Public Works: 30 designers interpret the bicycle & our public world

[Alyson Kuhn] Rob Forbes’ first claim to design fame was the founding of Design Within Reach (DWR) in 1999. Forbes’ current venture, Public Bikes, is in many ways a bike-based extension and expansion of the DWR ethos. Public Works is his new great way of encouraging people to “rethink the way we get around.” The Public Works project presents 27 big (40 x 60-in.) freshly printed posters and a splendid little companion book. If you will be in San Francisco tomorrow or Wednesday (Hallowe’en), you can see the exhibition at SPUR.

SPUR (San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association) is philosophically the ideal spot to show the Public Works posters. The LEED-certified green building is a center promoting “ideas and action for a better city.” The exterior signage was designed by Public (no relation to Public Bikes). Photo courtesy of Public.


Studio Hinrichs
designed the book, including the Public Works “poster logo.” Designer An Luc, with creative direction from Kit Hinrichs, also designed the studio’s own poster for the project. The book was printed on Mohawk Superfine at Blanchette Press.

Poster by Kit Hinrichs and An Luc. Hinrichs commented, “We talked about which cities to include, and then which parts of each city to show. It was exciting to see it come together.”

The poster images were created by artists, illustrators and designers from around the globe: the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, a couple from Canada and three from Europe. All 27 posters are available in two sizes. The 40 x 60-in. posters are printed on canvas; the smaller-format 20 x 30-in. posters are printed on paper. Wish you could wear one? Buy a T-shirt. The book is one size fits all—it’s perfect and perfect-bound.

Poster by Michael Schwab

Michael Schwab, who is widely known for his posters, loved the size, the creative freedom and the designs of several other participants. He told us, “I’m really happy with how this design turned out. It’s simple, it’s bold, it’s big. It works like a poster should: You can read it from way across the room. It communicates. The client—Public Bikes— didn’t perform like a typical client. There were no stipulations, and I think that’s why so many of the posters are so intriguing. I plan to buy posters by several of the other artists.”

Speaking of the other artists: I was unfamiliar with a handful of the names, and searching for them online was a illustrated treat. When I went to the site of Henning Wagenbreth, I learned that he has designed nine postage stamps for Germany. Intrigued, I found this superb article about Wagenbreth’s stamps, his first-day cancellations and his typefaces.

Poster by Henning Wagenbreth. His history of auto racing stamp is stylistically in the same spirit, at less than a thousandth the size.

In the book, each poster gets its own page. The facing page offers a pithy quotation from a well-known author about bicycles, public spaces or civilized urban life. At the back, each artist’s bio is accompanied by a pen-and-ink portrait created by super-animated caricaturist Zach Trenholm, from an image each artist provided.

Zach Trenholm’s portraits of Paul Sahre, Michael Schwab and Henning Wagenbreth

Poster by Paul Sahre, whose black-and-white work frequently appears in The New York Times Op-Ed pages. (Check out Will You Please Let Me Finish?)

I chatted with Rob Forbes about the project and its future.

How did you entice these prominent designers to participate?
We asked designers and artists who believe in what we are doing—getting people to think differently. They like our mission and, in the world of digital design, posters are so real. The creative brief was quite open-ended: You didn’t have to show public bikes at all. We were interested in a broad interpretation of the subject, more of a philosophical discussion about public spaces and bicycles vs. automobiles.

Oct. 9, 2012: The Public Works installation was the inaugural exhibit in the Kent and Vicki Logan Galleries of the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts at the California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. Photo: Greg Sherwood.

There’s plenty of work that comes across on laptops and screens, but to get to make a big poster is appealing. And everyone who participated gets some great thank-you loot, including a Public Bike in the Pantone color of their choice. Making designers happy is good!

All 27 small-format posters, printed on paper (20 x 30 in.), on a big expanse of wall in the Wattis Institute. Photo: Greg Sherwood.

The canvas posters are extra-large. What led you to print them so big?
In this case, bigger is better. When you see these posters full scale, the impact is dramatic. They have a real presence. We are always looking at things on our screens that are small. And, of course, we have fewer opportunities for print. This was the biggest size we could print economically. If we could have found a way to print them twice as large, we probably would have. We worked with ArtBrokers in Sausalito, who came highly recommended. The posters are giclée prints, digitally printed.

The large-format posters, printed on canvas, measure 40 x 60 in.—which is to say, four times as large as the paper posters. Two of the artists in this grouping in the Wattis Institute have multiple New Yorker covers to their credit. Photo: Greg Sherwood.

What did you learn from doing this project?
Probably a million things. But everything is a footnote to the individual ways—unique really—that people interpreted the brief. You’re asking them to create something, and you don’t know what it’s going to look like. The range, the diversity is extraordinary, and this dwarfs everything else. And of course, I learned more about how things get printed.

Oct. 18, 2012: The opening at FLOS in Soho

How did the opening in Manhattan compare to the launch at California College of the Arts in San Francisco?
The FLOS showroom in Soho is a much smaller space. FLOS is a modern lighting company, so the lighting was great, and the installation was beautiful. Beth Dickstein Enterprises masterminded the installation and the event. The posters were hung vertically back to back. Most of the New York designers who had done a poster were able to be there, and we were thrilled that transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan came to the opening. She is a real force in improving the quality of our cities, and she reports to Mayor Bloomberg. (You can read a great op-ed piece by Frank Bruni re Sadik-Khan’s bicycle advocacy here, published on the tenth anniversary of 9/11.)


What’s next?
We are certainly interested in finding additional venues. We’ve had three very different installations in three weeks, and look forward to the exhibition’s traveling far and wide. Anyone who would like details about hosting the exhibition can get in touch with [email protected]

SPUR Urban Center Gallery, 654 Mission Street, San Francisco 94105. Tuesday (October 30) 11–8 p.m.; Wednesday (Hallowe’en!), 11–5 p.m. No admission charge.

All images, except as noted, courtesy of Public Bikes.
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