San Francisco Graphic Design Presents a Vibrant Picture of Bay Area Design, Past and Present

North Face packaging. Nature’s Gate shampoo bottles. The Prismacolor box. Chances are, you’re already familiar with these items, among many others on display in San Francisco Graphic Design, an exhibit running through April 26th at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design (500 Sutter Street). Although you’ve seen these items, and they’ve probably touched your life, you may not know that they were all designed by individuals and firms right here in the Bay Area. From 6 to 8 tomorrow evening, curator Michael Osborne will give a public walk-through of this great show.

During a similar press tour given one week after the opening, Osborne told me that one of his goals with the show was “simply to show people the wide range of everyday products with extraordinary design that they know, but which they might not necessarily know was done here.” To that end, the show begins with a timeline on one wall near the entrance, presenting a history of local graphic design, featuring iconic images that have been produced here, such as the 1969 Gap logo.

However, the show is much more than a greatest-hits parade of Bay Area design. Out of approximately 1,400 graphic designers active in the Bay Area right now, Osborne selected 13 to be specially featured with large displays. His goal with these designers was to show work that is “slightly under the radar.”

Those two goals — demonstrating the ubiquity of extraordinary design from the Bay Area on the one hand, and bringing to the surface work that few are aware of on the other — don’t conflict as much as one might think. For example, few objects are more familiar in kitchens and sitting rooms throughout the Bay Area than the titles published by Chronicle Books. If you’ve spent any time in the cookbook section of a bookstore lately, you’ve undoubtedly seen books like The Country Cooking of France and Simply Organic on the shelf, or maybe you’ve seen the Rex Ray titles in the art section. But it’s likely you’ve never heard of their designer, Sara Schneider, who is the publisher’s in-house design director. The display devoted to her work is even set up like a bookstore, with a chair nearby and a reading light — strictly notional, at 40 watts — hanging above it. I was told that visitors to the museum are invited to sit down and pull a book off the shelf for browsing. I highly recommend you take a good look at Love Hotels: The Hidden Fantasy Rooms of Japan.

Osborne is a good choice to put together just such a show. A noted designer in his own right, he founded his own firm, Michael Osborne Design, Inc. in 1981, and he has designed quite a number of things you’ll probably recognize, not only Prismacolor’s packaging, but also a number of stamps for the USPS: the 2002 and 2004 Love stamps, the 2006 Wedding Stamp set, the 2006 Madonna and Child stamp, and the 2007 Patriotic Banner Stamp.

Osborne said that although his selection is representative of the Bay Area design community, it does not provide an exact mirror image. For one thing, although women are outnumbered in the field at large, this show presents nearly a 50–50 split. And because one of his objects was to inspire students just getting into design, he chose to place a heavy emphasis on the work of designers who are now in the prime of their careers, along with three relative newcomers to keep things fresh.

Two of those relative newcomers are Adam Brodsley and Eric Heiman of Volume Inc, whose work you may recognize from the 2008 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival materials or from the ReadyMade book. (They like yellow. A lot.) The other designers and firms featured in the show are Philippe Becker (Philippe Becker Design, which did the Nature’s Gate design), Josh Chen (Chen Design Associates, which did the North Face packaging), Barbara Vick (Barbara Vick Design), Tom Ingalls (Ingalls Design), Jennifer Jerde (Elixir Design), Mitchell Mauk (Mauk Design), Jennifer Bostic (Paper Plane Studio), Michael Schwab (Michael Schwab Studio), Christopher Simmons (MINE), and Cinthia Wen (NOON).

One of the most intriguing portions of the exhibit was a wall consisting of large, square shopping bags, each one designed by a different individual in the show. Osborne gave them a simple task: use only black and white, and put a statement on the bag that summarizes your approach to design. Perhaps because designers are not necessarily verbally-oriented, the assignment turned out to be more daunting than he supposed, and the display turned out to be the most difficult one to curate in the whole show. However, the effort was worth it: the arrangement of the bags, with all their bold text — advice on how to live and how to design — is really striking where it’s placed, against a back wall between two riotously colorful and busy walls, and it serves as a nice summary of the show itself, as it brings all the designers, with their disparate viewpoints and approaches, together to be appreciated in a single glance.

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