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Portland Design
History Initiative

Overview

Portland, Oregon’s history of innovative advertising and design is rooted in the mid-century, when the city staked its claim in the creative industry. The designers of this era defined Portland as a hub for compelling hand lettering and type design,  as a leader in design for the outdoor industry, and aligned the counterculture movement through their use of independent publishing. From the beginning, it was a community that embraced the spirit of collaboration. 

 

Portland designers established Pendleton as the “wool standard”, wrote books that defined the profession, introduced the world to sports brand endorsements, and inspired the future of digital typography. Much of the work created during this era did not survive. The work has been undervalued by art and educational institutions for decades, and often discarded by family members. As time passes, the design work from earlier eras becomes more endangered.

 

The Portland Design History initiative seeks to reveal the stories of our early creatives and the brands, studios, publications and organizations that shaped our city. This project seeks to capture some of the history of the design profession in Portland and honor the contributions of our predecessors. While the focus is on the 1960s and 1970s, in the process of sharing the biographies of designers with long careers, work from many other eras is covered. 

We seek help from the design community to expand the scope of the stories we tell. Please email: melissa@meldel.com if you have a lead or a suggestion for someone to interview.

The Mainstream Modernists

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The 1960s design scene had elements that may seem familiar to designers today: passionate creatives and a collaborative work ethic. Out of this creative pool emerged design greats like Byron Ferris, Doug Lynch, Bennet Norrbo, Charles Politz, Homer Groening and Joe Erceg. Portland designers known and unknown offered visuals to oppose the Vietnam War, developed graphics to launch airlines, created illustrations to celebrate Sputnik and published underground newspapers to spread new ideas.

 

In the words of copywriter Tim Leigh (from whom Portland Design History inherited much of its research), “This was an era of relative vigor economically, of widespread consumerism, of interest in acquisition of the 'American dream,' and of great strides in technology and communications to carry messages to the public. In Portland, it was a transition time between the old, 'space-broker' days of early advertising—Adolph Bloch, Joseph Gerber, Don Dawson and others —and the brave new world of computer-generated art and messaging. Lithography was taking over for letterpress; designers prepared their own mechanical art and required expert assistance from a community of typesetters, printers, color separators, and the like. It was an exciting, chaotic time, because it existed on the cusp between handcraft and automation, and practitioners were scrambling to keep up.” Businesses became sold on the value of branding and designers learned how to define their work, advocate for its value and coalesce around industry standards. It should be noted that not everyone in Portland was granted access to the full extent of the “American Dream”. Red-lining and ghettoization of the Albina neighborhood ensured members of the Black community were held back from participating in the full extent of the Portland’s economy. 

The Stories we Tell

 The 1960s and 1970s was a time period when women and BIPOC designers were sparse or non-existent in traditional design studios. When women were employed at a design firm, they were often placed in assistant or admin roles (sometimes despite having talent and experience doing design during war years). There are some rare exceptions, and we have gone out of our way to dig in when we find them. In order to tell more diverse stories, we need break out of the mold of the traditional, commercial design studios and look to design work from community groups, independent newspapers, and other non-traditional sources. We have begun this work (see Collections), but are committed to doing more!  

 

This is not a complete guide to Portland’s early creative industry. This is an ongoing project, and you can contribute! Email melissa@meldel.com with story ideas.

Project Background

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The Portland Design History project was founded by Independent Designer, Melissa Delzio (also of Our Portland Story, Meldel), in 2014 with an event at Design Week called, Portland Designers of the Mad Men Era. That event featured the work and stories of Byron Ferris, Charles Politz, and Bennet Norrbo. Since 2014, Melissa has conducted over a dozen interviews with designers who were prominent in the era, as well as with spouses, children, friends and colleagues of prominent designers. Previous to 2014, a similar design history initiative was started by Tim Leigh. In 2008 he wrote, “We’d like to create a vehicle that follows the rise of design in Portland, to serve as a chronicle of fact and to notice the personalities that influenced its course along the way. Prime purpose of this entity would be to supply a historical narrative for students and practitioners of design—to show the steps taken to make the profession what it is here, to develop a visual record of design produced here, and to identify and characterize important contributors.”

 

After Melissa interviewed Tim in 2017, their work was combined. It is because of Tim’s extensive work framing the project, interviewing key players and his collection of original documents that this project is as robust as it is. Thank you Tim Leigh!

Portland State University

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In January of 2020, Portland State University supported this initiative, hosting a research/writing class for Graphic Design students titled, Portland Design History, led by Melissa Delzio. The objective was to boost this initiative by enlisting the next generation of designers to tell the story of their predecessors. 

PSU students conducted over a dozen interviews about designers who were prominent in the era. Biographies written by PSU students feature in this publication titled, Original.
 

Original, the PSU publication is available for download.

Interview List

Roger Bachman (interviewed by Tim Leigh)

Sarah Bachman (interviewed by Melissa Delzio)

Maria Corvallis (interviewed by Olivia Ridgley)

Mark Christensen (interviewed by Melissa Delzio)

Barbara Eden (interviewed by Melissa Delzio)

Joe Erceg (interviewed by Melissa Delzio)

Matt Erceg (interviewed by Melissa Delzio, Nicola Cheadle )

Carol Ferris (interviewed by Melissa Delzio)

Jake Kiehle (interviewed by Melissa Delzio)

Rupert Kinnard (interviewed by  Fahad Al-Meraikhi, Melissa Delzio)

Tim Leigh (interviewed by Melissa Delzio, Nicole Donisi)

Tom Lincoln (interviewed by Melissa Delzio)

John Lynch (interviewed by Melissa Delzio)

Marilyn Murdoch (interviewed by Melissa Delzio, Naomi Likayi)

Mark Norrander (interviewed by Wolfgang Schildmeyer)

Meridel Prideaux (interviewed by Melissa Delzio)

​Eiko Politz (interviewed by Melissa Delzio)

Robert Reynolds (interviewed by Melissa Delzio)

Frank Roehr (interviewed by Tim Leigh)

Joan Sotomayor (interviewed by Melissa Delzio)

Melvin Ulven (interviewed by Tim Leigh)

Loren Weeks (interviewed by Ash Horn)

Ryan Wiley, Denise Wiley and Lyn Blessing (interviewed by Melissa Delzio)

Sally Wong (interviewed by Melissa Delzio)

Thank You

Tim Leigh for sharing his work.

Sarah Bachman and Meridel Prideaux for their support.

Portland State University for getting students engaged!

Michael Buchino for being my archive dive buddy.

Liza Schade for support on oral history interviews.

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