The Daily Heller: Art Chantry Reconsidered in His Own Words

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I was recently reacquainted with my old pal, the designer Art Chantry, online. We last met in person in 2017 at a celebration on the eve before receiving his long overdue AIGA Medal. Curiously, after that I did not see much of his subsequent work, which seemed odd. A dearth of professional exhibits, competitions and design trade magazines, perhaps, contributed to this. Moreover, Chantry is best known for design approaches of a particular time, and that time had arguably passed (or that’s just my perception).

Chantry’s reputation is built on his belief (and practice) that commercial art is American folk art; “not so much the work of individuals as the work of culture itself.” He is a folk artist, who in the ’70s discovered a fresh vein of image gold in a vintage graphic style in work from 1945–1955 found in hardware catalogs and the industrial trade journals. His own eclectic DIY assortment of ads and catalogs for alternative Seattle arts groups were sometimes made by lifting entire pages from these original sources, with all the printing and layout imperfections intact. When Chantry began in the late ’70s, he did not have access to typesetting facilities, so he generated type by photocopying it from books, cutting it out letter by letter and pasting it into place with glue sticks. The crude quality achieved by craftsmen isolated from professional design movements held great appeal, and years before vernacular became an official 1980s graphic style, Chantry said he “unearthed the work of naïfs and then tried to ape it. Ultimately it became part of my general vocabulary and all of a sudden my language expanded.”

During our brief reunion, he told me he was considering doing a career retrospective monograph. I believe that he had reached the time when designers of a certain age—he is 68—begin to shore up their legacies. And this is where I come in.

I develop histories and create timelines with neatly indexed categories that place designers in a logical (albeit inexact) continuum of history. Figuring it was time to do that with Chantry, I asked him to consider doing an interview. He has always been outspoken about his role in design, and it was time for me, at least, to determine where he might be situated now and in the future. I got more than I bargained for.

This special three-part “oral history” (of which this is the first installment) arises from just three questions that turned out to challenge some false assumptions I’ve had about his work. I may still harbor a few of those assumptions anyway, but reading his responses has made me better appreciate Chantry’s role and his place in our collective pop culture. Today, we begin with what I considered an easy question (yet nothing is ever easy with Art).

In the pre-digital era, your work was considered by some, including me, to be early Grunge or Punk. Do you agree with that categorization?
I wish I could just give you a yes or no answer, but the truth is quite a bit more complicated than that. To begin with, I’m an untrained designer. Also, I began doing graphic design for a living in the early 1970s. So, I predate Punk as a movement. I was too old to be considered Punk by that culture. Confusingly, I was also considered too young to be considered a “hippie culture” participant. I was part of that oddball short-lived culture that was in between both worlds. A sort of Dazed & Confused era that lasted about five years before it was erased by Punk. So, from that point of view, I was never considered a punk by that crowd, and they never quite trusted me. And the older crowd (the spear tip of the Baby Boomers), the former hippies taking over the fine design world, ignored me as well. They treated me as a “dumb kid.”

The term grunge was not a real culture movement or even a proper design style. The term grunge was a MARKETING term. Nothing more. I happened to be there as a witness when it evolved. The word punk was poison in the record sales marketplace. Punk records didn’t sell shit. That’s also why the recording industry coined the phrase new wave—to sell Punk records to people who wouldn’t buy them if they were called punk. In fact, you couldn’t buy Punk records in regular distribution places in the Northwest (Seattle). You literally had to either go to a small specialty store near a college or you had to buy them in “import” sections in chain record stores (like Peaches).

Bruce Pavitt (one of the owners of Sub Pop Records) realized this. He had a degree from a local university in Punk rock (which he created himself). So, he set about trying to come up with a “safe word” that he could use instead of Punk, but still sell Punk rock records. At that time I was the art director of the local music tabloid (free) paper called The Rocket. Bruce Pavitt even had a specialty record review column in that magazine (called “Sub Pop USA”—see the connections?). He regularly came into The Rocket and bounced words and ideas off Grant Alden (the editor) and sometimes even myself (the art director). These terms were usually laughable and ultimately forgettable.

Then Bruce remembered a word that Mark Arm (of the bands Green River and Mudhoney) wrote in a letter to a local Punk zine (called Desperate Times and published by my wife, Maire Masco). In the letter he described his band as being “beyond Punk”—it was Grunge! Grunge rock! So, one day Bruce came in and told everybody that he was going to call the music released on his indie Punk Rock label grunge music. And that is how it was born. We all laughed at it and shook our heads. But there it was.

The truth is that it was just local Punk rock music and nothing all that different from what was going on all over the country at the time.

As for the design, Bruce Pavitt had been involved with The Rocket for nearly a decade. That magazine was a design powerhouse (spawning designers and art directors like Robert Newman, Mark Michaelson, Helene Silverman, Norman Hathaway, D. Thom Bissett, Kate Thompson, Dale Yarger, Lisa Orth, Wes Anderson, Jesse Reyes, Jeff Kleinsmith, Hank Trotter, Joe Newton, and myself—and others). The illustrators, cartoonists and photographers (and the writers) read like a who’s who of underground culture of the era: Lynda Barry, Gary Panter, Charles Burns, Pete Bagge, etc. etc. The names are too famous and numerous to list here.

When Bruce needed design for his record covers (for free), he simply hired his friends from The Rocket. He’d rack up huge bills and then jump ship to the next designer in line. Everybody helped him out because Sub Pop was becoming our community record label.

My design style that I had been pioneering locally (creating the market for it in order to find work doing it) had become the dominant look/style of the publication (I had spent almost 20 years teaching design locally and working with and/or employing most of the designers involved). The Rocket style was my style, combined with all the other people also working in that style. It wasn’t Punk, it certainly wasn’t Grunge. It was open and experimental as it was low budget and cheap to produce. It was a place to learn fast and cheap and thinking by the seat of your pants. If you fucked it up, it was perfectly acceptable. A learning experience in a frying pan. 

As Sub Pop and people like me began to get national attention, The Rocket look—a uniquely Seattle style—took off with it. Even David Carson was a fanboy and wrote me fan letters. He even confessed he was trying to imitate my work in The Rocket (this was during Beach Culture magazine). He even sent me slides of pages he called his “Art Chantry imitations.” I still have them somewhere, along with his letters.

My point here is that Grunge did not emerge from southern California surfer culture. It was a uniquely Seattle phenomenon that stylistically exploded all over the world along with the Punk music we produced locally. If it had a style, it was my style combined with the style of my friends I worked with at The Rocket. I really do think it’s time to correct the design history here. Time to include primary source material that didn’t come from writers on the East Coast (and England).

So, the answer to your original question, “are you Punk or Grunge?” is pretty meaningless. My primary influences were Dada, early Surrealism, comic books, MAD magazine, Harry Chester, Terry Gilliam, Franko and the worst (best) of American pop subculture. That was what I came from and that is still what I do. I walked away from “fine design” decades ago. (I even wrote you to tell you back then. Remember?) I walked away from the games and BS of the “fine design” world and literally dove headfirst into pop culture as it exploded around me. I don’t really do design any more—I brand American pop culture. But if you folks insist on calling it Grungethat’s not my problem. I know better.

Stay tuned for Part 2—Chantry Barks Back—tomorrow.