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New York City’s iconic subway signs celebrated in a new, site-specific exhibit

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The MTA and MoMA collaborated on an installation celebrating the role graphic design plays in getting around New York City

Photographs by Patrick Cashin/MTA

The now-iconic graphics found throughout the New York City subway system—the colorful lettered and numbered line markers, and signs rendered in white-on-black Helvetica—have been celebrated in books, on posters, and can even be found on shower curtains and other tchotchkes.

And as of this week, those graphics are also the subject of a new exhibition in a very fitting location: “The Subway: Design for a Modern Icon” has been installed at the Fifth Avenue-53rd Street station, replacing an older exhibit of Midtown cultural institutions that had been in place since 2000. The underground exhibit is a collaboration between the MTA’s Arts & Design program, and the Museum of Modern Art, whose newly renovated HQ is located just outside of that subway stop.

The MTA and MoMA’s history of working together goes back to the 1960s, and may in fact be the reason for the transit system’s iconic signage. In 1966, a MoMA curator and graphic design aficionado, Mildred Constantine, introduced then-New York City Transit Authority head Daniel T. Scannell to designers Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda, partners at the design firm Unimark.

They were subsequently hired to overhaul the visual identity of the subway—which at the time was cluttered and chaotic, a consequence of unifying three separate systems (IRT, IND, and BMT)—and in 1970, produced The New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual, which became the bible for graphic design within the system.

The exhibit at the 53rd Street station focuses on this history and more, with over 70 panels (on both platforms) that showcase Vignelli and Noorda’s minimalist and elegant work. MoMA curators Juliet Kinchin and Andrew Gardner, along with the museum’s graphic design team, worked with Sandra Bloodworth, the director of MTA Arts & Design, to create the displays, which feature pages from the NYCTYA standards manual, along with supergraphics-like sections of the team’s famous subway diagram (an updated version from 2008, rather than the cult-favorite 1972 version).

“It’s become so much a part of New York’s identity,” Kinchin says of Vignelli and Noorda’s work. “It’s just brilliant design, [and] like all really good design it speaks a language [that’s] accessible to anyone.”

There’s another MoMA/MTA connection, too: Vignelli and Noorda’s work for the NYCTA eventually became a part of the museum’s collection, elevating something quotidian—the signs you see every day on the subway—to the level of art. “If you’re traveling New York City transit, you’re actually experiencing the collection in any part of the system,” Bloodworth says.

And while the exhibit will give frustrated straphangers something to focus on while they’re waiting for an E train, the team behind it hopes that people will come away with a new appreciation for the impact design has in their everyday lives.

“Good design makes a difference,” Bloodworth says. “Good design and art have the power to create change, and that system created change—it evolved over many years, it’s still evolving today—but that is something to celebrate. It’s nice sometimes to celebrate the things that work.”