A witty pun for a title doesn’t guarantee success. But it also doesn’t hurt. Curators often spend inordinate amounts of time putting into words phrases that package the essence of even the most complex show to roll off the tongue easily.
“Kalamazoo … and how it grew!” was organized by the US Information Service, the CIA’s less intimidating cousin and America’s public relations outfit for propaganda operations overseas, tasked with building trust in Western capitalism. The USIA had a penchant for hiring innovative designers to sell their vision through exhibitions. Kalamazoo—its whimsical name was the butt of the joke in limerick contests among visitors—was a stand in for a sanitized version of the average Midwestern town and lifestyle in the 50s. The show focused on documentary photography to capture local industry from Upjohn’s pharmaceuticals to the Gibson guitar factory and portraits of residents. Graphic designer Will Bürtin was a native of Cologne. He had dropped the umlaut after fleeing the Nazis and had become one of the brains behind corporate identity designs in the US with a rolodex that included companies like Upjohn, IBM, and Union Carbide.
For the installation at the Amerika Haus in West Berlin, Burtin devised a simple trick to gently lead visitors from the upper floor entrance down to the main exhibition hall: A meandering aluminum ribbon representing a scroll of paper from the city’s largest employer, a paper manufacturer, became a visual guide rail. Burtin’s earlier graphics for gunner’s manuals and magazines had followed congenial sleights of hand to move the eye orderly along dotted lines and across two-dimensional spreads. Throughout his career, his work bridged the gap between the burgeoning field of info graphics and immersive spatial experiences in large-scale installations of a pulsating red blood cell, a flickering brain, and a Uranium-92 atom, the latter part of the “atoms for peace” ad campaigns of the early 60s. Rather than being static decoration, his electrified walk-in models took visitors on a journey to reveal the inner function and scientific principles behind the exhibit.
Shows I Wish I Had Seen
Kalamazoo … And How It Grew!
Amerika Haus, West Berlin
curated by Jack Masey, USIA
exhibition design by Will Burtin