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TO MARCH 12
The 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich may be most often remembered for the Black September terrorist attacks, but the games had a sunnier, subtler, and arguably more far-reaching legacy in the international signage developed for them by Otl Aicher. The varied icons that today mark restroom doors and handicapped-access parking places worldwide can trace their lineage back to the comprehensive system of stick-figure glyphs (one for “Fire Exit” is pictured) created in the studio of the German designer. The challenge had been formidable: to make clear, clean, unauthoritarian symbols that wordlessly transcended barriers of language, culture, race, and class. If the more abstract pictographs seen in “Practical Utopia: The Design Work of Otl Aicher” are sometimes confounding (while I was at the show, employees discovered that the sign for “Trash” had been hung upside-down) or too elegant as compositions to demand deciphering, the overwhelming majority function precisely as intended, in an expeditious one-to-one correspondence between signifier and signified. In the exhibition brochure, Reichstag-revamp architect Norman Foster recalls having once described his friend, who died in 1991, as “the best living designer in the world.” Sadly, this Goethe-Institut installation of a show that originated at Drake University’s Anderson Gallery poorly honors a graphic-design master worthy of a full retrospective. The virtually zero-budget affair might as well have been shipped from Des Moines in a single mailing tube, along with an e-mail about thumbtack sourcing. Visitors to the G-I’s upstairs gallery—an empty multipurpose space ringed with a series of posters, not all of which are in good condition or displayed to advantage—could be forgiven for thinking they’d stumbled across the former quarters of a fly-by-night travel agent whose creditors had forced him to flee. The show is on view from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, and from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays, to Friday, March 12, at the Goethe-Institut, 812 7th St. NW. Free. (202) 289-1200. (Glenn Dixon)