Paula Scher’s groundbreaking identity and graphic campaign for New York’s Public Theater inevitably set a new bar for typography of the 1990s. “Using unorthodox spacing, mixing font colors and weights, and employing uncommon and often historic typefaces, Scher’s text-heavy poster presents a large amount of information in a dynamic and expressive way” notes MoMA. “Fusing highbrow and lowbrow, this eclectic and irreverent approach signals Paula Scher‘s affiliation with the New Wave graphic designers of the 1980s and 1990s, who rejected modernism’s neat grid and cool effect. Scher’s identity for the Public Theater places emphasis on the word ‘public‘ to position the institution as an affordable and accessible venue for all.”

It all started back in 1994. That was the year when Pentagram‘s partner Paula Scher designed her very fist distinctive posters for New York’s annual Shakespeare in the Park events by The Public Theatre. “The Public Theatre identity is based on being extremely loud and visible and urban” told Scher in an interview with Hillman Curtis of her accomplishment to create “the first American Shakespeare poster ever.”

Pentagram X Public Theater creative synergy would eventually influence much of the graphic design created for theatrical promotion and for cultural institutions in general. “The original identity responded to The Public’s mission to provide accessible and innovative performances, creating a graphic language that reflects street typography in its extremely active, unconventional and almost graffiti-like juxtaposition” notes Pentagram

“The 1995 posters Pentagram designed for The Public Theater’s production of Savion Glover’s Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk featured the wood typefaces used throughout The Public’s identity. The play’s title and theater logos surrounded the tap artist in a typographical be-bop, like urban noise. And for the first time, advertising for The Public appeared all over the New York City landscape, from Chelsea to Harlem, in Times Square, at the Lincoln Tunnel, on city buses, and most fittingly, beneath one’s feet on the sidewalk. After this campaign, The Public’s typographic style popped up everywhere, from magazine layouts to advertising for other shows. In fact, the whole style of theater advertising changed and everything began to be displayed in blocky wood type in all caps. The Public’s campaigns have had to continuously change to stay fresh in the city’s highly competitive theatrical market.”

“Individually the posters tend to reflect what is going on culturally at the time, for example posters for the 1995 performances of ‘The Tempest’ and ‘Troilus and Cressida’ carried the political and promotional message ‘Free Will’ that was not only an advertisement for the free performances, but also a rallying cry to arts supporters to exercise their public influence as that year a conservative Republican Congress was threatening federal funding of the arts. The 1996 poster for the productions of ‘Henry V’ and ‘Timon of Athens’ afforded Pentagram some of the most playful typography of the series, combining handwriting with wood type. The typography of the 1998 poster emphasized the melodrama of the two plays featured, Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’ and Thornton Wilder’s ‘Skin of Our Teeth’. While winking at news headlines during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the posters for ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and ‘Tartuffe’ singled out the words ‘lust,’ ‘shrew’ and ‘tart’ in a degraded fluorescent red. For the 2000 design of the poster for ‘Winter’s Tale’ and ‘Julius Caesar’ Scher reversed form and did a deliberate pastel poster. The design also subtly related the state of print in the millennium —on the Web… In 2003, after the invasion of Iraq, a poster for ‘Henry V’ featured a quote from the play (‘We doubt not of a fair and lucky war…’).”

 “Fusing highbrow and lowbrow, this eclectic and irreverent approach signals Scher’s affiliation with the New Wave graphic designers of the 1980s and 1990s, who rejected modernism’s neat grid and cool effect”

“In 2005, The Public celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. That same year George Wolfe left and Oskar Eustis joined as artistic director. As part of the organization’s anniversary campaign, the identity was redrawn using the font Akzidenz Grotesk. The word ‘theater’ at the bottom of the logo was dropped, placing even more emphasis on the word public and the organization as a whole, as opposed to a specific location (the theater building). Posters for the 2005 plays ‘As You Like It’ and ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ ushered in Akzidenz Grotesk as the identity’s new principal font. In 2006 the Akzidenz Grotesk was extended and ‘War’ was declared for productions of ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Mother Courage and Her Children’. A corrective slate of the romantic comedies ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in 2007 led to ‘Free Love’ in the park and an Akzidenz Grotesk that was ardently italicized and provocatively rounded. In 2008, Pentagram updated the identity, produced in conjunction with a major renovation of The Public’s multi-theater complex on Lafayette Street. The letterforms have been redrawn using the Hoefler & Frere-Jones font Knockout. The new, more refined system retained the active nature of the original but provides more structure, while the change from a vertical to horizontal organization has the effect of making the logo more architectural.” Pentagram’s new graphic system for the Public Theater was first seen in the 2008 Shakespeare in the Park posters which utilizes the strict 90° angles of a De Stijl-inspired grid. With the bold Victorian woodblock type retained, the space is organized by angled printers rules, “a distinctive throwback that adds structure while it references woodblock type.”

“I operate really strongly on my instincts. If I don’t get it on the first crack, I get it on the second. And if I don’t get it in a second, I almost never get it. Because it’s been a very intuitive process for me: I’ve never been a refiner; my best work has been big bold strokes that came very quickly” said Paula Scher, Pentagram’s female powerhouse who has been reinventing the visual language of The Public Theater since the 90s in her mission to bring typography to one of NYC’s most brilliant stages ever. In the event of Scher’s latest promotional campaign for the 2019 season of the Public Theater which premieres tonight at the Delacorte in Central Park we delve into Pentagram’s vault for a bold, inspirational, overdose. 

Shakespeare in the Park 2019

“Much Ado About Nothing” and “Coriolanus” are the featured productions in the 2019 edition of Central Park’s Shakespeare in the Park. Pentagram has created the promotional campaign for the season combining bold typography, bright summer colors, and a tagline that sums up the plays as “Rumors and Rebels.” Each year, the season design changes in the use and spirit of Knockout, the font of the Public identity. The previous year’s campaign featured strong black type and the designers wanted to go in the opposite direction for the new season. The 2019 look is fun and playful, with skewed bands of typography layered on color shapes in a Pop art palette of blue, red and yellow, inspired by circus posters, bubble gum and Wonder Bread.

Working with Pentagram, the in-house team at the Public extended the look of the posters into additional applications, including a complete system of signage for the Delacorte, gala invites, and swag such as t-shirts and totes. As always the typographic approach is also a preview of the graphics for the upcoming 2019-2020 season at the Public, which will build on the Shakespeare campaign to create a full visual personality for the year.

Shakespeare in the Park 2018

Othello and Twelfth Night were the featured productions in the 2018 edition of Shakespeare in the Park. For the season’s promotional campaign Pentagram has combined striking extended typography, a fresh color palette and the tagline “Be in the Park.” This was the 24th Pentagram’s campaign since 1994 with each year’s season design changes in the use and spirit of Knockout, the font of the Public identity. The letterforms of the 2018 graphics stretch and expand to dynamically fill the space on a field of gradated color. In a first for the Shakespeare in the Park campaigns, the posters were originally conceived to appear as animated graphics.

Working with Pentagram, the in-house team at the Public extended the look of the posters into additional applications, including a complete system of signage for the Delacorte, gala invites, and swag such as t-shirts and totes. The typographic approach was also a preview of the graphics for the upcoming 2018-2019 season at the Public, which will build on the Shakespeare campaign to create a full visual personality for the year, including the season brochure, posters, print advertisements, and banners for the façade of the Public, as well as promotional materials.

Shakespeare in the Park 2017

A timely new production of “Julius Caesar” kicked off the 2017 edition of Shakespeare in the Park. Pentagram, working in collaboration with Kirstin Huber, art director at the Public, has created the promotional campaign for the season, which combines striking images and quotes from the play that resonate in the current political era. The first campaign to break the season into two separate campaigns for the pair of productions -the second play being “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” this collaboration was for the first time comprised of a series of multiple posters with different designs for each play, rather than just one.

The “Julius Caesar” campaign mixes images of hands and weaponry and lines from Shakespeare’s text that relate to what’s going on politically, such as the famous “Cry havoc! And let slip the dogs of war.” The typography modifies Knockout, the font of the iconic Public Theater identity, by squaring off the inside of the letterforms for a hard, rigid look which stood apart from a more soft and fluid appearance for the “Midsummer’s” campaign. The type is layered with color for a dimensional effect that evokes digital video. The graphics have been expanded into a complete system of environmental graphics for the Delacorte and swag such as t-shirts and totes.

Shakespeare in the park 2016

Love and war face off in the 2016 campaign for Shakespeare in the Park. The season’s program paired the witty romantic comedy ”The Taming of the Shrew” with “Troilus and Cressida,” the dark historical tragedy set during the Trojan War. In the campaign, created in collaboration with Kirstin Huber, the Public’s art director, the striking typography appears against a black background and is set off with comic-book style outlines. 

Shakespeare in the Park 2015

Pentagram’s iconic Public Theater identity went to pieces in the campaign for the 2015 season of Shakespeare in the Park. The summer program paired “The Tempest”, Shakespeare’s stormy classic about the magic of storytelling, with the fairy-tale romance “Cymbeline”. Playing off the word “free,” 2015’s design was handmade and existed as lines of sliced typography that were cut through photography or large-scale words. The tempest of type created a mini-identity that both dramatically updated the familiar Public Theater brand.

The Shakespeare posters were designed by Pentagram, and then extended and elaborated into a full system of season graphics by Kirstin Huber, the Public’s art director, and her in-house team of designers, Tammy Shell (graphic designer and photographer) and Kameron Neal (junior graphic designer). Working with Pentagram’s oversight, Huber skillfully rolled out each season with remarkable invention, building a full visual personality in graphics that appeared on posters, the season brochure, print advertisements, the redesigned website, and banners for the restored façade, as well as promotional materials for Joe’s Pub.

“In our two decades-plus designing for The Public, this flexible approach to the graphics has helped pioneer the development of dynamic identity systems that can adapt to potentially hundreds of applications. Cultural institutions that have robust programming need both strong institutional identities and the ability to differentiate their various programs, events, initiatives and seasons. With countless expressions in print and digital media, as well as environmental installations like sniped posters on the street, identity is ‘always on’ and meets audiences wherever they are. An institutional identity must look as good in an ad in a Google search as it does in signage on a front of a building” notes Pentagram. “At the Public this means each play or event has its own poster image within a seasonal look that enables a myriad of digital and print communications to hang together. Each year’s season design changes in color and in the use and spirit of Knockout, the font of the Public identity. For instance, last year’s Shakespeare in the Park posters juxtaposed the play titles in slanted typography, which was expanded into a full season of skewed type for the 2014-2015 campaign. A similar approach was used in 2013, when the overprinting effect of the Shakespeare posters led to a season of red, blue and yellow graphics.”

“The Public Theatre identity is based on being extremely loud and visible and urban” 

Shakespeare in the Park 2014

The works of William Shakespeare span from the lightest comedies to the darkest tragedies, a range celebrated in the 2014 productions of Shakespeare in the Park. The 2014 program juxtaposed Much Ado About Nothing, one of Shakespeare’s most joyful works, with King Lear, one of his most devastating. Pentagram’s campaign for the 2014 festival brought the two plays against each other, with the lively green and yellow of Much Ado balanced by the shadowy black and gray of Lear. The contrasting points of view were paired in dramatically skewed typography, a first for the annual campaign. As always the type is set in Knockout, the font of the Public Theater identity.

Shakespeare in the Park 2013 

Pentagram has designed our 19th season campaign for Shakespeare in the Park. “After almost two decades, we’re allowed to make a few mistakes” playfully notes Pentagram. “Introducing The Comedy of srorrE Errors and evoL Love’s Labour Lost.”

Shakespeare in the Park 2012 

Joseph Papp, the founder of the Public Theater and New York Shakespeare Festival, took his free performances of Shakespeare “into the woods” of Central Park to the Delacorte, the Public’s amphitheater in the park for 2012. The Delacorte first opened on June 18, 1962, and over the past five decades over 5 million people have enjoyed more than 100 productions presented at the theater.

To celebrate the fifty year anniversary, the Public mounted two forest-oriented productions for the 2012 edition Shakespeare in the Park: “As You Like It,” Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, and “Into the Woods,” a new staging of Stephen Sondheim’s classic 1986 musical. Pentagram has designed the festival campaign, which launched with a full-page ad in The New York Times before “entering” the streets, subways, and buses of New York. The 18th Pentagram X Public Theater campaign represented a departure from the graphic language of past seasons. The fun, celebratory, and purely about the park 2012 campaign, designed with Kirstin Huber, the Public’s in-house graphic designer, has a looser feel than past posters. The tagline of “Shakespeare and Sondheim in the Park” appears in a large swath of verdant green with a rough edge that evokes trees and greenery. Smaller typographic elements diagram a kind of journey through the woods, with bits of information pointing out a path through the green. 

The campaign prominently displayed the Public’s logo, to help brand Shakespeare in the Park as the institution’s most visible program. The rough edge of the green provides a place to integrate the many sponsor logos, one of the annual challenges of designing the posters. The slightly abstract nature of this year’s campaign allowed the designers to expand it into a program of custom signage that will be installed at the Delacorte. It also allowed for a break from the established look of the Public graphics, as a new campaign for the Public will emerge this fall to coincide with the completion of the extensive renovation of the institution’s lobby and façade at its Astor Place home.

Shakespeare in the Park 2011

The streets met the sheets in Pentagram’s 2011 campaign for Shakespeare in the Park. As the 2011 productions were “All’s Well That Ends Well” and “Measure for Measure” with both plays containing elements of bedroom farce, “Shakespeare in bed” was the campaign’s frisky tagline. In the 3-sheet version of the poster, the play titles, set in Knockout, canoodle with the sinuous curves of an outsize ampersand on a photographic image of a bed. Skewed bands of typography were layered on color shapes in a Pop art palette of blue, red and yellow, inspired by circus posters, bubble gum, and Wonder Bread.

Shakespeare in the Park 2010

The 2010 edition of Shakespeare in the Park presented to the public two powerful productions of “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Merchant of Venice” starring Al Pacino as Shylock. Pentagram has designed the festival’s promotional campaign focusing on the evocative language in both plays, pulling lines from each to meet in a dimensional explosion of words and typography.

All images via Pentagram 

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