Merrill Berman, Design Connoisseur

Interviews by Steven Heller
2 383 words12 min read

In the mid-Seventies, Merrill Berman (b-1938), a security analyst and partner in Berman, Kalmbach & Co, a private investment firm, began collecting the rare and forgotten artefacts of graphic design. His collection has grown into one of the foremost troves of late 19th and 20th century posters and ephemera — essentially the roots and routes of commercial design as art and profession. His material has been the nucleus of numerous exhibitions and publications, including the recent “Graphic Design in the Mechanical Age,” originally presented at Williams College Museum in Massachusetts and The Cooper Hewitt in New York and currently travelling. His collection has also been exhibited in the 1996 exhibit “Building the Collective: Soviet Graphic Design, 1917-1937,” at the Miriam and Ira D Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University and the 1984 “Posters: The 20th Century Poster - Design of the Avant Garde” at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Berman continues to loan materials to design shows throughout the world and a record of his holdings can be found at Beside amassing a rich historical archive, Berman uncovers the documentary evidence of graphic design’s formidable legacy. In this interview he explains how he entered this field and the criteria for building a collection.

Your career is in investment management, and you have been an art collector. So, how did you become the leading connoisseur of graphic design in this country?

I started as a teenager collecting political Americana, which included celluloid buttons, ferrotypes and other graphic material. Although I never formally studied art history or graphic design, I had a natural predilection toward the graphic. When I was in my twenties, I studied late 19th and 20th century art history and began to collect paintings.

This required considerable investment, where did the money for your collection come from?

It was during the 1960s, and I was working as a research analyst for an investment banking firm. I followed the electronics and service industries and had the good fortune to discover and invest in outstanding young companies like Automatic Data Processing, H&R Block, and Rollins, Inc. But I also have had my bumps and bruises in the market.

What kind of paintings did you collect?

Post-Impressionists, Abstract Expressionists, and Photo-Realists. I built a strong collection from 1967 to 1973 that included works by Soutine, Dufy, Utrillo, as well as Pollack, DeKooning and Gorky. I had one Impressionist painting by Renoir and three Photo-Realist canvases by Richard Estes. However, I never had the feeling that I was more than a trend-follower or investor-type of art collector. I was developing my eye along the way, but never added creatively to understanding the history of the period.

What turned you from following the trends of art collecting to this rather arcane form of collecting?

I was topped out. I realised that my taste in collecting was ahead of my pocketbook. I wasn’t capable of competing with Norton Simon and some of the heavy hitters of that era on the next best Gorky or Kline. In addition, I took some giant hits in the bear market of 1973-4. So, I really had to sell my paintings. I pretty much deaccessioned everything between 1974 and 1976. I couldn’t move forward, so I had to move in another direction. I also had come to realise that the political field that I jumped back into that arena in hopes of building a more comprehensive and graphic collection including poster, textiles and ribbons. The political field had taken a strong turn towards the graphic since my early collecting days.

How did political Americana evolve into an interest in European graphic design?

At the time of my renewed interest in political collecting I was travelling in Europe, and by chance came across shops and dealers selling posters. This was the moment Art Nouveau and Art Deco posters were being rediscovered. That is where I really got exposed to graphic design on paper. But I had limited knowledge and had to learn about posters and graphic design on the fly. First I started with posters by Mucha, Cheret, Privat Livemont and Cassandre but I didn’t really have a clue what this was leading to. Then after bearing down in this area, I came across thirty posters which included five photomontage posters by Gustav Klutsis and an important one by Alexander Deineka. These reportedly came from a Communist museum or archive in Belgium.

Why did you decide that these were worth obtaining?

I researched them with a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She kind of demeaned the Klutsis posters saying I should concentrate on Russian film posters by the Stenbergs and Prusakov, not the politically-related items. But I was a natural contrarian. Instead, I could see that there was a lot in this group — the photo-montage, the typography, the constructivist layout.

How much did you know about typography and design in general?

I knew almost nothing about graphic design at that time. But I did as much research as I could. Shortly thereafter, I came across a very important Herbert Bayer poster from 1929, ‘Section Allemande,’ which is in the book 20th Century Poster, a project I did with the Walker Art Center It was a big 40-by-60 inch piece with Constructivism, photo-montage, and fantastic dimensionality. At this point I felt I was on my way, that there were really important things out there in the design and poster fields.


In looking at important design, particularly artefacts of the Modern avant garde, you were also defining what important was. I mean, you have the key pieces of the Bauhaus and the Constructivist movement and Modernism in general, but your collection is not solely composed of those pieces that have now been reproduced in every history book, but you feature rarer work by leading and other lesser known designers.

It took me until probably 1978 to gain enough understanding. I realised that Holland and Germany had been the Mecca of graphic design in the 1920s — those countries as well as France and England, also Russia and Eastern Europe. But remember, I was also not solely focused on design. I was going back and forth between art and design. I was always interested in related disciplines like collage, architectural drawing, photography, and the inter-relationship between all of them.

There are collectors who collect for investment, then there are collectors who collect to document history, and somewhere in the middle there are collectors who collect great things that will document history and also be good investments. Do you fit into any of those three, or is there another category?

Well, there’s probably another category. I arrived at this collecting because I saw the contempt of Madison Avenue art dealers for anything with type or rooted in commercialism. I noted the lack of understanding of most collectors for really good design. I had a huge advantage because I never approached this field with the idea of resale. I approached it with the idea of commitment and dedication, and with the goal of building a major museum-like archive over time. I realised that the descendants of all these avant-gardes cared little about this material, which was readily available at the time. I could do here what I wasn’t able to do in art. I had run out of steam in fine art because of my budgetary limitations. Here everything was affordable and I didn’t have that much competition. I saw this as a major defining opportunity and challenge. I was further motivated by the self assurance of the institutions who took everything they had accumulated in this area for granted.

Okay, why do you feel this commercial work was and is so important to the history of Art, Culture, Society?

Well, that’s a little hard for a self-taught guy, but I’ll do the best I can. Many of these people who were doing this were integrating and synthesising some of the most important techniques of what other people would call fine art into what they were doing, and many of them had to support themselves through commercial work. And these designers were on the cutting edge of everything — you know, Dada, Constructivism, Suprematism, De Stijl, as well as photography and architecture. Everything that was happening important in the century...

So this work is actually the foundation of what curators are addressing in art exhibitions today. Where once they turned their noses down, now the art establishment is embracing commercial work, at least historically.

I saw I was way ahead of them. I realised by being able to interface with thousands of images, which included posters and ephemera, one saw the interplay between art and design. I was ahead of most people because I had an archive to train my eye on. I had the material. I realised that to stay in visual condition, I had to keep doing this. It was later that shows like ‘Paris/Moscow’ or ‘Paris/Berlin,’ (major exhibitions mounted at the Beauborg in Paris) were presented with typography and graphics interspersed along with painting and sculpture.

In fact, you have made your collection available to some major exhibitions. You supported the Walker Art Center’s “Twentieth Century Poster,” Williams’ College “Building The Collective,” and The Cooper Hewitt’s “Graphic Design In The Mechanical Age” shows. Once you conclude a show like these do you then move on to another area, or do you continue to build within this area?

I continue to build within this area. There’s a lot to be done. I like to compare it to agriculture: You have to accept what the yield is. In other words, you’re interested in Italian Futurism, and yet that might not be available at the moment. And you just can’t demand that the material be available suddenly. You have to set up a framework. And maybe it won’t ever be available. But then suddenly Russia falls apart, and museums deaccession and sell. So you have to take on what the market yields. You have to be ready and flexible to deal with everything from Bernhard and Hohlewein [pre-avant garde German poster artists] Will Bradley and Edward Penfield [turn of the century American designers]. These represent a totally different aesthetic than Dada Collage, De Stijl, or Russian Constructivism.


Do you also pursue other genres or venues of design?

Yes. Last year I had to step in and buy a Polish avant garde book and ephemera collection, because I knew it was headed right for the Getty if I didn’t. Furthermore I was weak in Polish avant garde area. I needed to do that to maintain my franchise, so to speak. I didn’t want to do it at the time. It was was expensive and I was having a hard year. But in order to stay fresh and relevant I have to always challenge myself on new areas.

Well, it’s interesting that you would use the term ‘fresh and relevant,’ because you are dealing with history.There are some that look at the historical materials and say, ‘Oh, that’s old tradition; we want new tradition.’ But that you view this as a kind of continually refreshed stream of information.

Fresh and relevant can be applied to historical material as well as contemporary. Historical collecting and research often unearths artists (i.e. designers) who were little known at the time and unknown today. Finding a body of their work often helps to place them in a proper historical context, broadening and freshening up our understanding of the period.

Speaking of fresh, what determines what you’re going to go after on the contemporary side? Are you acquiring material that’s being done as we speak?

This is hard, because so much material is being done, and to cull through it is too great a challenge for me, frankly, because of the space requirements, to store, to select, to meet designers and to stay with it. But I’ve been trying to get good representations of the best graphic design that’s being done today in the world. I write, call and meet with designers or have mavens in the field put my nose in the right direction. I read the design magazines like Print, Eye, and Graphis.

Just storing your massive collection is a Herculean task. How is it maintained now?

Every poster, if possible, is put in mylar in print cabinets. I have three or four locations. If it was framed, I used to keep it in the Neuberger Museum. Now I have my own storage places where I can house both cabinets and framed pieces.

Do you have cataloguers and archivists?

Well, no. I have one person who helps me with the facilities part-time, and I have another man who does all the photography and handles registrarial duties. This is a lot, because we’re serving not only my own projects, but I contribute to others, such as the 1998 Rodchenko exhibition at MOMA. They needed twenty works by Rodchenko; the Rutgers show on Russia needed more items, etc.. As the profile of this collection rises, curators want pieces.

Do you have a a museum show in the planning stages right now?

I am certainly interested in developing a closer relationship with the Cooper-Hewitt, which together with Williams College presented “Graphic Design in the Mechanical Age,” and are design-focused; I think they could help profile their museum to the public by exhibiting a collection of this richness, rarity, and depth.

Do you foresee yourself as having a museum, or do you foresee yourself more as being this resource for other museums?

I’d like to be able to take a stab at having a free-standing operation some way or another. I don’t want this collection to get submerged by the painting and sculpture department of an art museum controlled by trustees and administrators that do not appreciate this kind of material. In other words, if this collection gets buried, it’s just going to go the route of the Stadelijk (in Amsterdam) and the MOMA, where the design is a stepchild of other departments and a lower priority section.

  • Art director of the New York Times Book Review and founder and co-chair of the School of Visual Arts, New York MFA/Design Program. He is the former editor of the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design and author or editor of over 80 books on popular culture, graphic design history, and political art. His most recent books include The Graphic Design Reader, Allworth Press, The Education of a Design Designer, Allworth Press, and Counter Culture: The Allure of Mini-Mannequins, Princeton Architectural Press. His forthcoming books include: From Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Progressive Magazine Design of the 20th Century, Phaidon Press, Cuba Style: Graphics From the Golden Age of Design, Princeton Architectural Press, and Graphic Humor: The Art of Graphic Wit, Allworth Press.