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Arts & Culture

San Diego's Mid-Century Graphic Designers

N.E.L. Hearing Test Brochure, Jim Sundell design, 1956 (ear by Barney Reid). Free hearing tests offered at the Del Mar fair were a good way for the Navy to collect scientific data.
Mingei International Museum
N.E.L. Hearing Test Brochure, Jim Sundell design, 1956 (ear by Barney Reid). Free hearing tests offered at the Del Mar fair were a good way for the Navy to collect scientific data.

People are always asking me: "How are the birth of baby Jesus and the U.S. Navy connected with mid-century graphic design in San Diego?"

Well, the answer is simple. Military and aerospace contractors like Convair were the largest employers in San Diego during World War II. Towards the end of the war, the Navy's small Radio and Sound Laboratory began to work with scientists from the University of California at Scripps Institution of Oceanography to research and develop electronic equipment and systems for the Navy and this new entity, called the Navy Electronics Laboratory (NEL), based in Point Loma. In 1945, educator and proponent of contemporary art, John Olsen, was in charge of visual development at NEL. He led a team of teachers, scientists, writers and artists responsible for illustrating and documenting the lab's projects. Their job was to make this technical information easy to understand through words and pictures. Just a few of the artists who worked at NEL included Harry Bertoia, Ethel Greene, Jim Boynton and Tom Gould. Gould studied at San Diego State College and worked at both NEL and Astro; he also designed appealing brochures for the San Diego Art Guild.

After the war, NEL continued to employ many of the best local artists of the 1950s and 1960s to illustrate and design the countless reports, technical manuals and other materials that the lab's scientific research generated. Like architecture, painting, and sculpture, typography and layout were also profoundly affected by modernism. Modern graphic design was an effective way to reinforce associations of scientific and technological advancement and became the formal vocabulary of the NEL staff designers. Seen by some of its practitioners as more than just a marketing decision or an aesthetic choice, modernism was also prevalent at Convair Astronautics, or Astro, as the employees called it, which became a division of General Dynamics in 1956. This preference is underscored by the company's choice of renowned modern architects Pereira and Luckman (who also designed the General Atomics plant and the iconic UCSD library) for the design of their Kearny Mesa plant in 1958.


Mid-century graphic design is an important element of Mingei International Museum's exhibition, "San Diego's Craft Revolution: From Post-War Modern to California Design." A special display is dedicated to posters, advertisements, exhibition announcements and invitations related the Allied Craftsmen of San Diego and the city's contemporary art scene. A collection of inventive, artist-made greeting cards (mostly Christmas cards) will also be included. These holiday cards were extremely popular with members of the Allied Craftsmen, regardless of their primary medium. Many members of San Diego's foremost contemporary craft group exchanged specially designed and printed cards every year. This graphic phenomenon was reported as "A Trend In Personal Greetings" in the San Diego Union in December of 1962.

Marg Loring, a potter and newspaper writer, was one of the group's founding members. She printed many of their early exhibition announcements using wood cuts. Phyllis Wallen became best known for her uniquely etched enamels of the 1960s, but was heavily involved with graphic design. "My best crafts have always been tied up with the holiday season," she told a reporter in 1954. "Each new process or technique which I have tried made its debut as a greeting card."

But some of the best graphic design done in San Diego during the 1950s and 1960s was done by three members of the Allied Craftsmen who worked at NEL.

Barney Reid became head of the graphic design section at NEL while exhibiting enamels, jewelry, ceramics and screen printed fabric with the Allied Craftsmen. Reid designed many of the Allied Craftsmen's invitations and announcements and had other graphic design clients, such as the Rancho La Puerta and Golden Door health spas. Having focused on lithography as a student, Reid worked primarily with intaglio printmaking after the late 1970s.

While studying art at Long Beach State College, Jim Sundell met John Olsen. The former NEL director was chairman of the art department at Long Beach State and recommended that Sundell apply for a job at NEL after college. Sundell and his family moved to Point Loma and he worked at NEL until his retirement. He joined the Allied Craftsmen in the mid-1950s and exhibited fabricated silver and ebony jewelry as a member. Sundell was also active in the San Diego Art Guild and exhibited paintings and sculpture with the group.


Bob Matheny was another Long Beach State art student who was friendly with Olsen and Sundell. He initially came to San Diego to work for art director Stan Hodge at Convair Astronautics in the late 1950s, but later worked with Reid and Sundell at NEL. Matheny also founded the art department at Southwestern College, ran the school's gallery program, and established its permanent collection of contemporary art in the early 1960s. A painter, sculptor and conceptual artist, Matheny exhibited hooked rugs as a member of the Allied Craftsmen, but he also had an abiding fascination with typography and small press printing. He made a series of sculptures based on type—freestanding letters or symbols (the ampersand, for instance) beautifully carved in wood or painted in bright colors—and his series of limited edition prints, called "Typographs," was exhibited at the Art Center in La Jolla and the nearby Nexus Gallery in 1965. Matheny also organized a regional group called the Patron's of the Private Press, who put together a show of international private press printing at what is now SDMA and exchanged elaborately crafted cards and announcements.

A functional art, like ceramics or jewelry, graphic design combined use with beauty. While local artists such as Matheny experimented with graphic design as a purely creative act, most graphic design was meant to serve a commercial purpose. But with the limitations of commerce and advertising (or holiday cards), there was also great creative potential. As stated in a catalogue for the 1959 exhibition of the Art Director's Club of San Diego at the La Jolla Art Center: "this conflicting mixture of the aesthetic and the a constant challenge to our ingenuity as artists. It is our responsibility as artists to bring advertising to the level we would like to see it."

Dave Hampton is a frequent contributor to Culture Lust. He is the curator of "San Diego's Craft Revolution: From Post-War Modern To California Design" at the Mingei Museum in Balboa Park.