What says “Guggenheim” to you? Frank Lloyd Wright’s landmark building probably comes to mind, followed, perhaps, by the sweeping silvered surfaces of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Taken literally, though, nothing really says “Guggenheim” like the logo. And with its curving G and air of present-day modernism, the logo’s signature lettering instantly evokes the institution.
While that logo, and the sans-serif typeface on which it is based, do feel integral to the institution’s visual presence today, their conscious adoption as the lynchpin of the foundation’s identity is a relatively recent development: as with any organization of long standing, the Guggenheim’s graphic presence has evolved over the decades with the foundation itself, reflecting shifting styles and institutional needs.
Early on, the Guggenheim had little in the way of a consistent graphic identity. According to Marcia Fardella, director of the Guggenheim’s graphic design department, the museum used an ad hoc mix of typewriter fonts and italics until the late 1960s, when it started using all-uppercase Helvetica for the museum’s letterhead. This timing makes sense to Paul Shaw, typographer and author of Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story. He notes that 1968 was “really the watershed moment for Helvetica; by ’68, it just seems to be everywhere.” Indeed, Helvetica was hardly unique to the museum. It appears that the first identity created specifically for the Guggenheim was designed by Vignelli Associates to coincide with the 1992 reopening of the Frank Lloyd Wright building after the completion of a major renovation and addition by architects Gwathmey Siegel & Associates. Massimo Vignelli’s logo did something so brilliant it now seems obvious: it directly referenced the iconic sign on the building’s facade. Anyone looking at that Wright-inspired lettering on stationery would recognize it immediately. Though the logo was only in use until 1997, the idea behind it would be taken up again by a new set of designers whose work eventually came to underpin most aspects of the Guggenheim’s visual identity.
It started in 1996, when graphic designer Abbott Miller’s firm Design/Writing/Research was hired to reimagine Guggenheim Magazine, a publication then produced by the foundation. Miller, now a partner at the international design firm Pentagram, recalls that the brief was a straightforward magazine redesign, but he and his team decided to propose something a little more ambitious: “The strategy was to create a contemporary typeface based on the Frank Lloyd Wright architectural lettering. Our thinking was, let’s get a font that actually says ‘Guggenheim’ in its design language.” And what better way to do that than to refer back to that one-of-a-kind sign? “Whatever you did with the magazine’s layout design, if you had this signature typeface that was derived from the sign on the Wright building, you would be on-brand,” Miller explains.
The idea of creating a Guggenheim-specific typeface was not entirely unprecedented: for some years, the Guggenheim had used a display font, consisting solely of capital letters, that directly referenced the sign. But what Miller proposed was a fully developed typeface, complete with a lowercase alphabet and different weights. Miller gave the job of translating the sign into a font family to typeface designer Jonathan Hoefler of Hoefler & Frere-Jones. “The first step was to see how much of the flavor of the [sign] lettering we could get into the typeface,” remembers Hoefler. This proved to be no easy task: the lettering needed to work at a small size on the page; more than that, Hoefler had to synthesize an entire lowercase alphabet based on the sign’s few capital letters. For that, Hoefler immersed himself in period typography, exploring how the Wright building lettering related to other geometric fonts. The resulting typeface—then called “Guggenheim”—is modernist without being retro. Neither Miller nor Hoefler wanted the new alphabet to be a strict appropriation of the sign, but they did opt to create an alternate, more rounded G that would act as a nod to the sign lettering. “We all realized that the G was going to be one of the clearest tie-backs to the original lettering, so its fidelity to the architectural lettering was very important,” he explains.
The typeface debuted successfully in Guggenheim Magazine’s Fall 1996 issue, where then-foundation director Thomas Krens noted that “embedded within the very letters . . . is a sense of the Guggenheim Museum’s distinguished history.” A year later, the typeface made its way into the Guggenheim’s identity, when New York–based firm Real Design Associates used it as the basis for a unified logo system. This system began to address the fact of the foundation’s increasing global reach, rendering the names of the Guggenheim Museum and its affiliates in upper-and-lowercase, with different colors and lighter uppercase lettering to denote the various museums.
The changing nature of the institution continued to inform the visual identity between 2007 and 2009. Based on audience and member research, it was decided that the name “Guggenheim,” without modifiers, would be recognized as the logo for the foundation. Miller, now at Pentagram, created a logo that could stand alone; harking back again to the sign, he put the new logo in all-capitals. “It became more powerful as a word mark in the all-caps construction,” he explains. On the occasion of the Wright building’s 50th anniversary in 2009, the Guggenheim’s branding evolved further, as New York design firm 2×4 contributed an inventive logo based on the shape of the museum’s structure itself. In bold, all-caps Futura, the tagline for their promotional campaign read, “SEE IT NEW.” And indeed, the identity system’s direct, powerful black-and-white approach brought those within the Guggenheim to see their branding with fresh eyes, and moved them to adopt the global identity in place today.
Miller’s uppercase logo went on to be used for the museum and to grace his redesign of the Guggenheim website—you can see it at the top of this page. With the initial rounded G, the logo harmonizes with the façade letters, while standing firmly in the here and now. As Marcia Fardella puts it, “It has a contemporary, fresh feeling,” while at the same time “it’s grounded in something that’s real on the building.” The typeface that Miller and Hoefler created for one publication 17 years ago now appears across the Guggenheim’s materials, from letterheads to museum shopping bags. Having returned to Hoefler’s catalogue, the font family, with its new moniker, Verlag, has proved durable elsewhere, too: among other venues, it appears on the website for the White House. Miller’s Guggenheim logo is now being used to anchor a series of logos for the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, the Guggenheim Bilbao, and the under-development Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. An Arabic version was required for the latter logo, and Miller commissioned Lebanese type designer Nadine Chahine to tackle this adaptation. “The most delicate aspect of the design is the balance between the personality that the type conveys and the closeness of the actual curves and outlines to the original logo,” she notes. Her cleanly curved Arabic letterforms echo those of Hoefler’s alphabet, carrying their essence into another cultural framework—and into a new chapter in the Guggenheim’s history.