‘Abacus’: textile, designed by Paul Rand, manufactured by L. Anton Maix, Inc., linen Technique: screen printed on plain weave, ca. 1946. Retrieved from The Cooper–Hewitt, National Design Museum.

The Cooper–Hewitt, National Design Museum: Textile, designed by Paul Rand, manufactured by L. Anton Maix, Inc., linen, screen printed on plain weave, ca. 1946 . Museum purchase through gift of Mrs. William Goulding. Accession Number: 2003-7-1. Object ID: 18697983. Used with permissions (for more info see Terms of use).

The Art Institute of Chicago has a black & white version of the same design, dated from 1951 (Gift of Mrs. Donald Grauer, 1992.1214). Paul Rand (1914-1996) was an American graphic designer famously known for the identities he created for several major companies such as Enron, IBM, UPS, ABC, etc. (see StockLogos for more examples). His Abacus was featured a few days ago on Object of the Day, the National Design Museum’s blog:

Among the most influential books in the history of American graphic design is Paul Rand’s Thoughts on Design, published in 1947. Covering the jacket of this ground-breaking manifesto of modernist theory and practice is a series of oblong dots arranged in uneven rows, rendered in translucent shades of gray. The image is based on a photogram, made by exposing a wood-and-wire abacus to a sheet of photographic paper. At once abstract and recognizable, the photogram is a direct imprint of a physical object.

Rand used his photogram as the basis of a pattern design as well as for the cover of his famous book. Working with the progressive manufacturer, L. Anton Maix in New York City, he created Abacus around 1946. The play between dark and light, foreground and background, transparency and opacity, endows this simple printed textile with movement and depth, while the pattern’s ordered columns gracefully follow the folds of the fabric.[…]

Abacus and other progressive textiles appeared in MoMA’s 1951 exhibition, Good Design, which celebrated high-quality products in current production. The catalog included retail prices of the products on view—Abacus sold for $6.75 per yard, a cost in line with other textiles in the exhibition, which ranged from around $3 to $20 a yard. (read more: “Abacus” by Ellen Lupton, November 26, 2012)

Below is a reproduction of Rand’s book Thoughts on Design. Used copies are still available online, but they are a bit pricey (usually above $100USD). To learn more about this book, visit Paul-Rand.com which is an interesting site by itself, with plenty of resources about Paul Rand (the site has a nice layout build using Zurb’s Foundation framework).

Cover design fro Paul Rand’s ‘Thoughts on Design’ (Wittenborn & Company, 1947) featuring the ’Abacus‘ pattern.

In his small essay “Design and the Play Instinct”, Paul Rand offers some thoughts on the photogram process:

The idea of the photogram or cameraless photography goes back as far as the 19th century with Fox Talbot’s photogenic drawings. In our time the pioneers of photography without use of a camera were Christian Schad, Man Ray, Moholy Nagy, and Kurt Schwitters. Among the first to apply this technique in advertising was the constructivist El Lissitzky. Later, Picasso experimented with the photogram. In advertising, the photogram has yet to be fully exploited.

Although the effectiveness of the photogram depends chiefly on straight-forward mechanical methods (light on sensitized paper), it offers the designer ample opportunity for aesthetic, manual control. In a sense, it is not a picture of the object but the object itself; and, as in stroboscopic photography, it makes picturization of continuous movement possible as in this photogram of an abacus, by the author. Although some of its effects may be approximated with pen, brush, or scissors, he quality inherent in the subtle light modulations can be achieved, perhaps, only by means of the photogram. (republished in Education of Vision, edited by Gyorgy Kepes, New York: George Braziller, 1965, p. 172; PDF)

Finally, a few words about the Cooper-Hewitt’s blog, Object of the Day, which was launch on October 1st, 2012:

Discover a different object from the Museum’s collection every day of the week! Museum curators, conservators, and educators, as well as design enthusiasts like our teen Design Scholars, docents, and Master’s students, are sharing their favorite objects from Cooper-Hewitt’s incredible collection. Many of these objects will be featured in the expanded collection galleries when Cooper-Hewitt reopens in 2014. Until then, “Object of the Day” is your uniquely-curated corner of the Museum!

One can subscribe to Object of the Day through its RSS feed or, alternatively, monitor notifications for new entries over at Twitter and Facebook. It’s online collection is going through an in-depth overhaul and is currently in “alpha release”. The new design ―which I think is both visually appealing and convenient― is the product of the Digital & Emerging Media department at Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City. One can keep track of their innovative project through their blog at Cooper-Hewitt labs. See for example “Getting lost in the collection (alpha)” (October 2, 2012) for a detailed tour of The Cooper–Hewitt eMuseum’s new design.


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