Archives preserves West Michigan's rich design heritage

The West Michigan Design Archives was formed by designers Barbara Loveland and Linda Powell, for anyone who appreciates good design. With work from companies like Herman Miller and French Paper, the archives aim to showcase the craft and history of design to a new generation of designers.
“It may be the water; it may be the trees. It may be the convergence of the two that led to outstanding graphic design work in West Michigan, the midst of the Midwest.” –West Michigan Design Archives

Friends and colleagues since their college days at Western Michigan University (WMU), Barbara Loveland and Linda Powell are back on the campus where they met, as volunteer collaborators on the West Michigan Design Archives housed at WMU’s Zhang Legacy Collections Center, Archives and Regional History.

As WMU students, their work under John Henderson won national awards. They cite Henderson as a key player in transforming WMU’s program into a Swiss-based graphic design program. The pair went on to practice as graphic design professionals for decades at Herman Miller, where they worked under acclaimed designer Steve Frykholm, and earned more accolades. Powell notes that she and Loveland worked at Herman Miller during the best of times.

“That was when it was still family-run,” she says. “We had great opportunities. We met the Eams, spent a day with George Nelson.”

Barbara Loveland and Linda Powell look at old theater posters printed on colored paper.

The two both concluded their careers as professors for Ferris State University, where they helped design its first, four-year, graphic design program.

“When I retired, I started going through my work and pitching it,” Powell says. “At that time, Barb and I were still in touch with John Henderson. The two of us went out to Kansas City where he was—he ran the creative development for all the artists working at Hallmark. He told us, ‘I’ve got all this stuff I’m cleaning out, all this stuff that we took awards for at Western. Why don’t you take it to the archives at Western?’ Well, I said to Barb, ‘I think this could be a bigger deal.’”

So, instead of throwing out their own collected works, they added them to Henderson’s, and went looking for more. Once they had amassed a collection, their first challenge was finding a space for its permanent storage. They considered simply photographing the pieces for a digital archive but decided they had to hold on to the actual, physical art. That’s when they found themselves back at WMU.

An old and historic hard-bound Herman Miller catalogue.

“We were thrilled when Zhang partnered with us. They’ve done a magnificent job of cataloguing everything so they can go right to it,” Loveland says. “It’s a true archives, climate controlled, protection from UV light. Hi-los go up and down rows to file and retrieve work. Most of ours is in flat files, in boxes.”

Notations on different sleeves for organizing the drawers in the archives.The West Michigan Design Archives employs no staff. Like Powell and Loveland, all work has been volunteered and all pieces donated. The pair express gratitude to Herman Miller for not only donating duplicate pieces from its archives, but also with providing instruction on how to set up the new archives. Others who have helped get the Archives off the ground include John Berry, Grand Valley State University; Sharon Carlson, Zhang Legacy Center; Ted Etheridge, Etheridge Group; Lois Maassen, Hedgehog Arts & Letters LLC; Gwen O’Brien, AIGA; Chuck Oleniczak, Central Michigan Paper; Sharon Oleniczak, Newell Brands Design Center; and David Rosen, Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have people who are willing to give their time to not only support the physical archives and the website but to advise us on what to do, what pieces to ask for, and what not to accept,” Powell says.

The archives at a glance

A quick, online look at the West Michigan Design Archives’ digitized collection reveals more than 400 pieces of artwork by 55 designers from 13 firms in 10 categories created for 31 clients—most notably Herman Miller, French Paper Company, Upjohn, Square One, PeopleDesign, WMU Design Research Center and Brunswick. The oldest piece, from 1946, is the Herman Miller logo. The collection also includes a rare, complete set of Herman Miller’s renowned Picnic Posters, which Powell notes could sell for as high as $17,000. While the preponderance of work was created before computers took over the design process, the archives do represent work through the 2010s.

An old Western Michigan student publication.

“We have quite a bit from French Paper; the mill was located in Michigan. Once, there was a paper mill in every little burg in Michigan. French is the only one left,” Powell adds. “They’ve been around 150 years down in Niles, Michigan, family owned, fifth generation. Because they had the foresight to enlist a graphic designer to develop a marketing plan for them, it very successfully targeted designers who were specifying papers.”

Requirements for entry into the archives specify that items were unusual for their time; they used unique materials or printing techniques; and they explored with print on paper. The Brunswick aeronautical ads from the ‘50s are among Powell’s and Loveland’s favorites.

“We both really love the series of ads from Brunswick. I always thought they made bowling alleys but these are from the division that designed for the rocket and missile division in the ‘50s, the Cold War era,” Powell says. “The thing about these ads for trade publications is the layout, a big illustration, headline, and three columns of justified type. The illustrations are so conceptual…it was so unusual for that period of time. We were amazed when we found them.”

A 1972 Herman Miller annual report.

Accessing the archives

Anyone anywhere can browse the West Michigan Design Archives online. In addition, some of the pieces, usually only those with a duplicate, have been displayed in galleries—for example, last fall during the Kalamazoo Art Hop.

“We’ll probably do it again this fall. We also hope to get something set up with the West Michigan AIGA group,” Powell says.
While art educators and design professionals may be most apt to visit the West Michigan Design Archives in person, it is open to the general public. Powell and Loveland recommend browsing the online archive beforehand and contacting the Zhang center to request pieces be pulled in advance of a visit. “They’ve done a magnificent job of cataloguing everything so they can go right to it,” Loveland says.

“If any group wants to visit, either Barb or I or a board member would be happy to be there to talk about the work and be willing to take their questions,” Powell adds. “We want to share this stuff, that’s one of our goals. We want people to see it and use it for studies, education, history, and exhibits.”

A Peace Corps poster.

The duo also plans on adding to the collection. Currently, they are in the midst of putting together a collection of Herman Miller Annual Reports. Now that the Archives is up and running, they hope they will get more inquiries from firms and designers looking to downsize their own personal collections so the duo will no longer have to put as much effort into tracking down new acquisitions.

“One of the submitters, when we asked, she was a little bit hesitant,” Powell says. “When I explained that the pieces are there to be preserved, will always be there, and that she wouldn’t have to store them anymore, she agreed. Think about us, at least contact us, submit work. We don’t want to lose it.”

“We have so much more work to collect,” Loveland adds. “What we have, it’s all terrific but we’re barely scratching the surface. We hope, as people begin looking at the website, they will begin to submit more work to us.”

As computers have become the graphic designer’s primary tool, the look, feel, and focus of design has shifted. A look back to the heritage that inspired the industry not only provides a historical perspective, but also inspires today’s designers to slow down, look beyond their screens, and explore processes and media that can enrich their work in ways that software cannot.

“It’s surprising, when you think of how rich our graphic design heritage is,” Loveland says. “When you look at some of this work, you think, ‘Wow this is good stuff!’ It makes you very proud to be a part of West Michigan.”

To donate graphic design works to the West Michigan Design Archive, please contact Linda Powell or Barbara Loveland directly.

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.

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