Women in Design History: Beyond the Canon



In our last piece on women in design, we featured April Greiman, whose storied career saw her reimagining the boundaries of design through technology. While Greiman is considered a maverick, who no doubt faced sexism and judgement around her unorthodox methods, her work has been widely documented and her legacy uplifted as a part of the greater design canon. But what happens to the women of whom we don’t have the same account, either because they were not connected to larger institutions, further marginalized by their identities, or consolidated into the industry mythos of the men around them?

Part 2: Laini (Sylvia) Abernathy

Sylvia Abernathy was a figure whose enigmatic presence in the late ‘60s Chicago Black arts scene is somewhat known, but not deeply detailed. Renaming herself Laini in the ‘70s alongside husband, collaborator, and photographer Fundi (formerly Billy), Abernathy played a role in several projects that prominently intersected Black artists with politics. She and Fundi are mentioned sporadically in texts regarding the Black Arts Movement of Chicago, but essentially don’t come up after a certain point in the ‘70s. In the interest of intensifying the spotlight on the histories of Black women in design, we will look at her work as a part of our ongoing related series.

The Wall of Respect, 1967

Among Abernathy’s noted contributions is her design of the Wall of Respect in Chicago, completed in 1967 while she was a student at the Illinois Institute of Technology. The Wall of Respect was a mural orchestrated by the visual arts workshop arm of the Organization of Black American Culture (pronounced “o-bah-si” after the Yoruba word oba, for king or ruler) featuring images of accomplished Black leaders from various cultural arenas. Those featured included Malcolm X, Nina Simone, and Muhammad Ali.

OBAC provided this contextual message that informed the piece: “The re-emerging cultures of the Third World will define the reality of the future. Black, Brown, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and other colonized people in their communities must decide what art is for themselves. We contend that only through this kind of definition and control can we achieve human dignity, self-realization, and the liberation of our peoples throughout the world.”

A street in 1960's Chicago with a building at center featuring the protraits of important Black historical figures. Several people are variously walking or sitting down on the sidewalk.

The Wall of Respect, Chicago, completed in 1967

The Wall of Respect was conceived of as art for the people, rather than art for art’s sake. “The sixties were a time when art made by African Americans had pertinent meaning that reflected the era. Creating beautiful poems for poetry’s sake, making art of serene cityscapes and landscapes, and creating meaningless nonobjective works for the sake of art were no longer significant to us,” acclaimed painter and sculptor Wadsworth A. Jarrell wrote in his book AFRICOBRA: Experimental Art Toward a School of Thought.

“For Black artists, this tumultuous era demanded relevance in art, works that advocated self-esteem, praise, culture and heritage, and resistance to the establishment’s one-sided racist policies.” Jarrell’s title refers to the arts collective AfriCOBRA (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, established first as COBRA), a group organized around building a movement that honed an African-American aesthetic with a political perspective. Jarrell, along with co-founding members Jeff Donaldson and Barbara Jones-Hogu had worked on the Wall.

Having proposed her design scheme alongside others, Abernathy became responsible for the framework of the mural, breaking up the layout into seven sections: Statesman, Sports, Jazz, Rhythm and Blues, Religion, Literature, and Theater. She would also decide which sections would include limited and full-spectrum color.

The Wall of Respect was created specifically for the community and was rendered in part with community participation. It not only acted as a visual survey of Black achievement, but also an energetic point of collaboration and activation, positioned as a gathering place, performance venue, and site of political action. Police monitored the project and it had even been rumored that the FBI had surveilled OBAC as a part of COINTELPRO, a counterintelligence program enacted by the FBI throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s to discredit organizations that could pose a threat to American political stability.

The mural only stood for four years before a mysterious fire destroyed the building in 1971, but its presence marked an important shift in public artworks. In his book Walls of Heritage/Walls of Pride: African American Murals, scholar and AfriCOBRA member Michael D. Harris suggested that prior to the Wall of Respect, most community murals existed on interior walls in Black institutional spaces, thus making them not as inherently accessible as those on the street. The energy around the Wall would spark the creation of other public murals in Black neighborhoods nationwide.

Designing the mural resituated Abernathy’s existing skills and amplified specific contributions to the constellations of Black culture. “Drawing on her graphic design training, Sylvia multiplied the frames through which Black life could be seen and witnessed,” remarked African American literature historian Kinohi Nishikawa. “She created demarcations between various elements of the mural rather than combine all figures into a single collage. The point isn’t to strictly cordon off the elements, but to recognize the singularity of each frame and their combined unity in the total work.”

Applying the typically flat orientation of graphic design to a structure in lived space not only demonstrates adaptability across medium, but it also serves a crucial purpose here, which is to interact with the public. The Wall of Respect not only provided representation, but also space for communal collaboration and energized an area around Black pride and liberation. “Blacks were rarely seen on billboards, in print, or other public media before 1967,” artist and Wall of Respect contributor Jeff Donaldson wrote in a 1991 essay. “The Wall of Respect (and the mural movement it spurred) brought art to the people and, at the same time, permitted people to participate in the process… uplifting the spirits of the people by recognizing their heritage, honoring their chosen heroes, and focusing their righteous anger on real issues and the choices available to them.”

Album Covers for Delmark Records

Abernathy was commissioned by Chicago-based label Delmark Records to design several covers for jazz albums, which was otherwise an area of design largely populated by men. She is believed to be the first Black woman to be credited for designing an album cover. Despite constituting a relatively small design catalogue in the late ‘60s, Abernathy’s credited artwork for album covers stretches over a breadth of styles. These works have not been extensively researched but can still be interpreted through a historical lens.

An album cover with a black and white portrait of a Black man in a turtleneck at center. The potrait is embedded in a black circle and curved lines emanate out from it.

Laini and Billy Abernathy, Roscoe Mitchell Sextet’s Sound, 1966

Her design for the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet album, Sound, features a geometric layout of concentric circles in stark black and white. This design not only zeroes in on the black and white Fundi-lensed portrait of Mitchell, emphasizing his Blackness, but it also mimics the reverberations of sound itself.

An album cover that resmbles the American flag with thick white and orange horizontal stripes from top to bottom and a sihlouettted portrait of a man on a body of water at the top left.

Laini Abernathy and Lee Morgan, Leon Sash’s I Remember Newport album cover, 1968

The cover for Leon Sash’s I Remember Newport utilizes its own sense of geometry to much different ends. Emulating the American flag, a common reappropriation in the political climate of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Abernathy swapped red stripes for orange and replaced the blue starred section with a wistful photo of Sash by his wife and bass player Lee Morgan.

An album cover with a green background featuring a green mirror image sihlouette of a person wearing a hat at center on a red backgorund. The artist's name, Joseph Jarman, has a decorative frame at center and repeated text in red and white frames the entire cover.

Laini and Fundi Abernathy, Joseph Jarman’s Song For album cover, 1967

Abernathy’s design for Joseph Jarman’s Song For used no photographs in its final form, instead featuring a mirrored silhouette with the contrasting colors of bright red and green. Around the border of the album, the phrases “Joseph Jarman,” “Song For,” and “Quartet Quintet Septet” are repeated in antique typefaces. This repetition gives the design a frenetic energy that can be heard in Jarman’s work itself.

An album cover with a large sketchy yellow orange sun at center covering the majority of a red background.

Laini Abernathy, Sun Ra’s Sun Song album cover, 1967

Finally, we consider one of her most known works, the cover for Afrofuturist legend Sun Ra’s Sun Song. Placing a frenzied illustrated sun on a red backdrop, Abernathy’s relatively simple design carries a depth that echoes the music. The illustration appears agitated, as if scratched out in pencil or with a sharp painting tool. This design gives life to the sound of psychedelic jazz alongside an icon that represents the artist’s namesake, a reference to Ra, the Egyptian god of the sun.

Collaborating on In Our Terribleness

A black book cover with a black and white image of a smiling Black man basking in light at center. An orange frame is placed near the edges of the cover.

In Our Terribleness front cover, designed by Laini Abernathy, 1970

Abernathy brought her graphic design skills to Amiri Baraka’s In Our Terribleness, another collaboration with Fundi, published in 1970. A staunch Black Nationalist at the time, Baraka aimed to create a text that celebrated Blackness on its own terms. That included reclaiming language and obliquely reimagining negative verbiage like the titular “terrible,” spelling things as he chose, forging a text that encapsulated at least one vision of African American Vernacular English. Baraka wrote, “We wanted to conjure with Black Life to recreate it for ourselves. So that the connection with you would be a bigger Self. [Fundi] Abernathy has many photos each ‘bad’ in some aspect. Abernathy is himself a terrible terbul dude. The way the terribleness of us gets thru him to us, again. The artist completing the cycle recreating.”

Two pages from a book. The left page shows a framed portrait of a Black woman embracing a Black man whose face is turned away from the camera. The page features text that interprets their romantic relationship.

Pages from In Our Terribleness, designed by Laini Abernathy, 1970

In conversation with AIGA (the American Institute of Graphic Arts), scholar Nishikawa critiqued Baraka’s text for speaking for the photo subjects, but hails Abernathy’s design choices for the way she “multipl[ies] the frames through which Black life is seen.” By using heavy black bordering, Nishikawa asserts, the images are distinctly separated from the text, even considering the choice tactical. “The book’s status as one of the great Black-authored photo books of the 20th century comes down to the way she artfully combined and distinguished text and image in its design,” said Nishikawa.

Interest in Abernathy’s career and work has been rekindled in recent years with mentions in articles as well as inclusion in Jerome Harris’ exhibition “As, Not For: Dethroning Our Absolutes,” which traces an “incomplete historical survey” of African-American graphic design. With contributions from designers such as Archie Boston and W.E.B. Du Bois, it contextualizes Abernathy, the only woman included, in a broader history of Black design. Given this intersection, it is especially important that Abernathy and other women of marginalization are ever more a part of the conversation. Perhaps given the renewed interest in her work and the committed scholarship of Black design in general, dedicated research will see further revelation about Abernathy and those she has inspired.


AFRICOBRA: Experimental Art Toward a School of Thought, Wadsworth A. Jarrell, 2020
From the Collection: Laini (Sylvia Abernathy), Letterform Archive
The Brief, Enigmatic Career of Sylvia Abernathy, AIGA Eye on Design
Laini Abernathy, Black Graphic Designer, Cooper Hewitt
Laini Abernathy, Black Graphic Designer, Smithsonian Magazine
Block Museum of Art: Wall of Respect Website (1997), Issu
In Our Terribleness, Columbia University
In Our Terribleness, Fonts In Use
Reviving soul in Newark, N. J., The New York Times
Celebrating the African-American Practitioners Absent From Way Too Many Classroom Lectures, AIGA Eye on Design

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