Essay

Design for Willi Smith

Polymode

In 1999, when we were just entering college, the World Health Organization estimated that 14 million people had died of AIDS,^1 448,060 of those in the United States.^2 They were friends and fathers, sons and daughters. They were able teachers, leaders, creators, and guides.

Our young minds were still grappling with what it meant to be sexual beings, let alone with what it meant to be “gay.” We had to process the profound anxiety surrounding unsafe sex—the terror that being gay equaled death by AIDS. At the time, we observed the public crash of that first wave: MTV, Benetton, Ryan White, the AIDS Quilt, Magic Johnson, Keith Haring.

We did not know then that as we grew older we would have a shortage of mentors. In the trove of human and cultural Queer existence, where was the light in the dark, the hermit holding that lamp of truth, the disco ball illuminating our radiant and sweaty frames? Who would hold that space? We felt the absence: who do we talk to? How do we handle this fire hydrant of feelings? Why do these taboos feel so good? When will this shame go away? How do we transmute this anger into art? Ghosts don’t answer; they haunt, linger, and fade.

When Cooper Hewitt approached us to create a graphic identity and typographic system to communicate Willi Smith’s ingenious, multivalent, and complex body of work, we saw an opportunity to honor a design ancestor’s legacy. This has been one of our studio’s most challenging, inspiring, and heart-healing projects to date.

Smith excelled at collaborating with discipline-crossing visionaries that defied genre by manipulating text, image, and material form. In the beginning stages of our research, we were especially drawn to WilliWear’s collaborations with Dan Friedman and Bill Bonnell. Friedman was one of the few Queer designers referenced by our largely heterosexual faculty. His dynamic typographic experiments reflected both the rational lineage of the Bauhaus and an upstart postmodern approach.The wild graphics and interior design Friedman designed for WilliWear upended societal expectations of corporate branding and space by embracing a Queer sensibility. Similarly, Bonnell’s work for WilliWear captured the brand’s explosive creativity within the still traditional fashion system.

The poster for Bonnell’s landmark exhibition Post-Modern Typography: Recent American Developments introduces “visual design that uses typography not only to inform but to express—type that explains an idea and in cases almost visually becomes the idea.”We channeled this ethos into a design concept for Willi Smith: Street Couture that reflects Smith’s playful fusion of practicality and individual expression for everyday living.

Smith worked with a spirit of utilitarian accessibility in the design of his clothes while transcending the trappings of socially constructed identity. He celebrated his Blackness and embraced his Queerness. In the process of selecting typography for Willi Smith, we felt it was important to find a type designer and type family that could speak to both a Queer Black lineage and the no-nonsense practicality of WilliWear’s separates. We found this in the Halyard typeface, conceptualized by Joshua Darden in collaboration with Eben Sorkin and Lucas Sharp and released by Darden Studio in 2017. Halyard Display creates a bold graphic statement that we believe would have pleased Smith, who once remarked to Women’s Wear Daily, “I hate to see good clothes displayed in a non-special way, without saying anything.”5 The companion Halyard Text is drawn as a “workhorse” typeface; it functions well at smaller point sizes, supporting extended reading of the deep research and precious memories archived in the book.

Willi Smith: Street Couture uses a modular grid that pushes between structure and freedom in homage to Smith’s many facets and many worlds. The gray tones and tints reference SITE’s groundbreaking WilliWear interiors that merged street and showroom through a wash of monochrome. By screening swatches of gray back to a lighter percentage, we ghosted headlines, images, and quotes throughout the book. These veils of transparency serve as navigation tools while also evoking a memorial to Smith and the traces of his impact.

We wanted our design for Willi Smith to create a meaningful container for the Cooper Hewitt curatorial team’s painstaking research, the contributors’ scholarship, and the vivid memories of Smith’s friends and collaborators, allowing Smith’s life and work to shine on as a lighthouse. It is our hope that this approach gives structure to Smith’s message, and leads to a better understanding of how he saw the world and wanted us to play within it. Let this be our offering to his memory.

 

Photograph of three models backstage at WilliWear fashion presentation; one model wears a pink dress with pink striped cardigan and a pink coat thrown over-shoulder. Another model wears a loose-fitting white dress with black leggings and black turban. Third model wears white shirt with black stylized handprints and black and while printed shorts

Willi Smith for WilliWear, Spring 1986 Presentation. Photographed by Peter Gould, 1985


Polymode

Polymode is the bicoastal design studio of Silas Munro and Brian Johnson. Polymode has designed identities and publications for exhibitions of Jacob Lawrence at MoMA, Mark Bradford at the 2017 Venice Biennale, and Great Force for the ICA at VCU.


  1. World Health Organization, The World Health Report 1999: Making a Difference, 1999, Link.
  2. “HIV and AIDS—United States, 1981–2000,” Center for Disease Control, June 1, 2001, Link.
  3. Chris Pullman, “Dan Friedman,” AIGA, September 1, 2015, accessed September, 30, 2019, Link.
  4. Dan Friedman, Post Modern Typography: Recent American DevelopmentsMay 8–26 Ryder Gallery, ca. 1975, offset lithograph on white wove paper, 16 3/16 x 10 7/16” (41.1 x 26.5 cm), Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, Link.
  5. Barbara Ettore, “The Leisure Class,” Women’s Wear Daily (May 14, 1974):4–5.