In 1953, as a senior at the Illinois Institute of Technology, a young John Massey offered to volunteer at the International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado. Born in 1931, he had a traditional artistic background and a desire to become a cartoonist. The annual conference in Colorado was an extraordinary convening of top designers, artists, and leaders in business, gathering to learn about and discuss modern aesthetics and the integration of design and commerce. Massey’s participation in the conference introduced him for the first time to modern design, specifically the International Style work of Swiss designers Armin Hoffmann and Josef Müller-Brockmann. This experience would set the foundation for the course of his entire career.
The design conference was founded in 1951 by Walter Paepcke, a Chicago-based industrialist. Paepcke ran the Container Corporation of America, a powerhouse paper and cardboard container company, and simultaneously pursued a keen interest in art and design, supporting their incorporation into advertising. Paepcke became well known for employing top designers and artists to create his advertising campaigns; he believed that advertising could do double duty, promoting products while also educating society in the humanities and modern aesthetics by utilizing contemporary art and design.
Massey joined the Container Corporation’s art team in 1957, and eventually became the Director of Advertising and Public Relations. Prior to working for CCA, Massey had led his own design studio; once he became Director, his studio was integrated into CCA’s art department. The CCA formed a new creative branch around Massey’s studio, a unique move for a large corporation, and it allowed Massey to explore new thoughts and directions for his art and for the advertising program of CCA. Through his own efforts and Paepcke’s encouragement, Massey produced a humanistic and deeply considered approach to his minimal aesthetic.
The twelve posters on view in the new installation at the Art Institute of Chicago together form a calendar that would have been sent to clients from Cartón de Venezuela, a subsidiary of the CCA. Completed in 1964, they are a great example of Massey’s mid-career style; his sharp reduction of elements to the barest of details blends seamlessly with an overall view that is both playful and rooted in nature.
Each poster is an abstracted depiction of CCA’s products–paper, cardboard boxes, and cardboard tubes. The posters consist of simple, abstract designs outlined in white and centered on a background of a single color; the design assumes the majority of the poster page, and is anchored at the top by a line of small type signifying the month and its days, and at the bottom left by a small Cartón de Venezuela logo.
The formal arrangement of the poster allows Massey’s designs to dominate, boldly or quietly, depending on the colors he selected to represent the months. Likewise, his choice to pair a month with box, tube, or paper seem to signify his interpretation of the month, and the shape the object takes appears to dictate the month’s role in the four seasons. The pristinely conserved screenprints sparkle along the wall, and a stroll down the hallway becomes a fun exercise in analyzing Massey’s interpretations. For example, a celebratory structure of square tubes and triangles, set in a crisp red and blue, herald the new year that begins in January. April is represented by an amoebic ribbon of paper in earthy sienna and orange, suggesting the growth of spring.
The dancing paper of April becomes six still, vertically stacked planes of paper, outlined in white against a royal purple, for June. In November, these six stacks become three, and the rich purple of summer is replaced by a dry brown, indicating the onset of winter.
In a clever call to the beginning of the year, December is represented by another amoebic shape, this one more celebratory and free-form than its April counterpart, in an eye-popping red and green.
In these and the additional eight posters, Massey deftly integrates abstract design and nature, creating an inviting and engaging approach to modern advertisement and design.
Cartón de Venezuela is open at the Art Institute of Chicago until March 5th during museum hours. Tickets to the museum start at $29 for nonmembers. Admission is free for members. For more info on the exhibit and to purchase tickets, visit the Art Institute’s website.