Personal perspective on the collection by Frank A. Mulvey

Letterhead exhibit at Penn State_1963

Photo by Frank R. Mulvey, 1963
Letterhead exhibit at Penn State

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The letterhead designs featured in this collection were printed during the vibrant and tumultuous decade of the 1960s, when the future was a hope-filled beacon towards which many people set their sights. Art schools of the time needed to keep pace with contemporary achievements in order to navigate forward, but acquiring examples of current art and design to show students was a challenging undertaking. The material had to be obtained in reproduction  form, and this required research and persistence. My father, Frank R. Mulvey (1923-2005), was up to the task. In the early to mid 1960s, he was an Assistant Professor in the Art Department of the College of Liberal Arts, Pennsylvania State University. He recognized the need to acquire examples of design in the form of letterheads, posters, brochures and other publications.

With passionate determination, Frank mailed out hundreds of letters to designers, associations, companies and corporations  with a request for printed matter. The project was described as the Graphic Research Library, and letterhead design was one component of this archive. Many items were gathered so that students and faculty could refer to them as points of departure for new creative directions.

In 1963, The College of Arts and Architecture of Penn State came into being, within which the Art Department continued to operate. By this time, Frank had already acquired a significant resource of design material from the entities he had contacted.  Exhibits were mounted, class presentations were delivered and discussions ensued amongst students and faculty. The material served its purpose as a resource for all and as a catalyst for innovation and creativity.

It is difficult to imagine how my father juggled his academic activities, in addition to a career as an artist and photographer, with family life during the 1960s. My twin brother, Carl, and I came into the world at the dawn of that decade, keeping both mother and father quite involved with the enterprise of parenthood. From the young viewpoints of my brother and I, the only evidence that our father was juggling many responsibilities was the occasional “clack-clack” sound from his trusty manual typewriter, after we had gone to bed. Through a teaching career that spanned over three decades in both the United States and Canada, Frank continued to produce hand-written  or typed inquiries and mail away for design material to be used as a teaching resource. This was a time-consuming process compared to the instantaneous nature of electronic communication today, but like a long day of fishing resulting in a catch for dinner, one savoured the results all the more.

In early 2013, I took some time to go through a batch of my late father’s possessions. Among the myriad boxes and portfolios of material, there was a non-descript  box. Inside the small volume of this box was a beautiful cosmos of 1960s graphic design. Letters from such luminaries as Lester Beall, Paul Rand and Ladislav Sutnar had been filed away, along with hundreds of other cover letters responding to my father’s requests for design material, all on company stationery with letterheads. The respondents range from widely recognized veterans of the graphic design industry to young designers just beginning to make their mark, such as Archie Boston, who was 25 years old at the time and came to be known for his provocative work and social consciousness in graphic design and advertisement.

The cover letters were the by-product of my father’s Graphic Research Library endeavour. Through time, most of the design material accumulated by my father has been donated to various institutions. However, the letters remain, and these items form the content of this exhibition. Perhaps in my father’s mind, these examples of letterhead stationery had been spoiled because they were not in pristine condition and had been written on, folded and at times stapled. But of course, that was the purpose of letterhead stationery. When I fully realized the importance of this collection, and that 50 years had passed since the inception of the College of Arts and Architecture at Penn State, I felt strongly that the dark interior of this box should see the light of day.

Some of the letters were written by designers who had created their own letterheads. Other correspondence came from companies whose letterheads had been created by in- house designers or by those working outside of the sphere of a particular company. In some cases the designers are known, in others they are unidentified and possibly obscure. The signatures attest to the wonderful spectrum of individuals who responded to my father’s research. Personalities, many of them larger than life, had left their mark.

Among the many designers whose work is represented in this collection, very few are still active today. Four have responded to email inquiries sent out in May, 2013: Archie Boston, Seymour Chwast, Tom Geismar and Milton Glaser.

Archie Boston gave insight into the Boston & Boston letterhead (page 8) from the late 1960s (May 7 email correspondence). The Jim Crow typeface alluded to the discriminatory laws that mandated racial segregation in all public places of former Confederate States. The choice of typeface was a protest against racism.

Designer Seymour Chwast remarked on the early 1960s and Push Pin Studios in which he, Milton Glaser and Reynold Ruffins were active at the time. He wrote “Any or all three of us could have designed the (Push Pin Studios) letterhead while Reynold designed the Push icon.” (May 15 email correspondence).

When asked about the difference between the 1960s and now in his work as a designer, Tom Geismar responded “I was, of course, very young then. There weren’t many graphic designers around, so it was all quite exciting. But in terms of the work, our approach then is not very different from what it is today. I still see design as a problem-solving  process, and continue trying to develop graphic identities that are distinctive, impactful, and appropriate for the client and the uses for which they are needed” (May 13 email correspondence). Chermayeff & Geismar designed The Edgewood Furniture Company letterhead.

Milton Glaser wrote: “In reference to my letterhead, it’s derived from the floor plan of an Islamic temple. I chose it largely because it didn’t look exactly like all of the ‘designer’ letterheads that were floating around at the time” (May 20 email correspondence). The cover letter by Milton Glaser featured in the collection of letterheads from the 1960s is anomalous because it was written in 1978, but Glaser has confirmed that the design was conceived in the 1960s.

From a collection of several hundred letterhead items, 120 have been selected for an exhibition at the Warren G. Flowers Art Gallery of Dawson College (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), opening Thursday August 22, 2013 at 5:30 p.m., and continuing weekdays from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. until Thursday September 5, 2013. The exhibition is entitled Back to the Future: Letterhead Design of the 1960s, and it has been made possible by a project at Dawson College entitled S.P.A.C.E. (Sciences Participating with Arts and Culture in Education).  The display will also include a number of oddities such as oversized stationery and noteworthy envelopes. The purpose of this exhibition is in keeping with my father’s original objective: fascinating examples of design should be seen in order to inform and inspire students, academics and practitioners.

After half a century since this occurred at the College of Arts and Architecture of Penn State, curious eyes will study the material in physical form in a different educational institution, to be experienced with a fresh perspective. Now, we have the opportunity  to see what the forward-looking spirit of the 1960s looks like from a future vantage point that owes much to that exciting decade.

The entire letterhead collection is mounted here on the Internet, opening up the experience to a far wider audience than my late father could have visualized back on December 14, 1961, when he wrote his first inquiry. His motivation was to stimulate creativity and to build an appreciation for art and design in the education community within which he worked and, by extension, society at large. Looking back on this time through adult eyes, I feel a profound appreciation for my father. He had a deep sense of wonder about the world. He shared this capacity with others, and interacting with him professionally or personally was likely to leave one feeling an extra spark of creativity inside.

Frank A. Mulvey, 2013

Fine Arts Department

Illustration & Design Department

S.P.A.C.E. Coordinator

Dawson College (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)

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