The Daily Heller: Art Chantry Barks Back

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Continuing my interview with Art Chantry, in this episode he takes umbrage with the term vernacular design.

One thing that always impressed me in early Chantry work is your affection (if that’s the right term) with what came to be known as vernacular, as if graphic design was not already a common visual language. You made repurposed scraps of this and that come compositionally alive. Have you changed your method and process in the past two decades?

To understand what I’m doing with the imagery that I encounter in my world, you have to realize that I really consider graphic design as a language—and it’s almost a universal language (despite some cultural differences). We all know what a circle and a square are. We also know that circles are female and squares are male. We know that because ages ago we all decided that was what they meant.  

We all know what yellow vs. red means. We also know what green means and black means. We all understand the emotional difference between a hard straight line and ratty curved line. We all know the difference between a table and a chair, and even the words we associate with those objects. We’ve agreed upon all that and we all know it. We don’t realize we know it, but we all do know it. It’s our visual vocabulary.

Even the written word is (obviously) graphic design. Words consist of black and white squiggles that we have decided represent sounds, and those sounds (we call them letters) are used in combination to create what we call words. Those words identify things in the world around us. So, we can actually read our ideas by looking at these graphic black and white squiggles.  

This is a language we all know, that we take for granted; it is the language that I use to create my work. It’s different from fine art (which is a dialog between artists, critics, collectors and museums). Graphic design is a popular language spoken by everybody in their everyday existence. It surrounds us and engulfs us.

It’s also used heavily in commerce. We use this visual language to change people’s minds—“buy this product,” “go to this event,” “vote for this candidate”—and usually for a client who pays us to do so. We basically fuck with people’s heads at the request of others.  

All that said, I try to use this language carefully. I realize that my OPINIONS will leak out into the graphic language I create no matter how hard I try to prevent it. Editorializing is inherent in the human condition. So, I attempt to say what I think is important for THE PROJECT (what the project is trying to SAY) and not for THE CLIENT (who is trying to exploit). That means I’m not entirely under the command of the client and I still control the language I use to fuck with people’s minds. I speak to them in slang. They appreciate that.

Everything around us, every image, every color, every style, every word, has all been used before a million times to arrive at their current definitions. It could be a letterform, or a color or a shape or an existing image of something. Moreover, it could easily be a symbol or a word or a drawing or a photo. This is an ASSEMBLAGE medium. It’s a collaborative assemblage medium. We don’t draw this language, we construct it out of the “stuff” we find around us.

I don’t invent the wheel every time I drive a car. I use the wheel provided and even the machine I use to turn the wheels. The same is true for the ideas I present in my design work. Especially when it comes to complicated or subtle ideas I’m trying to use to get my position across. I write with images—my images, or your images, or that guy’s images, or something I found under a rock or in a garbage can. They are all taken from the same dictionary.

Back to your word vernacular. I find that insulting, like slumming. The “fine design” world adopted that word to describe work they think of as “common” or “worthless” or even “lowly.” That’s ridiculous. I confronted Tibor Kalman [who coined the word and pushed the celebration of untutored or vernacular design] about that and he agreed and shrugged. Vernacular creates a class difference between accents, dialect and form, and that difference doesn’t exist in this visual language. It’s not “authorless”; it did not grow on a tree. Everything is the product of rich, long, beautiful dialogs that involve countless numbers of peoples’ ideas mixed back and forth. I attempt to learn these dialogs to trace the meanings and origins of these ideas. The more I know, the better I can express ideas.

We compose with what we know. We don’t invent those ideas from scratch. We don’t learn to walk by individually inventing walking, we watch other people walk and try to copy it, to USE it. That’s how we learn everything, from the “lowliest” emotional response to the “highest” intellectual concept.  

None of it is good or bad or beautiful or ugly or even differentiated by our culture. It’s just all THERE. The notion of graphic design language being driven by different intentions, class or economic standards—“high class” or “low brow”—is meaningless. Affectation is decoration. Design is NOT decoration. Design is language. Design is assembled. Design is thought. Design language is assembled thought.

And that is why I do this the way I do.

Stay tuned for Part 3—Chantry decides he is immortal—tomorrow.