Chicago Design Through the Decades

Friday, November 18 – December 30: 7:30 & 8:00 p.m.

Dedicated to celebrating the life of Wayne Stuetzer (1938–2020)—a treasured colleague and a Founder and Director of the Chicago Design Archive.

The Chicago Design Through the Decades project is a swift, exciting journey through the history of Chicago design spanning the last one hundred years (1920s–2020s). The project is based on the vast collection of the Chicago Design Archive (CDA), a permanent online record of Chicago design, currently holding over 3200 examples of work by over 1100 Chicago designers, including posters, books, and other publications, from typography specimens to identity systems.

Investigating a human-centered approach and following engaging characters and textual tidbits from archived design works, the journey begins in the 1920s with the era’s painterly and illustrative techniques. Forms then evolve under the modes of photography, minimalism, futurism, three-dimensionality, and postmodernism throughout the 1930s–2010s. Ultimately, the journey ends in the 2020s with digital portraits produced by using neural networks, a machine learning (ML) approach that formed the foundation of much of modern artificial intelligence (AI)—technologies becoming increasingly prevalent in contemporary art. This part is a tribute to Chicago as an alma mater of neural networks, where in 1943, Warren McCulloch, a neurophysiologist at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), and logician Walter Pitts from the University of Chicago, proposed the first mathematical model of a neural network.

Each ‘design decade’ emphasizes specific understandings and methods. The underlying research made it possible to apprise how particular characteristics evolved over time in the presence of social, cultural, political, economic, and environmental contexts. Decades presents an opportunity to review the development of Chicago design history as a series of chronological stages and connects them into a cohesive visualization.

At once nostalgic and whimsical, the overall journey abounds with both humorous and sobering moments. It harnesses immersive technology to focus public attention on the complexity, historical context, critique, and interpretation of archival materials. The breadth of creative works by Chicago designers shown in the time-lapse visualization illustrates the perpetual advancement of design, a field that continually expands, allowing members of the public to immerse themselves in design history. Following seasons of forced social isolation, this outdoor public projection celebrates the resurgence of communal gathering experiencing art together, sharing impressions and collaborative success in the streets of Chicago.

For the team, the project opened new avenues for collaboration between design, science and digital humanities to elevate the appreciation of Chicago design history, and to contribute to the recognition of Chicago as an international modern design center through their use of innovative technologies.