African-American Designers in Chicago: Art, Commerce and the Politics of Race” at the Chicago Cultural Center is a show that serves as a much-needed corrective to design history: it covers a century’s worth of fine art, commercial, and industrial design by black creators in Chicago, some of whom first came here during the Great Migration.
Most importantly, it’s a pure visual delight, offering a wide selection of breathtaking art from the early 20th century to the 1980s: sketches, paintings, blueprints, book jackets, album covers, beauty product packaging, a diorama that depicts the death of Crispus Attucks, World War II-era posters for war bonds, ads that also function as text-only conceptual art, and vintage Ebony, Jet, and Negro Digest magazines.
The show, located in a stately room with high ceilings and parquet wood floors on the Cultural Center’s fourth floor, was curated by Daniel Schulman, Chris Dingwall, and Tim Samuelson. The various pieces hang on two of the walls or are displayed in a series of wood cases divided into four distinct time periods: Futures (1900-1920), Renaissance (1920-1945), Abundance (1945-1963), and Revolutions (1963-1980s).
Among the standouts in the exhibit are the designs of Charles Harrison and Thomas Miller. Harrison (whom I first learned of at the 2017 Derrick Adams show “Future People” at Stony Island Arts Bank), worked as a designer for Sears Roebuck until he retired in 1993. There’s a shelf that displays some of the objects he designed, including a coffee pot, a toaster, a sewing machine, and his 1958 re-design of the ViewMaster, and then, directly below, his sketches for those products, which reveal a fastidious nature and an eye for fine art. While functional in nature, the sketches also work well as standalone art—there is a certain kind of vibrancy to them. Some, like the drawing of the sewing machine, are white pencil on black paper, and show a strong understanding of the mechanics of the product. But at the same time, his understanding of light and shadow give the sketches an extra flair that pushes beyond simple renderings: the drawings practically leap off the page.
Another cabinet nearby contains the work of Miller, a designer from Virginia who settled in Chicago after World War II. He worked at Morton Goldsholl Associates specializing in logo design from 1955 till his retirement in 1988. He was best known for the 1974 iteration of the 7Up logo with its hundreds of white dots, similar to a theater marquee display and also reminiscent of dot matrix printing and early video game graphics.
The work of Pedro Bell, a self-taught artist who designed album covers for Funkadelic, and Sylvia Abernathy, who did the same for Sun Ra and Archie Shepp, share a single display case. Abernathy also designed In Our Terribleness, a poetry book collaboration with Amiri Baraka which featured original black and white photography and a page that was made of a reflective material so anyone looking into the book would literally see themselves. I would have loved to have seen more space dedicated to her work, even an entire case like Harrison and Miller. Her work feels bold, elegant, and conceptually rigorous in a way that Bell’s does not.
Another case shows the work of Leroy Winbush, whose life story would make for an excellent prestige drama series on your streaming service of choice. Winbush, who was born in Detroit and moved to Chicago as a teenager, started out as a sign painter. He would go on to become the first black art director at Goldblatt’s Department Store, the first art director of Johnson Publishing Company, and director of the South Side Community Art Center. He also created window displays for white-owned banks and department stores in the Loop and art directed several cheeky, playful, colorful photo shoots for Duke, a short-lived men’s lifestyle magazine reminiscent of Esquire and GQ that was created by former employees of Johnson Publishing Company. Every cover of Duke featured the magazine’s mascot, a wooden, button-eyed mannequin. One shows Duke Ellington playing piano with the mannequin. Another cover has the provocative headline: “Negroes don’t know anything about jazz.” Both reveal Winbush’s sense of humor and flair for maximalism: his whole ethos appears to be “more is more.”
My favorite part of the exhibit, though, is a trio of text-only ads created by Emmett McBain in 1968 to promote the Vince Cullers advertising agency. The first ad features a black silhouette with the phrase some black secrets revealed located where the mouth would be. It reminded me of the Kerry James Marshall painting Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self where the only features visible are eyes and a mouth. Another ad, titled “Black Is Beautiful,” is a list in Helvetica font of words and phrases that all start with “black” that all have negative connotations and ends with the phrase “white lies.” The third, called “What color is black?,” contains no images. Instead, it uses a poem by Barbara D. Mahone that celebrates the diversity of black people to show the principles the Cullers agency stands for in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or unearned:
Our love of self,
people of a thousand shades of Black
all one. . .
All three ads are simple, powerful, and effective because they use advertising language to debunk some of the stereotypes about black lives that were created by advertising. They also demonstrate how black people have always had a way of using materials meant to harm us or demean us and turn them on their heads to empower us instead.
The world of design is often portrayed as being very white and very male. And yet the designs and principles of the artists on display here, created by black people, have persisted throughout 60-plus years. I have a desk chair, for example, that strongly resembles the blue midcentury modern chair on display that was designed by Charles Harrison. The principles of the Black Arts Movement—boldness, humor, and an unapologetic love and celebration of blackness—are still persistent in contemporary art. It’s edifying to see in this exhibition how much innovation and everyday designs that we still live with came from black people in Chicago. v