Exhibit brings orange crate labels to life

The term “orange crate labels” may bring to mind images of splintered, dull crates labeled by peeling stamps. The vibrant art pieces displayed in the California Dreams Exhibit of Grand Valley State University, however, communicate a different scene.

These labels, created by unknown graphic designers, display a variety of styles that give insight into the eras from which each piece came. The exhibit is located on the wall closest to the doors of the Thornapple Gallery in the lower level of the Kirkhof Center.

Summaries displayed throughout the exhibit give information about the history of the pieces, such as how the demand of the navel orange of California created a need for the eye-catching labels, the styles of the illustrations, and how the time period in which they were made influenced them. This collection was donated by David King, assistant professor of graphic design at GVSU, and has been up for display since Jan. 6.

“They are a study in a very specific genre and a form of art that is often overlooked,” said David Newell, curator of exhibitions of the art gallery. “The skill and design expertise that went into these rather ubiquitous objects is pretty amazing.”

These labels are not only unique visually but also in the way they were created. They are not photos or paintings as a passerby might assume at first glance, but they were printed using the “stone lithography” method. This process uses multiple stone blocks in order to achieve the different colors visible on the pieces.

The lack of limestone that was mostly used for this technique created a need for a different material that resulted in the zinc printing plate. Tags by the lithographs inform viewers about whether stone or aluminum was used in the making of the labels.

The collection comes from the period between 1880 and 1950, and it shows a range of work.

“I love how they incorporate elements of the larger design and graphic movements that were occurring during the same periods they were created,” Newell said. “There are distinct references to both elements of the Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Art Moderne movements.”

Newell hung the collection in a mostly chronological order, so when viewed from left to right, the viewer will get a sense of the evolving design movements and printing processes.

This collection demonstrates that art can be found in the places that it is generally sought out in.

“I’d like to think that it is an opportunity to realize that elements of art and good design are everywhere, even in unexpected place,” Newell said. “Perhaps it is an opportunity to not take something for granted and simply overlook it. It is a chance to stop and see something that you might otherwise miss.”