Bloomfield Hills, MI

Bradbury Thompson

Cranbrook Art Museum

From the time of the Bauhaus, Modernist design has endeavored to mediate cultural difference with well-designed goods and images. Through the grid and sans serif type, graphic design has popularized the ecumenical esthetic of High Modernism. Bradbury Thompson has been a major presence in Modernist graphic design for much of the 20th century, and this retrospective surveyed his work over the last 50 years.

One should acknowledge the corporation’s role as a patron for legions of designers. In this case, the West Virginia Paper and Pulp Company (Westvaco) has played Don Lodovico since 1938, when Thompson first began designing the firm’s publication entitled Westvaco Inspirations—a showcase for state-of-the-art design, particularly as it might encourage “creative” use of the printing papers Westvaco offers. By giving the designer free reign in esthetic matters, Westvaco enabled Thompson to explore photoreprographic and process-color printing, cold-set and phrased typography, and numerous other methods and concepts that have now become standard design practice. Thompson’s semiotic investigations are primarily concerned with the visuality of the written word, typically using visual puns and onomatopoeia to conflate text and image. In Thirst: Le Corbusier, 1948, body type is set into a block the shape of a martini glass; Kerr-choo-oo, 1949, depicts a sneeze exploding typographically across the page. One of Thompson’s more interesting visible-language exercises is the Washburn College Bible, 1979; here the text of the King James version is set in phrased line lengths, revealing the cadence of spoken English.

Thompson represents a new kind of designer: instead of acting as an Apollonian creator-god, he is a facilitator, one coordinate in a production matrix. He sifts through an archive of semiological systems and technologies in order to weave a cloth of communication. Typefaces, line art, printing technologies, photographic images, and culturally shared symbols are all antecedent to the graphic designer.

Inherent in Modernist design, and reflected in Thompson’s practice, is a structural contradiction: Modernist design assumes the sovereignty of “fine” art ideologically—the work of art, as an object of indifferent contemplation, is nobler than the commodity, which is an object of desire. However, the thoroughness with which the market penetrates all levels of culture suggests that, like Jorge Luis Borges’ immortals, who were reduced to a troglodyte state by the banality of their eternal existence, the plenitude of consumer society has resulted in a desiccation of the intrinsic and not an enrichment of the material. From this perspective, Modernist design’s ambition to unite use-value with the esthetically sublime would appear utopian.

Vincent A. Carducci