Milwaukee has been home to many talented designers over the years, but they often fly under the radar. A designer’s main concern is to convey a message or idea on behalf of a client; one’s identity is secondary, but a talented designer finds a way to stand out.
John J. Reiss is one such designer. He was born in Milwaukee in 1922, and while he spent some time in New York, Milwaukee was ultimately where he made his home and his mark. As a design associate for the Milwaukee Art Center (now the Milwaukee Art Museum), he created many of the exhibition catalogues, invitations, and advertisements in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. However, he won recognition on a national and international level as well.
To understand Reiss’s approach to design, we have to go back to his education. In 1940, he began attending Milwaukee State Teacher’s College for an Education degree, and in 1943 he served for three months in the United States Army Air Corps. While enrolled in the teacher’s college, he also did coursework with Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he was in attendance from 1944 to 1946. Black Mountain College was founded by Josef Albers (German, 1888–1976) and Walter Gropius (American and German, 1883–1969) of the Bauhaus after fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s. There, they intended to continue the mission of a new type of art education in which each student is encouraged to develop their own style through a thorough understanding of basic form, color, and technique.
Beginning in 1944, Black Mountain College began running its famous summer art and music institutes. It was an opportunity for students to try out the school, as well as for the school to try out students, and John J. Reiss enrolled during that first summer. During his time there through 1946, he took several design, color, painting, and drawing courses with Josef Albers.
In January of 1946, H. G. Knoll Galleries on Madison Avenue in New York exhibited a selection of his color studies and collages completed at Black Mountain College. In 1949, Josef Albers donated a few of these objects to the Harvard Art Museum, along with other exemplary student work. Even in this early work, it is possible to see Reiss’s aesthetic emerging. Color Control exhibits the same bright colors commonly found in Milwaukee Art Center exhibition catalogues—playful and optically balanced. However, Reiss was not only interested in technique; he also took courses in “Psychology and Aesthetics,” “Pedagogical Psychology,” and “Philosophy and the Modern World.”
His most fateful term at Black Mountain College turned out to be the summer art institute of 1945. The summer sessions often brought in guest teachers, and that summer brought none other than Paul Rand (American, 1914-1996)—often considered the father of modern advertising—and Alvin Lustig (American, 1915–1955), an innovative graphic, interior, and industrial designer. Reiss took Rand’s course in advertising design and Lustig’s course in graphic design. The European modernist-inspired, font-driven styles of both these designers left a substantial mark on Reiss’s artistic development.
After receiving his degree, Reiss moved to New York City and worked as a freelance designer, doing work for Junior Bazaar and Fortune magazines, among other companies, in 1946 and 1947. After returning to Milwaukee, Reiss worked for a variety of art galleries; he even organized an international print exhibition featuring artists from twenty-two countries—an event he planned in only three months!
Starting in 1957, Reiss began designing catalogues for the Milwaukee Art Center. As early as 1958, his catalogue for that year’s Wisconsin Designer Craftsman exhibition was chosen by Graphis magazine in Switzerland for a travelling catalogue exhibition, shown in Europe, Asia, and Africa, and the accolades did not stop there.
In 1962, he was chosen for an award by the Type Director’s Club of New York City for his catalogue of the 41st Annual Wisconsin Designer & Craftsman Exhibition. The bold typography and simple graphic are highlighted by the soft colors of the background, which changed from one catalogue to the next. The effect makes each one look hand-painted, underlining the nature of the exhibition.
His catalogue design had a positive effect on the museum’s reputation as a modern, forward-thinking institution on a national level. In 1964, he received an important commission from the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (now the Museum of Arts and Design) in New York to design a catalogue for their show Amusements is…
The show explored hand-made playthings by makers of all ages, featuring work from middle and high school students alongside established artists and designers. Reiss’s design solution features collaged photos of the works from the show interacting with each other and massive text, printed on vibrantly-colored paper. The effect is unquestionably playful, many of the toys captioned with little quips, and evokes the mood of a children’s counting book that is all out of order.
Reiss continued to design for the Milwaukee Art Center well into the 1970s. Concurrently, he was the art director at Wisconsin Architect magazine from 1964-70. The style in which Reiss worked is known today as the International Typographic Style, or the Swiss style, a design style that rose to prominence in the 1950s.
In addition to his talents as a designer, Reiss also began collecting in the early 1950s. By 1960, his collection was notable enough that in December of that year, the Milwaukee Art Center held an exhibition, The Collection of John J. Reiss, for which he designed the catalogue.
It features a plain, sans-serif font without capital letters along the top, typical of Reiss’s Bauhaus influences. In the center, however, Reiss has chosen to let the artwork speak for itself, displaying one of the drawings by Spanish surrealist Joan Miró, one of his favorites.
Earlier in 1960, Reiss went on a trip to visit important art centers in Europe, and during this pilgrimage, he had a chance meeting on the island of Palma with Miró. Contrary to popular belief of the time that portrayed Miró as a “dour and silent” man, Reiss found the artist shy, but friendly and willing to chat about painting and the island. The two struck up a friendship and exchanged correspondence over the next few years. Miró created at least two drawings specifically for Reiss, one as a New Year’s greeting, and another as a thank you note for a gift Reiss sent, fine Japanese paper that was difficult to obtain in Europe at the time.
In 1963, the Paine Art Center and Gardens played host to his print collection, including a demonstration in printmaking by an art instructor from Oshkosh State College (now University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh.) When interviewed about his collecting process, Reiss said, “One of the requirements of a collector is that he have enthusiasm. The others being a certain degree of taste, courage, patience, and perhaps a little money.” Additionally, he outlined four criteria that a work of art must meet for him to purchase it: “an association in a contemporary print with some painting or artifact of the past, an intellectual association, an emotional reaction, and a psychological response” (Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, August 2, 1963).
Reiss’s collecting philosophy can also be applied to his design practice. He displayed courage in his contribution to the growth of the International Style of design, patience in taking the time to get it right, and a certain degree of good taste. His best work elicits an emotional and psychological response, exhibiting an almost childlike playfulness, and he used both his collecting and his talent to enrich the cultural life of those who call Wisconsin home.
Some of Reiss’s work was recently featured in the exhibition How Posters Work, and more can be viewed in the Milwaukee Art Museum Institutional Archive, located at the Judge Jason Downer House on Prospect Avenue.
—Kelsey Soya, Curatorial Intern