In A Digital World, RIT Proves The Artifact Remains Relevant

When everyone seemed to jump on the digital bandwagon, R. Roger Remington, RIT’s Vignelli distinguished professor of design, went the other way.

Courtesy Eye On Design

When the invitation came in the dead of winter to speak in the spring at the Vignelli Center for Design Studies, my mind switched into overdrive. There, in upstate New York, at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), sprawling above the wetlands of Lake Ontario and the Genesee River, I would be meeting an academic with a vision, R. Roger Remington. The Vignelli Distinguished Professor of Design had the prescience and patience to acquire Lella and Massimo Vignelli’s extensive and irreplaceable archive (and build a modern box that contains the collection, plus houses the instruction that it informs and enlivens). Three decades prior to this monumental undertaking, Remington had been advocating the power of the artifact, be it poster or sketchbook, even as our world was turning away from paper. While everyone seemed to jump on the digital bandwagon, he went the other way. Remington provided students, teachers, and researchers with historical documents they could observe and handle.

Since 1984, Remington has been enriching RIT’s design instruction by acquiring significant graphic design work dating to the beginnings of Modernism. The growing collection includes treasures like Saul Bass’s powerful movie posters and the works of graphic design luminaries Herbert Bayer, Lester Beall, and Elaine Lustig Cohen, among others, which are assembled and preserved in the school’s Cary Graphic Arts Collection. It was Remington’s reputation as a caretaker of groundbreaking design expressions and his ongoing relationship with the Vignellis that landed the pair’s lifetime of expression at RIT. Their furniture and memorabilia—the Handkerchief chair, smaller-scale products like Heller mugs, books like Knoll Design, and elegant tableware for every occasion—all live up to the Vignelli credo of Modernism: “Be rigorous, never arbitrary.”

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RIT students also find invention, advocacy, and knowledge in the Cary Collection that span centuries of human creativity. They can put side by side the earliest books that appeared as cuneiform tablets ca. 2030 BC, the Biblia Latina printed in the 1450s, which marked the invention of the movable-metal-type press, and ads from the 1775 Massachusetts Spy whose head- line declared “Americans! Liberty or Death! Join or Die!” during the American Revolution. All of these—rich physical recordings of human expression— communicate evolving technologies, designs, and linguistic styles.

I was thrilled to run my fingers over the creamy smoothness of paper made entirely of cotton or linen rags before printing was industrialized. Then I came up close and personal with William Morris, one of my design heroes. I lifted the heavy cast-iron handle of the press he used to print his handmade Kelmscott Press books, issued in 1890s England, which reintroduced medieval and early Renaissance aesthetics to a rapidly industrializing world. The books’ graphics, paper, and bindings showed the kind of design sophistication that got lost in the rush to mechanize. With my hand on this functioning press, I felt, for a brief moment, connected to Morris and his arts and crafts publishing enterprise. And I was grateful to the folks at RIT for their foresight in encouraging us to touch the past so that we may learn more about what shaped our present and go bravely into the future.

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