• Michael Dooley

Los Angeles Views "Graphic Design: Now in Production"

At a Hammer Museum panel last month, Willem Henri Lucas introduced himself, Gail Swanlund, and Brian Roettinger as three L.A.-based designers who were about to discuss a current exhibition of contemporary graphic design in which none of them were included. Asking the audience to keep that perspective in mind, Roettinger, SCI-Arc’s former design director, observed that, with its East Coast and European emphasis, the show was missing—ahem!—a big chunk of the field. Swanlund also mentioned the absence of graphics from other foreign countries.

Much has already been written about “Graphic Design: Now in Production.” Here at Imprint, Steven Heller noted its debut last year at the Walker Art Center. Tom Vanderbilt reviewed the Cooper-Hewett National Design Museum’s installation in Print‘s August issue, calling it “a big, sweeping, categorical, world-historical-moment-defining graphic design show.” You can read the text in full here. And for further information, I highly recommend the exhibition catalogue‘s richly stimulating essays.

The show, which does include some local designers, is on view at the Hammer until January 6. Event speakers have included Chip Kidd and Michael Bierut from New York, and the Cooper-Hewett’s senior curator of contemporary design, Ellen Lupton, who co-curated “GD:NiP” with Andrew Blauvelt. And then there was the aforementioned presentation by the three Angelenos.

Design by Willem Henri Lucas

In addition to showing her own projects as an independent designer, Swanlund generously shared her influences, including Emigre, the Art Strike zine Yawn, and Ed Fella, who inspired her “to do something that maybe doesn’t work as it should.” (Both Emigre, from the Bay Area, and Fella, from CalArts, are represented in “GD:NiP.”) Lucas explained how he prefers to support himself through teaching rather than commissions, and presented his work for UCLA, where he is the Design Media Arts department chair. Roettinger demonstrated his recent sound experiments and, in response to an audience question, discussed the benefits of inexperience: “When I didn’t know so much I was fearless.”

Each showed material they’d created that was dependent on its physicality, then invited the audience to join in the hands-on experience. This was meant to contrast what Roettinger described as the “preciousness” of publications that resembled sculptures when placed in the Hammer’s vitrines.

I asked Swanlund and Lucas to share their thoughts on how they might have approached “GD:NiP.” Here are their responses, along with samples of their work. Consider this an online version of the panel’s version of the Hammer’s version of contemporary graphic design.

“Three of a Kind” lecture photos by Michael Dooley

Gail Swanlund

There haven’t yet been many large graphic design exhibitions, so this one has had to stand up under the impossible weight of extraordinary expectations. Also, I think curating is phenomenally difficult and my hat is off to Andrew and Ellen for a fantastic exhibition and an important catalogue. Their impressive curatorial reach is evident in the show, and the exhibition fulfills their vision. But further expansion into other cultural areas would be edifying.

Even with increased and easy access to work via the web, any selection is always going to be limited and quickly dated. We ask our friends to ask for leads and hope that those may take us to more and unusual prompts. Where do you draw the line? And how can you show really new work—and alternative practices—when we all look at the same stuff online?

There’s probably no way around the limitations of what we personally know and like and give preferential treatment to. Actively cultivating a community and network of designers that begins to reach into other realms and places is something that can only happen over time, and deadlines loom.

With many students from other countries enrolled in U.S. schools, and alums working around the globe, these designers may be one key to: one,  discovering work that hasn’t been seen in US; and two, being able to discover practices that don’t follow the familiar or typical model.

I want to emphasize that I am no way critical of the curation of the “GD:NiP” exhibition, which is fabulous. I’m just adding a selfish wish to see more! I was very excited to see work from the Iran’s Dabireh Collective included in the exhibition. I’m a fan of Homa Delvaray‘s work.

Swanlund discussing Emigre and Yawn. Photo by Michael Dooley

Cover of Emigre 28, edited and designed by Gail Swanlund

Spread from Emigre 32. Click to enlarge.

Emigre‘s “Culprits” issue issue definitely created a huge impression for me and my future practice. I had never seen anything so strange and marvelous. Rudy VanderLans and Zuzana Licko brought me to Emigre, where I wrote and designed the Broadcast issue, featuring four women designers. Working with Rudy and Zuzana was an amazing opportunity.

The collaborative experience of working at Emigre—which so strongly reflects Rudy and Zuzana’s politics, convictions, and intellectual inquiry—had a profound effect on my practice. My practice began with self-publishing, and to that, Emigre‘s exuberant risk-taking/creative experimentation and generous collaboration are qualities that I very much admired and work hard to integrate and keep expanding in my own creative and teaching practices.

In terms of the essays in the catalogue and the show, I found the conversation about graphic design “invisibility” and/or authorship fascinating. It seems like “GD:NiP” really demonstrated that it isn’t an either/or choice. Instead, the show enthusiastically embraces a wide range of every kind of design activity, from thought to reproduction to the practice being the practice; in other words, the activity and thinking and making are all that matters, and client, audience, specific form or result, and geographic location/presence are secondary, or even arbitrary, components of the design process.

And, in terms of “the practice being the practice,” the activity of making and putting Emigre out into the world sits happily in that historical continuum (and is an activity specifically about design)—alongside Yawn (not about design, but instead, actively shifting authorship and community activism), a self-published fanzine, by/for/with the community, no hierarchies, lots of dialogue, divergent voices and making, always surprising.

Lucas’s design, “one of the infographics I did for UCLA public policy. This one got the most attention. It’s a simple bar graph, but by turning it upside down and choosing the color red it looks like the pages of the book are bleeding.” Click to enlarge.

Willem Henri Lucas

First of all, I am glad that the exhibition is there. It’s difficult to put on graphic design shows.

However, the minute you literally put distance between the viewer and the work, you strip design from its most important task. After all, books and magazines need to be flipped through, things need to be touched, since design needs to aim for all the sensorial aspects. I don’t want to just focus on the “object,” but would like to have people explore and experience.

Exhibit photo by Joan Dooley

From a conservatorial standpoint, I do understand these works need to be protected from damage. But what if staff with white gloves would flip through books for you and the showroom becomes a temporary library? Or what if the audience needs to wear gloves before flipping through material? Of course, we also live in an age where we have to consider things being stolen, and that in itself is sad.

As for posters being framed like art, the great thing about graphic design is that it is made in production. There are many copies. I don’t think there is need for contemporary posters to be treated as one-offs like art.

Lucas’s “Activist Poster” exhibition. Click images to enlarge.

When I had a show on a huge number of art-and-activism posters, I thought for a long while about how to hang them, and ended up making wooden slats that were attached to the top and bottom with big screws and bolts. This fitted the content of the posters and stayed closer to their actual function. Surely, this is not the only solution and there are many more ways.

In short, while curating a design show, I would emphasize audience usage and participation, and underline its dynamic role.

One other thing I would try—and I use the word try deliberately—is to inform the audience on why things look a certain way in relation to the information content. I have no clue as of yet how to do that in a smart and engaging way. But there could be so much “meaning-giving” in the designers’ choices of the final form. One would have to go into semiotics, and the reverential as described by Charles Saunders Peirce.

Above: Lucas’s posters celebrating the centennial of Alan Turing’s birth

Turing was a scientist who was hugely important for the development of the computer. He was arrested for being gay in Great Britain. I was asked to do this poster because of my social-activism work and probably because I am gay.

Researching him, I came across the information of his suicide. Turing re-enacted the scene in Snow White by poisoning an apple an eating it. Steve Jobs got asked many times if the Apple logo somehow was an ode to Turing and his smart answer was: It is not but I wish it was.

I found very few images of Turing. There is this whole series of passport photos he had taken. I made a customized noise filter and used that on the images and combined the images to create some motion.

It relates to the computer screen, but the noise filter also shows disturbance.

Above: Lucas’s John Cage posters, “using stills from his great performance of ‘Water Walk'” on I’ve Got a Secret in 1960

Above: installation photos by Todd Cheney/courtesy the Hammer Museum

Above: Hammer exhibition opening-night photos by Joan Dooley

Below: selected works from the exhibition

Forsman & Bodenfors, with Evelina Bratell (stylist) and Carl Kleiner (photographer). Homemade is Best, 2010. Courtesy and © Forsman & Bodenfors.

Justin Manor, John Rothenberg, and Eric Gunther. “Set Top Box,” 2010. Courtesy and © SoSoLimited.

David Bennewith. “Churchward International Typefaces,” 2009. Photo by Franz Vos, Jan Van Eyck Academie. Courtesy and © David Bennewith.

Laurenz Brunner. Akkurat, 2005. Courtesy and © Lineto.

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