Louise Sandhaus is a graphic designer, author, scholar — and as the founder and co-director of The People’s Graphic Design Archive (PGDA) project to expand, diversify, and preserve graphic design history — she’s an innovative champion for the field she loves. Research for her acclaimed and award-winning book on the history of California graphic design — Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires and Riots: California and Graphic Design 1936-1986 (2014, Metropolis Books/Thames & Hudson) — also spawned the idea that grew into the just-launched PGDA. With contributions already numbering over 5,000 and over 10,000 global users, the site includes everything from finished design projects to process materials, photos, correspondence, oral histories, interviews, published/unpublished articles, and links to other archives. This effort encourages community discourse in building an unconventional repository to which anyone might contribute from anywhere in the world — preserving what would otherwise be lost, and honoring fresh perspectives.
L.A. WEEKLY: When did you first know you were an artist?
LOUISE SANDHAUS: I don’t consider myself an artist but rather a graphic designer. I was apprenticed to an ad agency in high school, and my parents were both in the graphic arts, so it must have seemed like my destiny! I did think for two minutes in high school about becoming a stage director. Either way, I knew that I liked orchestrating things, whether the “things” were words and pictures or people and objects on a stage.
What is your short answer to people who ask what your work is about?
Right now, it’s about trying to expand what we identify as “graphic design” and what compromises graphic design’s history. Even though graphic design is everywhere (every form of visual communication that includes text & images), the way its lineage has been represented suggests a very limited family tree — until recently, mostly Modernism. But there have been incredible graphic works made by all sorts of people historically that have been overlooked and provide inspiration and insight into the diversity of visual language. My work is about pushing back and opening possibilities, whether it’s how exhibitions take place, reading experiences, and currently, what constitutes graphic design history. It’s why I started The People’s Graphic Design Archive (PGDA), in which I’ve orchestrated a way for everyone to decide what should be part of our history and to include it easily.
Did you go to art school? Why/Why not?
I first went to what would be considered a commercial art school. Kind of a trade school. There were very few graphic design programs in the 1970s. I went on to get a BFA in graphic design, then an MFA, and finally a graduate laureate. I wanted to learn skills at first and how to apply them to projects that aimed to “educate, inform and delight” (in the parlance of what graphic design is.) But then, in the 1980s, I became interested in graphic design as a cultural practice. At the same time, I was interested in how computers would change what we made and how we made it. And I also became interested in design pedagogy.
Why do you live and work in L.A., and not elsewhere?
I live in both L.A. and Ojai. I’m insane about L.A. and about California, which is why I spent 10+ years writing a book about California’s graphic design history. I love the crazy street energy — the endless unfurling of activity all at once and everywhere. Every kind of cultural production goes on and is simultaneously valued and valuable. Finally, it’s the sun and light and openness and sense of the body that keeps me here. I’d shrivel and die under anything less than these conditions.
When is/was your current/most recent/next show or project?
On September 1, we launched The People’s Graphic Design Archive’s new permanent site. The next phase of this mega-project is to create ways that make it easy and encourage people to do research and uncover and preserve work by those who have been overlooked — anywhere in the world. We’re working with others who want to do graphic design Roadshows (like Antiques Roadshow) in their communities. This is where the public is invited to bring their graphic design treasures to be identified and add them to The Archive. We’re also planning “Add-athons” where groups work together to add missing historical material.
Website and social media handles, please!
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