RDA 2006: New York City

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—“I think we should finally put a stake through the heart of thebloodless, objective view of graphic design as a problem-solvingactivity,” says Brian Collins, executive creative director ofOgilvy & Mather’s Brand Innovation Group. “We’re morethan plumbers, and we’re more than the local Roto-Rooter guy. Weshould be inventing things, not trying to plug holes in people’s‘problems.

” That spirit of transcending the banalwas a defining quality of “artisanal” work created by NewYork City design firms in 2005, evidenced by projects in which designerscarefully fashioned each detail of texture, ornamentation, illustration,and type. Collins speculates that such work “recognizes that anytime you create something, you bring your own personal point of view toit, and in fact, the communication becomes amplified when your passionis involved with it.” Examples ranged from Sony BMG Music’sbox set of the Johnny Cash oeuvre to an identity system and packagingcreated by Mucca Design for the restaurant Sant Ambroeus, a traditionalMilanese eatery.

Mucca, in particular, brought a level of minutiae-focused artistry and production sophistication to all itsdesign projects, five of them shown in these pages. The firm created twocustom typefaces for the exquisitely printed Sant Ambroeus packaging anddid the same for the cover and interior of One Letter Words, aningenious dictionary by Craig Conley. “I like to have work thatfeels crafted,” observes Matteo Bologna, Mucca’s founder andcreative director, “from the genesis of the design to the finalmoment when somebody touches the piece and discovers some interestingpaper or some interesting printing technique.”

By most reports,New York design firms had a very good year during 2005. Bologna’sstudio moved to new offices and expanded from seven designers tosixteen. Collins had so much business, he says, “I couldn’tstay on top of it.” Brooklyn-based mgmt. design had steady growthin ’05, and added exhibition design to its many offerings. AliciaCheng, one of mgmt.’s founding partners, notes proudly, “Wehad repeat customers, larger contracts, and new clients.” Projectsfor the studio included information-design pieces for the New York TimesOp-Ed page as well as ongoing work for the International Center ofPhotography.

Of course, not everyone had a resounding success in 2005. Good Graphic Designer’s Jose A. Contreras

was pining for more work, a sentiment he expressed in a charming postcard showing emptytoilet-paper rolls that form the words, “I’m BoredHere.” A-Men Project’s Kapo Ng, designer of the hauntinglypoetic cover for the Nicole Krauss novel The History of Love, alsowasn’t as busy as he wanted to be. But this was only because,after leaving a full-time position at Random House to freelance, Nghadn’t yet had a chance to create a self-promotion. Fortunately,since Krauss’s critically admired novel did so well in bookstoresand on the publicity circuit, Ng’s cover became a de facto callingcard.

Magazine illustrators and editorial designers did stellar workduring 2005, but there was nothing that suggested the beginning of a newera in editorial design. Book covers provided both delight anddisappointment. Susan Mitchell, senior vice president and art directorat Farrar, Straus and Giroux, admits that she’s been“feeling hungry for something different,” but didn’tnotice any identifiable trends in ’05. She recently did aninformal study of bestsellers. Her conclusion? “Nothing new toreport except that religion and dogs sell,” she says. “Thedesign front was rather sad. Can only small-run ‘niche’titles afford groundbreaking, high-concept design? The public will nevergrow their tastes if they are served the same old fare.”

One thing that has gone unmentioned in previous surveys of New York designis the continually compelling work done by MTV and other divisions ofViacom. Like, loathe, or envy them, the Viacom design corps create workattuned to the zeitgeist. In a promotion created by G2 Worldwide, Kmartshowed an aspiration toward that sensibility, typically monopolized inbig-box retailing by Target.

Another trend apparent in this year’s entries is the very particular esthetic of Brooklyndesigners. Though mgmt.’s Cheng resisted the classification, workfrom Brooklyn seemed edgier—more conceptual, perhaps—thanManhattan design. Projects such as City That Bleeds’ appareldesigns and sichtwerk’s limited-edition book 13 Riddles, 13Rhymes felt as though they emerged from a distinctly separate designecosystem.

About the online forums that are now shaping the contemporary design discourse,

many New York City designers, while offering praise for sites such as Speak Up and various book-covershowcases including covers.fwis.com, felt ambivalent. “Thediscourse tends to be too marginal, too bitchy, and far toowhiny,” observes Collins. “What I hope is that the hypecould become a tool for politicizing the design community around issues
that are more important than trying to argue whether or not someoneliked the thickness of a serif on a new logo.”