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Month January 2012

A Contemporary View on Curatorial History : Interview with Paul Gehl

Paul GehlPaul F. Gehl is the custodian of the John M. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing at the Newberry Library, the wonderful imposing structure just west of the Goldcoast across from Washington Square Park. Most people who walk by it do not know what goes on inside, so for many it is a mystical place. However, for those that are interested in railroads, the history of printing and even geneology, the Newberry is a wonderful living repository of collections.

I cannot remember exactly when and where I met Paul, but he is one of the few people that has remained in my memory as an interesting figure whose curatorial perspective is a rarity. Paul has always been engaged with many communities that intersect the large History of Printing collection, including designers in Chicago. It is in this context that Paul has been supportive of typographic courses that I taught and hosting visits to view the rare Duke of Parma’s collections printed in the Bodoni typeface.

In an age of digitalization and polyanna ephemera, it is refreshing to visit a place that still places value on printed books and their related design, typographic and production value. Yet, the Newberry is not a static place of dusty books frozen in time, but an intellectual laboratory of scholars and researchers reinterpreting ancient artifacts with contemporary questions.

An example of this phenomena is when Paul and I collaborated on an AIGA Chicago article that focused on buildings that used to be painted with typographic advertisements and company messages called “When is the façade a fallacy?.” Paul and I walked west on Madison Street looking at storefront churches and shops that still used typographic vernacular as a way to communicate with their environment and asked where has all the typography gone from buildings?

Paul continues to engage with researchers, designers and many others about the collections at the Newberry and has shown an interest in willingness to make it an active and contemporary place where history and possible futures can meet.