Earlier this year, Winterthur announced the largest single
gift purchase in its history with the addition of the John and Carolyn Grossman
collection, one of the most comprehensive
archives of period ephemera ever to have been assembled. The Grossman
Collection numbers approximately 250,000 items documenting the methods
of lithography and chromolithography and all they represented visually
from around 1820 to 1920.
House of Style
recently asked collector and product designer Carolyn Grossman to
discuss the fascinating collection and what it was like working and
living with the collection before it was moved to Winterthur.
House of Style: How did the collection come together?
Carolyn Grossman: John has always been a collector, even
when he was a teenager. His first collections consisted of Buck Rogers
comic books and science fiction pulp magazines, but his focus really
turned to printed ephemera in 1974. As a graphic artist, he found much
interest in beautifully printed and designed paper, especially that
from the Victorian era. In 1985, we started a stationery company, The
Gifted Line, and the basis of all the designs came from the ephemera.
In order to keep introducing new products, we sought to grow the
House of Style: What was it like living with a collection
of this size?
Carolyn Grossman: The collection originally fit in two
four-drawer fire safes. Then two more were needed, until the protective
home grew to be a total of 32 safes, plus large flat files. We always
had to keep in mind the type of concrete flooring in the offices to
handle that kind of weight. We hired a museum-trained curator named
Dave Mihaly to work with John to index every piece in the collection
over a period of twelve years. So living with the collection was easy
and very well organized.
House of Style: How do you approach the collection as a
Carolyn Grossman: I have always said that the collection
brings out the best in a designer, and the designer brings the best out
of the collection. Over the course of thirty-three years that the
ephemera has been used in designs, it is amazing how designers, as well
as myself can see elements in a particular piece of ephemera so
differently. For example, in a small two-inch piece of french silk
ribbon there may be at least five design elements that can be used to
create a complete tabletop product line or perhaps another designer can
see using this same ribbon as an intricate border for the top edging on
tote bags or on bath towels. So, as a designer, I closely study each
and every part that makes up the printed piece. Using a variety of
elements from a variety of ephemera gives you endless freedom to create
entirely new concepts. It is easy to imagine that using individual
elements from the pieces in such a large collection could produce an
infinite amount of designs. I should wear a t-shirt that says "So
many designs, so little time!"
House of Style: What is your goal for the collection at
Carolyn Grossman: John and I have always felt that the
collection is an important part of our cultural history, and we wanted
an institution that felt that same. We also want to share the
collection with those who appreciate it. We are all fortunate that
Winterthur is now the best home for the collection.