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Design mavens preserve West Michigan’s rich history

West Michigan Graphic Design Archives to host work from pre-computer era.

March 31, 2017
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West Michigan Graphic Design Archives
Linda Powell, left, and Barbara Loveland are curating a collection of West Michigan’s graphic design, paper manufacturing and printing legacy. Photo by Johnny Quirin

Graphic designers Linda Powell and Barbara Loveland know the stories behind some of the greatest graphic design pieces to come out of West Michigan, and they want to make sure those stories are preserved for future generations.

The pair, who had near parallel careers as graphic designers at Herman Miller during the 1970s and ’80s and as professors at Ferris State University during the 1990s, is in the process of archiving over 400 design works as part of the West Michigan Graphic Design Archives.

They each were recently awarded the Fellow Award from AIGA West Michigan.

The award is the chapter’s highest accolade recognizing excellence in design and dedication to the design community. They are two of only four award recipients.

Powell and Loveland both graduated from Western Michigan University in the 1970s, with Powell a few years ahead of Loveland.

Powell and Loveland said it was an exciting time to be a part of WMU’s graphic design program, because Jon Henderson was overhauling the program.

“He made you work yourself to death, but I loved it,” Powell said.

“That was the only program where students would be there 24/7 working on projects,” Loveland added.

Following their respective graduations, Powell and Loveland took jobs at WMU’s Design Research Center within the Department of Art, where they got to know each other.

After doing a handful of freelance projects for Herman Miller, Powell eventually was offered a job with the office furniture designer, working with renowned designer Steve Frykholm, who was in charge of the department at that time.

Loveland joined Herman Miller shortly after Powell.

The company already had gained a reputation as a leader in design and continued that legacy into the next decades.

Powell and Loveland said they were always “pushing the limits” while they were at Herman Miller, and the company encouraged “trailblazing” work.

“The late ’70s and ’80s was the heyday there,” Loveland said.

The pair also was making history — as some of the first women hired in these roles in the company and the country.

Powell and Loveland said they had the opportunity to participate in some exciting work during their tenures at Herman Miller, including a total redo of the literature in the early ’80s for seating and systems, under Frykholm’s creative direction.

Loveland said the project included a lot of photography that was used in brochures, planning materials and catalogues.

“Pretty much the whole campaign for the product line,” she said, adding, “That was before computers. You had to hand air brush everything.”

Though she loved her job and the creative opportunities she was receiving at Herman Miller, Loveland said she couldn’t imagine only having worked one place her entire career, so when an opportunity came in 1989 to join Ferris State University, she took it.

Loveland was hired to help develop FSU’s four-year graphic design program.

She said the school already had an impressive two-year program, and she was eager to help develop the bachelor’s degree offering.

In her new role, Loveland worked with junior and senior graphic design students, and she was given the support to develop the program in whatever way she thought best.

“My job was to prepare those students to work,” Loveland said. “I felt I had a good idea, since I’d been in the industry and in an educational institution prior to that.

“I was pretty tough. I don’t think I gave any A’s the first couple of years. Those students were freaking out; they were used to getting good grades.”

However, she said the students were doing great work, even receiving ADDYs for their projects.

Happy with the program she was creating and the work from her students, Loveland decided to continue at FSU.

In 1991, Powell joined her, taking a position as an associate professor, also working with juniors and seniors in the program.

“The program was growing, and I thought, with two of us, maybe I can add to that,” she said.

While there, Loveland initiated the FSU Design Project Center.

“When Linda came, I felt comfortable starting a design center there and working with clients,” Loveland said.

Some of the clients included the Riverbank Run, Student Advancement Foundation, Children’s Assessment Center and the Marigold Lodge, as well as some projects with FSU.

“We taught the students to be detail-oriented, those small things that make the difference,” Loveland said. “There had to be a reason. They couldn’t use a color just because they liked it.”

The pair said it’s been rewarding to see the students get jobs at companies all over West Michigan and across the country.

One of the biggest changes of graphic design during their careers has been the takeover of computers.

While the design principles remain the same, Loveland and Powell said the tools are very different now.

In an effort to preserve the past, Powell and Loveland have taken on a new project; they are curating the West Michigan Graphic Design Archives, a collection of West Michigan’s graphic design, paper manufacturing and printing legacy.

The collection is being housed in the Zhang Legacy Collections Center at WMU.

The project began when Henderson, who had moved on from his role at WMU to serve as the director of professional development for the creative department at Hallmark, contacted them and said, “I’ve got stuff from Western I need to get rid of.”

Powell and Loveland took the items and began thinking about how they might incorporate other work from the region. They said their goal has been to preserve distinguished work from pre-1990, or the pre-computer era.

“We can talk about all that stuff. We know about all of it,” Powell said. “We are giving it to them with all of the information, who did it, who designed it, when it was done, who printed it, what awards it took.”

The collection consists of work from influential West Michigan industries, such as Herman Miller, Upjohn Company, Brunswick, French Paper Company, WMU and other area institutions.

Powell and Loveland said this project really is the culmination of their careers, where everything is coming together from their pasts.

“I think it’s important to understand the design legacy and to see its high points and its low points, to understand what was happening in society and business and to see those trends come and go, because they do,” Loveland said.

“Also, from a designer’s point of view, when you do things on the computer, you see them entirely differently. You don’t understand how the ink goes down on the paper, where as when we used to do those mechanicals, each layer of that mechanical was a color. Understanding that gives you an appreciation for how something is printed. … We like that understanding of what is underneath it.”

Loveland said she wants to preserve these items so people can look back.

“I think as we get older, we have a greater appreciation of history.”

They also hope the archive might inspire another generation of graphic designers in West Michigan.

“We see elementary kids coming in and getting excited and thinking about graphic design, opening their eyes to a profession where they can make a living,” Loveland said.

Powell and Loveland hope as more people become aware of the archives, more items will be submitted.

Visit the West Michigan Graphic Design Archives at graphicdesignarchives.org. A database of archived items will be added later this year.

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