Reflections on AIGA Medalists, part 2—non-Americans

As I expected the response to my post on gender disparity among AIGA medalists provoked questions about other anomalies. I will try to address the issue of minority representation among medalists in another post. But for now I want to look at the issue of honoring non-Americans.

Greg D’Onofrio, a partner in Kind Company and the website, asked me why so few Europeans had been honored by the AIGA. My question is why have any been honored? I think that in the early years of the AIGA, when the organization was dominated by those in the book trade, giving out the medal to Stanley Morison (1946), Jan Tschichold (1954) and Giovanni Mardersteig (1968) was a no-brainer. All three men had played important roles in that area with Morison being responsible for many of the typefaces used in books at that time (Centaur, Bembo, Perpetua, Gill Sans, etc.), Tschichold fresh off of his heralded overhaul of Penguin Books, and Mardersteig respected for the quality of the books he designed and printed at the Officina Bodoni. Also, all three men wrote widely and eruditely about calligraphy, typography, type design, book design and other related topics.

The awarding of the AIGA medal to Willem Sandberg in 1962 does not fit this mold. Instead, it shows the shift within the profession and the AIGA membership toward the modernist wing of designers. I think that of all the possible European designers with modernist leanings who could have been chosen, that Sandberg was the one because he was more than a designer. It is highly likely that his role as the director of the Stedelijk Museum was more important given that a fair number of AIGA medalists prior to 1980 were not designers at all.

After Mardersteig received the AIGA medal the membership seems to have decided that only Americans should be recipients. That is, until 2011 and 2013 when Armin Hofmann and Wolfgang Weingart  respectively received it. I suspect they were chosen among many equally qualified non-Americans because they are both alive and both have a strong following among AIGA members given the influence that the Allgemeine Gewerbeschule Basel has had on American designers and design since Hofmann’s teaching stints in this country in the mid-1950s. Although both men are deserving, their selection seems to me to have opened a can of worms.

The previous four European recipients of the AIGA medal were in the distant past. But by honoring Hofmann and Weingart, the AIGA raises the question of who should be eligible for the medal. Should it be reserved for Americans or should it go to anyone in the world whose body of work exhibits a high level of quality? There is no reason why an American design organization has to focus only on American designers, but as soon as designers throughout the world are considered the sheer number of potential medalists explodes. And even more so if the medal is being given out posthumously. If it can go to Walter Landor nine years after his death, then why not give one to El Lissitzky or Piet Zwart or Peter Behrens? And so on.

I like the idea of the AIGA not being parochial and recognizing design excellence throughout the world, but at the same I am afraid that if the organization begins regularly honoring non-Americans, that any chance to rectify the oversights I pointed out in my previous blog post will become increasingly difficult. My preference would be to judiciously honor non-Americans rather than to exclude them entirely. The criteria I would use it that individuals should be chosen because they have had a significant impact on American graphic design—through the influence of their work, their teaching, their writing, their advocacy—or because they have had important American clients or operated studios in this country.

It is in that spirit that I offered a handful of non-American names on my previous post. For instance, Hermann Zapf and Adrian Frutiger because many of their typefaces have been staples of American graphic design since the mid-1950s and continue to be; Josef Müller-Brockmann because his books, especially the one on grids (1981), had a major impact on American graphic designers and design students from the early 1960s through the 1980s; Cassandre because he worked for a number of American clients; and Takenobu Igarashi because he operated a studio in this country for many years.  There are equally compelling reasons for the other names on the list.

Any discussion of Europeans receiving the AIGA medal needs to take into account the fact that many have been chosen after they moved to the United States. The list of émigré awardees is an impressive one: Henry Lewis Bullen (1934—Australia), Rudolph Ruzicka (1935—Bohemia [Czechoslovakia]), M.F. Agha (1957—Turkey), Herbert Bayer (1970—Austria), Will Burtin (1971—Germany), Henry Wolf (1976—Austria), Massimo and Lella Vignelli (1982—Italy), Herbert Matter (1983—Switzerland), Leo Lionni (1984—Italy/Holland), Alexey Brodovitch (1987—Russia), George Tscherny (1988—Hungary), Bea Feitler (1989–Brazil), Colin Forbes (1991—England), Ladislav Sutnar (1995—Czechoslovakia), Zuzana Licko (1997—Czechoslovakia), Rudy VanderLans (1997—Holland), Lucian Bernhard (1997—Germany), Tibor Kalman (1999—Hungary), Joseph Binder (2004—Austria), Steff Geissbuhler (2005—Switzerland), Pablo Ferro (2009—Cuba), Lucille Tenazas (2013—Philippines), and Bill Moggridge (2014—England).

Bruce Mau 2007 is Canadian