So its t minus 9 days and counting until Christmas is upon us. How many of you are feeling overspent, overworked, over-xfactored, and generally just in need of some sort of diversion that doesn’t involve ‘festive’ mulled wine and mince pies? I know I am.
It’s times like this that I go searching for a bit of art to blow the wind back into my sails. And while there are numerous fantastic exhibitions on in London at the moment (Diaghilev & the Ballet Russe, Glasgow Boys, and Gauguin to name a few), right now if you’re anything like me you need something a) more bite-sized and b) free. Luckily, the V&A’s got something that’ll do the trick.
It’s a small exhibition in rooms 17a and 18a (right by the Buddhas) entitled Isotype: International Picture Language, and it’s delightful. Isotype, a system of graphical representation of data, was intended to create a ‘world language without words’ and was pioneered by Austrians Otto and Marie Neurath in the 1920s and 30s. It stands for the International System of TYpographic Picture Education, and became a movement that completely revolutionised the way we view and communicate information to this day. You’ll recognise this language, often now referred to as pictograms or infographics, from the pages of major newspapers, public signage and maps, business presentations, its icons all over modern technology, and style used extensively in almost any popular magazine (Good in particular having practically built their reputation on their innovative usage). But did you ever stop to think how it all came about?
Occasionally my day job has its perks, and one of these was to be invited to the private view opening of the exhibition last Friday as a guest of Reading University’s department of Typography and Graphic Communication. Reading, with collaboration from the V&A, has curated this show from their exceptional collection of original isotypes that Marie Neurath donated to the university after her retirement in 1971 from the Isotype Institute. The exhibition is a priceless opportunity to see some of those original pieces up close and marvel in their craft, done far before the dawn of the digital age.
To wander through two rooms full of these pieces, be so completely absorbed by their effectiveness and modernism, and in the process reconsider the thinking behind and production of something you take so for granted every day… well it’s an absolute joy. Especially for graphic design geeks like me, taking in all the bits like the inkwells and woodcut blocks used for drawing and printing the icons, and details of handcraft and style all makes you feel a bit like a wide eyed child again.
…and tell me, what’s a more appropriately Christmasy feeling than that?
Isotype: International Picture Language, runs until 13 March 2011 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The display is a collaboration between the V&A and the University of Reading’s Isotype revisited project.