Muriel Cooper, ‘Messages and Means’ at Columbia University

Muriel Cooper at work (video still) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

By Muriel Cooper‘s hand, a charismatic, digitally transmuted Bauhaus aesthetic came to grace the covers of some of the 20th century’s most influential scholarly books, on subjects ranging from design and architecture to computer science and sociology. Best known for her long tenure at MIT Press, Cooper is the subject of Messages and Means, an exhibition at Columbia University that places her influential design contributions to the press within the broader context of her life’s work. This includes her Fulbright sojourn to Milan in 1958, where she studied exhibition design (photographs of hers from this period are exhibited), process sketches for the iconic seven-bar colophon she designed for MIT Press (a highly stylized ‘MITP’), and videos depicting the computer-assisted techniques she pioneered later in her career at the MIT Media Lab, where she co-founded the Visible Language Workshop (VLW).

Muriel Cooper, Messages and Means course poster for Ron MacNeil (c. 1974)

Perhaps the most influential book that Cooper designed is Learning from Las Vegas (1977), the important work of architectural theory by Robert Venturi, Steven Izenour, and Denise Scott Brown. At Columbia, this text is one of several placed for visitors’ perusal on a small platform that protrudes from one side of the vertical displays that line the room, loaded with book covers, photographs, posters, and other ephemera. The books benefit from this treatment, but the visual draw remains the covers and posters that dominate the display walls, just as they did Cooper’s career — she designed hundreds of them.

Muriel Cooper died in 1994, her innovative embrace of early design software adding to her legacy of near-polymathic versatility. In the rear of the gallery, two monitors play video recordings demonstrating her computer-assisted design approach, the blinking cursors, scanning displays, and saturated color marking the footage as an artifact of a pioneering culture. (The video for 1994’s “Information Landscapes,” made by Cooper at VLW and delivered at an early TED conference, is also available online.) Those computer tools, though rudimentary, produced designs as compelling and forward thinking as any available today, especially when it came to Cooper’s visionary approach to text. Clean sans-serif fonts layered, replicated, and recombined in an assertive style augmented by the programmatic play of images, shapes, forms, and color — as in a retina-bending pink spiral pattern set against an effervescent red.

The sedimentary accumulation of art movements and sensibilities often consigns design to the dustbin of aesthetic history, but here Cooper’s achievements are made as fresh and relevant as they were a half-century ago, and as they will surely remain more than a half-century hence.

Installation view, ‘Messages and Means’
Muriel Cooper, book covers for MIT Press (various dates)
Muriel Cooper, ‘Teaching Children Thinking’ lecture poster and MIT Press book covers

Messages and Means continues at the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery (Buell Hall, Columbia University, Morningside Heights, Manhattan) through April 17.

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