“Underground Images,” the globetrotting retrospective of SVA’s long-running subway poster series, continued its western trajectory last week, heading from Montenegro to Zagreb, capital of Croatia. Curated by SVA Executive Vice President Anthony P. Rhodes, creative director for the posters since 2007, the exhibition is on view at the School of Applied Arts and Design (UBU) through June 9, as part of the Dan-D design festival. (It will be on view at the Villa Méditerranée, in Marseilles, France, from July 15 through 20.)
This latest stop is a special one: Mirko Ilić—Bosnian-born designer, illustrator, SVA faculty member and driving force behind the exhibition’s current tour—is a UBU alumnus and “a household name” to its students and the surrounding arts community, according to Adam Rogers, SVA’s director of international outreach, who attended the exhibition reception and gave two talks at the school. “The opening was buzzing,” he says. “There were hundreds of people there.” SVA Close Up got in touch with Ilić to talk about “Underground Images,” his much-loved 2009 subway poster for the College (To Help See Possibilities) and his plans for the future.
You’re represented in the show by a 2009 poster based on the eye chart used by doctors to test vision. Which came first, art or copy? How did you come to use toy soldiers?
Thinking. I always first come up with an idea and then everything else follows. I wanted to create an eye chart, a recognizable visible symbol, which from far away looks a little bit blurry/fuzzy on edges. But when you come closer, you see that it’s made of different objects, which create the fuzziness/blurriness. The objects are mostly things used by artists: cameras, video cameras, brushes, palettes, musical instruments, clocks, toys—different things.
Other than scale, how does it guide your work, knowing it’s for the subway platform?
Because people have a little time when standing on subway platforms, I was hoping that if the image intrigued them, they would come a little closer and start to discover all the elements: “See Possibilities.”
Are there one or two posters in the show that are especially meaningful to you? If so, why?
There are two posters, which for two very different reasons are very meaningful to me. One is “I ♥ NY More Then Ever,” not only because it is a design by Milton Glaser, but also because it was socially very important. That poster appeared almost immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attack and was a great message by Milton and SVA to the citizens of New York.
The second is a Louise Fili poster “It’s Never Too Late to Get Where You Are Going,” because it was a perfect usage of mosaic typography, which has appeared in subway signage for a century—to create a poster for that same subway was great.
Outside of a few big cities, the poster has a very different history in the U.S. compared to Europe. What are some of the reasons, besides public space?
In Europe, posters were always much more appreciated then in the United States, especially posters for cultural events. Unfortunately, they are more and more getting replaced by billboards, and because billboards are expensive they use them more and more only for advertising.
You’ve brought the exhibition to eight different cities, with several more in the works. Why did you want it to travel?
Underground posters were originally created to be seen only by people traveling in New York subways. The only chance for anyone else to see the posters was when they appeared in annuals and design books—but even then, it was mostly only designers that would see them. Having them all together in a show not only gives everyone the opportunity to see them in real size, but also allows people to see their history—how the posters are changing through time. Not to mention the chance to see such an amazing amount of talent in one place.
Also, perhaps I wanted the show to travel to reverse the concept: originally these posters were meant to be static on a wall and people would travel by them through subway, now the people are static and the posters are traveling by them through the countries.
“Underground Images” in Zagreb was organized by Bernarda Cesar, Marija Juza and Filip Pintaric from UBU, the Association of Former Students of School of Applied Arts and Design Zagreb.