Century: 100 Years of Type in Design, a new exhibit at the AIGA National Design Center in New York, explores the evolution of the modern letterform, from Eric Gill’s original drawings for Gill Sans to the first New Yorker logo. You'll even find the 1970 guidelines for the typography still used in New York's subway system.
Created by Pentagram partner Abbot Miller and curated by Monotype, one of the world’s oldest type providers for the AIGA’s Centennial, the exhibit includes curated selections from the archives of Pentagram, Mohawk Paper, Condé Nast, The Herb Lubalin Study Center at Cooper Union, and The Museum of Printing, among others.
"We’re surrounded by design from dawn till dusk, but it’s not often that you get the chance to see the history of graphic design and the work that shapes our environment," Dan Rhatigan, type director at Monotype, tells Co.Design. "Only a handful of people can say they’ve been within touching distance of the original paper, drawings, and design originals." Design geeks will drool over early never-before-seen drawings for Gill Sans by Eric Gill, but anyone with even a passing interest in visual culture will be equally intrigued. "You don't have to be a type nerd to be interested in the history of Vogue, Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker," Rhatigan says. Era-capturing '20s and '30s issues of those classic pubs are on view, with covers by the likes of Alexander Liberman, the former editorial director at Condé Nast.
It's a thoughtful, wide-ranging exhibit, with artifacts "chosen and arranged to tell a story about how design is informed, constrained, and even enhanced by technology over the past century," Rhatigan says, "whether it’s the technology of machine or the microprocessor and bitmap." Importantly, the work of typography greats, including FHK Henrion, Tom Eckersley, and Stefan Sagmeister (who contributed a bold poster featuring a headless chicken) get juxtaposed in ways that reveal patterns of influence. But the exhibition makes sure to show us how each designer originally interpreted the canon of artful alphabets, too.
The material gets abstract in surprising ways. The 1,058 evenly spaced black splotches, circles, diamonds, ovals, and squares in the exhibition space are oversized periods from about 630 different typefaces, all drawn from the Monotype library. "We wanted to create an immersive environment that communicates the diversity of typographic form," Miller said in a statement. His clever approach reveals the power of typography to interpret a single character in near infinite ways. An animation, "Full Stop," set to the pulsing sound of a heartbeat, identifies each period displayed.
Miller created a second animation, "Fractured Century," which cycles through hundreds of typefaces that move like the minute hand on a clock. The animation ultimately settles into Miller’s identity for the exhibit—a capital "C," for century, made up of fragmented segments of Monotype fonts.
Click the slide show above for highlights from the exhibit. Century: 100 Years of Type in Design is open and free to the public at the AIGA in New York City until June 18.