Design's top names tackle the number 17

As part of a new exhibit, the number gets a makeover. We talk to the curator about what it all means

Published May 25, 2011 1:01AM (EDT)

"17" by Beate Pietrek

Detroit native Matthew Jacobson is a designer, art director, creative director, magician, mind-reader, escape artist, record-label-owner, and former notary public (though he only ever officially notarized one document). He currently lives with his wife and son in Chicago, but will soon be relocating to Nashville to work as the in-house designer at Third Man Records.

The two of us initially met years ago because Jacobson ran an amazing record label called Le Grand Magistery. The packaging for each record he released was as groundbreaking as the music encased on the record itself.

Starting last week at the Type Directors Club (347 West 36th Street, Suite 603, New York, N.Y.), and running the next 17 days (closing June 3), Jacobson curated an exhibit dedicated to more than 150 incarnations of the number 17 by some of the biggest names in the art and design industry, including James Victore, Keira Alexandra, Christoph Niemann, Stephan Sagmeister, Linda Hamlin, and many others.

"Back when it opened in 1993, I was the first designer hired to work at Number 17," he says. "In celebration of the studio's 17th anniversary I put this together as a gift for Bonnie Siegler and Emily Oberman, the owners.

"I reached out to their current and former employees, clients, family, and friends (including their lawyer, bookkeeper, and office building superintendent) as well as 17 people they didn't already know, asking them each for a unique interpretation of the number seventeen (the numeral, not the company)."

How did you originally come up with idea to surprise Bonnie and Emily?

When Number 17 first opened its doors 17 years ago and I -- a recent college graduate -- was one of their first employees, the 17th of every month was always a day of celebration. Bonnie and Emily would take the whole office (four of us in total, including them) out for an extended lunch, usually somewhere like Odeon or Shopsins. I've heard that they stopped doing this years ago, but I have fond memories of those monthly milestones and wanted to do something special for the company's 17 year anniversary. It's an idea I've had for a while.

I'm also a big fan of projects for which multiple people are given the same guidelines and come up with radically different (though occasionally surprisingly similar) solutions. I love that with this assignment everyone started at the exact same place -- from design legend Seymour Chwast to the studio's bookkeeper, who has little if any design experience -- and that each wound up with something both appropriate and unique.

And somehow you ended up spearheading this event by yourself?

I always assumed there would be a party to celebrate Number 17's 17-year anniversary, and that was where I had planned to present the book to Bonnie and Emily. But after 10 months of keeping the project a secret I began to worry that word would get back to them first, so I printed a single copy and created a custom dust jacket out of the same gold-foil paper used on the original Number 17 business cards, and sent it off to them via UPS. They were incredibly pleased and seemed very surprised (though Emily admitted she had heard that something was going on). I had already been talking with Carol Wahler at the Type Directors Club about running an exhibit of the work from the book and when I mentioned that to Bonnie and Emily they decided to make that their 17th anniversary party as well!

How many contributors do you expect to have by the day the exhibit opens?

The project began in secret and it's been 15 years since I left, so I had to do a lot of sleuthing to come up with a comprehensive list of current and former employees, clients, friends, etc. There's no way that my list could be definitive without Bonnie and Emily's help and I know there are still a lot of people who I'm sure would love to be involved. That said, the submission deadline for inclusion in the TDC exhibit has already passed, so the 17s that will be showcased in this exhibit will be the ones by the original 150 or so contributors who took part in the surprise book. However, I hope to continue collecting 17s from all interested parties (if anyone reading this wants to send one in, simply create your 17 as a 300dpi file at 17cm square).

"17" by by Christoph Niemann

"17" by David Slatoff

At the exhibit people will have the ability to make their own 17 and everyone is encouraged to create a 17 digitally and email it to Can we expect a book of 17s at some point?

I'd really love for it to come out in print. There's so much great, interesting, and inspired work in there that it would be a shame for it to only to be viewed by those who happen to see it in the single book I made for Bonnie and Emily or during the 17 day exhibit at the TDC. And while the book is definitely in celebration of Number 17 the company, it is also a celebration of the actual number 17 and I think as such would appeal to anyone for whom problem/solution projects such as this are of interest. If someone published a book of 16s or 18s, you know I'd buy it.

Other than working at the design firm Number 17, does the number 17 have any other significance for you, personally?

Not exactly. But when I was 17 I moved to New York to start school at Parsons School of Design. It was there that I met and was inspired by teachers like Tom Kluepfel, Henry Wolf, and Emily Oberman. Emily first hired me as an intern at M&Co.

When Tibor closed up shop to move to Italy and Emily and Bonnie opened Number 17, I was brought on as their first designer. That studio was my life, and Bonnie and Emily and Nomi (Bonnie's sister, our office manager) were like my family in New York.

To make a long story short, thanks to a series of decisions I made starting at the age of 17, I wound up on a path that led to me placing a call out to a couple hundred people asking for their take on the number 17. So, I suppose in that way you could say that it is significant to me.

"17" by Bjorn Kowalski Hansen

"17" by Keira Alexandra

"17" by Loren Flaherty

"17" by Eric Baker

"17" by Ira Glass

"17" by Stefan Sagmeister

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"17" by Seymour Chwast

"17" by Linda Hamlin

Copyright F+W Media Inc. 2011.

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