Su, Sup, Super Graphics

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Back in the late Sixties and Seventies Supergraphics – large, often colorful and bold abstract murals – graced the interior and exterior walls of many buildings. As the lads (Adrian Shaughnessy and Tony Brook) at Unit Editions in London, who just published a lavish book, SUPERGRAPHICS: Tranasforming Space: Graphic Design for Walls, Buildings & Spaces, note: “niches of architects and designers began experimenting with Supergraphics to emulate the spatial effects of architecture. These designers distorted perspective with stripes and arrows, emphasized wayfinding and movement sequences with surface designs, joined community groups to paint illustrative graphics over blighted buildings, and played with scale by using billboarding tactics.”

Supergraphics are back and applied to any mega-scale graphic display in an environmental and commercial setting. Today we know it by the Seventies term, Environmental Design or Environmental Graphics. “And while not much of this contemporary work retains a formal link with its ideological origins in architectural history, there is however, as this book demonstrates, large scale work being produced all over the world that has the aesthetic heft and visual daring to match the best of 1960s Supergraphics.”

I recently asked co-author Shaughnessy what prompted him to publish such a lavish book on Supergraphics?

It started with a discussion about graphic murals. We noticed that they were turning up on the walls of hip hotels and ad agencies, and on buildings and construction site hoardings. This was followed by a discussion about digital installations in architecture. We thought there might be a book on these contemporary phenomena. But when we dug deeper we discovered that in the 60s there had been a short-lived architectural movement called Supergraphics. I read up on the subject in the architecture journals of the time, and in a fantastic book called Supermannerism by the architecture critic C Ray Smith (1929-1988).

Nowadays the term Supergraphics means ‘big environmental graphics’, but when Smith coined the term he defined it as ‘not a decorative-device – repeat – not a decorative-device. The Supermannerist’s use of bold stripes, geometric forms, and three-dimensional images is, emphatically, a spatial experimentation … Supergraphics are so gigantic that they cannot be contained within the frames of a single architectural plane. Either they extend on to adjacent planes – from wall to floor or ceiling if their forms are painted in toto – or they appear as fragments of an over-all graphic image.’

We realized there was a fascinating continuum that stretched from the work of radical 60s architects/designers attempting to dissolve space, through the work of people like Deborah Sussman and Paula Scher, and on into the stuff done today with digital technology. We also noticed that it was a barely discussed topic, and even more intriguingly, many of the best practitioners were all women.

As a publisher/design entrepreneur, this book is a major effort. How was it produced and financed?

You know better than anyone that it is a simple matter of devoting every waking moment, every brain cell, and every drop of energy to getting these books to completion. Unit Editions is a partnership between Tony Brook, Patricia Finegan and me. Tony and Trish run a great design studio called Spin, so Unit gets the benefit of the Spin design and production team. But we all have to fit Unit activities round out normal work schedules. This means long days and busy weekends, endless emails, travel, research, blood, sweat, and tears – there are no shortcuts.

Unit is self-funding. Supergraphics was funded in two ways. Firstly we made it available for advance purchase at a discount price. This gave us income before the book was even back from the printers. Secondly, it was funded by sales of our first book – Studio Culture. Unlike Studio Culture which was available through bookshops and online retailers, Supergraphics is only available from the Unit Editions website. This is an experiment to see if we can live outside the retail bubble of distribution and online discounting. So far it has proved very successful.Supergraphics were very popular in the 60s and have come back as “architectural graphics,” why do you think this renaissance has occurred?

My theory is that it’s a matter of scale. Graphic designers are increasingly involved in miniaturisation. Every surface is shrinking. Today, most graphic design is constrained by the size of a computer screen, so its natural that designers will want to work on a bigger canvas. I also see links with the popularity of street art, but also the rise of interest in social design. Many of the early Supergraphics pioneers were inspired by the idea of Supergraphics as a force for urban renewal.

The book can be ordered here.

(See the Sunday’s DH on the art of lying in state.)