As head of Herman Miller’s creative crew, Steve Frykholm has shaped the company’s image for nearly 40 years and won plenty of recognition for it. But his love of poster making began with a stint in Aba, Nigeria, where he worked in the Peace Corps. The journey his posters took eventually landed them in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In 1966, Steve Frykholm arrived in Aba, Nigeria, to teach commercial art at a government-run trade school for girls. How can I give them the chance to learn something they can apply, he thought, a useful trade? Silk screening was the answer, he told a group interested in good design stories from Herman Miller at the Muskegon Museum of Art last Thursday.
The tools were basic: paper stencils and dry pigments mixed with cassava starch. Frykholm even tried his hand. The results for everyone were crude at first, but improved quickly. And then the girls saw a chance to use what they’d learned.
On May 26, 1967, the government of Nigeria’s Eastern Region voted to secede and form the Republic of Biafra. Four days later it voted Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu head of Biafra. The girls started making and selling “I BACK OJUKWU” t-shirts and scarves. Sales were brisk, especially given the tension of the times. But tension turned to open fighting; Frykholm, along with all other Americans in eastern Nigeria, were evacuated by summer.
Back in the U.S., after six weeks of exploring Europe, Frykholm undertook an exhaustive study of silk screening, reading every book he could find on the subject and recording every “drill” he tried in a three-ring binder. He carried that binder with him through his MFA studies at the Cranbrook Academy of Art and to a job as a graphic designer at Herman Miller.
That was 1970. Less than two weeks into the job, Frykholm found a use for his screen print studies. “We have this picnic every year,” an executive told him, “and we’d like you to do a poster for it.” Looking for inspiration, Frykholm put an ear of corn in his mouth and asked a colleague to make a quick sketch. From that, Frykholm made the stencils and prepared the screens. He and his colleague printed 50 posters by hand after hours.
It turned out well, so well, in fact, that Frykholm entered it into an American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) competition. It wasn’t until after he submitted the poster that he read the fine print: All entries had to have been produced in a quantity of 500 or more.
The company agreed to pay for producing another 450 posters. “Corn” won the AIGA award, and Frykholm’s ethics remained high, a fact that was not lost on the selection committee when it chose him to be an AIGA Fellow in 2005, the first from Michigan.
More picnics, more posters, 20 in all. Along the way, a delightful letter arrived from the Museum of Modern Art in 1980: news that the museum had added seven of Frykholm’s picnic posters to its permanent collection. Beyond delighting the eye, Frykholm’s posters are trade raised to art. One wonders if the girls of Aba, Nigeria, are still screen printing.