A Fascinating Paradox: EXPO Chicago Interview with “Up Is Down” curators Amy Beste and Corinne Granof

Each September, EXPO CHICAGO opens the fall art season at historic Navy Pier and presents artworks from 135 leading galleries representing 27 countries and 63 cities.  EXPO also offers the opportunity to introduce artists and arts professionals from around the world to Chicago’s art offerings.  As part of this year’s student guide to the fair EXPO sat down with curators Amy Beste and Corinne Granof to learn more about the exhibition Up is Down: Mid-century Experiments in Advertising and Film at the Goldsholl Studio.

EXPO CHICAGO: Morton and Millie Goldsholl attended Chicago’s School of Design (later the Institute of Design) founded by artist and designer László Moholy-Nagy. Moholy-Nagy’s teachings often incorporated Bauhaus philosophy that emphasized aesthetic experimentation, abstraction, and the idea that art can be an agent for social reform. How were Bauhaus principals reflected in the Goldsholl firm’s creative process and production?

CORINNE GRANOF: Morton and Millie Goldsholl were deeply inspired by their time at the School of Design, and especially by László Moholy-Nagy, in the late 1930s and early 1940s and applied approaches they learned at the School to their later commercial work. For example, Morton, Millie, and the firm’s associates played around with light in slides, photographs, films, but also in graphic work and package designs. Their personal experimentations with unconventional materials, especially light, were often repurposed and found their way into work Goldsholl Design Associates did for corporations. This is what makes their design and film work so innovative and original. The Goldsholls merged their interest in light and film, avant-garde and experimental art with graphic design, package design, corporate identity campaigns, and advertisements for television.

In their firm, Goldsholl Design Associates, Morton and Millie Goldsholl also fostered a collaborative work culture. A staff photograph of twelve associates from 1963 includes two women, Millie Goldsholl, who served as one of the firm’s principles, and Susan Jackson Keig, who was eventually promoted to Vice President. It also includes the Japanese American designer Fred Ota and African American designer Thomas Miller, who worked for the firm for 30 years. This level of diversity was exceptional for the era.

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EC: The title of the exhibition, Up is Down, refers to Millie Goldsholl’s award-winning short film dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It depicts the story of an unconventional young boy who is temporarily persuaded to accept others’ viewpoints as his own and presents themes of difference, social consciousness and the potential dangers of state and social institutions. Why did you decide to use this title for the exhibition and how does it speak to the lessons offered by the Goldsholl firm’s story?

CG: Up is Down was made as an educational film in 1969, the year following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, and promotes individuality and tolerance. Morton and Millie lived during a time of social and cultural transformation—from the Civil Rights movement, to the Vietnam War protests, to the proliferation of televisions in American homes—and their work is in dialogue with external events. Millie was especially interested and involved in socially progressive causes, and political activism infused her life and work. This is one theme in the exhibition and book, but the title also refers more generally to the Goldsholl Design Associates’ innovative approach to advertising, filmmaking, and design—turning conventions upside down.

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EC: This exhibition highlights Chicago’s central role in American design history. Despite Goldsholl Design Associates’ impressive contributions to the field, including several iconic corporate logos such as the recognizable Motorola “M” that has remained in use for over 60 years, the Goldsholl firm is not relatively known today. Why do you think that is and how may we become more aware of the firm’s influence on Chicago’s own history and the history of consumer culture?

AMY BESTE: Yes, this a fascinating paradox. As you note, Goldsholl Design Associates made a number of important and well-known designs. At the peak of the studio’s activity in the 1960s and 1970s, one could purchase its package designs in the grocery store, examine examples in design journals like Print, Industrial Design, or Art Direction, see its films at tradeshows, and catch its virtuosic television ads and show titles while watching the evening news. The firm’s designers were widely respected. When Morton Goldsholl, the firm’s head, retired in 1991, he had amassed over 400 awards from across the film and design industries

I think Goldsholl Design Associates’ location in Chicago defined the studio’s aesthetic and provided it with an important international platform, but it also circumscribed the studio’s legacy. As a small studio in the Midwest, Goldsholl Design Associates didn’t have access to the same resources or design community as its peers in New York or Los Angeles. Additionally, I think the kinds of materials the Goldsholl studio produced also played a role—while they were everywhere, they were also highly ephemeral. Many of the studio’s films, television ads, print pieces, and package designs were in circulation only briefly, unlike the work of their better-known designer counterparts like Saul Bass, who made titles for popular Hollywood films, or Charles and Ray Eames, who also produced furniture.

Chicago has a number of institutions that have tried to preserve this kind of ephemeral, material culture. These include the Chicago Design Archive, an online repository for the city’s consumer and graphic designs from the 1920s to now and the Chicago Film Archives, whose mission is to collect and preserve the kind of films and advertising the Goldsholl studio produced—films and TV ads which were seen by the larger culture as useful tools rather than fine works of art, and often set aside when their use was fulfilled.

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EC: Can you please describe the “designs-in-films” technique that the Goldsholl studio is known for and explain how it relates to mediums within visual culture?

AB: Goldsholl Design Associates was invested in experimentation, innovation, and collaboration and the studio’s film and television work stood out for its dazzling use of animation, montage, and light. In the 1950s, the firm applied constructivist principles of collage and assemblage Morton and Millie had learned at the School of Design to stop-motion animation. In the 1960s, the firm expanded these ideas to editing, building visual worlds and moods for viewers through inventive montage sequences.

Morton had been particularly influenced by the culture of light-play at the School of Design, and over the years, the firm produced a number of spectacular pieces that incorporated light effects. You can see this, for example, in a mid-1970s television ad the firm produced for 7Up, which uses a grid of dots to evoke the electric light bulbs of theater marquees and the effervescence of the drink itself.

Morton and Millie encouraged a culture of experimentation, and the firm’s designers employed numerous other avant-garde techniques to its productions and even developed new tools for sophisticated optical effects. In fact, firm designers patented a number of them, including the Modulens, an optical device that filters images into pixelated color fields. This device was used in some of the firm’s most famous ads in the 1970s, including for Revlon and Quasar Television.

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EC: Many of the artists / designers / filmmakers working for Goldsholl Design Associates in this period maintained an independent practice alongside their role in the firm. In what ways did their independent and commercial work inform one another?

AB: Over the years, Goldsholl Design Associates hired a number of artists and filmmakers who had already established or pursued independent careers outside of the firm. These include filmmakers like Wayne Boyer, Larry Janiak, Byron Grush, Paul Jessel, and Marie Cenkner. Morton and Millie encouraged a culture of experimentation and collaboration, which in turn fostered an atmosphere of innovation and inspiration. These artists applied many of the techniques they had developed in their own works to those at the firm—including hand-scratching and flash-frame montage—techniques which can be seen in Goldsholl Design productions like Kleenex-X-Periments (c. 1960) and Up is Down (1969). At the same time, many of the artists used the firm’s equipment for their own productions or pursued ideas they had begun to develop at the firm in different ways.

-Interview courtesy of Anja Xheka, author of the 2018 EXPO Student guide

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