and a separate exhibit that paid homage to Alexander Rodchenko. Rodchenko was an early Russian 20th century artist who helped propel the constructivism movement that utilizes art to advance social objectives through design and architecture in urban spaces. He might be thought of as a Russian radical or revolutionary at the time, which gets one thinking about now-what would Alexander Rodchenko think about DMoC’s exhibits or the way arts marketing can be used to influence society?

Tanner points out that Rodchenko would likely approve of the way the DMoC uses art and design to engage the everyday person. “The Museum of Contemporary Art and the Art Institute of Chicago are incomparable, world class resources. Their job is to educate you on what great art is. At DMoC, we are able to be more experiential. Our role is to invite communities to share their stories and we provide a platform for them to tell those stories in their own voices.”

“In 2013, our second pop-up exhibition called A-Z, Art on Track was a collaboration with Architectural Artifacts that included a Blue Line car circulating the Loop as part of the world’s largest mobile art gallery. We hung marquee letters with hooks on fishing line that people could rearrange and hang as they liked and handed out flyers on the basics of typography to participants. We moved from being a museum that found community in the first initiative to a community that found us in the second exhibition.”

Through this exhibit, DMoC and additional artist collectives filled six train cars with art that gave people a chance to think about the influence of art in their public space. DMoC’s range of fonts, history and typography encouraged people to think about function and design in their everyday lives.

“We then moved the museum to Block 37 in the Loop where we hosted exhibitions for five years. We got a lot of experience here developing content, finding our voice and figuring out what kinds of stories our visitors wanted to hear.”

In 2015, DMoC installed The Great Ideas of Humanity exhibition that broadened and re-imagined John Massey’s original institutional advertising campaign called the Great Ideas of Western Man that ran from 1964-1975. The original poster campaign was underwritten by Container Corporation. The famous quotes, illustrated with eye-catching graphics and typography, were meant to engage the public in looking at cultural philosophical exchanges in the public space. DMoC’s version of the exhibition was inclusive across cultures and generations with an important element of continuity—Ivan Chermayeff. Mr. Chermayeff—one of the foremost graphic designers of his generation and whose influence is seen in major logos for NBC, Chase, and the Smithsonian—designed the last poster of the Great Ideas of Western Man campaign and the first poster for DMoC’s recasting of the exhibition.

The Great Ideas of Humanity was exhibited at the Business of Design Week conference in Hong Kong in 2016 and culminated into ads on the back of buses and an ongoing digital exhibition that can still be accessed online. DMoC involved schools and other artists to depict their vision of great ideas. The exhibit gives the artists a chance to define their role in the world and express their vision of humanity. The exhibit makes ones reflect on what is important in life.

“In 2018, we created a 50th anniversary activation called The Shape of Chicago-John Massey’s 1968 Banners Revisited that included the remounting of Massey’s famous banners that hung on Michigan Avenue in 1968.”

The iconic original John Massey flags were designed to highlight Chicago’s vitality, prosperity and diversity and represented the country’s first civic poster campaign. Chicago in 1968 reflected a volatile moment for anti-Vietnam war protests and the Civil Rights movement. The contrast between John Massey’s upbeat banner campaign and the times they were created in are worth revisiting (in a different article).

The copies created by DMoC for the 2018 show now hang in Tanner’s office. They are big flags with fun primary colors and playful geometric shapes that are fanciful and very modern.

Photo by the Design Museum of Chicago at the museum offices

Born in Chicago, John Massey is a pioneer of modernism who revolutionized the intersection of graphic design in art, business and science. He founded the Center for Advanced Research in Design in Chicago and served as Director of Design and Corporate Communications at Container Corporation. He also went on to teach design at University of Illinois Chicago. He is retired now, but worked with DMoC to recreate his banners from 1968 fifty years later.

Tanner notes, “John was passionate about using advertising space for the purpose of public art. When we recreated his banners, we worked with him directly to look at historic photographs to match the original shapes and colors because the old flags were long gone. We then took the project to a third-grade class at Philip D. Armour Elementary School in Bridgeport. We gave the students grids and had them make their own mid-century masterpieces. The students presented their artwork to John and then their pieces were hung below his banners on State Street.”

Photo by the Design Museum of Chicago at the museum

The Armour Elementary third-grade class’s artwork is still on display in their school five years later. Those third g

raders, who are now in eighth grade and under the same art teacher’s tutelage, recently began a new project with DMoC.

“For the eighth graders at Armour Elementary, we asked the teachers and students what issues they are facing, and racism was something they had directly experienced. As part of the project, w

e brought in Chris Rudd, founder of ChiByDesign, to teach about anti-racism practices. With drones and 3-D printers, the students re-envisioned empty lots as community centers to bring people together and it became part of their art,” Tanner explained.

From teaching students life skills through art to building community or involving an exhibition participant, DMoC’s innovative projects and partnerships change lives through introspection and applica

tion. One of the most visible exhibitions illustrating this concept includes VaxChiNation that hired 80 local visual artists to encourage Covid vaccinations through a series of s

howings and events during the pandemic. Take an opportunity to get to know DMoC–you never know what you might learn.

Photo by the Design Museum of Chicago of their citywide public school student exhibition

Thank you to Tanner Woodford, Founder of the Design Museum of Chicago, and his team for giving me the time and space to learn about art in a new way.

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