Chicago stakes much of its cultural identity on its infamous skyscrapers. In turn, the skyscrapers have identities all their own. The Chicago headquarters of the Johnson Publishing Company, whose glossies Ebony and Jet defined a generation of African-American taste and culture, is affectionately portrayed by David Hartt in a new series of photographs and video at the Museum of Contemporary Art. On the cusp of the company’s relocation to a downsized operation, Hartt focuses his lens on the office’s empty lounges, its tired cubicles, its psychedelic wallpaper, and other details of its once-chic interior designs, cast in the glow of fluorescent lighting and this empire’s setting sun. The wistful mood is heightened by Nicole Mitchell’s down-tempo, space-jazz flute soundtrack accompanying the video.
In Hartt’s photographs, one can imagine executives and models mingling among the pink ostrich-skin flatfiles or preening at the in-office cosmetics counter—all of it designed in 1971 by Arthur Elrod, but now hushed. It is seemingly unchanged over those 40 years, except by the addition of a few Mac computers. Hartt’s documentation of the office offers a time-capsule view of this company’s proud self-image, furnished in orange, brown, gold, and peacock feathers. It looks charmingly retro to contemporary eyes. More than that, though, Hartt reveals how the Johnson Publishing Company immersed its employees and clients in its brand during the golden age of a corporate cultural vanguard. When the new tenants occupy this prestigious South Michigan Avenue address, Elrod’s decadent decorative flourishes will surely be refurbished, but Hartt’s images are perfect memorials.