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The Fed Galleries Explores the Michigan Origins of Modern Design with New Exhibitions

Posted June 4, 2014 in Gallery

From the revolutionary graphic design work of the post-WWII era to the enormous influence of modern design on contemporary local artists, two new exhibitions transcend the gallery with an in-depth exploration of our region's rich design heritage. 

When the Michigan Modern symposium commences on June 19, The Fed Galleries inside the Woodbridge N. Ferris Building will take you beyond the art on the walls and into the heart of West Michigan's 60-plus year history of design innovation withMichigan Modern: Killing It and Shifting Landscapes: Selected Works by Michael Pfleghaar, two new exhibitions that are aimed at furthering the symposium’s exploration of West Michigan’s unique contributions to modern design.

“These exhibitions give the public another entry point into the larger dialogues that Michigan Modern will create around our region’s potent design history, how it has impacted modern design as a whole, and how it continues to shape the processes and production of those who are creating today,” said KCAD Curator of Exhibitions Michele Bosak.


Michigan Modern: Killing It

In the wake of World War II, the economy was booming and a new breed of graphic design was on the rise. Right here in West Michigan, companies like Herman Miller and Upjohn were putting complete trust in designers, giving them the freedom to break free of tradition and produce work that was way ahead of the curve. Featuring advertisements, brochures, annual reports, posters, catalogs, and textiles from this enormously important era of graphic design, Michigan Modern: Killing It highlights the trends that were born out of this bold work and explores its influence on the graphic designers of today.

old Herman Miller advertisementAdvertisement Herman Miller's Eames Chair Collection (click to enlarge)

Bosak worked with co-curators Barbara Loveland and Linda Powell to identify West Michigan companies that were incorporating innovative graphic design into their promotional efforts during that time period – Herman Miller, Steelcase, Howard Miller, Upjohn, and Brunswick, among others. They then began scouring public and private archives for design work that reflected new illustration styles, enhanced use of color, typography that was integral to the design, and thought-provoking and inspirational concepts.

“These companies recognized the value of good design and understood this was true for their sales and promotional tools as well as their products,” said Loveland. “The products needed to be innovative and creative, yet still function as expected, and these companies realized that to communicate this message, their ads and sales literature had to be equally innovative and creative. A good design director like George Nelson, whose office did a prolific amount of work for Herman Miller and other companies, was instrumental in helping his clients understand this parallel.”

old Upjohn advertisementAdvertisement for Upjohn (click to enlarge)

From logos like the one Nelson’s office designed for Herman Miller, which is still used by the company today, to thoughtfully detailed layouts and abstract, interpretive styles created by designers around the region, this forward-thinking graphic design elevated the medium to an art form and sparked trends that would sweep the world and influence design and designers for years to come.

“Many of the pieces in the exhibition look like they are current, but when you notice the publication dates you realize how incredible it is that this work that is 40 or 50 years old still stands as powerful design today,” said Powell. “It makes you wonder who, today, will have the same impact on graphic design in the next 50 years.”

For more information on the Michigan Modern symposium, visit: michiganmodern.org.


Shifting Landscapes: Selected Works by Michael Pfleghaar

Upon moving to West Michigan in 1983 to study painting at Grand Valley State University, Michael Pfleghaar was immediately influenced by the region’s rich design heritage. Since then he has been a fixture in the West Michigan arts community, practicing professionally and co-operating the joint gallery/studio space Tanglefoot Studio, now known as the Allen + Pfleghaar Studio at Tanglefoot.

“I quickly gravitated to the history of furniture production and design based in West Michigan,” Pfleghaar said. “My aesthetic formed as I matured and collected furnishings to surround me in my own home. This love for modernism and mid-century designs is the inspiration for my work. Through abstraction I create new design objects influenced by modern architecture, interiors, and furniture.”

Beacon by Michael Pfleghaar"Beacon" by Michael Pfleghaar (click to enlarge)

Shifting Landscapespresents key works from the last five years of Pfleghaar’s abstract development alongside two works he personally selected from KCAD's expansive Gordon Collection, which features pieces from West Michigan painters ranging from the mid-1800’s up to 1986. Pfleghaar chose two landscapes: one painted by KCAD namesake David Wolcott Kendall in 1897 and another painted by Frederic K. Wykes in 1938.

“The Gordon collection consists of very traditional representational paintings which differ greatly from my abstract work,” Pfleghaar said. “I selected two atypical paintings that were most colorful and expressive as well as being tropical scenes. Although painted by different artists, the pieces felt more primitive, painterly, and looser than the other works in the collection. My approach to painting is similar in how paint is applied, how color is used, and how those choices speak about the medium of painting.”

Pour by Michael Pfleghaar"Pour" by Michael Pfleghaar (click to enlarge)

The exhibition will feature Pfleghaar’s two-dimensional mixed-media paintings as well as what he calls “constructs” – reinterpretations of a utilitarian three-dimensional form into a painting that constitutes a new physical object. This objecthood is the ideology behind his current body of work, which finds its place somewhere between representation and abstraction through deletion, isolation and exaggeration, and is inspired by modern design. His work is a fascinating example of how the influence of West Michigan’s design legacy goes far beyond traditional design disciplines and into our region’s larger spirit of creativity.

For more information on Michael Pfleghaar, visit blog.pfleghaar.com.

Both Michigan Modern: Killing It and Shifting Landscapes: The Work of Michael Pfleghaar will run from June 19 through July 19. An opening reception, free and open to the public, will be held on June 20 from 5-7pm. For more information on The Fed Galleries, including hours of operation, visit kcad.edu/galleries/fed-galleries/