Elliott Earls’ New Studio Practice at Cranbrook

To this day, the name Cranbrook Academy of Art continues to garner criticism, confusion and wonder. As an undergrad at Art Center College of Design—where Bauhaus foundation studies and Swiss modernism is alive and well—Cranbrook’s infamous 2D Design program was revered, feared and reviled in our graphic design discourse.

Cranbrook’s quintessential Post-Modern design program as we all have come to know it was first conceived by the McCoy’s in 1971. Then it was passed onto the next Artist-In-Residence couple; Scott and Laurie Makela who in the 90’s continued in the McCoy spirit with new highly-stylized digital fervor. Today we find the program in the hands of Elliott Earls, who has been head of the 2D design department since 2002.

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Like each Arist-in-Residence before him, Elliott has developed a particular pedagogical model that parallels Cranbrook’s unique educational structure. Since the beginning, the school has always had no classes, no grades, and effectively no teachers. Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen, Ed Fella and Lorraine Wild, Cleon Peterson and Nicole Killian all have been practicing in the same studio-based, self-initiated tradition. But what Elliott has uniquely implemented is a program where graphic design intersects with fine art.

Earls’ background lies not only in commercial graphic design, experimental typography and film with Emigre magazine, but also in painting, sculpture and performance. He approaches practice and pedagogy in the same spirit of the Avant Garde of late Modernity (Kurt Schwitters, Oskar Schlemmer, John Cage and Wallace Berman to name a few).

Transdisciplinary” is a label that many institutions embrace, but Cranbrook was conceived specifically with that disposition. In the 2D program, you can find the typographic work of Allen Hori and Brad Bartlett, the bold paintings of Jesse Moretti, and the peculiar performance work of Beverly Fresh—and most recently Benjamin Santiago—all critiqued in the same room. Each piece is considered and critiqued based on formal and conceptual merit as a defining virtue, regardless of medium or genre.

This model of practice is not for everyone. Elliott is known for describing the 2D situation as “La Cosa Nostra” or this thing of ours. It’s a cult of sorts at the infamous art monastery, nestled right outside the city of Detroit.

That said, Earls and the 2D discourse is not as tribal as you may think. His latest effort in continuing to educate, disrupt, and promote an alternative life as an artist is displayed in his new web video series entitled, Studio Practice. The following conversation is with Elliott Earls about this new venture.

Elliott, what’s up with La Cosa Nostra and letting outsiders into the sacred Cranbrook discourse and specifically your studio life (as well as personal life)?

Elliott Earls: I’ve been at Cranbrook for 15 years now as head of the 2D department. Over the course of the 15 years, I’ve been routinely amazed by just how intense the environment can be. The levels of grad student commitment, the depth of our conversations around design and art, and the contributions of our guests. One of my primary motivations is to “publish,” for lack of a better word, many of the issues raised in the environment.
There is a somewhat stickier issue that your question raises. It might be (erroneously) argued that somehow these short videos erode the “value proposition” for the graduate students enrolled in my department. Obviously I don’t think this is the case. To my mind the videos provide a very condensed glimpse into some of the conversations that course through the studio. There are many issues that lie at the absolute core of the Cranbrook 2D experience that I’m not sure would work in this format. A little later in this interview I discuss our approach to criticism, and the “interpretive” design methodology that’s in place in the studio. These are two fundamental building blocks of what we/I do, and I’m not sure how I could begin to address them in this series.

I’m still trying to find the right tone for the series. I’m currently working on Episode 19, which is a look at the design of the identity system and signage for Shadowbrook (my summer studio). The personal component of the video I feel unsure about. I should point out that I have spent my career exploring work that I feel unsure about, so in a sense nothing’s changed. There are moments that the series can get theoretical. My goal in bringing the personal component into the series is to make the ideas more relatable.

The repetitious principals and mantras you give throughout each episode reminds me of religious rhetoric as well as the determined language found in motivational speaking. Can you talk about this “Semper Fi” attitude? What’s your take on Tai Lopez?

I have two young sons who play soccer at a pretty high level. As ridiculous as this may be to say, watching their development has really underscored many of the principles that I rely on as an educator. I’m speaking of course in the most broad sense. However, my boys follow a couple of dudes on YouTube (The F2 and Online Soccer Academy). In many of the videos technical skills are broken down into comprehensible steps.

I realized through watching my boys, that this approach — essentializing very complex ideas into simple principles — is a prime component of my work in the Cranbrook graduate studio. From the very beginning I’ve wanted my YouTube channel to have tangible value. I want it to provide a principle based approach to making work in the studio. Much of the language used in art and design studios is specific. Outsiders can easily mistake this language as a form of “bullshit.” I emphatically and wholeheartedly disagree with this sentiment. I’m really striving to “unpack” a lot of this technical language. (A side note. I absolutely hate the term “unpack” in a non-suitcase context 😂. Unfortunately, here it is appropriate.) I believe that I’m using much of this specific language we use in the studio but attempting to show what the language points to.

I have always loved the Latin motto of the United States Marine Corps, Semper Fidelis. Which is translated to “always faithful” or “always loyal.” My understanding is that in the Corps it is often used as “Death before dishonor, Semper Fi!” This sentiment overlaps with my lifelong, ridiculous love of dogs. Let me explain. I believe this motto and dogs embody one of the highest virtues, the virtue of loyalty. A dog will protect its pack to the death. With those I love I strive for this absolute value. The Cranbrook studio I believe is infused with this quality. Of course the unfortunate reality is that I fall short of this virtue more than I actually achieve it. But it is something that I work tirelessly to achieve.

Tai Lopez is an interesting subject. After being absolutely barraged by his ever-present “I’m here in my garage” YouTube advertisement, I finally clicked through to learn what these “three life changing pieces of advice” are. I never actually got to the bottom of this rabbit hole. But I believe I did glean at least one piece of life changing wisdom that the ubiquitous Tai Lopez was striving to impart. Surprise, surprise! I absolutely agree with at least one of the major pillars of his shtick. In his infomercial, Tai shows off his new Lamborghini. Then he goes on to state that his Lambo is not his most prized possession, but rather his books are his most prized possession. He then says he reads three books a day. (I’m paraphrasing this from memory. I’m not going to subject myself to the worm hole that is Tai Lopez in order to fact check.) And as far as I can tell, he then suggests that by reading non-fiction you can experience a vicarious mentorship with the brilliant.

I believe his point is something to the affect of; while you might not be able to sit down with Warren Buffet, you can learn what the brilliant and successful know through their writing. This may seem obvious. “Books are good. You can learn from them.” I actually think he has a much more specific point. It’s my belief that Tai Lopez is suggesting a specific kind of non-fiction reading. I believe he is suggesting reading books by the accomplished, where they explain. Like David Byrne’s book on How Music Works.

  1. David Byrne is a brilliant musician.
  2. David Byrne has achieved commercial and critical acclaim.
  3. David Byrne attempts to explain “How music works.”

I believe and I believe Tai Lopez believes, THIS is worthwhile reading. While trapped in the Tai Lopez worm hole, I tested this insight against my own experience. I have a number of powerful examples of how this specific type of reading has had a material affect on my life. When I was 22 years old, as I lay in bed, bored beyond comprehension at my mother in laws house, I picked up Peter Lynch’s One Up on Wall Street from her used book pile. Peter Lynch was the “most successful hedge fund trader in history.” So I read his book in an afternoon. His advice in that book fundamentally altered how I understood investing in a very real way. But the important point, (AND THIS IS THE POINT) is that his advice which I acted upon, had a tangible and material affect on my life. This is not abstract knowledge, this is an example that speaks directly to the power of mentorship, books and kinesthetic learning.

Another simple example. I was at Brilliant Books in Traverse City and nearly randomly picked up Marc Ecko’s book Unlabel. While I believe the book certainly has its problems. Ecko recounts his own experience and attempts to explain how things work. I believe that one of his many points is deceptively profound. It’s my belief that one of the major themes of the book is that most cultural producers (designers, artists, writers, filmmakers), have things backwards. I believe he lays out a deceptively obvious case that an artists power resides with the “people,” not with the corporation, or the museum. In other words, Tommy Hilfiger came to Marc Ecko when Tommy Hilfiger needed what Marc Ecko had, “street cred.” This came AFTER Marco Ecko had built his street cred by bootstrapping and developing a direct relationship with his public. I believe that Marc Ecko’s point is that most designers/artists are looking for institutional (or corporate) sanctioning. Institutions come to the designer/artist only when they believe there is something to be gained. Power resides with the designer/artists direct relationship with a public.

These are two examples of what I believe Tai Lopez is getting at. The funny part of this question and my answer is that my total experience with Tai is about 20 minutes on a Friday night. So even though everything I just said I believe, I may be ascribing too high a virtue to Tai. 😂

After grad school your career took a new direction once positioning performance work at the center of your practice. Since the Catfish and Throwing Apples at the Sun days, you’ve performed and continued several projects in this tradition but until now performance has seemed to take the back seat. How does the performative aspect of Studio Practice relate to your previous body of performance/video work?

Excerpt Number 2 from “Catfish” from Elliott Earls on Vimeo.

Throwing Apples at the Sun 1995 from Elliott Earls on Vimeo.

I paid my f%~kn’ dues as a performance artist. I could regale you with true stories of being heckled while on stage in France at the Exit Festival in front of an audience of 1000. Or of the time I performed at Here in Soho and did a whole show for an audience of 1. Both of those experiences were the definition of rough. With complete honesty, I would characterize life as a performance artist as a rough trade. Relatively recently I chose to de prioritize the live performance component of my work. Having children will do that to you. I am still very much committed to performance, but the heavy travel schedule I was involved in would make me a bad father. I definitely see Studio Practice as an extension of my previous performance work. I maintain an outline of ideas for new episodes. My goal is to make sure the channel is focused, but has three main components; a discussion of issues that animate the studio, “performance,” and a look at how work is physically made. In future episodes the performance component will continue to grow.

Cranbrook has always had a self initiated, fully studio-based educational model. How does Studio Practice interact, disrupt, or parallel that premise? 

I see Studio Practice as publishing a very small subset of what we do together in the Cranbrook Studio. I understand this as potentially very useful. As an example, it’s my hope that the series will resonate with people and that those people will engage in a deeper conversation with me (and the studio). So in some cases I would hope that the series might represent the beginning of a working relationship. This might take the place of someone seeing the video then deciding to apply to our studio. Or it might simply be “lurking.”

There seems to be a new interest in forms of education that can be linked to an institution or faculty but that’s slightly more accessible to the general public. I’m talking about the rise of summer workshops like Ventriloquest Summer School, or Typography Summer School as well as embracing online video based education like CalArts’ recent MOOC Specialization in Graphic Design and ECAL’s Digital Strategies in Genre-Defining Magazines. Is this series an attempt to keep what was already a historically progressive educational model contemporary?

The Studio Practice series is not “calculated” with regard to Cranbrook as an Institution. The graduate studios at Cranbrook run with an unparalleled level of autonomy. The series is driven almost exclusively from my interests with no institutional support from Cranbrook beyond the fact that I am the Head and sole mentor of the 2D department.

This dovetails with my previous response concerning Marc Ecko. As an artist, designer, and educator, I believe in a direct relationship with a public. I believe in publishing ideas. These are issues that we discuss at length and in great depth in the studio. The students in my department seem to share these interests with me. I agree that the initiatives you mention above are contemporary. I also believe that what I’m doing is contemporary.

In the 2D Design program’s conception, “the designer is a powerful cultural agent able to seamlessly engage in many forms of cultural production.” How do you see the current state of the 2D Design department situated in an art world that is less concerned with labels and categories, embracing transdisciplinary and post-studio practices, and that is actively engaging problematic content? What helps Cranbrook stand out? How does Cranbrook still differ from other MFA programs and art institutions?

I believe that my personal work was WAY AHEAD OF THIS CURVE. Sorry to be so unabashedly immodest, but facts are facts. My work prefigured many of the forms of cultural production that have become common place in 2016. On a personal level I took a lot of shit for this stance. The farther back you go, the more shit I got from the “border cops” and “sheep dogs” of the field (see Episode 18 The Problem With Graphic Design Part 1).

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Cranbrook 2D has always been a supportive institution for those designers and artists who want to examine their cultural production and attempt to invent a practice that makes sense to them. I’ve always been very comfortable as a human doing my own thing. I am just not wired to care “what the neighbors think.” I have always believed my responsibility as a human is to the truth as I understand it, not to the confederacy of dunces. This may ultimately have been a barrier to wider acceptance of my work. This stance has the capacity to alienate people if they misunderstand your intentions. But the fact is that I don’t care. I have attempted to passionately pursue excellence in my work and to follow the intellectual, material, structural and strategic threads where they lead. I’ve attempted to chase the dark beast back to its lair. I encourage this same attitude in the 2D studio. It’s my belief you get one shot at this life thing. It’s important to live it on your own terms. I’m not going to live from someone else’s dynamic.

In order to fully understand these comments, I believe it’s super important to understand them in the context of my discussion of Semper Fi. I’m advocating loyalty and fidelity as paramount virtues. I’m advocating family and love. So while this particular response strikes a more aggressive and seemingly “selfish” tone. In its true meaning I’m actually suggesting quite the opposite. I’m working to do what’s right regardless of the cost. I’m advocating my students do the same. I fully realize how problematic these terms “truth” and “right” are, yet political correctness and postmodern theory aside I believe you know it when you see it. (Read Terry Eagleton’s After Theory.)

In Episode 9, you state “Learning is about modifying behavior.” You also go to great lengths to describe the demise of any artist who lacks the conscious effort to break from preexisting patterns of behavior. How do you continually find new developmental platforms? How does the 2D discourse avoid from being stagnant?

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We’re animals man! In the worst sense of the word. It’s my belief that so much of life is about impulse control. It’s about meta-cognition (thinking about thinking), and sacrificing the short term goal for the long term goal. Habit as an artist runs counter to these principles. It’s super important to constantly examine our behavior and strive to come to an understanding of behavioral patterns that are self-limiting.

One example. I am routinely stupefied by graduate students who smoke cigarettes. Grad school at its core is a place to examine core beliefs and to strive for excellence on every level. There is a super high level of cognitive dissonance involved in coupling the activity of smoking cigarettes to the higher pursuit of personal development. And yet, I see this over and over. Through force of will, the individual needs to implement those things deemed “best.” In order develop as a humans we got to stop letting the id govern our existence.

This overlaps with the 2D discourse in a very direct way. Most of our conversations revolve around how form (color, shape, line, compositional massing etc…) is a manifestation of core value. We discuss at great length how art and design objects have an “aboutness.” We discuss how they are the residue of human agency and intellect and as such are a manifestation of core value. We also spend much of our time discussing what life should or could look like.

In Episode 15 you discuss narcissism in art but there is an inkling of that concept throughout the entire series. Since there is basically no hierarchy at Cranbrook and you effectively can mentor your students in whichever way you please, are the videos a way to remain self critical?

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I’m very interested in the problematics of narcissism. Narcissism is a powerful artistic motivator. Ayn Rand is relatively famous for her notion that the ego is the wellspring of human achievement. Yet, we need merely to look at Greek Mythology and the myth of Narcissus to begin to understand how dangerous the “self” can be.

I’m interested in this subject matter for two reasons. The first is that we live in a an age of unparalleled narcissism. And the second is that clearly over the course of my career I have wrestled to keep in check my own narcissism. At this point, I have a long enough history as a cultural producer to be able to scrutinize my own work for the deleterious effects of the ego. For any human it’s a difficult task to understand how you are perceived. If I weren’t inside my own head, or in my inner circle, I think I would interpret the work of Elliott Earls as less self-critical than it actually is. In most of my work I believe there is a relentless effort to examine my complicity in the issue at hand. See Episode 10, “Problematic Work is Your Responsibility” as an example.

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Beyond that, many of the actual physical representations of me in my own work are very specifically unflattering. I believe in many ways my relentless push to scrutinize myself in my work, has been a stumbling block to wider acceptance of the work. Many true narcissists are acutely interested in the presentation of the flattering only. To directly answer your question. I actually believe the opposite might be true in Studio Practice. By exposing a fragment of the thinking behind both my work and that of the graduate studio at Cranbrook, I believe it becomes clear that many of the intentionally aggressive, confrontational, prurient, base and difficult strategies in the work are highly intentional. And that much of this work is the result of deep thinking about the nature of art and design.

I’m reminded of Paul Gauguin’s painting Vision After The Sermon which depicts a scene from the Old Testament in which Jacob wrestles an angel. I notice you highly recommend user feedback each episode and there is always room for blowback. You seem like a guy that willingly embraces criticism and loves to fight on an intellectual level. Describe your interpretation of criticality and how “the goal is not to win critique.”

My former graduate students and colleagues at Cranbrook may be the only people who can truly appreciate how steadfastly committed to open criticism I am. I grew up in an Irish Catholic family and remember one of my fathers favorite sayings about the “Irish.” He would chuckle and say, “Is this a private fight, or can anyone join in?” I am ridiculously passionate about the simple idea that critical thinking and the public debate of ideas is fundamental to human development.

I just released Episode 18 The Problem with Graphic Design (Part 1). In that episode I address an allied issue. However, one of the single most disturbing components of the field of “Graphic Design” (or “Visual Communication” err whatever), is the paucity of criticism beyond an analysis of the latest f&$king logo. I would go so far as to state that the⚡️entire⚡️ graduate studio at Cranbrook under my tutelage is a reaction to this bullshit. The entire endeavor of the 2D Department under my tutelage is to open up a space for the type of interchange that you allude to. I believe many of my former graduate students might concur that the type of conversation (discourse) taking place within the 2D studio is almost completely absent from the institutions of design (the publications, museums, blogs and conferences).

Now, this fact raises a powerful set of questions doesn’t it👹? If this is true, what are the implications of this fact? Is this an indictment of the field, or is this a referendum on the relevance of what I’m teaching? Also, let’s be clear for a moment. What magical, mysterious, rarefied conversation are we having that is “absent” from the field?

Well… watch the Studio Practice Episodes to see a narrow window into that discourse. But to be very specific. I would suggest that the “interpretative” design methodology and our specific approach to the mechanics of criticism are the two main things missing. What are these? What do these two terms mean? Enroll in the 2D Department at Cranbrook and spend two years finding out 😂. I have not addressed either of these major issues yet in Studio Practice because of the complexity of the issues.

In Episode 17 you continue in the Cranbrook legacy of aggressively reacting to a dominant genre of cultural production, this being the Global Influence of Dutch Graphic Design. This New New International Style or “The Global Style,” as Mr. Keedy puts it, is still permeating education and commerce. These Zombie Trendlisters embrace the default as the Cubists embraced the cube. What about other appropriated visual forms like the use of the “photoshop squiggle” in the work of Nicole Killian and Laura Owens? Are these participants in each wave of aesthetics exploring contemporary ideas, technology, and historical traditions together or are they flat out embracing unoriginality and inertness?

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Nicole Killian’s work is a good starting point for the answer. Nicole’s work as an example, is very self-aware. Her work is political, polemical and informed. She is utilizing many of the tropes of popular graphic culture as a weapon.

It’s interesting that you point her out in relationship to my Episode 17, Against The Global Influence of Dutch Graphic Design. To my mind she’s one practitioner who has found her own way. Does her work steep itself in the graphic currency of the day? Yes, resoundingly! But she does this critically.

My argument has always been against the unthinking. My argument has always been a Thoreauvian argument. I am trying to be awake. I think I made it pretty clear in Episode 17 that my problem is almost exclusively with the heard mentality. In my position at Cranbrook which tends to attract “ruggedly independent” designers, I’m routinely shocked by the attitude of young designers and their desire to very firmly position their work within a well defined and culturally assimilated category. And even though we live in a deeply postmodern culture where notions of “originality” are rightfully under scrutiny, this impulse is the kiss of death. To act upon this desire to be with the “cool kids” dooms the work to the middle. I try to actively recruit people to the studio who harbor the same distaste for this sentiment.

Congratulations on 20 episodes! What’s next for both Studio Practice and your studio practice?

Thanks! In the short term I’m working on more episodes and trying to balance that with the act of making work and family. I release at least one limited edition print through a month. The prints I release are 22 X 30″ screen prints on Rives BFK paper. I see the prints as a way of working out many of the ideas in my studio. I try to document the design process pretty comprehensively through my Instagram account: elliottearls. These two projects, the limited edition prints and the Studio Practice episodes are in edition to running all aspects of the Cranbrook 2D department, and making work for shows. So, I have my hands full. Most of the anxiety I feel in life comes from my battle to keep both family and my studio vibrant, healthy and growing.

Learn more about Elliott Earls and his work at www.elliottearls.com.

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