RDA 2006: New York City
— “I think we should finally put a stake through the heart of the bloodless, objective view of graphic design as a problem-solving activity,” says Brian Collins, executive creative director of Ogilvy & Mather’s Brand Innovation Group. “We’re more than plumbers, and we’re more than the local Roto-Rooter guy. We should be inventing things, not trying to plug holes in people’s ‘problems.
” That spirit of transcending the banal was a defining quality of “artisanal” work created by New York City design firms in 2005, evidenced by projects in which designers carefully fashioned each detail of texture, ornamentation, illustration, and type. Collins speculates that such work “recognizes that any time you create something, you bring your own personal point of view to it, and in fact, the communication becomes amplified when your passion is involved with it.” Examples ranged from Sony BMG Music’s box set of the Johnny Cash oeuvre to an identity system and packaging created by Mucca Design for the restaurant Sant Ambroeus, a traditional Milanese eatery.
Mucca, in particular, brought a level of minutiae-focused artistry and production sophistication to all its design projects, five of them shown in these pages. The firm created two custom typefaces for the exquisitely printed Sant Ambroeus packaging and did the same for the cover and interior of One Letter Words, an ingenious dictionary by Craig Conley. “I like to have work that feels crafted,” observes Matteo Bologna, Mucca’s founder and creative director, “from the genesis of the design to the final moment when somebody touches the piece and discovers some interesting paper or some interesting printing technique.”
By most reports, New York design firms had a very good year during 2005. Bologna’s studio moved to new offices and expanded from seven designers to sixteen. Collins had so much business, he says, “I couldn’t stay on top of it.” Brooklyn-based mgmt. design had steady growth in ’05, and added exhibition design to its many offerings. Alicia Cheng, one of mgmt.’s founding partners, notes proudly, “We had repeat customers, larger contracts, and new clients.” Projects for the studio included information-design pieces for the New York Times Op-Ed page as well as ongoing work for the International Center of Photography.
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 empty toilet-paper rolls that form the words, “I’m Bored Here.” A-Men Project’s Kapo Ng, designer of the hauntingly poetic cover for the Nicole Krauss novel The History of Love, also wasn’t as busy as he wanted to be. But this was only because, after leaving a full-time position at Random House to freelance, Ng hadn’t yet had a chance to create a self-promotion. Fortunately, since Krauss’s critically admired novel did so well in bookstores and on the publicity circuit, Ng’s cover became a de facto calling card.
Magazine illustrators and editorial designers did stellar work during 2005, but there was nothing that suggested the beginning of a new era in editorial design. Book covers provided both delight and disappointment. Susan Mitchell, senior vice president and art director at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, admits that she’s been “feeling hungry for something different,” but didn’t notice any identifiable trends in ’05. She recently did an informal study of bestsellers. Her conclusion? “Nothing new to report except that religion and dogs sell,” she says. “The design front was rather sad. Can only small-run ‘niche’ titles afford groundbreaking, high-concept design? The public will never grow their tastes if they are served the same old fare.”
One thing that has gone unmentioned in previous surveys of New York design is the continually compelling work done by MTV and other divisions of Viacom. Like, loathe, or envy them, the Viacom design corps create work attuned to the zeitgeist. In a promotion created by G2 Worldwide, Kmart showed an aspiration toward that sensibility, typically monopolized in big-box retailing by Target.
Another trend apparent in this year’s entries is the very particular esthetic of Brooklyn designers. Though mgmt.’s Cheng resisted the classification, work from Brooklyn seemed edgier—more conceptual, perhaps—than Manhattan design. Projects such as City That Bleeds’ apparel designs and sichtwerk’s limited-edition book 13 Riddles, 13 Rhymes felt as though they emerged from a distinctly separate design ecosystem.
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-cover showcases including covers.fwis.com, felt ambivalent. “The discourse tends to be too marginal, too bitchy, and far too whiny,” observes Collins. “What I hope is that the hype could become a tool for politicizing the design community around issues that are more important than trying to argue whether or not someone liked the thickness of a serif on a new logo.”