Spring 2008

How to write a Modernist’s obituary

Peter Seitz: Designing a Life

Edited by Andrew Blauvelt and Pamela Johnson. Designed by Andrew Blauvelt and Ryan Nelson. Essays by Bruce N. Wright, Kolean Pitner and Andrew Blauvelt. Minneapolis College of Art, $35.

History is continually being made, but that does not mean all history will be written. What determines who, or what, will ultimately be chronicled depends on numerous consequences, like who survives to tell the tale, or which publisher will make in investment in telling those tales. With graphic design history, producing a chronicle depends on funding. While the market for omnibus design history books has flourished over the past two decades (there are a dozen or more English language design history overviews, and more on the way), what might be called ‘marginal histories’ are less likely to receive any more serious attention than the occasional article in a graphic design magazine. There are many unknown aspects of graphic design worthy of historical notice that get little or no attention because publishers do not see a quantifiable ‘market.’ So it becomes the job of committed scholars and researchers (and fans) to buck the ‘market trend’ and produce works for which the greatest reward is getting the word out.

Peter Seitz: Designing a Life is a concise, well designed and smartly written monograph published by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design that gets the word out on an all but forgotten designer. More than a slight exhibition catalogue or commemorative souvenir, this invaluable document examines the work of a significant mid-century Modernist and design teacher, who studied at the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm and Yale University and, in turn, imported Modernism to the American Mid-West. By virtue of his geographical location Seitz may not have received the same canonical attention as those on East and West coasts, but his influence as an interpreter of mid-century European Modernist and Swiss practice is not merely noteworthy but integral to the history of the field. His identity and design work for the Walker Art Center, including the famous Design Quarterly, as well as the University of Minnesota, and dozens of regional businesses and industries deserve astute attention and analysis. Although Seitz has been acknowledged in small ways outside his bailiwick, this is the first critical mass of accomplishment.

The monograph is useful for the manner in which the authors contextualise Seitz’s work, but is also important as an answer to the question posed in the ‘Afterword’ by Andrew Blauvelt, one of the book’s editors (with Pamela Johnson) and designers (with Ryan Nelson): ‘Who “counts” as history, where are we looking, and how do we “preserve” it?’ And when he writes ‘it is rare to encounter a newly unearthed designer and far more common to see new interpretations of established figures’, he puts his finger on a larger issue. Who writes the canon? Is it accurate? And should there be some official body or academy that determines who deserves to be in it? Another, more radical question is, should there be a canon at all? Seitz’s status in the existing Modernist canon is persuasively argued in this small but ambitious monograph, but there are many great designers and influential teachers who may never have a monograph.

In obituary journalism, the ‘Mr Chips Factor’ indicates the phenomenon that means everyone has a favourite teacher who, they believe, should receive public recognition. Unless this teacher has many other documented accomplishments other than a few loyal fans, a major newspaper obituary – the final testament – is not forthcoming. This could apply to writing graphic design history. Certainly, everyone has favourite designers who have made important contributions to our respective lives. The question is how to translate such subjective favouritism into objective scholarship. Peter Seitz: Designing a Life is a good example of how it can be done.

Steven Heller, design writer, New York

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.

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