Print copies of several topic-based issues of MAS Context. © Iker Gil.
Founded in 2009, MAS Context is a platform that commissions and shares relevant ideas, proposals, and experiences that connect diverse disciplines and place. Started as an open-access quarterly journal, it has now expanded into other types of publications and a wide-range of public initiatives.
Founding and Issues
MAS Context was founded in early 2009, originally as an initiative of the Chicago-based architecture and design office MAS Studio led by Iker Gil and shortly after, as a stand-alone nonprofit organization. After an early experience publishing and curating, Iker decided to establish an open-access initiative to share relevant work, exchange ideas across disciplines and places, and help strengthen the design community in Chicago. This took the form of a quarterly journal.
The first MAS Context meeting took place on January 17, 2009, in Chicago, and included Julie Michiels, Andrew Clark, and Andrew Dribin. It would take only four months until the inaugural issue, More, was published with Iker as editor in chief and Andrew Clark and Andrew Dribin in the editorial team. Andrew Dribin would remain in his editorial role during the first four issues of MAS Context, with Andrew and Julie continuing to be part of the team to this day.
Writer Paul Mougey was a contributor to our fourth issue, Living, and joined the editorial team during our fifth issue, Energy. He would uncover the story hidden in each contribution, share sharp observations and unfiltered comments, invite contributors for short essays, and provide editorial feedback for four years until our Surveillance issue.
Designer Michelle Benoit joined the editorial team in 2013 and would remain in that role until our Character issue, published in 2020. During those seven years, she provided editorial advising, copyediting skills, and rigor that were key to ensure that voice, grammar, and style were consistent over the years.
While Iker has served as the editor in chief since the inaugural issue, over the years MAS Context has worked with guest editors on specific issues. John Szot (Aberration) was the first guest editor, with The Post Family (Production), Klaus and Koldo Lus Arana (Narrative), Luis Mendo (Tokyo), Design With Company (Character), and Germane Barnes and Shawhin Roudbari (Vigilantism) taking that role over the years.
Since its founding, MAS Context’s topic-based issues have brought together global contributors from different disciplines that explore a singular topic from multiple points of view and perspectives. The print and online publications frame important topics within particular contexts, understanding their historical trajectory while projecting future implications.
In 2019, MAS Context started its online series Observations, featuring individual articles focused on the intersection between the built environment and other disciplines. This series has allowed MAS Context to explore content in a more agile way while maintaining its rigor.
Along with the content, design has been a key aspect since the beginning of MAS Context. Andrew Clark was the first art director of MAS Context, defining the general graphic identity for each of the issues during the first three years.
In 2012, starting with our Communication issue, Chicago-based Plural, led by Jeremiah Chiu and Renata Graw, took the reins as art directors. MAS Context had previously worked with them during the inaugural MAS Context: Analog event, and it was great to have the opportunity to establish an ongoing collaboration that addressed all the visual aspects of MAS Context. They developed a new logo, a new approach to the issue covers, and new direction for the issue layouts, as well guiding MAS Context as it moved from print-on-demand to printing locally with Graphics Arts Studio. That transition was possible by early support by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. The seven issues that Plural designed worked perfectly with each topic and their work helped evolve MAS Context.
During the initial five years of MAS Context, different artists and designers became guest cover designers, including Christopher Baker, Anthony Burrill, Jacob Chartoff, Mitch Epstein, Klaus, Jimenez Lai, Andreas E.G. Larsson, Stéphane Massa-Bidal, Larry Mayorga, Jason Pickleman, John Pobojewski, Josef Schulz, Luis Urculo, Chris Ware, and Yosigo.
In 2014, and coinciding with the fifth anniversary of MAS Context, Thirst, a communication design practice based in Chicago, became the new art director. This effort was led by Rick Valicenti, its founder and design director, and Bud Rodecker, a principal designer at Thirst. After an initial audit of the first five years, Thirst provided a set of design guidelines that designers could follow when designing each issue. That approach opened up a new way MAS Context worked with designers for each issue, making sure there was a consistent structure while allowing each publication to take on a different design approach. In this capacity, MAS Context has worked with Luis Mendo, Leo Burnett Department of Design, the JNL graphic design, Normal, Meneo, Jimmy Luu, and Bobby Joe Smith III. In the Repetition issue, the first one under the creative direction of Rick and Bud, each contribution was uniquely interpreted by a Chicago-based designer. Ultimately, sixteen graphic designers created a specific identity for each contribution that made up an issue on repetition.
The original MAS Context website was a stripped-down online portal to download the PDFs of the topic-based issues. While it didn’t allow for reading each article online, it defined a desire for openness to share the work close and afar. In 2011, MAS Context launched a second version of the website, creating a responsive and graphics-driven web experience so that each issue could continue to have a life after its publication. Articles could be cross-referenced, allowing content to relate in different ways from the print issues.
With Plural becoming the art directors of MAS Context in 2012, they designed a new website that organized the growing output of MAS Context, from topic-based issues to events. During the decade that this version of the website was in use, André Corrêa was consistently tweaking and updating the structure to accommodate the new technical and content needs. His behind-the-scenes work allowed for new work and ideas to find its place online.
In 2022, Span designed the new MAS Context website for all the different facets of the nonprofit, including presenting over a decade of publications within a state-of-the-art modern archive. It is a totally redesigned platform that focuses on presenting the content driven by editorial decisions, allowing the organization to tailor each presentation to the narrative. Span also designed a new identity for the organization. The new mark is influenced by the seminal De Stijl movement of the early 1910s, integrating a visible structure into the letterforms that evolves from the previous version designed by Thirst. This work signifies a new chapter in MAS Context.
Two years after its founding, MAS Context organized its first event to showcase the work produced during its first year and explore new formats outside the paper or the computer. That year, MAS Context also organized MAS Context: Analog, its one-day event of talks, exhibitions, and an onsite pop-up bookstore in Chicago. That format has been used over the years in unique venues across Chicago. In 2012, MAS Context, along with JNL graphic design and Corkins Lodge, organized Corkins Exchange, a gathering in New Mexico to facilitate intellectual exchange between emerging and established practitioners in order to explore and reflect on like-minded concerns. Since this inaugural edition, a yearly program was established that continues to this day and that has engaged with over 150 participants from across the US. Other recurrent programs include Tracing / Traces event, a yearly exploration of the Art Institute archives, and MAS Context: Couplings, a series exploring the influence of past projects, realized or unrealized, in shaping contemporary thinking in a design discipline.
Over the years, MAS Context has organized a myriad of free events structured as part of its spring and fall series. These events take the form of lectures, book launches, panel discussions, film screenings, exhibitions, studio visits, and artistic installations. These events have been a consistent aspect of MAS Context connecting audiences close and afar.
In 2021, MAS Context published its first book, Radical Logic: On the Work of Ensamble Studio. The book documented the first twenty years of the Boston- and Madrid-based office at a key moment in their career. Through specially commissioned interviews with the architects, essays, and photographic documentation of their work by photographer James Florio, the book provided unique insight into the ideas that drive the studio, the ambitions behind their key projects, and their ongoing explorations. Winner of design awards and widespread recognition, the book was also the basis for James Florio to receive the prestigious Julius Shulman Institute’s Excellence in Photography Award in 2022. MAS Context is working on new books to be published in the future.
Board of Advisors
In 2012, in order to create a formal structure of advisors and explore new opportunities ahead, MAS Context established a board of advisors formed by designers working in different fields, from architects, graphic designers, and artists, to academics, curators, and publishers. The original board of advisors included Ethel Baraona Pohl, Alberto Campo Baeza, Pedro Gadanho, Jason Pickleman, Zoë Ryan, and Rick Valicenti. Three years later, MAS Context introduced four new members to its board of advisors: Geoff Goldberg, Michel Rojkind, Alisa Wolfson, and Mimi Zeiger. In 2022, MAS Context expanded the board of advisors, with the inclusion of Paola Aguirre, Germane Barnes, and Sumayya Vally.
Supporting a network of creatives
The initiatives developed since 2009 by MAS Context have created an ever-expanding network of contributors. MAS Context works to nurture and support its contributors, with relationships that span years and multiple collaborations. For example, after guest editing the Vigilantism issue, Germane Barnes, Shawhin Roubari, and MAS Context collaborated again with the installation Block Party at the 2021 Chicago Architecture Biennial and, in 2022, MAS Context supported Germane Barnes’s Intersect installation at Concéntrico Festival in Spain. MAS Context also supported visual artist Verity-Jane Keefe as she developed new work and research on Post Ford Landscapes: Dagenham to Detroit as part of her Arts Council England / British Council International Development Fund. It is the goal of MAS Context to leverage its structure and network to support the work of contributors with long-term initiatives.
Over the years, MAS Context has continuously evolved but the core ideas of the open-access nonprofit of sharing relevant work, exchange of ideas across disciplines and places, and helping strengthen the design community in Chicago have remained constant.