I first met Riley Hooker in the Print offices as a candidate for our New Visual Artists review last year, and since then, I’ve followed his work on consistently interesting projects: a Creative Time TV logo, the Armory Show 2009 identity, a website for Heather Culp. For the Creative Time TV project, he collaborated with his college friend Peter Tressler, and although both are working separately these days (Riley at dbox, Peter at Anomaly), they have worked together on a number of art- and fashion-related projects.
So it was no surprise when, during a trip to Lisbon to see Portugal Arte 10 last month (see my first report here), the festival organizer Miguel Carvalho told me that it was Riley and Peter who had created the arresting identity for the show. Drawing on both the city’s decorated pavements known as calçadas and azulejos, the ceramic patterned tiles applied to the urban architecture, the result is an identifiably Portuguese visual vocabulary within a forward-looking framework, fitting for an arts festival.
I caught up with Riley and Peter last week and talked about their process, and we edited the transcript over the next few days. Here, they talk about the value of research to complement your design instincts, Portuguese color schemes and patterns, and what to do when you accidentally use Fascist imagery.
Riley: There were a couple pretty random chances that really informed what we did. Neither of us were able to go to Portugal, but luckily, Peter’s girlfriend was traveling there the week we got the project, so we asked her to photograph anything and everything. We really started from there. Another very fortunate chance was that our friend Frederico Duarte, a Portuguese design critic and writer, had worked on a project that was never realized where he created over 70 vector files of the tile patterns in Lisbon. He happily handed them over for us to use. We were both really drawn to the tile work found throughout the city. We felt as though Lisbon really had its own graphic language, which was largely informed by these tiles.
Peter: The big wave pattern, for example, is also found in Brazil and also in Macau, China, both former Portuguese colonies. We didn’t create any new graphic patterns—they’re all taken from the mosaics in the city.
Riley: On the other hand, much of the artwork featured in this event was large-scale outdoor sculpture, shown in public plazas with these beautiful patterned tiles. It made good sense to use these tiles as a both major graphic and conceptual element in the identity. The stationery we designed, for example, featured tiling patterns on the back of each sheet.
The color scheme came from a lot of the buildings, the ocean, and the coastal feel of everything. We were both pretty excited to finally find the right moment for colors like sea foam green and salmon.
Peter: Typographically, we were inspired by the diversity and the history of the existing signage. We found a lot of crafted letterforms with this sort of “old world” feeling you don’t really find here in New York. One of the most interesting things we found was a strange lot of wonky grotesque type, which we later found to be early industrial revolution typography. It felt like it hadn’t totally dissociated from its traditional roots, and had this beautiful clumsiness to it. The combination of all of these typographies was a major inspiration for how the logotype would eventually appear.
Riley: For the logotype, we created a custom alphabet, using Akzidenz Grotesk bold and replaced certain letters with typographic anomalies, inspired by the diverse signage in Lisbon. We also referenced the idea of the tiles by allowing the logotype to re-arrange itself into either a stacked or horizontal lockup. One really interesting thing that came up is that the Portuguese flag uses a shield that matches, almost exactly, the upper-case U in AG. It’s PERFECT! we thought. But the Portuguese kept telling us that it had this nationalist feeling that they wanted to avoid. “That’s the whole point,” we though, and so we kept pushing. Upon discussing it further, we learned that this particular shield is a remnant from an older Fascist government, at which point we happily went with a more traditional letter U.
Peter: That was a direct result of our being Americans and not knowing the national meanings. I mean, what if someone had created a United States biennial, would we be put off by stars and stripes? Most definitely. Our goal was to reference their history but to keeep it more about the location. Our role was not to make a political statement—that’s what the art is for.
Riley: Having previously worked on the identity for The Armory Show 2009, I understood quite well what it took to communicate a traditional, large-scale showcase of contemporary art, which was very helpful. On the other hand, Portugal Arte is not your traditional Biennial, so it was important for us to, I don’t know, shake it up a bit. In world full of new Biennials popping up all over the place, it was important for us to kick it off with something really dynamic and expressive that would extend beyond our involvement.
To be honest, they were totally freaked out by the first proposal. We went through a couple of other rounds with more traditional solutions, and no one was satisfied (ourselves included), after seeing something that provoked such a strong reaction. People seemed to either love it or hate it, which to us, was a sign that we were doing a good job.
Peter: Much of the work was in really defining and communicating what we were doing, and why. Everything that we did was based on our research. Everything had a strong rationale behind it. In the end, most of the work ended up being produced exactly the way we initially proposed it. A lot of the success in the project was in our willingness to talk them through it. It was an intensive collaborative process.
Riley: We’re really not such research-based rationalists, but we both believe very much in making work that relies on a strong conceptual framework, so that you can trust your instincts and make these intuitive leaps. It’s a vital part of the process.