Online Archive Shows Graphic Design Was Big In West Michigan

Jul 6, 2017

Retired graphic designers Barbara Loveland (left) and Linda Powell (right) hold up a banner Western Michigan University students made for an art festival in Kalamazoo in 1971.
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

Do you know who designed your chair? How about the utensils in your kitchen? Or the ads in your favorite magazine? We rarely think about the people behind the everyday things we use or view. So you might not know that - before computers became popular - West Michigan was something of a graphic design hub. 

“Well, I think it started with the paper industry because of all of the rivers, it was a good location for many of the paper mills. And there used to be one in every small town in West Michigan,” says retired graphic designer Barbara Loveland.

At one time, paper and graphic design were like peanut butter and jelly. Loveland and her colleague Linda Powell created a new online archive for graphic design in West Michigan to preserve this little known piece of history.

Aside from the paper industry, Loveland says there were also more companies in the area willing to pay the price for good design.

This Upjohn ad designed by Will Burtin in 1955 appeared in the Saturday Evening Post
Credit The Upjohn Company

West Michigan Companies Hired Good Designers

Powell recalls a story she heard about George Nelson of furniture maker Herman Miller. He’s now considered one of the founders of modernism in architecture and design. Powell says when Nelson designed the company’s first catalog, CEO D.J. De Pree didn’t want to pay the $35,000 bill:

“Go back to the drawing board and come back with a less expensive version of first catalog. And so Nelson went away, he came back. He hadn’t changed a thing except he had put a $3 price tag on the cover and propose that they sell the catalog - which was totally new that a company would sell a catalog and people would actually buy it.”

But people did. Soon, Powell says, other companies started selling their catalogs - which allowed them to hire top designers.

Examples You'll Find In The Archive

Powell remembers one ad by Herman Miller where designers photographed a lounge chair in a corn field.

“Because it was made in Zeeland, Michigan and that’s what was there. So there could be a barn in the background. But it was a wonderful setting but totally out of context from the furniture. It really drew a lot of attention,” says Powell.

This was one of six ads for Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co. for their missile nose cones. It appeared in the trade magazine "Missiles and Rockets" in 1958.
Credit Graphic Design Archives - West Michigan

Loveland says it made people think about the chair differently.

The Upjohn Company was pretty design-forward too. In the 1950s, designer Will Burtin used the company’s own vitamins to make eye-catching ads. Colorful pills dot the “I”s on a handwritten note and form a mosaic that looks like a question mark.

The archive has another interesting series made for Brunswick. You may recognize that name from a bowling ball logo, but the company also made plastic nose cones for missiles during the Cold War.

These ads were in a trade publication called “Missiles and Rockets.” Powell says designers spiced up a seemingly dull subject with abstract images of rockets against blue textured backgrounds:

“So these were I think obviously engineers that were looking at these. And I think the illustrations are so conceptual for that audience, but I haven’t seen the whole magazine. But I can image that this magazine, the ads were pretty straightforward and boring. And all of the sudden you come to this ad and it just jumps out at you.”

University Design Programs Had Real Clients

Western Michigan University and Ferris State University have had some talented student designers too. In fact, Ferris State students helped create the online archive - and he physical pieces shown on the site are housed on Western’s campus.

The WMU Design Research Center helped to create this piece for "Calliope," the student literary publication, in 1967.
Credit Western Michigan University.

One of the more unique artifacts at Western is what looks like a Campbell's soup can a la Andy Warhol. Its a real can with a copy of the student literary paper, "Calliope," rolled up inside. 

Western archives also have one of the banners students made for a Kalamazoo art festival in 1971. It’s a modern design in red, blue, and orange on a huge, 12-foot cloth banner. Powell says she and other Western students made these by hand.

“Somebody brought their sewing machine," she says. "We had spray adhesive and we were cutting the fabric and gluing and stitching and making these banners for the City of Kalamazoo.”

Barbara Loveland says she hopes the archive helps people to be able to recognize good design.

“When they begin to see more of it, I think they’ll become more appreciative of it,”she says.