The Problem of Provenance

by Michael Rock


History belongs to the writer; so too the history of graphic design. The challenge for the design historian is to assemble bits and pieces of data — traditional primary and secondary sources as well as visual material — into coherent narrative. The state of graphic-design history is dire because the subjects themselves have a vested interest in perpetuating a closed narrative about their own ideas — designers want to build and maintain their own self-authored, and self-serving, myths — and design journalists are often unwilling to question the simple stories their subjects feed them. So both the primary and secondary are compromised. But the real problem is that the origins of a visual idea are blurry. In most cases, the attribution of a discrete idea to a single designer is simply a shorthand way to meld all the various threads of influence into a single unified point of inspiration.

The story of mysterious aesthetic inspiration gushing forth from fertile imaginations, while romantic, is almost always miscast. Graphic design is mediated: it works because it is attached to the surrounding culture. The creative-genius story is only viable if the definition of a design object is whittled down to the point that it is no longer rich or interesting or if the designer is inflated to the cult status he or she covets.

Take, for example, 2x4’s super-scale portrait of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe installed on the glass façade of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s McCormick Tribune Campus Center, a building designed by Office of Metropolitan Architecture. (The shorthand way to say that would be “designed by Rem Koolhaas,” which would illustrate my point exactly.) The portrait, made up of thousands of tiny pictograms depicting student activities, was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art for the permanent collection and has been widely exhibited, most recently in the MoMA Architecture and Design galleries in Just In: Recent Acquisitions (2007–8). The image of Mies was accompanied by this label:

IIT Mies Wallpaper, 2004
Michael Rock, Susan Sellers, Georgianna Stout

Almost everything about this label is reductive: that it is a single, discrete object; that it can be situated at one point in time; that it can be attributed to the three partners of 2x4.

On the other hand, I was reading an account of a lecture by a young designer who had joined the large 2x4 team working on IIT and was surprised to find this: “[The designer] was unsure how to start a project designing environmental graphics for [IIT]. Feeling overwhelmed, he started to create simple pictograms of ‘things students do.’ Hundreds of pictograms he created were later transformed into 20–foot-tall, vinyl portraits of Mies van der Rohe, welcoming the students as they entered the building. He confessed that he had no idea where he was headed.” This version is also fictional: the design of the entire system — which spanned many years, involved a score of designers and touched hundreds of various elements — could never be attributed to a single designer; ideas in a studio don’t originate individually; and rarely does a project move forward without some sense of intention and direction.

Both these reductive forms of design history miss the real — and unique — aspects of design. Design in a collaborative studio environment is never a solo achievement but is made up of countless individual acts of creativity. Over the course of the six years we worked on the IIT project, more than a dozen different designers participated, not to mention a large and dynamic team of architects from OMA, and landscape designers from Inside Outside.

If we take this one design artifact, the portrait on the façade of the building, and review its provenance in detail, the complexity of assigning authorship immediately becomes apparent. Rem Koolhaas and his team at Office for Metropolitan Architecture won the competition to build a new student center on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1998. The site for the building is an interstitial space between the main campus, famously designed by Mies van der Rohe (case in point), and the student dormitories to the north. This dead space is overshot by an elevated train track, and was at the time criss-crossed by “desire lines” that students had worn into the hardscrabble landscape by slogging back and forth between class and home. OMA proposed the brilliant, counterintuitive solution of squeezing the building under the tracks and enclosing the trains in a huge, sound-muffling tube/tunnel, thereby reclaiming land lost to the screeching El. The building plan roughly follows those existing desire lines. The dynamic interior spaces, invigorated by the sharp crossing paths, are encircled by a more or less rectangular modern frame nicknamed the “Mies Wrap.”

Celebrating the occasion of the announcement of the competition results, Herbert Muschamp, then architecture critic for The New York Times, described the tension between the cacaphonic interior space of the building and the cool Miesian wrap: “At IIT, [Koolhaas] must contend with the authority of Mies and of modern architecture at its most rigidly orthodox. His design both honors and subverts that orthodoxy by wrapping a Miesian glass skin around colliding interior spaces that evoke high modernism’s demise.”

In the original competition submission, Rem Koolhaas, Dan Wood, Sarah Dunn and the architecture team articulated the Mies Wrap with images of the famous architect applied to the glass façade. Wood recalls that in an era before a simple Google Image search would turn up thousands of possible choices, the portraits were limited to what could be found in the studio library, late at night, Xeroxed onto acetate and applied to the model. The full-on portrait of grizzled, aging Mies ended up positioned over the main entrance, facing his classic campus buildings to the south. In his presentation to the competition committee, and in countless presentations thereafter, Koolhaas described how future generations of ambling students would enter the building through the great modernist’s mouth.

The Mies Wrap went through many iterations and convolutions, some inspired by design development, some by programmatic demands, and many to accommodate cost restrictions. Throughout that process the other images that festooned the wrap dropped away but the large portrait of old, saggy Mies remained in the drawings, so by the time we became part of the project it had acquired a certain inevitability. As we started to integrate our ideas into OMA’s, we embraced the iconographic notion of the Mies Wrap and also looked for ways to subvert it, twist it, make it strange or funny — to make it our own. High modernism had a conflicted relationship with the mural as a social tool and we wanted to test the limits of how the graphic and the architectural could and would collide. We were just finishing the graphics for Guggenheim Las Vegas and embarking on a new project for the Prada store in Soho (both with OMA), and the mixing of a lowbrow material like wallpaper and a highbrow notion like the modernist mural with a ’70s idea of supergraphic was informing much of that work.

The IIT building was littered with graphic effects. This approach developed out of an essential aspect of the construction: the ceiling was more or less disconnected from the walls, basically thin partitions that could be superficially coated with graphic skins. We were looking for a common way to code the various activities that took place inside a campus center, using the graphic surface as medium. To both exploit the modernity of the space, and to slyly undermine it, we considered using pictograms typical of public spaces like airports and sports stadiums. We were also thinking about some of the humor in the stonework at the neo-Gothic campus at Yale where the stonecutters had inserted lighthearted contemporary jokes into seemingly serious, historic architectural detail.

In the studio the project had multiple authors. Different designers, or teams, took on every aspect of the space from the wallpaper and surface patterns to typography, information and image. The idea of expanding the pictograms to include the foibles of student life — keg stands, cheating, making out, and generally lascivious behavior — was developed by a young designer, building on her own thesis project completed at the Yale School of Art the year before, and drawn in her inimitable style. That icon system became a unifying feature throughout the space repeated at every scale.

Pixelation had an extensive history in the studio, starting with projects we had already developed for OMA and Prada. The pixelated portrait can be traced directly to a proposal we made with the Korean artist Do-Ho Suh for IIT in the first year of the project. We were thinking about how to incorporate more of a student presence in the building and together came up with a proposal using ID photographs of individual students to make a huge, 20–foot-high portrait of an averaged, “generic” student. This idea was inspired by work Suh had been doing as a graduate student in sculpture at Yale in which he used images of thousands of Korean students to make wallpaper patterns. At the same time we were investigating different ways we could accomplish OMA’s portrait façades and make the images more graphic, and therefore more feasible to apply to the glass. When Do-Ho’s project proved to be financially impossible, we tabled the idea of the super-sized, pixelated student portrait, only to reintroduce a version of it years later for the Mies façade.

As the project neared the execution phase we again faced the problem of how to reproduce the Mies face on the glass surfaces. This required a whole new body of work—and more designers—transforming the original icons into a more uniform set of figures, standardizing the library and adding new twists. (At this time we also developed a special typeface, derived from Mies’s original lettering on the campus drawings, to use for the project’s typographic applications.) We returned to the idea developed by Do-Ho of the pixelated face. A clever young designer leveraged a somewhat anachronistic ASCII algorithm to break down the Mies photograph into a halftone screen using the icon system as the pixel, then spent countless days reworking, tweaking and correcting the final files before they were ultimately etched into the glass panels.

So who is the originator of the work that hangs on the wall of MoMA? The one who though up the concept, developed the idea, gave it form or executed the final iteration? Can any one of us own the thing? The truth lies somewhere between the various extremes: institutional authorship on one side — the result of a collaborative, often random, set of efforts where the author’s name is a function that unifies that work; and the heroic individual on the other — one person made the physical thing. A large, complex design system is the culmination of many individual flashes of brilliance that cohere into something more or less unified and complete. An insightful, investigative design journalism could tease out this contradiction and build a theory of graphic design based on the tension between the various, often contradictory, modes of making.