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Billboard | Material


Supergraphic, an iteration of Billboard, is a large graphic expression that covers entire interior planes. The designs may incorporate figurative elements, abstract geometries, and/or text; no matter what the content, the super-sized graphics demand attention and become a focal point within the interior.


History of Supergraphics. Both art and advertising have significantly contributed to the development of interior supergraphics. Historically, the art world has attempted to remain separate and distinct from commodity culture. However, beginning in the early 20th century, artists began challenging, even poking fun at the establishment. The “readymade” sculpture of Marcel Duchamp such as Fountain (1917) established a new relationship between art and the commodity. Artists continued to blur the boundaries as they sought effective ways to respond to cultural shifts that resulted from two world wars and economic depression. After World War II, the United States experienced a period of economic stability, and the advertising industry emerged as manufactures sought new methods of tempting the growing middle class with material goods. Furthermore, new means of communication provided a range of different venues. While advertisers often appropriated techniques from art, artists also began reacting to the media. Both artists and advertisers experimented with graphics in order to discover the most effective means of communicating ideas quickly. Interestingly, the careers of some of the most influential artists such as Andy Warhol and Barbara Kruger began in the graphics departments of advertising industries.

In the following section, "Text and Language in Art and Advertising", I discuss how Kruger’s text-based installations explore the visual impact of text within interior space. In section two, "OP Art: Art or economic OPportunity?", I discuss how the enigmatic patterns created by Bridget Riley became emblematic of the “Swinging Sixties” but continue to influence interior design due to the dynamic interactions between the two-dimensional patterns and three-dimensional space. The last section," Murals and Grafitti" examines the effect of large scale, highly expressive, and sometimes all-encompassing interior graphic compositions.

Text & Language in Art & Advertising. The field of advertising exploded in the United States during the mid-20th century, as the country recovered from the Depression. Government programs such as the GI Bill stimulated consumption because it allowed more Americans to use loans to finance homes. For the first time, living in debt became acceptable and even commonplace. In addition, more Americans had access to consumer credit which resulted in greater participation in the marketplace.1

Manufacturers relied on mass media to promote their products as well as to differentiate them from the competition. In The Theming of America, Mark Gottdiener explains how the advertising industry emerged as manufacturers attempted to carve a niche for themselves in intensely competitive markets. Manufacturers “aggressively marketed” to consumers using newspapers and magazines, and later with television. Increased profits fed back into advertising and it quickly “became a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry”.2

Manufacturers began investing more money in advertising once they realized that consumers purchased goods not merely based on functional concerns but to satisfy inner desires. Carefully designed advertisements attempted to address psychological needs directly. Furthermore, the design of retail environments, where the exchange of money for goods actually occurs, needed to reinforce the same advertising concepts that initially attracted consumers. According to Gottdiener, retail environments became the “material spaces for the realization of consumer fantasies”.3

Conceptual art emerged in the 1960s in part as a reaction against the controlling effects of advertising and the biased reporting of mass media. Art produced at this time became more focused on the communication of an idea, rather than the production of an object. As a result, text and language became paramount over the image. Early Conceptual artists do not concern themselves with the design of the text itself, opting for unassuming, generic typefaces so that the underlying idea or message dominates. However, as conceptual art evolves, artists realize that the visual impact of text influences meaning. In Conceptual Art, Tony Godfey explains that artists working predominantly with text and language have realized that “words are not ipso facto concepts. They cannot exist apart from their visual or aural presentation.”4 Therefore, conceptual art since 1970 demonstrates a greater concern for graphic representation. Godfrey explains, "Artists who have used words since the 1970s have generally shown an increasingly sophisticated awareness of this context, and have become more attentive to the way that words are displayed visually: through typeface, size, color and other means."5

This shift is apparent in the art of Barbara Kruger. In the early 1970s, Kruger worked as a graphic artist, but eventually left the field in order to pursue her own career. Direct exposure to advertising and marketing has made Kruger critical of its manipulative tactics, and although she applies similar techniques to her own work, she conveys an entirely different message. Art critic Peter Fischer remarks, “The stylistic resemblance of Kruger’s works to advertising and the entertainment industry demonstrates how language can be deployed as an instrument of manipulation.”6 Early in her career, Kruger explored the link between text and image. For example in We don’t need another hero (1987), Kruger captures the viewer’s attention with a striking, yet stereotypical, portrayal of a boy and girl. Questions arise after reading the text which seems incongruent with the image. These investigations attempt to debunk the “rhetoric of realism” presented in advertisements.7

Since the 1990s, Kruger has become more interested in creating entire environments that blatantly express the power of language. For example, in the multimedia installation Power/Pleasure/Desire/Disgust (1997), Kruger projects words over the walls, floor, and ceiling of the gallery room. The scale, font, and density of the text overwhelm the gallery space and the viewer. Fischer describes Kruger’s exhaustive use of language as “consummate and merciless . . . whose power she exploits to the point of abuse.”8 The concise statements and simple graphics result in immediate comprehension by the viewer, but they also feel threatening and aggressive.

While less extreme, signage used in commercial interiors exhibit characteristics similar to that of Kruger’s work. Signage often contains a limited amount of text, either a single word or concise statement, so that visitors can absorb the information instantly. In order to increase the visual impact, the font type, color, and size are carefully considered. Sometimes interior walls appear as transplanted billboards. Roadside billboards communicate information to travelers over great distances. Applying this technique to interior walls creates startling effects because the viewer is no longer speeding by and the distance between the sign and the viewer has dramatically decreased.

In rare instances, the visual impact becomes more important than legibility. For example, an interior partition in the Vitra Showroom in New York City, boldly presents the name Panton in reference to famous furniture designer Verner Panton. The capital, san serif, black text seems to pop off the brilliant white background. The huge scale of the letters, each about the size of the chair positioned in front of the wall, fill the partition in both the horizontal and vertical direction. This example is somewhat unusual because the word has been broken and spans three lines. It no longer acts as a single entity and the shape of the individual letters, rather than the word itself, is emphasized. This creates a sense of ambiguity and it is possible that only people with knowledge of the designer will understand.

OP: Art or Political OPportunity. Early in the 20th century, artists became preoccupied with the depiction of motion, in response to technological advances that brought about a faster pace of life. Futurist and Cubist art reveal the artists’ dilemma of how to best represent movement on a two dimensional picture plane. As artists became more adept at suggesting movement, the role of the viewer became more active. A catalogue for the 1912 Futurist Exhibition explains this new relationship: “He [the spectator] will no longer simply observe but will participate in the action.”9

The active participation of the viewer continues even as art becomes increasingly more abstract, especially when artists begin exploring optical phenomena. The effects of abstract geometry on the eye are first explored in the work of Hungarian painter Victor Vasarely in the 1940s. Other artists began experimenting with the technique, creating geometric compositions that appear to shift and move, seeming to unravel right in front of the viewer’s eyes.

In the 1960s the optical creations of Bridget Riley became incredibly popular, especially after her participation in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1965 exhibit, The Responsive Eye. While most critics responded negatively to Riley’s work, in part due to their undesirable “vertigo-inducing” effects, the designs seemed to resonate with the masses.10 Clothing manufacturer, Larry Aldrich first appropriated one of Riley’s designs and despite objections from the artist, Aldrich marketed dresses made from Riley-inspired fabrics.11

With no copyright laws to protect against plagiarism, knock-offs of Riley originals began appearing everywhere, with no concern for the artist’s intentions. Despite Riley’s opposition, her work came to symbolize 1960s popular culture. According to art historian Lisa Corrin, Riley quickly became the “icon of the Swinging Sixties”. Her patterns were “immediately recognized emblems of the time” and appeared everywhere, from the window displays of major department stores to the backdrops of television programs.12

The quick adoption of Riley’s work for commercial applications highlights the conundrum facing 1960s artists: the ambiguous relationship between art and the commodity. Intense debates in the art world waged over the appropriateness of commerce imitating art and vice versa. Many critics would not even comment on Riley’s paintings due to their overexposure. Riley defended her work in an article for Artnews published in 1965. She explains, “The Responsive Eye was a serious exhibition, but its qualities were obscured by an explosion of commercialism, band-waggoning, and hysterical sensationalism. Understandably this alienated a section of the art-world.”13 A few years later in an article for Time Magazine, Robert Hughes elaborates on the quick commodification that accompanied Riley’s work.

"As soon as her tightly organized, black-and-white abstractions began to wrench and prick the eyes of an international public in the mid-60s, a horde of fabric designers and window dressers moved in . . . and Op itself became, in the hands of its exploiters, a chic gimmick that could market anything from underwear to wallpaper. By the summer of 1965, it seemed that every boutique in the West had its own coarse version of Bridget Riley’s optical dazzle."14

This “optical dazzle” appears in interior environments not only in the pattern of textiles but also in the form of bold statements known as supergraphics. Architect Hugh Hardy of Holzman Pfeiffer Associates would paint abstract geometries directly onto walls and ceilings. Working with think lines, circles, and cones, Hardy often would fragment these shapes, which in turn required the viewer to visually reconnect the broken segments.15

Clearly, these geometric abstractions quickly became very fashionable in the 1960s, but due to the fickle nature of trends, one would probably assume that they faded from favor just as fast. However, variations of these patterns continue to appear in interior design. In many ways, the incredible spatial interactions occurring within these compositions seem better suited as installations so that the pattern can exert its full energy on three-dimensional space. In fact, Riley did create one installation in her career, Continuum (1964), but she never again experimented with this form, possibly because installation art was just emerging or to prevent the public from viewing her work merely as interior surface treatments. Regardless, the effect of these patterns in space was undeniable and textile, wallpaper, and flooring manufactures quickly began incorporating these designs into new lines. Even today, advertisements for these products sometimes resemble those produced in the 1960s.

An advertisement for Casamood floor tiles published in Frame magazine in the March/April 2006 edition not only reveals the continuing use of optical patterns but also the influence of textile design. Contemporary interiors sometimes “dress” surfaces with prints derived from the apparel industry, although the scale of the pattern is exaggerated to accommodate the larger “body” of the interior. Depending on the origin of the pattern, the interior may appear retro, especially when combined with furniture from the same time period; however, the bold and striking nature of abstract geometries has the ability to adapt to any contemporary environment.

Public Murals & Street Art. During the Great Depression, the United States government established the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in an attempt to create jobs for the unemployed. The WPA’s Federal Art Project helped ease the economic hardships of artists by hiring many of them to create public works of art. From 1935 till the program’s end in 1943, artists painted numerous murals in non-federal government buildings such as courthouses, post offices, libraries, and schools.16

Many WPA artists drew inspiration from the work of Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Often referred to as “Los Tres Grandes,” the Three Great Ones, they painted murals that portrayed the substandard working conditions of the poor.17 Their work along with murals sponsored by the WPA continues to impact communities especially those at the margins of society. Timothy Drescher explains how the presence of murals in public buildings influenced future generations to express themselves in a similar fashion. Drescher writes, "Today’s community muralists saw the WPA murals on the walls of their schools, or when they mailed letters at the post office . . . When the mass political activities of the 1960s focused artistic energies on social issues, a model for one form of expression was already in place."18

The 1960s was a period rife with political activity that addressed issues such as gender equality, racial discrimination, and the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Murals became a way for those who lacked access to mass media, typically working class African Americans, to express the collective attitudes of their communities.19

During the 1970s this form of expression became controversial for it began appearing illegally on public property. Street art, or graffiti as most considered it at the time, became so prevalent that in 1983 NPR investigated the subculture in the documentary and now cult classic, Style Wars. This film exposes the motivations behind New York City’s renegade artists who responded to the deteriorating conditions of their neighborhoods by spray painting “mural masterpieces” on subway cars.20

Graffiti greatly inspired artist Keith Haring, who in the 1980s began chalking "simple, emblematic 'stick men'" on the black paper used to cover outdated advertisements in New York City's subway stations.21 When Haring became more established, he received numerous commissions for murals in both public and private venues. Like the mural painters before him, Haring's work often addresses political and social issues such as the Harlem Crack is Wack mural (1986).

Mural Wall. Murals in commercial interiors typically do not make political statements or involve the community in their making. They often lack the urgent, biting edge of street art. However, both community murals and street art have influenced commercial murals in their unique use of scale. These murals encompass entire walls, or in rare cases the ceiling or floor, with a single image. The composition's exaggerated scale directly interacts with architectural elements, creating unusual connections as the viewer relates the scale of the mural's components to that of the actual environment. For example, in the Endeavor Talent Agency of Beverly Hills, the graphic design firm 2x4 enlarged an image of an eye to span a wall from floor to ceiling. The eye is then repeated along the length of the wall with the iris varying in vibrant colors. Enlarging the dimensions to such an extreme, somewhat abstracts the original image but the eye still remains recognizable and quite unexpected. The surprising subject matter and the overall composition demand attention and the single wall becomes a dominating feature of the interior.

Designers often confine an interior mural to the boundaries of a single plane, in order to clearly differentiate one plane from all the rest, increasing the significance of the mural wall by rendering it unique. A slight variation of this strategy is to fill a single interior plane with a repeated image recalling the serial works of Pop artist Andy Warhol. Depending on the scale and number of repetitions, the treatment may begin to resemble wallpaper. Sometimes wallpaper patterns are deliberately selected but applied at much larger scales than originally intended.

Artistic expressions can also extend beyond the dimensions of the wall to encompass an entire room.The impact of this technique is best demonstrated in Project Fox, a promotion sponsored by Volkswagon in which twenty-one young artists freely applied an artistic vision to a room in the Brøchner Hotel in Copenhagen. All participants have developed their skills in nontraditional ways, many beginning their careers as street artists. While each design is quite distinct, all respond to the architecture in similar ways. Using the room dimensions as a guide, artists determine the scale and placement of their images. All interior surfaces are considered and the graphics, no matter how simple or complex, create a total design that immerses the occupant in a fantastic, somewhat surreal environment. Similar graphic applications may become more prevalent in commercial interiors as designers seek simple, cost-effective ways to redefine space.22

end notes

  1. 1) Mark Gottdiener, The Theming of America (Boulder: Westview Press, 2001), 62.
  2. 2) Gottdiener, The Theming of America, 64.
  3. 3) Gottdiener, The Theming of America, 68.
  4. 4) Tony Godfrey, Conceptual Art (London: Phaidon, 1998), 350-351.
  5. 5) Godfrey, Conceptual Art, 354.
  6. 6) Peter Fischer, “Barbara Kruger” in Nauman Kruger Jaar (New York: Scalo, 2001), 68.
  7. 7) Godfrey, Conceptual Art, 337.
  8. 8) Fischer, Nauman Kruger Jaar, 67
  9. 9) Frances Spalding, “Bridget Riley and the Poetics of Instability,” in Bridget Riley (London: Serpentine Gallery, 1999), 14.
  10. 10) Lisa G. Corrin, “Continuum,” in Bridget Riley (London: Serpentine Gallery, 1999), 36.
  11. 11) Corrin, Bridget Riley, 39.
  12. 12) Corrin, Bridget Riley, 39.
  13. 13) Bridget Riley, “Perception is the Medium,” Artnews (Oct. 1965): 32-33.
  14. 14) Robert Hughes, “Perilous Equilibrium,” Time Magazine (Nov. 16, 1970), 42.
  15. 15) Allen Tate, Interior Design in the 20th Century (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), 495.
  16. 16) David Hopkins, After Modern Art 1945-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 5-6.
  17. 17) Timothy Drescher, San Francisco Bay Area Murals (St. Paul: Pogo Press, 1998), 10.
  18. 18) Drescher, San Francisco Bay Area Murals, 11.
  19. 19) Drescher, San Francisco Bay Area Murals, 12.
  20. 20) Tony Silver, Style Wars (Brooklyn, NY: Plexifilm, 2003)
  21. 21) Ulrike Gehring, “Disegno e Colore,” in Keith Haring Heaven and Hell, ed. Gotz Adriani (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2001), 135.
  22. 22) Evidence for the archetypical use and the chronological sequence of Billboard as a material was developed from the following sources: 1940 Mural by Miro, Terrace Plaza Hotel [1945] SOM; Cincinnati, OH in John Pile, A History of Interior Design, 2nd ed. (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2005), 381; PhotoCrd: Ezra Stoller, Esto Photographics / 1960 Reception Area, The Corchia Group Office [1966] Charles Gans of Structural Designs; New York City in Anonymous, “Design Plus,” Interior Design 37, no. 6 (June 1966): 128; PhotoCrd: Larry Goldstein, The Corchia Group; J.B. Ivey & Company Department Store [1967] Lebalme Associates; Raleigh NC in Anonymous, “Design Within Design,” Interior Design 38, no. 4  (Apr. 1967): 206; PhotoCrd: Gil Amiaga; Orangaire Tea Room [1967] Umberto Marucci, AID, Chandler Cudlipp Associates, Interior Design; National Hotel and Motel Exposition, NYC in Anonymous, “Designs for Dining,” Interior Design 38, no. 10 (Oct. 1967): 152; PhotoCrd: Anonymous / 1970 Design Center, RCA [1972] Ford and Earl Design Associates, Interior Design; Indianapolis, IN in Anonymous, “RCA Design Center,” Interior Design 43, no. 10 (Oct. 1972): 163; PhotoCrd: Anonymous; Georgia Baptist Hospital [1975] Gwen Gonia Osgood, Stevens and Wilkinson, Interior Design; Atlanta, GA in Anonymous, “Georgia Baptist Hospital,” Interior Design (Oct. 1975): 147; PhotoCrd: E. Alan Magee; Henderson Drake Advertising [1978] Jora Daniels Busby; Atlanta, GA in Anonymous, “Establishing an Image,” Interior Design 49, no. 2 (Feb. 1978): 179; PhotoCrd: Stuart Bumgardner / 1980 Knoll Showroom [1986] Gwathmey Siegel, Architect; Chicago IL in Stanley Abercrombie, “Knoll,” Interior Design 57, no. 9 (Sep. 1986): 321, 323; PhotoCrd: Bobb Harr, Hedrich Blessing; 1990 Joe Boxer Showroom [1999] FTL; New York City in Monica Geran, “That’s Entertainment,” Interior Design 7, no. 5 (Apr. 1999): 220; PhotoCrd: Elliott Kaufman / 2000 Estrella Resort [2003] Kelly Wearstler of KWID; Estrella, Palm Springs, FL in Edie Cohen, “Made in the Shade,” Interior Design 74, no. 3 (Mar. 2003): 217; PhotoCrd: Grey Crawford; Vitro Showroom [2003] Sevil Peach Gence Associates; Los Angeles, CA in Edie Cohen, “Vitra, Va-Va Voom,” Interior Design 74, no. 1 (Jan. 2003): 205; PhotoCrd: Eric Laignel; City Hall Refurbishment [2003] Jamie Drake, Drake Design Associates; New York City in Marisa Bartolucci, “Empire Building,” Interior Design 74, no. 11 (Sep. 2003): 207; PhotoCrd: Eric Laignel; Estrella Resort [2003] Kelly Wearstler of KWID; Palm Springs, FL in Edie Cohen, “Made in the Shade,” Interior Design 74, no. 3 (Mar. 2003): 217; PhotoCrd: Grey Crawford; Endeavor Talent Agency Headquarters [2005] Neil Denari; Beverly Hills, CA in Joseph Giovannini, “Endeavor Talent Agency,” Architectural Record 193, no. 9 (Sep. 2005): 121; Kruisherenhotel Maastricht Hotel [2006]; formerly Kruisheren Church [1438] Henk Vos, Vos Interieur and Ingo Mauer; Netherlands in David Sokol, “Out of This World,” Interior Design 77, no. 8 (June 2006): 216, 217; PhotoCrd: Etienne van Sloun.

bibliographic citations

1) The Interior Archetypes Research and Teaching Project, Cornell University, (accessed month & date, year).

2) O'Brien, Elizabeth. “Material Archetypes: Contemporary Interior Design and Theory Study.” MA Thesis, Cornell University, 2006, 109-131.