PHARMA art show in New York

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New York’s Cooper Union recently hosted PHARMA, an exhibit focusing on graphic design in the pharmaceutical industry from the 1940’s to present day. The show featured original and rarely seen works by luminaries including Andy Warhol, Lester Beall, Will Burtin and Herb Lubalin. As a trusted partner with the pharmaceutical industry for over 15 years, Buster Creative was delighted to hear about this exhibit. We were fortunate to speak directly with the man behind PHARMA, Alexander Tochilovsky, Curator at the The Herb Lubalin Study Center at The Cooper Union. Read the full interview below.

Buster Creative: How many people attended the PHARMA exhibit? Did you receive any good response or feedback?

Alexander Tochilovsky: We don’t keep that kind of statistic, we don’t track attendance. But the opening was very well attended, perhaps 500 people. And I would guess that over the course of the exhibition run there was maybe another 1000 visitors. The show got very favorable response, some in person, and some in print.

BC: How did you decide to start the PHARMA exhibit?

Tochilovsky: I was inspired by some of the materials in the Study Center (which is an extensive archive of graphic design ephemera). We have some really great examples of early designs for the pharmaceutical industry, including many by Herb Lubalin, whose archive of work was the foundation of the study center. I was intrigued by the subject matter, as it is really not often talked about in the context of graphic design history.  The materials were also rarely seen as all of them were intended to be seen by doctors, so the general public has never really seen this work.

BC: How did you choose the pieces for the exhibit?

Tochilovsky: Most of the pieces come from our collections, so essentially we showed as much of the material that we own. The pieces were chosen also to illustrate the evolution of the industry. We also borrowed a few pieces that focused mostly on European designs for pharma.

BC: What made graphic design in the pharmaceutical industry at that time so unique?

Tochilovsky: The designs were unique mostly because the industry was just being born. There was a lot of excitement and a lot of openness and freedom (as well as a lack of very strong oversight). The designers were able to explore things that were interesting to them, to implement ideas from the art movements that were occurring in Europe. They were making something new.

BC: How have these pieces impacted the pharmaceutical industry today and advertising in general?

Tochilovsky: I think as the work evolved, and competition increased marketing became increasingly more important. So in some ways these pieces shaped how marketing was conceived of and the role that design plays in marketing of drugs. New ways of promoting drugs were invented, new vehicles, such as magazines made by pharmaceutical companies. But in terms of visual residue, I don’t think there is much visible impact in today’s pharmaceutical work that can be attributed to these early designs. Most of this work has been forgotten, agencies have changed, structures changed, regulations tightened. The industry has changed.

BC: What was your favorite piece from the exhibit?

Tochilovsky: I have many, but my absolute favorite piece is the set of promotional booklets designed by Alex Ross for Sharp & Dohme in the 1940s. They are the ones that spurned me to create the exhibition. His work is really unknown, as he tragically passsed away  in 1950 at the young age of 36, but in his relatively short time produced an incredible amount of work that rivaled the work of his contemporaries, luminaries such as Paul Rand. His work exhibited an exuberance and freedom of experimentation that was inherent in that period of work for pharma. He was clearly influenced by the avant-garde movements in Europe and found his own visual voice within this work. His work deserves to be seen as it is really strong, and serves as a great example of the high level of design that was prevalent in the early days of pharmaceutical marketing.

BC: What’s next for the PHARMA exhibit? Will it be traveling or opening again soon?

Tochilovsky: The show is not scheduled to travel. And at the moment we are trying to figure out if a catalog might be feasible. We are looking into raising the necessary funds to allow for a catalog to be produced.

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