War, lust, type! How Paula Scher's typographic affair with The Public Theater redefined our culture
Paula Scher's groundbreaking identity and graphic campaign for New York's Public Theater set a new bar for typography in the 90s.
"Using unorthodox spacing, mixing font colors and weights, and employing uncommon and often historic typefaces, Scher's text-heavy poster presents a large amount of information in a dynamic and expressive way" notes MoMA.
"Fusing highbrow and lowbrow, this eclectic and irreverent approach signals Paula Scher's affiliation with the New Wave graphic designers of the 1980s and 1990s, who rejected modernism's neat grid and cool effect. Scher's identity for the Public Theater places emphasis on the word 'public' to position the institution as an affordable and accessible venue for all."
It all started back in 1994, a year when Pentagram's partner Paula Scher designed her very fist distinctive posters for New York's annual Shakespeare in the Park events by The Public Theatre. "The Public Theatre identity is based on being extremely loud and visible and urban" told Scher in an interview with Hillman Curtis of her accomplishment to create "the first American Shakespeare poster ever."
Pentagram X Public Theater creative synergy would eventually influence much of the graphic design created for theatrical promotion and for cultural institutions in general. "The original identity responded to The Public's mission to provide accessible and innovative performances, creating a graphic language that reflects street typography in its extremely active, unconventional and almost graffiti-like juxtaposition" notes Pentagram.
"The 1995 posters Pentagram designed for The Public Theater’s production of Savion Glover’s Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk featured the wood typefaces used throughout The Public's identity. The play's title and theater logos surrounded the tap artist in a typographical be-bop, like urban noise. After this campaign, The Public’s typographic style popped up everywhere, from magazine layouts to advertising for other shows. In fact, the whole style of theater advertising changed and everything began to be displayed in blocky wood type in all caps. The Public's campaigns have had to continuously change to stay fresh in the city's highly competitive theatrical market."
"Individually the posters tend to reflect what is going on culturally at the time, for example posters for the 1995 performances of 'The Tempest' and 'Troilus and Cressida' carried the political and promotional message 'Free Will' that was not only an advertisement for the free performances, but also a rallying cry to arts supporters to exercise their public influence as that year a conservative Republican Congress was threatening federal funding of the arts."
"The 1996 poster for the productions of 'Henry V' and 'Timon of Athens' afforded Pentagram some of the most playful typography of the series, combining handwriting with wood type. The typography of the 1998 poster emphasized the melodrama of the two plays featured, Shakespeare's 'Cymbeline' and Thornton Wilder's 'Skin of Our Teeth'. While winking at news headlines during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the posters for 'The Taming of the Shrew' and 'Tartuffe' singled out the words 'lust,' 'shrew' and 'tart' in a degraded fluorescent red.... In 2003, after the invasion of Iraq, a poster for 'Henry V' featured a quote from the play ('We doubt not of a fair and lucky war…')."
Eventually in 2005, the year which marked the Public's fiftieth anniversary, a rebranding happened. The Public Theater's identity was redrawn using the font Akzidenz Grotesk. By 2008, Pentagram updated the identity and this time the letterforms have been redrawn using the Hoefler & Frere-Jones font Knockout.
"The new, more refined system retained the active nature of the original but provides more structure, while the change from a vertical to horizontal organization has the effect of making the logo more architectural" notes the agency.
Pentagram's new visual language for the Public Theater was first seen in the 2008 Shakespeare in the Park posters which utilize the strict 90° angles of a De Stijl-inspired grid. With the bold Victorian woodblock type retained, the space is organized by angled printers rules, "a distinctive throwback that adds structure while it references woodblock type."
"I operate really strongly on my instincts" said Scher of the way she creates magic.
"If I don't get it on the first crack, I get it on the second. And if I don't get it in a second, I almost never get it. Because it's been a very intuitive process for me: I've never been a refiner; my best work has been big bold strokes that came very quickly."
A bold, inspirational, overdose of type on stage follows in the gallery.