• Steven Heller

Victorian Foppishness & Making the McSweeney’s Generation

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an online exclusive bonus to the Print Hollywood: San Francisco issue. Purchase a copy of the magazine in My Design Shop. To learn more about the author, Haniya Rae, visit www.haniyarae.com.

The Making of the McSweeney’s Generation

Words by: Haniya Rae

In some ways, 2007 was a banner year for design: On June 29, the Apple iPhone launched. Two days later, Michael Bierut’s Seventy-Nine Short Essays on Design was published. Silicon Valley, and the larger Bay Area, was heating up. Bierut’s book encapsulated this movement, first commenting on Apple’s comeback, and then on another Bay Area–business: McSweeney’s.

The beloved publisher, responsible for churning out literary favorites like The Believer, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and, of course, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, began as a humble project of designer and writer Dave Eggers in 1998. It was supposed to be a place where good writing (at least, according to Eggers’ taste) was published, and a place where Eggers could retain creative control over how it was published. Two years later, Eggers released his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which ended up on several national bestseller lists and rocketed him to fame.

In Eye magazine, Andrew Blauvelt branded McSweeney’s designer and publisher Eggers’ style “complex simplicity.” As for executing upon that, as the late Steve Jobs once said, “Simple can be harder than complex.” Of course, Jobs’ minimalist Adobe Myriad–branded company is much different than Eggers’ serif-laden “Victorian foppishness,” as Bierut called it in his book. But what followed was a near-decade of circles and arrows and ampersands, of a revival of 19th-century design mixed with a world of 21st-century slickness some today call the “Brooklyn aesthetic.”

From backpacks to beer cans, bikes and beauty products, the look emanated out from the biggest cities as a class of young technocrats formed their own quirky identities. With a desire to discover quality (remember when Apple once again assumed power in the creative world with its pricey new line of laptops?), McSweeney’s was looked upon as a must-read bellwether for emerging creative talent.

Ironically, this “Brooklyn” aesthetic can be traced back not just to a turn-of-the-century typography revival, but also to a love for all things tech and cool emanating out of San Francisco. The faux-antiquated look became one of the most prevalent design styles of the 2000s—and some might even argue it’s now dated or even “bad design.”

What’s irrefutable is the impact that McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and The Believer had on impressionable young graphic designers who likely also read Bierut’s book, perhaps while also listening to indie folk on their iPods. The digital world made everything well within the visual and audio reach of the upcoming generation. For the first time, the obscure and cool that you would once have to find in a hip, perpetually going-out-of-business alleyway book shop or record store was merely a click away.

Rebellion and Succulents

Let’s revisit the culture of the early aughts. Romanticizing the eccentric was en vogue: Movies like Ghost World, Napoleon Dynamite, The Royal Tenenbaums, Amélie and Donnie Darko were off-beat hits about misfits and losers. Many teens coming of age and entering college (Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class was published in 2002) resonated with these characters who had affinity for outdated technology and aesthetics. Perhaps the timing was just right.

As Bierut wrote in Seventy-Nine Short Essays, “The artists that [illustrator Chris] Ware brought together for McSweeney’s No. 13 do not seem to lead enviable lives. They are … loners and losers, inept at human relationships, tormented by the popular kids, given to swearing, hostility and compulsive masturbation: in short, like Charlie Brown, nerds. But drawing and storytelling is their way to connect with the world, and with us.”

Concurrent with this phenomenon was a rise in higher-ed design programs in the U.S. “This swelling tide of 18-year-old, would-be designers is swallowed up thirstily by more and more programs in graphic design at art schools, community colleges and universities,” Bierut wrote.

Today, however, Bierut doesn’t believe the McSweeney’s aesthetic had too great of an influence on the current crop of millennials. “Dave Eggers’s design approach was very specific—and imitable, if not influential—in the first half dozen or so issues of the magazine, but got more hard to pin down after that,” Bierut says. Eggers and his team gave the following modest, McSweeney’s-ish reply to PRINT: “To say that we’ve had influence would be presumptuous! And given we’re out here in San Francisco, and have been for 16 years now, we can’t really comment on a Brooklyn effect.”

OK, so maybe in terms of style young designers aren’t going gaga over Garamond and hairline rules in 2017. Then again, one only needs to look around at extremely popular “hipster” brands to see the prevalence of the McSweeney’s tone resonating: The Ace Hotel, which now has nine locations within major U.S. cities, as well as a hub in London, dons a version of the typewriter font, uses circles and ‘X’s in its branded products, and of course, hairline rules. State Bicycle Company, which was founded in 2009, has a logo that looks eerily like a Believer cover. Hendrick’s Gin, despite being launched in 1999, looks deliberately late 19th century—and has used its branding to capture the imaginations of millennials. There was also that time early on when VSA Partners, shamelessly copied the McSweeney’s style in its annual report for IBM in 2000, but that’s ancient history now.

“McSweeney’s has had a huge intellectual influence over a younger generation of designers,” says Jessica Hische, one of the most recognized designers and illustrators of the millennial generation who’s worked with Eggers and McSweeney’s. “The way their writers are able to combine silliness and sarcasm with well-informed cultural references showed writers and designers that you can still have fun while creating commentary on a serious topic.” This is, of course, something Hische has taken to heart throughout her own body of work.

Hische notes that what really inspired her and countless others was the publisher’s courage to publish weird, offbeat, niche books that few others would have taken a chance on at that time. “It gave and still gives a lot of hope to designers, illustrators and authors who may have been turned down by mainstream publishers for creating something with too specific an audience,” she says.

McSweeney’s humor also filtered into the work of Eggers’ contemporaries, like Sam Potts and the design of his Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co., which is the New York expansion of Eggers’ nonprofit tutoring organization, 826 National. Potts, interestingly enough, is considered by former McSweeney’s publisher Eli Horowitz to be the “link” between Eggers in San Francisco and New York City. “The jokes on the storefront were very much in the McSweeney’s ironic/sincere voice of 2003–4,” says Potts, who worked with Scott Seeley, the original 826NYC co-director on the project, along with a few volunteers.

Potts is also quick to note that in designing the store, he wasn’t trying to be retro or nostalgic, though he admits the look is everywhere now. “Hopefully, the storefront still looks more like the hardware store across the street than the new succulents boutique down the block—no offense to succulents.”

As Potts was aiming to mimic the look of a classic hardware store, it’s interesting to note that this was taking place when conventional publishing was starting to feel the weight of the internet. Early coding made it necessary to have a website with standardized fonts, graphics, tables, colors and columns, etc. One didn’t necessarily need to be a graphic designer to build a website and share information. In this sense, the graphic design profession and the trade skills that go along with it became a way of rebelling against the web’s rigid inherent structures, at least in the early days.

Brooklyn-based creative director Danny Miller, who founded the branding agency High Tide, which is known for its work with Warby Parker, grew up in Manhattan and saw the city change through the aughts. Miller thinks larger trends nationwide, namely the corporate takeovers and sterilizations of big cities starting in the mid-1990s, pushed creative types to reminisce about the days when quirky mom-and-pop stores reigned supreme. In Manhattan, Mayor Rudy Giuliani made Times Square a brightly lit theme park; in San Francisco, the dot-com boom led to the gentrification of poorer neighborhoods and attracted white-collar workers.

“Enchanted by the character of various Brooklyn neighborhoods, young gentrifiers adopted long-established businesses like the corner bodega or a long-established watering hole, and reappropriated them to cater to their peers, as more and more moved ‘out to Brooklyn,’” says Miller.

“In many cases, this drive for nostalgia was expressed visually, and I think that appealed to many people as it felt ‘authentic’ in contrast to the soulless commercialization of everything happening in the broader culture.”

Coming of Age in the Time of the Internet

By 2010, the financial crisis had taken hold of the country, and a number of would-be designers were unable to find work. (At least Instagram had launched to take away some of the pain.) This is the same year that The Art of McSweeney’s was published by Chronicle Books—a book that Potts and Bierut mention was, and should be, top of mind for young designers.

This is also the same year that One Man Zeitgeist: Dave Eggers, Publishing and Publicity was published by Bloomsbury, further cementing the writer-designer-publisher’s status as a one-man wunderkind. Only three short years after Bierut wrote in Seventy-Nine Short Essays on Design that “the McSweeney’s phenomenon is a force to be reckoned with in American graphic design,” Eggers’ publications, including McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer and the short-lived Wolphin, were widely read and loved—and weren’t replicated at all online.

“In the broadest sense, McSweeney’s was part of a moment where we had this co-existence of the physical object [and a] digital world,” says Horowitz. “We were not trying to be antiquated, but we were using the rise of the internet as a prompt to ask more intentionally if it was going to be physical—how can we really earn that? How can we take advantage of it and necessitate it?” Horowitz notes what’s already well-known about himself and Eggers—neither of them had formal design training. As a startup publication, Horowitz recalls that many decisions, such as paper stock, jacket size and colors of ink, were made simply because of financing. They didn’t have a lot, and so they had to get the most bang for their buck.

“All of these factors nudged us to think about the object as a whole and the literal object as opposed to the particular aesthetics,” says Horowitz. “It was a pushback against the ugliness that the internet was. In early e-books, we saw the same thing. There seems to be a sequence—the less-necessary aspects of design eventually fall away. If it’s not the top-level functionality of a book or a website, early websites did away with it. But eventually, those making websites figured out that people did care about clean design, even if it was in addition to basic functionality.”

With this in mind, Bierut says that one “could argue that the first six issues of McSweeney’s represent the point of origin for a certain kind of Brooklyn aesthetic.” But in the end, most of its current practitioners are completely unaware of it. “I suspect there was a seminal moment where it all started to really ‘blow up,’ but I’ll be damned if I know what it is,” says Bierut.

Designers, Potts says, have now moved past the McSweeney’s look and onto the retro handlettered style. “It felt like a generational change,” says Potts, “not a simple transition. The Brooklyn aesthetic is made for the web and maybe one could argue is a product of the web’s demand for thumbnail appeal.” Designers as different as Aaron Draplin might be considered a part of the Brooklyn aesthetic, but not at all McSweeney’s-ish, Potts says, but even that’s up for debate. “What all this probably demonstrates more than anything is it’s a problem of definition of terms,” says Potts. “Influence is always there, but how do we even talk about what we’re trying to talk about?”

So again, what really is McSweeney’s-ish? Perhaps it’s a mix between independent, do-it-yourself scrappiness and high-society thinking, with David Foster Wallace, Joyce Carol Oates and Michael Chabon as some of the highlighted writing superstars who have graced its pages. It’s also elegant, functional and tangible: Fast Company named McSweeney’s one of the most innovative companies in 2012 for “proving the value of print media,” with the addition of David Chang’s Lucky Peach, a magazine that celebrates all things food with beautiful illustration and typography.

Since its inception, Horowitz reminds, McSweeney’s was always meant to be a pure design object with smart text; it was something others would want to pick up and flip through because at the time it was unlike any consumer or trade magazines or books. “Today, publishers are increasingly willing to play with the form and the materials in a way that was present throughout bookmaking history,” Horowitz says. “At one point, mainstream publishers had strayed from that tactility. If McSweeney’s had a role in introducing that to a younger generation and to bringing that back into fashion, that’s a good thing.”

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