R. Roger Remington believes that to fully understand present-day design concepts, the work of designers of the past must be examined. Remington, a design historian, teacher, and author, has worked throughout his 45-year career to make RIT an international resource of design history and theory.
"There is no other school, no other place that has this kind of resource not only for students, but for scholars from around the world," says Remington, RIT's Lella and Massimo Vignelli Distinguished Professor of Design.
It may be one of the best-kept secrets, but because of Remington's vision, RIT is home to the archives of such American Modernist graphic design pioneers as Lester Beall, Will Burtin, Cipe Pineles, Alvin Lustig, and William Golden.
RIT is about to expand upon its impressive holdings of renowned designers with the addition of the archives of Lella and Massimo Vignelli. The couple's graphic and product designs are icons of international design. Their archive includes an extensive collection of original source materials, along with many examples of their finished work, including corporate identity campaigns, jewelry, silverware, and furniture.
The Vignellis are the visionaries behind such timeless classics as the Handkerchief Chair and the Paper Clip Table for Knoll, and the Stendig calendar. Massimo Vignelli recently designed a new map of the New York City subway system. They have designed corporate identity programs for Xerox, American Airlines, Bloomingdale's, Lancia, Cinzano, Knoll, and Ford Motor Co. They also designed furniture for Sunar, Rosenthal, Morphos, and Knoll.
Their collection will be the crown jewel in a design museum set to open in 2010 on the RIT campus. Named The Vignelli Center for Design Studies, the center will be a destination for students, faculty, professional designers, and scholars.
"This facility will be a global learning resource, bringing emphasis to design studies (history, theory, and criticism) as it extends the educational curricula at RIT," says Remington. "The Vignellis are to the world of design what Einstein was to physics. Through the scope and integrity of their work, the Vignellis have influenced design for more than four decades. They have always exemplified uncompromised excellence and greatness and now with the Vignelli Center at RIT we are partners in this history."
A number of events in the 1980s sparked Remington's quest to obtain and preserve the collections of legendary designers.
"I started to become concerned that my graphic design students were lacking in their knowledge of the history of design and the history of their field. I started to do some work in integrating design history topics into my studio classes. I thought, 'wouldn't it be great to have original archival material for students to use as a reference?' It was about this time too that there was this movement in design education toward an emphasis in history."
It was through Remington's own research for a Communication Arts magazine article about designer Lester Beall that RIT came to acquire Beall's collection.
"I made contact with the Beall family and went to Connecticut to meet with Beall's widow Dorothy and his daughter Joanna. I discovered that Dorothy had his archive tucked away in corners of her condominium. She had been spending years sorting through his stuff. It was quite poignant."
Beall earned design reverence for his poster series in the late 1930s for the U.S. Government's Rural Electrification Administration (REA), part of the Department of Agriculture. His posters are considered icons of graphic design. Beall's other signature pieces are his numerous corporate identity programs and the publications he produced for pharmaceutical companies using montage and photomontage concepts.
Shortly after completing his article, Remington got a phone call from Beall's daughter asking if RIT wanted the archive. The answer was a resounding yes and Remington rented a truck and recruited several graduate students to help him haul the massive amounts of Beall's personal papers, business documents, and artwork back to RIT.
"Beall's was the very first collection donated to us in 1986 and the beginning of it all," says Remington. "It is still one of our largest collections and showpieces."
Remington received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to pay an archivist to rehouse and sort Beall's collection and establish a finding guide. Word soon spread that RIT was archiving material of Modernist designers.
"Other collections started to be offered to us. That started to add up and soon we had a critical mass of collections of design pioneers from this era of 1930s to 1950s. It makes me very proud that the work from the majority of this generation is here."
It's worth noting that RIT has acquired all of these collections, now totaling more than 30, at no cost. The estimated value of the combined collections is in the millions of dollars. They are collectively known as the Graphic Design Archives and are administered as a special collection within RIT's Cary Graphic Arts Collection, Wallace Library.
"It's completely been a labor of love, which is amazing," adds Remington.
Throughout his career, Remington's own research focus has been on this generation of American Modernist design pioneers. It's the basis for Remington's four books on graphic design history.
He has authored Nine Pioneers in American Graphic Design (MIT Press), Lester Beall: Trailblazer of American Graphic Design (WW Norton), and American Modernism: Graphic Design, 1920-1960 (Laurence King Publishers, London/Yale University Press). His most recent book, Design and Science—The Life and Career of Will Burtin (Lund Humphries), is co-authored with Robert S. P. Fripp.
"As the years go by, people start forgetting about these important pioneers and the work they've done. The companies they worked for no longer exist. Their life stories need to be told. In writing my books, having the archives here made all the difference because I could easily get access to the original sketches, designs, and letters. These original source materials are important to my students and me. It's what brings my history classes to life."
The RIT Cary Graphic Arts Press has published three chapbooks on these mid-century graphic designers, two of which were written by Remington. Will Burtin: The Display of Visual Knowledge followed previous chapbooks Lester Beall: Space, Time & Content, and Cipe Pineles: Two Remembrances.
In the foreword of the inaugural chapbook, Massimo Vignelli writes: "History, theory and criticism: These were the passwords launched at the first conference of Graphic Design History at the Rochester Institute of Technology about 20 years ago. Until then, very little or nothing at all had been done to document and study the development of graphic design in the USA. Times were ripe and Roger Remington spearheaded the efforts."
In 1983, RIT hosted this national conference on design history and Massimo Vignelli delivered a keynote address. Remington's connection with the Vignellis has grown over nearly three decades and he considers them close, personal friends.
RIT awarded Massimo Vignelli an honorary doctorate degree in fine arts and Lella Vignelli a President's Medal in 2002. The two are longtime supporters of RIT's School of Design.
The Vignelli Center's gallery will exhibit permanent collections of their designs. Students and researchers can access their work in the building's archives. The center will also be a hub for multidisciplinary programming including new courses. For Remington, it's the programming possibilities that really excite him.
"RIT's great potential is in its interdisciplinary work," says Remington. "With the opening of the center, I want to expand our offerings of interdisciplinary courses. I am working with Tim Engström, professor in the philosophy department, to develop a course tentatively called "The Philosophy of Design from Plato to Vignelli." The Vignelli Center will co-sponsor with David Pankow, curator of the Cary Graphic Arts Collection, a new course, "Ten Books in Ten Weeks."
Pankow adds, "The idea of the course is to choose 10 books that influenced 20th century graphic design because of their innovative arrangements of text and image. Ten people will speak about the books' significance. For example, the first book in the lecture series will be the Kelmscott Chaucer, designed by William Morris. The book was printed in 1896 and had a profound influence on 20th century design and typography. Remington himself will be one of the course presenters and will speak on Mise en page, a famous book on layout published in 1931."
Remington believes the educational programming, research, and the Vignelli Collection will move the university into a position of major prominence in the world of professional design.
Richard Grefé of the American Institute of Graphic Arts says, "The Vignelli Center for Design Studies will be instrumental in defining the role of design in society and commerce ... RIT's commitment to archiving the artifacts of creativity will allow future generations to appreciate and build on the contributions of the Vignellis and other designers in an unprecedented way."
The Vignelli Center will extend RIT's influence to global design venues and complement the longstanding international exchange programs with the Dessau Department of Design, Anhalt University of Applied Sciences in Dessau, Germany, and in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Remington has begun talks with the Royal College of Art in London on potential collaborative initiatives. Jeremy Ainsley, professor of design history and a director of research at the Royal College of Art, came to RIT this spring to conduct research. He was impressed with the university's existing archives and the new center's arrival.
"The Vignelli Center for Design Studies is a very exciting development for the state of design studies internationally," says Ainsley. "Already, RIT is on the academic and research map for design history, theory, and criticism because of the programs of study available, but also as a result of the special opportunities for research and scholarship offered by the holdings and staff expertise of the Cary Graphic Arts Collection and the Graphic Design Archive at the Wallace Library."
Remington credits his RIT colleagues in helping to elevate the university's reputation for design excellence.
"I couldn't do what I do here without people that share this vision like Kari Horowicz (art and photography librarian, RIT Libraries) and David Pankow. I've never had to convince them that this is an important thing to do."
"The 20th century graphic design archives we have accumulated here have established RIT as one of the best resources in the world for Modernist design studies. RIT is without peer in this area. The Graphic Design Archives, the Vignelli Collection, and the Cary Collection represent an astonishing continuum of typography and design from the early stages of bookmaking, advertising, and design to the present," says Pankow.