Olivia House: She’s Been Here

Jen Kochaver, Features Editor

On Oct. 1, a new student exhibition popped up beside the fishbowl. Featuring bold patterns and a wealth of history, the work of Olivia House blurs the line among research, storytelling and art.

Who is House?

      Olivia House remembers loving art of all kinds since childhood. Once House made her first graphic design on the computer in early high school, she’d found her niche and hasn’t looked back since. She also recounts feeling like her fine art skills weren’t quite at the level of a professional artist (this author would like to interject that very few 14-year-olds are) and feeling pressure to pursue a profitable career.

      House quickly felt at home in the place that design has in social movements. Since high school, House has designed for Do It Green, a nonprofit focused on getting Minnesota communities to be more eco-friendly, and recently worked with Take A Knee Nation, an activist group dedicated to exposing and ending police brutality and supporting the right to protest, to design their posters and branding for their national conference which was held in Minneapolis last February. House understands that design is really the essence of message, and thus an essential part of activism.   

   Due to limited resources, grassroots organizations are often left to their own devices with graphic design, unable to afford a designer. House finds personal fulfillment in being able to offer her volunteer work to groups.

The Exhibition

     This display in the Christensen Center is not only an exhibition of art, but also a presentation of research. House spent her entire summer studying the history of black designers in the United States, specifically focusing on work from 1945-1975, loosely capturing the Civil Rights movement.

   For this exhibition, House chose to focus on eight designers who made an impact during that era. House admits that she isn’t personally a fan of every artist she researched — for example, she expressed criticisms of Olden’s work and the way he navigated the industry. But it’s hard to deny that the work of all these designers paved the way for a more diverse graphic design industry. Though the exhibition is text-heavy, since its focus is on sharing the history of black designers in America, House brought clever artistry into her beautifully-designed posters. She created a graphic pattern for each artist using a distinctive shape from one of their own works, and all eight of these patterns are incorporated into her headlining piece.

“This can’t end here.”

        After her 11 weeks of Augsburg-funded summer research were over, House didn’t stop. It was very difficult to find out anything about the black designers of this era. She recounts struggling to find even a single picture of the artists themselves. House realized, “This can’t end here.” Not with just eight artists from this 30-year window. She intends to continue collecting information, not only on black designers who worked between 1945 and 1975, but on all black designers from the beginning of time through the present day. Her goal: a single source for future researchers and designers to be able to reference, documenting the names and works of black designers and their legacies. House considers a digital version of this material to be essential for the accessibility of information but also expressed a dream of perhaps publishing a book or series of books on the comprehensive history of black designers.

    See the exhibition yourself and learn the role black designers have had in shaping our advertisements and culture since, well, the beginning of time! But learn more specifically about designers from 1945-1975 in House’s student exhibition, “Where Are All The Black Designers?” on display in the Christensen Center until Nov. 1. Black designers have been here, always, and I’ve little doubt in my mind that House will be remembered as a great one.

This article was originally published in the Oct. 19, 2018 issue. 

Olivia House on the night of her exhibition install. Photo taken by Megan Johnson.