The Columbia Museum of Art is currently hosting an exhibition of classic height-of-hippiedom posters by the likes of Victor Moscoso and Bonnie MacLean. The designs are supposed to be promoting the psychedelic music of Moby Grape, The Grateful Dead and other luminaries of the tripped-out late-Sixties scene—so how come Edgar Allan Poe and Santa Claus make an appearance? We asked the eminent design historian and serial collector Mel Byars to explain.

The trippy, elaborate design of the posters, which you collected and donated to the Columbia Museum, is at odds with the slick output of Madison Avenue in the same years—a countercultural West Coast riposte to East Coast consumerism. You were working in New York in the late Sixties. What did you make of these psychedelic designs at the time?

I didn’t and still don’t like rock music. I only listened to 30s and 40s music and didn’t know about the posters at the time. It was a West Coast, particularly San Francisco, phenomenon. Living in New York City at age 30 in 1968 and working for book publishers and advertising agencies, I was only interested in Swiss design. The idea of words in advertising or posters that people cannot read would have been absurd to me—just as today. The rock-music artists were drugged hippies. Only one was female, the wife of the Fillmore Auditorium’s Bill Graham. They were not selling anything. They were not propagandists. The images included are dotty, having no relationship whatsoever to the musicians—Edgar Allan Poe, Gloria Swanson, Santa Claus with horns, the Taj Mahal and Jesus.

Does Sixties psychedelia have much importance for today’s designers?

I am trusting that those like me—teachers and historians—don’t decide what designers should think or what is important. At least I hope not. I only report. The importance for today’s designers is to think for themselves, watch TV news, read newspapers and, in fact, read. Most graphic design today and in the past is shit. Look at adverts in newspapers. Who is executing that stuff? Graphic designers will be well served to acquire an in-depth education in the humanities first.

As an aside about psychedelic posters, I had a dream a few days ago that made me aware that they are all positive—no matter how silly—nothing dark. Yet they were being created as the same time (late 60s) as the morass of youth protests in the US and Europe.

As promotional tools, the posters could be said to fail in one very important respect. That is, the text is so hard to read it’s difficult to know what they’re advertising. Why is that, do you think?

The claim that they failed is your assertion. One of the two most prominent designers, Victor Moscoso, who studied with Josef Albers at Yale University, said he didn’t care if his posters were readable. (The other most prominent designer was Wes Wilson.) There are more peculiarities such as the poster for two- to three-day venues only; the designs are intricate in most examples, and the printing is complicated. But only a handful of printers produced the posters. If you think that the phenomenon of the unreadable died after the 60s and early 70s, you are forgetting April Greiman’s messy scrapbook aesthetic and David Carson’s intentionally unreadable work, such as his so-called deconstructivist pages for Ray Gun

You’re a serial collector. What else have you collected and where did it all begin? (Tell us about your childhood.)

Serial collectors are strange people. I don’t think that I and other obsessive collectors can explain ourselves.

About stuff: I don’t have much left except 100+ examples of Navajo blankets that I am wishing to grant to an as-yet-undetermined institution. (If there is a curator out there interested, speak up.) I have donated large numbers of design and anthropological objects to museums around the world—New York City, Prague, Paris, Israel—and the rock posters in my hometown, Columbia, South Carolina. The most rare, most interesting gift I have made—at least in my opinion—is probably a quipu to the Israel Museum of Art.

You ask about my childhood. I was bullied almost to death, being beaten up by school bullies at least once a week in a lower-class neighbourhood. Skinny. A loner. Angry. Lived with mother and aunt. A lovely black woman (I’m white) took care of me when my mother, a perfectionist, was at work as a secretary. Had one friend at a time, usually a loser like me. Father was a mess; he didn’t live with us but did live in the same town. Saw him fairly often. Was forced to go to Sunday church services—the most boring times of my life. Have been writing at least since 8th grade when I received a little trophy for a school-newspaper article. Highly influenced by Hollywood films that were, due to the times, absent of violence and sex. Good thing because I might have become a serial killer. Was normal in other ways, such as collecting insects, raising tropical fish, building models. And was abnormal in that I read and reread every page of the fifteen volumes of Compton’s Encyclopedia—must have cost my mother a lot of money. However, if a model kit was too advanced for my age and it didn’t turn out perfectly, I would smash it into a zillion pieces. Some of my mother’s friends told her that I needed to see a psychotherapist. I’m not sure that there were any in town—the same city to which I have retired now and the same city in which the museum to which I donated the rock posters is located, and the same city where there are now more than fifty psychotherapists. What goes around comes around.

Yet, memories are memories of memories. All change with time. I have discovered in my dotage that some proved to be inaccurate.

You’re also the author of perhaps the most comprehensive design encyclopedia ever published (The Design Encyclopedia, published by MoMA and Laurence King Publishing). How long did it take you to write it, and what is the biggest lesson you learned from doing it?

This question from you is covert because you, Robert Shore, were the editor of the second edition and worked with me on it almost daily. It took eight years to write it. The first four were on the first edition (1994), about which few people know, and the publisher assigned the same title to the second edition as to the first edition. Thus, confusion has been created. The second edition took another four years; however, the seeds of the first were used as a foundation for the second. For the first edition, there was no significant internet available to help me appreciably with the research; therefore, much of it was garnered from books in a range of languages. Only an insane person like me with no advanced degree in the subject and no prior books published would attempt to write an encyclopedia. Laurence King, the publisher, has claimed that he recognized that I was nevertheless capable. It is possible that he used a divining stick or witching rod. I was fifty years old at the time. The second edition, ten years later, and which included the Museum of Modern Art as the publisher, is more thorough and accurate due to internet support and a group of fact-checkers, whose expertise and energy greatly varied.

I learned that writing nonfiction books will not make me rich; in fact, will make me poor. I learned that without a patient editor, like you, Robert Shore, it might not have been possible. I learned that serendipity plays a big role in everyone’s significant accomplishments: I was relatively free at the time of the second edition, lived in Paris with a garden (the garden helped), and was meagrely supported by money bequeathed to me by my stepfather. Possibly the biggest lesson I learned is that, because I become bored easily, I have quit a number of projects in midstream in my past—the cause of great but secretive shame, if one can be secretively shamed. The fact that I persisted with the first and second editions of the encyclopedia to their very end—and I emphasize “very end”—absolved me in my mind. And when, in the introduction to the second edition, Terence Riley, the head of MoMA’s design and architecture department, called me the Diderot of design, he closed the door on my quest. Being awarded the Besterman/McColvin Gold Medal for the best reference book was momentarily thrilling, but the excitement soon faded. And, by the way, I have lost the medal—cannot find it anywhere. Besides, what would I do with it? Certainly not wear it or place it on display.

“Psychedelic Design: Rock Posters from the Mel Byars Collection, 1966–1971” continues until 12 March.

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