African American designers’ contributions to Chicago’s design history are on display through March 3 at the Chicago Cultural Center. The exhibition is particularly interesting because it explores the confluence of design, capitalism and the discrimination faced by these artists. You can see African American Designers in Chicago: Art, Commerce and the Politics of Race through March 3. It’s part of Art Design Chicago, an initiative of the Terra Foundation for exploring Chicago’s art and design legacy.
The exhibit is made up of event posters and advertising, publications, product design and packaging, primarily representing the cultural and economic landscape of Chicago’s south side. A tabloid-size catalog tells the story of African American designers in Chicago, along with the politics of their careers, plus exhibit images and artist bios. Because these designers faced racism in every way—racist caricatures, residential segregation, professional discrimination and economic exploitation—in many cases, they created their own outlets for individual and group achievement.
The most colorful and striking items exhibited are event posters for the Negro Peoples Theatre, the South Side Center for the Performing Arts, for African bazaars and art fairs, and a Soldier Field concert celebrating “the supreme spectacle of a musical race.” Posters, photos and other design items are displayed around the walls of the gallery. Several wall-mounted exhibit cases show product design and packaging examples. The gallery floor is lined with exhibit cases showing publications such as Abbott’s Monthly, the Negro Digest, Ebony Magazine, Jet and the Defender as well as packaging and advertising for products such as hair care. A few items of furniture and consumer products are shown.
Although there are many examples of earlier work, African American designers in Chicago began to gain a strong footing after World War II. Aspiring designers attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Ray-Vogue School, and the Institute of Design founded by Bauhaus expats, and took classes at the South Side Community Art Center. When John H. Johnson founded the Johnson Publishing Company, magazines such as Jet and Ebony defined black style nationally and set the black political and cultural agenda for decades.
Designers like LeRoy Winbush did design work for Bronzeville businesses and created displays for the Savoy Ballroom and the Regal Theater. He also worked part-time for JPC while building his own design practice. Emmett McBain, another designer, combined his commitment to the Black Arts movement with work for mass consumer companies. He was art director for Playboy and then worked for J. Walter Thompson, where he led famous campaigns such as those for Lorillard Tobacco and McDonald’s, where Black Power motifs were used. Other highly trained African American designers found careers at design firm Morton Goldscholl Associates or at companies like Skidmore, Owings and Merrill or Sears Roebuck. It’s likely, however, that most of them found their careers stymied by color lines and discriminatory policies, spoken or unspoken.
As you can see from the overview photo, this is a bare-bones exhibit. It’s not in the impressive Sidney R. Yates Gallery, adjacent to the 4th floor north gallery, the site of important exhibits such as The Mecca Flat Blues and Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist. But the content of the African American design exhibit is rich and essential in spotlighting a significant example of Chicago’s creative history.
African American Designers in Chicago is on exhibit in the 4th floor north exhibit hall at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., through March 3. See the website for hours and other info. Admission is free.
Gallery photos by Nancy Bishop.