BETWEEN WORLDS: The Art and Design of Leo Lionni


11.18.2023 - 05.27.2024

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Between Worlds: The Art and Design of Leo Lionni is the first major American retrospective dedicated to the art and design work of groundbreaking modernist designer and children’s book illustrator Leo Lionni (1910-1999). “Design is form,” the artist said, “Sometimes it is decorative form, and has no other function that to give pleasure to the eye. Often it is expressive form, related to conceptual content, to meaning. It is always abstract; but like a gesture or a a tone of voice it has the power to command and hold attention, to create symbols, to clarify ideas.” Together with Chief Curator Stephanie Haboush Plunkett, the exhibition is co-curated by author and children’s book historian Leonard Marcus and illustration and design historian Steven Heller.  The Museum is also working closely with Annie Lionni, the artist’s granddaughter.

As the old distinction between fine and applied art came up for lively reconsideration after the Second World War, Leo Lionni emerged as one of the international design community’s indispensable pathfinders and bridge-builders. Idealistic and globally minded, Lionni viewed pithy, smart, deceptively simple graphic design as a worthy contribution to the post-war effort to reassert democratic values and establish a visual lingua franca to unite people across generations and cultural boundaries. A kind of twentieth-century Leonardo, he pursued his creative vision across several related domains, each of which will be explored in depth in this exhibition, including graphic design and advertising art; his art direction at Fortune and Print magazines; the creation of forty children’s picture books; and personal works including printmaking, photography, drawing, painting, and sculpture.


Offering a compelling glimpse of Italian American artist Leo Lionni’s early life in Amsterdam, Brussels, and Genoa, Between Worlds invites the exploration of his first inspirations, including the terrarium from his childhood bedroom that heralded the beginning of his lifelong fascination with natural forms, influencing the look and proportions of his picture books. A section on graphic design will highlight key examples of Lionni’s innovative freelance work for Olivetti, Container Corporation of America, Ford Motor Company, the American Cancer Society, the Ladies’ Home Journal’s Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman” campaign, the prototype issue of Sports Illustrated, and the Museum of Modern Art, including his poster for MoMA’s 25th anniversary and work for the Family of Man exhibition curated by Edward Steichen. Noted graphic designer, author, and historian Steve Heller, the Co-Curator of this exhibition, observed in Print’s column, The Daily Heller: “Lionni believed that formal precepts could be applied to virtually any advertisement. But this is not a “how-to,” it is a “Hey, what’s this?” When was the last time a promotion piece to sell advertising asked aesthetic and formal questions? I wonder whether clients today would understand it. I doubt that any publication today would invest in such an abstract idea.”