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Why Chicago?

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In the 20th century, Chicago became recognized around the world as a leading center of graphic design. While primarily known for its corporate style, the diversity of Chicago graphic design has grown in recent years to include work that is both extremely personal and experimental. Chicago’s place at the center of the nation forged it into a world center of commerce and culture. Its energy and vitality has been tempered over time, however, by traditional Midwestern pragmatism and rationality. Similarly, graphic design in Chicago has historically been informed by both the practical needs of business and the provocative ideas of design theorists who made the city their home.

Chicago has had a significant and disproportionate impact on our visual culture. This power as a center of architecture, advertising, printing and publishing is directly attributable to its place at the center of the nation’s water and rail systems in the late 19th century.

The completion of the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1848 connected the Mississippi River and the bounty of the American West to the Great Lakes and the cities of the East. Railroads operating south of the Great Lakes made their western terminals in Chicago, while the various western railroads made their eastern terminals there. By 1869, with the linkup of the transcontinental railroad, the city had rail connections extending all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Chicago became the clearinghouse for much of the nation’s commodities and natural resources including grain, lumber and livestock. By the late 1860s, for example, over 50 million bushels of grain came in and out of Chicago each year. In 1872 alone, more than 9,000 vessels carrying lumber arrived in Chicago. The Union Stockyards, located several miles southwest of the city’s center, were the largest in the world.

The need to somehow manage the vast amount of buying and selling resulted in systems of grading the quality of commodities like grain and lumber. In a short time, the Chicago grading systems proliferated throughout the region, creating speculative markets, futures contracts, and eventually full-scale futures markets. Today, Chicago is home to several of the world’s leading financial exchanges. The combination of large-scale economic activity and massive transportation and distribution networks helped Chicago become a national center of the printing, publishing and advertising industries.

Chicago was also the home of the country’s largest merchandising companies of the period, Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Montgomery Ward. Sears’ first general merchandise catalogue, published in 1896, featured 532 pages of goods. By 1945, Sears’ annual sales exceeded $1 billion; sales grew to $1 billion per month by 1967. These awesome economic forces helped Chicago become a leader in scholarship and research as well. The University of Chicago, for example, has produced more than 60 Nobel Prize winners in the past century. A number of other outstanding universities including Northwestern, Roosevelt, DePaul and Loyola have contributed to the city’s reputation as a world center for ideas. Chicago’s economic and cultural richness was enhanced by the birth of such institutions as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the 1890s.

Chicago was also home of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, perhaps the most influential event of its type ever held. Nearly 28 million people – roughly 45% of the nation’s population in 1893 – visited the fair during its six-month run. On a single day, October 9, more than 760,000 visitors jammed the grounds to mark the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire. In addition to its appeal as unprecedented entertainment, the fair also made significant cultural and social contributions. A quarter million exhibits were brought to Chicago from over 60 nations. A series of congresses brought together 700,000 of the world’s greatest minds. A number of reform movements, including those on behalf of women and labor, received significant attention at the fair.

The city’s economic and cultural vitality became a beacon to scholars, writers, artists and designers in the early part of the 20th century, particularly in the 1930s, when the dark cloud of fascism was casting its shadow over Europe. It was during this period that the New Bauhaus was established in Chicago under the leadership of Laszlo Maholy-Nagy. Chicago design and architecture flourished in the middle part of this century.

Thanks largely to the influence of the New Bauhaus and the work of such individuals and firms as Richard Latham, Jay Doblin, Unimark and the Center for Advanced Research in Design (CARD) at Container Corporation of America, Chicago emerged as a global center for design theory and ideas. Institutions such as the Institute of Design and American Center for Design continued this rich tradition. Thanks to this intellectual energy and the city’s vital design and cultural institutions, Chicago’s influence on our visual culture will continue in its scope and impact for many years to come.

Originally published in the book Chicago Graphic Design, 1994

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