Although graphic design is a younger artistic field than painting or sculpture, within the past decade, art museums have increasingly expanded their collections of design and devoted more resources to its study, preservation, and display. New Yorkers are lucky to have several solid options for viewing design at museums: the Museum of Modern Art, the School of Visual Arts, and the recently-reopened Cooper Hewitt all have established, growing collections. But there's one spectacular place to observe and study graphic design, often without a single other person around: the semi-secret Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography at Cooper Union.
Herb Lubalin was a pioneering graphic designer, a Cooper Union alumnus, and a native New Yorker. He's known for co-creating the Avant Garde Gothica font (most recently used in the True Detective credits), but two of his works in particular will be instantly recognizable to New Yorkers of a certain age: the logo for the original World Trade Center and the packaging for Dr. Brown's soda. Following his death in 1981, Lubalin's friends and colleagues began to organize a collection of his work. Eventually, those pieces were donated to the Cooper Union in 1985 and formed the core of the center, which is nestled inside the sleek Thom Mayne-designed building at 41 Cooper Square. To access it, you will need to schedule an appointment ahead of time by either phone or email, then go through building security and sign in at the front desk. No more than 18 people can comfortably fit inside the space at once. In other words: no tourists jostling for position, no long lines, no "minimum donations," and absolutely zero selfie sticks.
Alexander Tochilovsky is the Cooper Union alum who has the day-to-day task of maintaining and curating the center or, as he lovingly calls it, "the work." "His design work in many ways epitomizes what New York feels like and looks like," Tochilovsky says of Lubalin, whom he credits for inspiring his own interest in graphic design. Other designers have been donating their work over the years, and the center's estimates that that it now has about 7,000 pieces. That includes everything from paperback books (like Andre Gide's Lafcadio's Adventures, with cover art by Edward Gorey) to LP sleeves to newspaper advertisements to comic books (Tochilovsky would really like to get more comic books) to retro airline posters.
The collection's eclectic nature has to do with the way it acquires pieces: most came in fits and starts as different artists, designers, and collectors simply donated whatever they had in their studio or piled up in their attic. Tochilovsky also buys some pieces himself—"Whenever I see someone selling vinyl records, I just buy whatever's interesting for a few dollars," he explains—and checks sites like eBay for specific items the collection is missing or would love to have. The majority of the works are in English, although there are an increasing number of selections in French, Czech, German, Dutch, and Russian. Tochilovsky, whose family emigrated to New York from Russia when he was a child, has a particular interest in Soviet kitsch.
When a visitor or group is coming to the center, Tochilovsky will pull pieces for display based on what they are interested in. And unlike a visit to a traditional museum, here, you're allowed to touch and hold things, which gives a deeper feeling of intimacy. (He's also good at guessing: although I didn't ask or anything specific, he showed me '70s sex and art magazines run by feminists, which I found pretty damn interesting.)
Another way it differs from a traditional art museum: there's time to simply gawk at one piece or flip obsessively through one magazine. The center doesn't necessarily keep detailed records about each item, but Tochilovsky is familiar enough with the collection that he can speak extemporaneously about most pieces on offer—who donated it, perhaps, or the backstory behind its provenance. It's this additional layer, this personal touch, that makes the Lubalin Center such a New York rarity—and such a gift.
"Graphic design is by nature ephemeral," says Tochilovsky. "It's not an obvious thing to try to preserve it. But preserving graphic design means preserving culture."
—Lilit Marcus is a writer in Brooklyn (of course) whose work has appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, The Guardian, Cosmopolitan, and The Atlantic. Her sister says she dresses like a librarian. Follow her on Twitter @lilitmarcus.
· The Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography [Official]
· The Herb Lubalin Study Center [Instagram]
· In Photos, a Tour of Brooklyn's Best Vintage Typography [Curbed]