MAD’s Modern New Vibe

Visitors to MAD—that is, the Museum of Arts and Design—might be forgiven for now thinking that the “M” stands for Modern. Its major exhibition at the moment, “Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: Punk Graphics, 1976–1986” (on view through August 18), explores the punk and post-punk movements through the lens of graphic design, featuring more than 400 of punk’s most memorable graphics, including flyers, posters, album covers, and other ephemera—an exhibition with more of a contemporary edge than one might previously have found there. “Punk questioned everything,” says Christopher Scoates, the museum’s director, “and it’s that spirit of inquiry that is driving MAD forward today, presenting and debating innovative works and ideas with lots of energy, color, and noise.”

A view of the exhibition “Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: Punk Graphics, 1976-1986.”

Scoates and the exhibition both came to MAD from the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Scoates’ proudest accomplishment while in his post there was starting a new program in 4D design (essentially adding time and sequence to the design process, whether that’s interactive design, artificial intelligence, or augmented or virtual reality)—its first new program in nearly 50 years. “My aspirations for MAD are not that dissimilar from my accomplishments at Cranbrook,” Scoates says. “Obviously, the history of this institution is based in craft, but we’re beginning to triangulate an important conversation around the future of craft, the future of design, and technology, to open up a dialogue and ask some important questions about the future: What a museum is like in the 21st century, and what does “craft” even mean in the 21st century?”

Christopher Scoates, director of MAD Museum.

Also on display currently, in a similar vein, is “Non-Stick Nostalgia: Y2K Retrofuturism in Contemporary Jewelry” (on view through July 21), which examines creations by today’s jewelry designers who grew up during the turn of the millennium, internalizing the internet-driven futurism of the time, and how that affects their current aesthetic and the work they’re producing now, two decades later.

“Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die” emphasizes the commercial designs of the punk era—album covers, posters, and the like—and displays them without preciousness: Most pieces are affixed to the walls with magnets rather than framed, as though they were hung in a teenager’s bedroom. The exhibition examines the design strategies of that period, “from the black-and-white, very austere early work of ’76-’77, to the very flashy, colorful work of the New Wave period,” Scoates explains. The exhibition, the first of its kind in terms of scale and organized by theme, also looks at type and typography, which changed radically during the punk era, as well as at the way punk was influenced by other cultural phenomena of the time like comics and horror films. The punk era was “all about things being cut up, disorganized, questioning authority, questioning institutions, questioning everything that related to design, too,” says Scoates. The exhibition at MAD was adapted for its New York City run to include items that showcase the NYC punk scene, including flyers from CBGB and concert posters from Blondie and the Ramones.

Jamie Reid and Trevor Key’s work for the Sex Pistols’ The Great Rock’N’Roll Swindle (1979).

MAD’s next major exhibition in this thread is “The World of Anna Sui,” opening in September and exploring the work of the New York-based fashion designer. “In fashion, she’s had a lot of punk elements; there’s a lot of musical influence in her work,” says Scoates. “The audience we’re building on for punk is the same audience I think will be interested in Anna Sui.

“The punk movement certainly made a statement. And I think in many ways the museum is using the exhibition as a metaphor for its future programs,” Scoates says. “We’re looking to mix it up, be a little more dangerous and unpredictable than we have in the past.”

The exterior of MAD Museum.