Emil Antonucci: Designing New York
It’s not often that one thinks about the archives and urban space together. On the one hand, you have the idea of the city—teeming masses, constant and chaotic movement, full-throttle sensory overload. On the other, there’s the image of the archive: cloistered, antiseptic spaces without windows or other natural-lighting, carefully filtering out any and all harmful dust particles and run by order-obsessed metadata-fanatics.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I haven’t seen the sunlight for six hours, and nothing gives as sharp a jolt to the pleasure centers of my cerebral cortex as a sturdy new box filled with crisp acid-free folders, but what if I told you that the archives are actually an essential tool for understanding the city, and that you don’t really “get” NYC until you “get” Emil Antonucci?
Emil Antonucci was in some ways the original “Brooklyn-based creative,” well-before that was even close to being a thing. Born in 1929, he lived most of his life in the neighborhoods of Sheepshead Bay and Bay Ridge. After studying at Cooper Union with artists, calligraphers, and designers Paul Standard, Philip Grushkin, and George Salter, Antonucci began working as a freelance illustrator and book designer while publishing Beat poets like Robert Lax on his small presses, The Hand Press and Journeyman Press.
Antonucci made his biggest and most lasting mark as a graphic designer, contributing to prominent public spaces and institutions across New York City. His first major commission was his 1959 logo design for the Four Seasons Hotel, working alongside such luminaries of modern design as Philip Johnson, Mies van der Rohe, Ada Louise Huxtable, Richard Lippold, and Marie Nichols.
After taking part in this design dream-team, Antonucci was hired by Johnson to create the logos of his NY State Pavilion–part of the 1964 NY World’s Fair–and the logo and sign of Bobst Library at NYU. Antonucci would later design much of the signage found on the NYU campus, as well as signs, maps, information kiosks, and logos found in Union Square, Greenwich Village, Times Square, Parsons, Carnegie Hall, and the Lincoln Center. Whether you know it or not, when you walk through Downtown and Midtown Manhattan, Antonucci guides your path.
Antonucci’s work—highly influenced by Arts and Crafts movement typographer and printmaker Eric Gill—has been described by Justin Zhuang as “modernism with a soft touch.” As I previously wrote of the Jeremiah B Lighter papers, the Antonucci collection illuminates a critical moment in which modernism entered mainstream society—in the case of Antonucci and NYC, quite literally saturating the urban landscape. It’s a self-reflective (even postmodern) moment, in which the urban space of NYC—once the primary influence on modernist art and design—appropriates the very aesthetic forms it helped instigate.
As I was processing this collection, It was startling to realize just how integral Antonucci’s design sensibility was to my own experience of NYC, and even more startling to consider how easily this influence can be completely overlooked. The archive, then, radically transformed my own understanding of the urban space I navigate every day, showing how a hidden design hand can shape everyday life.