Eiko Emori, Pioneering Graphic Designer


Cover of Putlu, 30-nik arraagunik titiqtugaqattalirninga [Pudlo, Thirty Years of Drawing] (1990), written by Marie Routledge and Marion E. Jackson, designed by Eiko Emori, and featuring Pudlo Pudlat’s original drawing for Fox in Camp (1975). Reproduced with the permission of Dorset Fine Arts

If Canada gave out titles for Living National Treasures, graphic designer Eiko Emori would certainly qualify. From the 1960s to the 1990s, as an independent design consultant, Ms. Emori produced close to forty exhibition catalogues for the National Gallery.

This past fall, the Gallery’s Library and Archives hosted a panel discussion, during which Ms. Emori recalled some of her career highlights. The session was well attended by curatorial, publications and archives professionals, reflecting the high regard her work enjoys among those who appreciate good graphic design.

Before immigrating to Canada in 1963, Ms. Emori had pursued a remarkable and, for its time, an unusually global education. Beginning in Tokyo, she continued her studies in London and Paris, ultimately earning an M.F.A. in Graphic Design from Yale. It wasn’t long after she moved to Ottawa in 1967 that the National Gallery’s publications unit engaged her to design catalogues and posters for its exhibitions.

During the panel discussion, Ms. Emori noted that typography was her principal tool as a graphic designer. When carefully chosen, type can reflect not only an artist’s work, but also his or her sensibility. One of the examples Ms. Emori described was the catalogue The MacCallum bequest of paintings by Tom Thomson and other Canadian painters . . . (1969), for which she chose a clean and elegant typeface designed in 1915 by Frederic Goudy. For the catalogue, Dürer and His Contemporaries (1970), on the other hand, she decided on Old English, which resembles the typeface used for the Gutenberg Bible, printed some 20 years before Dürer’s birth. For the Venice Biennale catalogue, Canada: Ron Martin, Henry Saxe (1978), she felt that Times New Roman, developed in London in 1932, would be the best choice for a trilingual text in English, French and Italian.

Ever the perfectionist, Ms. Emori researched each artist, and even learned a foreign language or two. She taught herself the Hebrew script so that she could proofread her catalogue for an exhibition travelling to Tel Aviv. With assistance from the Canada Council, she also developed syllabic typefaces for Algonquian languages such as Eastern Cree, as well as the Inuit language, Inuktitut. Her Inuktitut font can be seen in Putlu, 30-nik arraagunik titiqtugaqattalirninga (1990), the Inuktitut version of Pudlo, Thirty Years of Drawing (see illustration).

Helvetica, a typeface developed in Basel in 1957, has long been a favourite among designers wanting a highly readable, sans-serif font. Ms. Emori felt it particularly appropriate to accompany Minimalist art, which eschewed individual expression and favoured clean, simple lines without decorative flourishes. American artists Dan Flavin and Donald Judd, two of Minimalism’s leading figures, were featured in National Gallery solo exhibitions in 1969 and 1975, respectively. The catalogues designed by Ms. Emori for these two exhibitions are now considered models of careful scholarship and design, and remain prized by collectors.


Cover of the 1975 Donald Judd exhibition catalogue / catalogue raisonné, by Brydon E. Smith, designed by Eiko Emori

Ms. Emori recalled that curators such as Brydon E. Smith always involved artists in discussions with the catalogue designer. The following quote from a 1969 letter by Dan Flavin to Smith shows just how creative this association could be: “Please reiterate to Eiko that I sense that I like the developing block-like bulk of the small catalogue. Let’s continue to set graphic precedents.”

Following her sessions with artist and curator, Ms. Emori would respond with a maquette featuring detailed typesetting and print specifications. Once the final design was approved, a Gallery-led team began a production process that included translation, editing, typesetting, preparation of art for printing, and final printing. Ms. Emori modestly described her graphic innovations as “by-products” of this process.

The monumental Donald Judd (1975) was the first catalogue raisonné produced by the National Gallery. It soon became an important scholarly resource and the foundation for an ongoing, American-led project aimed at covering Judd’s entire career. Although not given to easy praise of museums, Judd himself wrote to express his pleasure in both the catalogue and the exhibition to National Gallery Director Jean Boggs.

The heft of the Judd catalogue gives it a sculptural quality. The light cadmium-red of the cover was carefully chosen, evoking the artist’s 1963–1964 solo exhibition at New York City’s Green Gallery, the first to display his three-dimensional “specific objects.” The catalogue’s page layout also includes generous white space around text and illustrations, reflecting the way Judd liked his works displayed in galleries.

When it was published, Donald Judd won a design award, and attracted praise from leading curators in Britain and the U.S.A. The publication has even inspired Canadian artists. In 1994, Rodney Graham produced Donald Judd Catalogue Raisonné, the National Gallery of Canada, a sculpture consisting of an actual Judd catalogue encased in anodized aluminum, projecting from the wall. Working with paper in 2004, Toronto-based artist Derek Sullivan created a hand-drawn version of the catalogue, filled with blank pages that honoured the original, while perhaps implying that the contents were unimportant for many owners of the publication.

The panel discussion provided a belated tribute to a talented and dedicated graphic designer who somehow managed to get inside the heads of curators and artists alike, creating evocative catalogues and other print materials that have stood the test of time.

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