The art of business, and the business of art

Photo by Ralph Stewart

Stretching the boundaries of art, Featherstone’s latest show features commercial design. “It’s an overlooked form of art,” said graphic designer Karen Huff. “But if you think about it, it’s everywhere you look.”

Everywhere indeed. From store signage, to packaging and shopping bags, to book and album covers, the work of graphic designers is so ubiquitous as to be virtually invisible. But, it’s a very specific art form that has to have both visual appeal as well as the ability to impart a message with as much immediate impact as possible.

Examples of the work of a number of local design firms can now be found decorating the walls of the Virginia Weston Besse gallery at Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs. The show, The Art of Graphic Design, hangs through May 7 and is well worth checking out.

The show’s many representations of marketing materials created for local clients gives a good overview of the media. The Vineyard design firms included in the show put together visual displays featuring logos for local businesses on stationary, brochures, packaging, etc. Many, if not all, of these images will be familiar to Islanders, but the show gives one the chance to appreciate the individualized nature of each design.

One thing that stands out is the artistic bent to much local graphic design work. If one compares the local logos to the examples of corporate logos found in the gallery’s back room, it’s easy to see that the creative spirit of the Island extends to its marketing.

The work of Tara Kenny of Illumination Design Group gives a good idea of the range of styles to be found on the Vineyard. She has contributed a lineup of displays for three of her clients that really show how the personalities of the individual businesses are represented in their signage and packaging. Ms. Kenny’s colorful polka dot logo for yogurt shop Tisberry is shown in between Offshore Ale Company’s packaging featuring intricate art work renderings, and the stylized winged pitchfork emblem of the Scottish Bakehouse, which reminds one of a striking family crest or official insignia.

Ms. Kenny quotes her former boss in Boston in describing the goal of graphic design: “The sign of a good designer is not being able to tell which designer did it. It’s about the project rather than the designer putting their stamp on it. The projects I’ve done that I’m the happiest with are the ones where I had a really good relationship and back and forth with the client.”

Before starting her business, Ms. Kenny worked as a graphic designer for The Martha’s Vineyard Times. “It was really great training ground,” she said. “It was a brilliant foundation as to how the Island works. Graphic design is really different on the Island.”

Ms. Huff, who curated the Featherstone show, talked about the challenges of commercial design. “It’s really highly creative,” she said. “It’s puzzle solving. Graphic art is a collaboration. It’s usually a team effort. If you’re a fine artist, it’s just you. With graphic arts it’s usually much more of a group effort and you have to please a client. You take all of these pieces and put them together in a way that’s not only pleasing but informative as well.”

Ms. Huff does the graphic design work for Featherstone. She has also designed and produced the Vineyard’s “Real Estate Guide” for the past 20 years, and she teaches computer classes at Featherstone. She got her start in the graphic arts field working for Tisbury Printer, “before there were computers,” when everything had to be done by hand.

“I have no fine arts background whatsoever,” Ms. Huff said. “My only contact with paint goes back to when I was a house painter way back when.” But she “fell in love with computers right away” is now an expert at software programs such as Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and InDesign, the modern tools of the graphic designer.

For the Featherstone show, Ms. Huff approached all of the design firms on the Island (although a couple were not able to participate) as well as individuals with specific specialities. A selection of Janet Holladay’s book cover designs are on display, as are album covers by Jules Worthington and poster art by John Holladay.

Kolodny Design Group’s display board features a number of the most iconic and familiar images to be found on the Island, including designs for The Black Dog, Espresso Love, Farm Neck, and the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.

“Carol Kolodny has been around for a very long time,” Ms. Huff said. “You’ll recognize every single logo. Carol Kolodny was doing graphic design on the Island before most of the other designers were even here.”

The Featherstone show aligns nicely with another marketing-based exhibit currently on display at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum where “The Art of Advertising” gives a charming glimpse at marketing materials from just about every decade of the last century. The museum show includes carved signs, old newspaper ads, and some very clever posters and brochures advertising the Vineyard itself. The exhibit, which runs through May 26, makes a great companion event to the Featherstone show.