Evolution in a Nutshell

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This review of Exploration: Designing with Nature, an exhibition at The Architecture Foundation in London, was first published on DomusWeb in March 2014. Photograph by Daniel Hewitt.

No bigger than a finger nail, the Namibian Fog Basking Beetle makes an unlikely hero. At the first solo exhibition by Exploration, the studio specialising in biomimicry founded in 2007 by British architect, Michael Pawlyn, the tiniest specimen on display could easily have been made the star of the show.

Together with the human lung, the spook fish and the coral-like cocolithiphore, each of these biological organisms partly-inspired the four projects on display at The Architecture Foundation in London. The branching structures which circulate fluids around the body, for instance, gave Exploration an efficient way of laying out data servers for optimum cooling in its design for a data centre housed in a Norwegian mountain.

Elsewhere, an atrium modelled on the mirror structures in the eyes of the spook fish enabled the studio to stream natural light into the lower floors of its proposal for a biomimetic office.

The cocolithiphore, meanwhile, makes use of excess carbon dioxide in the air to grow skeletons of calcium carbonate in the ocean. This process has informed Exploration’s plans to grow a pavilion in seawater by using electro-deposition to make a building from accretive minerals.

Finally, by radiating heat from its black armour to the night sky, the Fog Basking Beetle has proved useful in its ability to take advantage of the difference in temperature between sand and outer space in order to harvest fresh water from the desert. Exploration has accordingly built greenhouses there with double-layered roofs which similarly act as condensation surfaces.

Whether animal, vegetable or mineral, however, Exploration Architecture makes it clear that according to its scheme of things, there is no room for heroes. Part science museum, part architectural display, the story told by Designing with Nature is purposefully more complex than one-to-one correspondences or emblematic translations. Deriving its name from the Greek term for life, ‘bios’ and ‘mimesis’, meaning to imitate, the term Biomimicry was coined in 1962. In 2014 Pawlyn and his team have done their utmost to communicate that the field has come a long way since the hook-shaped projections of the Burdock Burr inspired the invention of velcro, and the microscopic bumps on the surface of the lotus leaf enabled the creation of self-cleaning materials.

Each of the projects on show integrates multiple strands of biomimetic inquiry. If the overriding message is one of billions of years of nature’s evolution and adaptation presenting a model for sustainability and survival, these strands are dictated by social, economic as well as environmental considerations. The greenhouses, for instance, are just one element of the Sahara Forest Project an ambitious undertaking which uses the greenhouses, concentrated solar power and other desert revegetation techniques to tackle problems of desertification, climate change and political instability caused by food and water shortages.

The decision to prioritise the flow of natural light in the design of the office came from a desire to improve worker productivity. According to the exhibition at present the average office worker operates at 65% capacity and while buildings account for one third of global energy consumption, employers spend ten times more on salaries than on rent and energy.

The exhibition unfurls on a series of interlocking tables configured in the shape of a tendril so that the narrative of one project feeds organically into the next. The Namibian Fog Basking Beetle is one of numerous biological wonders, including rocks, skulls, shells, seed pods and feathers, housed in perspex boxes hanging above.

This is not to say the display is chaotic; it is rather a finely tuned and carefully orchestrated communication exercise told in a combination of precise language, seductive nature photography, infographics and 3D printed models, as well as videos which intersperse wildlife footage with animated hand-drawn sketches and commentaries by engineers and biologists alike.

A trio of 3D printers are at work on the window sill of the gallery. Together with the tables which begin as solid volumes but become more skeletal, they are reminders of the symbiotic relationship between nature and technology. The tables have been designed and manufactured based on the growth patterns of bones and trees. Just as nature through other examples such as the crow’s skull or the cuttlefish, has evolved biologically-optimised forms over billions of years, computer software now enables the testing of architectural structures for concentration of force. 3D printing then allows for the manufacture of complex forms. The result is a drastic reduction in the use of materials. The same principle is at work in some of the buildings in the show.

Overall Pawlyn and his team offer an optimistic vision of the natural world and humans’ relationship with it, one which is based on interdependence: ‘Mature ecosystems are complex, densely interconnected and cyclical systems that run on solar energy, produce no waste and have become optimised as whole systems.’

By adhering closely to this definition, always tempering beauty with function and combining nature with technology, Exploration Architecture presents a practice which unites research and application and brings blue sky solutions to reality. Designing with Nature convincingly communicates evolution in a nutshell.

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A Cornucopia of Indian Design

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This review of Dekho: Conversations on Graphic Design in India edited by Mohor Ray (CoDesign, 2012) was first published in Eye magazine no. 86, vol. 22 2013.

This anthology of interviews with Indian graphic designers gained exposure in the UK earlier this year when it was featured in the ‘Designs of the Year’ awards at the Design Museum in London. Published by the Delhi-based brand consultancy CoDesign, it offers a timely first-hand account of the state of graphic design in a country that has emerged as one of the world’s significant growth economies.

Early interviews in the book deal with typography. Both the late Professor Raghunath K. Joshi (who died at the age of 72 soon after he was interviewed for the book) and Neelakash Kshetrimayum discuss the challenge of adapting Indian scripts to typesetting technology, such as the metal printing press and Unicode, which were invented with the Latin alphabet in mind. The alternative visual paradigms of written language which both these typographers encounter in their work are illuminating, especially for Western readers who are often not familiar with the pictorial origins of their own alphabet. Joshi spent his career driven by the belief that ‘Essentially, writing is the rendering of sound and not the other way round.’

In his campaign for combined consonant and vowel sounds to be incorporated into single glyphs, he took a ‘phonemic’ approach to visualising language. Kshetrimayum has dedicated himself to the revival of Meitei Mayek, the script native to the Indian state of Manipur but which until the 1980s was for centuries subsumed under Bengali influence. Its sources are equally fascinating. The original characters derive from different parts of the human anatomy and the numbers were formed by the abstraction of foetal postures during its development.

A double-page spread in the next interview features two images of a cow. One is a black silhouette in profile drawn according to the rational conventions of information graphics; the other is a naïve sketch drawn by a person who cannot read or write. It is part of designer Lakshmi Murthy’s work with rural communities in Rajasthan and Gujarat to develop local communication and symbolic systems – often on the subjects of reproductive and sexual health. It is wrong to regard rural audiences as visually illiterate, she says. ‘The rural audience has a sharper perception of their environment and are keener to infer from indexical traces that the urban individual would neglect.’

The spoken word in Dekho reveals the rhetoric associated with contemporary design in India. This is often a combination of the abstract and removed language associated with capitalist enterprise and vivid personal accounts. Hence Ram Sinam and Sarita Sundar of design consultancy Trapeze talk of their aims ‘to conceive a communication solution that is multisensorial, using diverse media, but with a seamless flow of content’ while reminiscing of childhoods spent watching Kathakali at the temple and ‘the world of greasy gutted engines and the smell of fine wood shavings and the sound of looms, and mini adventures in the slush of the paddy fields and exploring the hills.’

In recent years, fuelled by critical or ideological motives, and by a sense of alienation from industrialisation and mass-production, Western graphic designers have taken recourse to bespoke and hand-made methods. Such renewed focus on the act of making has also been inspired by the characteristics of digital media and the desire to question the entrenched definition of design as occurring in a realm of conception as distinct from production.

In Dekho, there’s a sense that when Indian designers invoke such strategies, the recourse comes from more immediate and pragmatic social realities. Orijit Sen and Gurpreet Sidhu discuss the development of their People Tree brand, which enables India’s networks of still thriving craft-based producers and artisans to push the boundaries of traditional techniques.

The cover of Dekho is printed in undulating black and fluorescent orange stripes. It conflates the graphic style of op art with curves evocative of Indian script. Elegantly die-cut at the centre in the shape of an eye to reveal the black circle of a pupil underneath, the book takes its title from the Hindi word for ‘to see’ (once Anglicised as the arcane British slang word ‘dekko’). Yet in the perspectives its contributors provide on the origins of human understanding, it could be called ‘to know’.

Veteran educator M. P. Ranjan invokes the framework of reflective practice and the work of Donald Schon and others when he encourages the development of ‘tacit knowledge’ … ‘hands on, minds on’. However most of the contributors in Dekho do not require a theory on which to hang their awareness of the fluid relationship between the mind and the body, and between rationality and intuition.

The sub-plot of Dekho is the story of the National Institute of Design at Ahmedabad. Founded 50 years ago and based on a seminal report by Charles and Ray Eames, every person in the book cites the National Institute as a formative influence, and the book contains many archival photographs of experimentation undertaken there. In 2013, as the Government of India embarks on an initiative to set up four new NIDs, one suspects a more detailed history of this institution and its pedagogy would be both rich and beneficial.

The final section of Dekho is given over to interviews with Anglo-European designers ‘presenting inspirational cues for contemporary design development in India’. While not new to Western readers, they are telling in their selection. Postmodern graphic designer, educator and author, Wolfgang Weingart writes: ‘Hot metal is a sensuous physical thing … Though I need machines, the creative component is my body … my best ideas were inspired by the mechanics of procedure. Rarely did I attempt to implement preconceived ideas.’ The book ends with Casey Reas discussing his fascination with emergence: ‘Emergence refers to the generation of (visual) structures that are not directly defined or controlled … Structure emerges from the discreet movements of each element as it modifies itself in relation to its environment. The structures generated through these processes cannot be anticipated …’

Such an ending suggests India is itself a model of emergent creativity (especially when compared to the command economy represented by China). This model is reflected in the design of Dekho. While based loosely on a two-column grid with body text set in Peter Biľak’s Greta, the design eschews a systematic approach. Each interview is treated individually. The book itself is a melting pot of illustration styles, typographic treatments and photographs, some black and white, some silhouetted, all of which share each other’s space on the page. It is not always easy to navigate – for instance, the gutter is often ignored and reproduction is not always of the highest quality – but the overall impression is one of exuberance and play, of a spirit of optimism, unhampered by constraints and less focussed on acts of undoing. In the meditations it offers on Indian contemporaneity and design, Dekho captures a significant, pivotal moment.

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Film Studio

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This article on the use of online video in design was first published in the September 2013 issue of Frieze magazine.

When the Amsterdam-based designer Siba Sahabi released a new collection of handmade carafes, urns and cups earlier this year, she did so in conjunction with a film. Emulating the appearance of hand-turned ceramics, the vessels were made on a potter’s wheel by coiling strips of felt coated with paint on both sides. The four-minute accompanying film, titled Pallas Athena (2013), on which Sahabi collaborated with Lisa Klappe and Niels van den Top, shows three women solemnly performing the production process. Pallas Athena was, for Sahabi, an opportunity to bring into the public domain the research that often informs a designer’s work, but which may not be evident in the resulting object. Of Iranian heritage, she is interested in ancient Greece as a bridge between East and West. Sahabi’s source materials included Laconian ceramics, an early 20th-century photograph of a woman in a Madeleine Vionnet dress, and the mythology of the tempestuous Greek goddess of crafts, art and war, after whom the film is titled.

In 2013, a simple product shoot no longer seems to be enough to promote a designer’s work. As Alexander Groves of London-based Studio Swine notes: ‘Film is a powerful tool especially now that the most important place to exhibit is online.’ This has been bolstered by the accessibility of desktop editing software, the proliferation of platforms such as Vimeo and YouTube, not to mention online design portals such as Dezeen. To the designer’s means of dissemination, one can now add the moving image to the existing complex of object, photograph, press release and lecture.

Film was an important vehicle for Studio Swine’s 2011 Sea Chair project, a collaboration with Kieren Jones, from its inception. The United Nations currently estimates some 100 million tonnes of plastic contaminate the world’s oceans. As a consciousness-raising exercise, the designers devised a process whereby waste plastic collected by trawlers can be trans­formed onboard into three-legged stools with the aid of a makeshift furnace. The result is a contemporary recasting of an age-old seafaring carpentry tradition. Earlier this year, Studio Swine made a three-and-a-half-minute film of the same name – later followed by an open-source instruction manual – with Dutch filmmaker Juriaan Booij. In artfully constructed shots punctuated by colourful objects – a red bucket, a yellow raincoat, orange twine, blue rubber gloves – Sea Chair documents the making of a stool interspersed with romantic images of life at sea.

Film is well suited to those contemporary designers who are more interested in inventing processes than objects. This is a tendency spurred by the 21st-century anxiety about the provenance of manufactured objects – a reluctance to feed invidious cycles of production and consumption. Tim Simpson of the London-based Studio Glithero concedes: ‘The idea of bringing things into the world weighs on us heavily.’ Avoidance of the factory, however, often results in objects produced in one-off or limited editions, depriving many peope of tangible engagement. Film provides a different kind of access to a wider public.

In some ways, this isn’t new. From the 1950s to the ’80s, Charles and Ray Eames often made films as part of their studio output, whether in a spirit of experimentation, to demonstrate new industrial processes or to wage a battle of communications on behalf of the us during the Cold War era. Meanwhile, in the 1960s and ’70s, Italian radicals such as Superstudio used film to visualise a Utopian life without commodities. But as design websites become repositories for all manner of videos – including interviews and back-stories – a new genre of design film is evolving. These design films go beyond a neutral documentary style and should not be confused with being transparent about how things are made. Featuring ambient soundtracks, constrained colour palettes, purposeful lighting and stylized cinematography, they theatricalize bespoke methods of production.

Since they began their practice eight years ago, Glithero have made increasingly sophisticated films. Poured Bar (2011) records the making of a bar top composed of layers of fast-hardening concrete. Simpson, however, is careful to note that, ‘There is a difference between bringing someone into your workshop and showing them what you’re doing and the idea of revealing something in a more controlled way.’ Poured Bar purposefully eschews showing the realities of its own fabrication. In the film, Sarah van Gameren – a partner at Glithero – pours a bucket of fluid which is the same colour as the cobalt blue of the pristine workmen’s coveralls she is wearing. Shot from above, the liquid searches for spontaneous form and volume on its journey. It cascades and then gathers in concentric layers before settling. Van Gameren repeats the action, pouring a second band of liquid alongside and overlapping the first. After repeating the ritual once more, the viscous mass is carefully lifted and flipped over. The amorphous three-tiered stripe has become solid. Poured Bar attempts to crystallize a moment of becoming, when materials turn into things. The film essentially advances according to plot conventions; suspense builds before climaxing in a big reveal. Glithero believes narratives can reinstate people’s meaningful attachment to objects.

If alienation from mass production has sparked a return to craft, the characteristics of digital media have also induced what design writer Ellen Lupton calls ‘a new crack at materialism, a chance to re-engage with the physicality of our work’. By returning to a notion of design that emphasises production over conception, designers are purposefully reacting against a world dominated by immaterial labour and claiming authenticity for what they do. In the West, where manufacturing mostly occurs in faraway lands and where many of the objects we use operate via an invisible dance of electrons, it is not only handmade processes that designers are choosing to aestheticize.

Ultimately, though, these films have an uneasy relationship with the medium via which they circulate. On the one hand, they are highly choreographed visions of production that occur in dream-like spaces, offering a romanticisation of industry and a return to a notion of design that emphasises making and physicality over conception. But by resorting to film, contemporary designers are communicating their re-engagement with the material aspects of design by turning the audience from users into spectators. They avoid the cycles of production and consumption associated with the economy of mass-manufacturing only to feed another cycle of production and consumption – that of the information economy.

They also eliminate the mess of making – what sociologist Richard Sennett calls the inevitable ‘dialectic between the correct way to do something and the willingness to experiment through error […] the probing craftsman does more than encounter mess; he or she creates it as a means of understanding.’ Paradoxically, as these films accede to the forward thrust of narrative conventions, they streamline the process of making into the efficiency of an assembly line.

Earlier this year, the London-based duo Cohen van Balen premiered their new film at Milan Design Week. 75 Watt (2013) is the culmination of research undertaken in the centre of global manufacturing, an interrogation of the ubiquitous fine print that reads ‘Made in China’. Other designers have blurred the hierarchy of means and ends by distributing infinitely replicable videos about the making of limited-edition objects. Cohen van Balen have carried this tendency to the limits of absurdity by designing a redundant object which functions only to dictate the movements of its makers. With the help of choreographer Alexander Whitley, the film shows the assembly of a white plastic quasi-appliance by factory workers in Zhongshan, in the Pearl River Delta. Cinematic mannerism is supplemented by overtly formulaic choreography. The result is absorbing. As the conveyor belt moves along, its attendants wind, swivel, slap, stand, sit, pull, thread, staple and loop. Perhaps, oddly, it is this rhythm of a coordinated dance that we really miss.

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Ron Gilad

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This profile of industrial designer, Ron Gilad, was first published on the website of Disegno magazine, disegnodaily.com, in June 2013.

Ron Gilad is most at home with a pencil and the A4 paper he draws on. These basic tools of creative inquiry and motifs of the home make up the formal language of the Israeli designer’s new solo exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Throughout the exhibition, Ron Gilad: The Logical, the Ironic and the Absurd, the square or cube shape with triangular roof recurs. At the beginning of the gallery space, a long room divided by eight freestanding walls, a three-dimensional line of black-enamelled brass traces the outline of and connection between two neighbouring houses.

From inside one wall in the gallery, a pair of eyes with eyelashes torn out of the plaster, stare at the visitor. On another, a matchbox-sized window complete with tiny sash and lintel beckons the visitor to peer in. A cement cylindrical plug, twice the size of a tin can, that is displaced from a hole in the gallery’s floor will likely make visitors wonder whether they themselves are miniature players on someone else’s grander scale. In Gilad’s world, there are walls within worlds and worlds within walls.

The Logical, the Ironic and the Absurd marks Gilad’s return to his native city after 12 years living and working in New York. On a sunny summer’s day in suburban Tel Aviv, the walls of the house that he uses as a studio glow in their whiteness. Sitting on the back porch smoking a cigarette, the Israeli designer talks of feeling not quite comfortable working here, ‘I like to be able to create in a studio where I can safely destroy things.’ He also admits to ‘having felt a foreigner for many many years.’ He is not at home anywhere; but to him, this is the point. ‘I want to be awake all the time. Being awake can mean sitting on an uncomfortable chair.’

This might seem a strange confession for someone who designs furniture for high-end Italian brands such as Flos, Molteni & C and Adele-C for Adele Cassina. A feeling of unease, whether laced with humour or melancholy, suffuses most of his one-off and commercially-produced pieces. It is a feeling that can be identified with the aesthetic sensation of the uncanny, explored by Sigmund Freud in his 1919 essay of the same name. Freud coined the term from the German word ‘unheimlich’, literally meaning ‘unhomely’ and used it to describe the inexplicable feeling that arises when that which is familiar becomes strange. As such, the uncanny is often located in domestic settings. The haunted house or doll that comes to life are two of its most common emblems.

How a designer induces a goose-pimpled reaction or provokes what architecture critic Anthony Vidler described as ‘a disturbing ambiguity, a slippage between waking and dreaming’ is not so clear cut. Gilad concurs: ‘Scale is something I play with in order to make you feel like you are not walking on stable ground.’ He wants the cement floor of the gallery to feel to the visitor like Jello. Yet there are many other devices he uses to animate objects. In the exhibition, the melted shape of a plaster candle evokes a metamorphosis into a tree while The Birth of a Chair (2009) introduces a sense of evolution or narrative to the geometry of furniture. A series of enamelled-brass line sculptures map the transformation from rectangle to prism to chair.

Gilad deals in concrete images rather than in specific things. Cigarettes, pencils, power points, generic locks, keys, doors and windows make up his lexicon. To this he adds icons of modernist design. In 2005, for instance, he designed a chandelier for Moooi, called Dear Ingo, by assembling a number of the German industrial designer, Ingo Maurer’s anglepoise lamps into a light resembling a mechanical spider. More recently he named his 56 Daybed and -Cabinet, designed for Adele-C, after the four 27cm high cast iron Thonet 14 chairs they each use as supports.

Having grown up in an international style Modernist building, such homages are personal and autobiographical as much as they are historical references. On the back porch in Tel Aviv we sit on a replica of Le Corbusier’s tubular chrome-framed LC2 sofa. It references Gilad’s time as an aspiring designer: ‘I always wanted one. When I moved to New York, I didn’t have enough money to buy an original.’ The LC2 reappears at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art entitled RG2 (2013) for which Gilad has folded it in half to a ninety degree angle and balanced it impossibly on its corner in a v.

Such recasting of signature designs release them from the tyranny of their claims to pure function; which is not to say Gilad’s uncanny or dreamlike excursions should be mistaken for unbridled flights of fancy. His process is rigorous, intellectual and disciplined. The enamelled-brass line sculptures are minimal and geometrically reductive. Another strand of work in the exhibition explores systems of display. There is a series of investigations into the relationship between picture frame, A4 paper and the drawing of a cube. Made from different materials, in various combinations of wood, glass, wire or even etched out of the wall itself, frame, ground and image are rendered unstable.

The influence of these works and of others involving marble pedestals inside prisms can be seen in the Gradoº furniture collection Gilad has designed for Molteni, for which the coffee table is an elegant glass-top wooden box in outline. It opens up new dimensions through its internal bright red highlights and by being faceted at forty-five degrees instead of at the conventional ninety.

Gilad maintains ‘Each idea deserves to be materialised in the right way. If you are trying to convey the idea of fragility, it is much more interesting not to do it out of glass but out of heavy stone.’ Such are his demands for material refinement that he often scouts the world for expert craftspeople. He pushes materials to the edge of matter. Various sketches and models are scattered around his studio. On one table, a feather vibrates at the end of an arched wire. Mounted high on a wall in the exhibition, in its final incarnation it becomes a gently moving wisp.

His attention to craftsmanship notwithstanding, Gilad says that his ‘starting point is function.’ He adds, ‘Function, however, is not enough.’ Design historian Adrian Forty has written that ‘if the uncanny is contrary to the conventions, even the definitions, of domestic décor, there is a yet more serious objection to needlessly introducing it into our lives, in that it has been the whole purpose of enlightened thought to banish superstition, to rid the world of things that come to life, of objects that carry talismanic powers…In the modern era, the normal expectation of objects for everyday life was that they should above all be useful. In their usefulness is encompassed their whole being, and great lengths have been taken to rid them of any trace of magical or supernatural powers.’ Gilad probes the rationality of objects until they yield these powers. From this perspective his methods of extreme logic can be seen as attempts to wrest the meaning of objects from the collective unconscious.

Gilad’s latest project has him appropriately designing a real home, a summer house in Northern Italy. He describes it in signature terms. It will be conceived around the geometrical volumes formed by two stacked cigarette boxes displaced in two directions to account for the play of sun and shade. He will design it so it feels from the outset as if it has been lived in before, as if it is an old house. One can expect it to be a highly effective machine for living; but no doubt it will be magical too.

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More than a Gender

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This review of Women in Graphic Design: 1890–2012 edited by Gerda Breuer and Julia Meer (Jovis, Berlin, 2012, 608pp.) was first published in Eye magazine no. 85, vol. 21 2013.

‘I never set out to be the only woman blah-blah,’ insists Paula Scher, the first woman to be made a partner at Pentagram; ‘I set out to be a designer.’  Yet in 2013 no one can deny that standard accounts of graphic design are still more populated by male designers than by the women mentioned in this handsome and ambitious volume, evolved out of a research project conducted by the editors, Gerda Breuer and Julia Meer, at the Bergische Universität Wuppertal in Germany.

The 600 pages of Women in Graphic Design 1890–2012 are rich in visual material. Modest but amply sized colour reproductions spanning the period in question are interspersed throughout the essays, interviews, documents and short biographies of which the book is composed.

But unless you are bilingual in German and English, however (which I am not), you will be excluded from reading 50 percent of the text. This is unfortunate because English abstracts of the German essays promise a more expansive yet nuanced view of the subject than many English readers will be familiar with. These are arranged so as to maintain a sense of context and to keep the overriding question of how actually to represent work by women to the fore. So Breuer’s essay on the marginalisation of women in both the organisation and rhetoric of avant-garde Modernism is followed by Ada Raev’s exploration of the Russian exception to this rule. There are also essays on individuals such as the Dresden-based poster designer, Dore Monkemeyer-Corty; Beyer-Verlag’s Bauhaus-trained art director, Irmgard Sörensen-Popitz; the calligrapher Anna Simons; and Ray Eames’ contribution to the office for which her husband is more commonly noted.

From her interviews with graphic designers in the former East Germany, Judith Siegmund suggests that issues of gender inequality are not perceived as relevant, or are subsumed, when living in an authoritarian state. She may have a point because what there is in English in the book reinforces American dominance of writing on female graphic designers. Ellen Lupton lends authority and gloss through her survey of the US scene, in an extended version of an essay published in 2000.

The presence of usual suspects—Cipe Pineles, Muriel Cooper, Lorraine Wild, and Zuzanna Licko—does not mean that Women in Graphic Design 1890–2012 is not valuable or timely for English readers. The  editors’ introduction and which has been printed in full in both languages, acknowledges from the outset that many young women in 2013 do not identify with the dogma of feminism’s past. It also asks how the profession should be assessed within the context of the new neoliberal ‘which can be readily correlated with the occupational situation of women’. Indeed much feminist literature of the 1960s and 1970s argued for the value of affective and emotional labour, values that have since been integrated into arguments for ‘creative economies’ in contemporary times.

In this vein, the rehabilitation and excavation of seminal texts in the ‘Documents’ section of Women in Graphic Design is important. Many of the texts date from the mid-1990s, when the emergence of digital technology coincided with the burgeoning of the relatively new field of design writing. If Scher is a mouthpiece for those who feel the emphasis on gender detracts from the quality of their work—she is represented in this section by the public letter she wrote in 1993 drawing on the metaphor of ‘The Boat’—she has a counterpoint in Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, the founder of the Women’s Graphic Centre who later became the head of the Yale graduate school of graphic design.

Reading de Bretteville’s 1973 essay ‘Some Aspects of Design from the Perspective of a Woman Designer’, one is reminded that ambiguity, complexity, fragmentation, multiple-perspectives and user-participation were once conceived as explicitly ‘feminine’ strategies.

Visibility is a crucial issue throughout this book. Time and again its subjects insist they lack the time or inclination to big-note themselves in traditionally egocentric ways and forums – on the lecture and awards circuit or in monographs. You may or may not agree with Véronique Vienne’s assertion that this tendency can be traced to women’s biological ability to house gestation before the act of creation. The implication, however, is that women embody different values, not predicated on display, and exert their influence in more indirect and diffuse ways.

One of the few recently written ‘documents’, a 2011essay by Alissa Walker, traces a lineage of women’s contribution to experimental education and the emergence of graduate design. Women such as de Bretteville, Katherine McCoy, Anne Burdick and Lisa Grocott have been pivotal in encouraging the overlapping of subjectivity, social consciousness and a more holistic sense of well-being with an ethos of design.

The last 200 pages of the book contain nearly 400 short biographies of women in graphic design. Readers are unlikely to read these from beginning to end, and a single entry will give you a very compressed understanding of any one woman’s contribution. But in their sheer number, they are a reminder that the alternative to conventional forms of visibility is not disappearance. Without being didactic, this book is both a foundation and an invocation for more work, for new narratives to be written and for new forms of visibility to be found. If women continued to do this then maybe Paula Scher could step back and get on with her work. With greatest respect to her, she has earned that right.

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Every Word in its Place

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This review of About Graphic Design written and designed by Richard Hollis (Occasional Papers, London, 2012, 295 pp.) was first published in Eye magazine no. 84, vol. 21 2012

Reading Richard Hollis’s Writings about Graphic Design, one can’t help but wonder how the esteemed graphic designer, writer and educator would account for himself in design history. Known for, among other things, his graphic design for London’s Whitechapel Gallery in the 1970s and 80s, for visualising in book form, John Berger’s television fine arts documentary Ways of Seeing, and also for writing Thames and Hudson’s Concise History of Graphic Design (1994), in 2012 Hollis is an active and highly-respected elder statesman of British graphic design.

About Graphic Design, published by Sara de Bondt and Anthony Hudek’s Occasional Papers, reprints obituaries, lecture notes, conference papers and essays (several of which were first published by Eye). Given that the median age of design professionals is currently less than the forty years over which the texts were written, the temptation to idealise Hollis is strong. At the same time, it is clear from reading his work that Hollis is not one to be heroised. One is certain he would eschew acceptance into any canon without good and proper reason. In conversation with Robin Kinross, Hollis maintains design and writing are ‘such different activities…If you’re asking how the two things, history and practice, relate, I don’t think they do very much.’ But one can still try to draw connections between his design and his writing. In both Hollis is resolute about his place and role. He is never one to impose his own priorities on a client’s message.

Stuart Bailey has described Hollis’s presence in his graphic work as ‘tangible but never intrusive.’ One could say the same about his writings. In them, words rarely make their way on to the page from off the cuff; nor do they thrive on poetic flourishes or a character-filled narrative voice. This does not mean Hollis is shy about proffering an opinion. If collected works expose threads of concern and preoccupations over the course of a career, the compilation of Hollis’s Writings about Graphic Design into one volume reveals the committed search for a rational and coherent method.

This entails meticulously detailed formal description. While Hollis disavows anyspecial expertise as either a writer or a theorist, as a person sufficiently schooled in semiotics and structuralism, he arrives at what seem to be theoretically informed conclusions via hands-on know-how, through his profound awareness of the designer’s relationship with technology and of how individual works are produced or made. He attaches particular significance to the different relationships of text and image enabled by the various technologies of letterpress, lithography, photography and digital means of production.

Once applied his careful method culminates in incisive conclusions, in remarks that seem to encapsulate his subject in a nutshell. Hence his description of New Wave typography as ‘decorative functionalism’, his observation that Saul Bass ‘translated the idea of the commercial ad logo into film promotion’, that Josef Muller-Brockman’s ‘success was in turning the experimental achievements of the pioneers into a method’ and his dismissal of the American designer Edward McKnight Kauffer as given to nothing but ‘crass adaptations of cubist mannerisms, customising the message with a snobbish vulgarity.’

The lecture notes included here go further to expose the foundation of Hollis’s pedagogy and other writing. In these the origin or source of all graphic design is the mark from which Hollis follows the evolution and use of specific signs and symbols, such as the star or the swastika. At the same time, he writes as someone laying down a blueprint for future work. Articulating a framework and taxonomy, he is fastidious about his terminology. Hollis writes graphic design history while wondering out loud how that history should be told or constructed and what general qualities should warrant incorporation into a canon. Ultimately, he does in writing what he claims to respect in the practice of graphic design. He too, uses all the tools at his disposal to search for form ‘when there wasn’t language to express something.’

Designed by Hollis with a red uncoated lightweight cover, About Graphic Design is an object of characteristic casual restraint. Inside, it is printed in black and white and typeset in a typeface which Hollis has customised himself. The thumbnail images act as reference points rather than heightened aestheticised simulations. Given that restraint, this is neither a book to idly flick through nor one that will be consigned to the coffee table. It is one to be consulted if you’re not one to blithely accept the value of images you’ve seen reproduced countless times before. It is a book to read in order to see the works of twentieth-century graphic masters, such as Alan Fletcher, Nicolete Gray, Edward Johnston, Germano Facetti and Jost Hochuli as if for the first time.

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Busy Doing Nothing

8207866341_118580e7c4This article was published on Eye magazine’s blog on the occasion of the launch of the illustration magazine entitled Le Petit Néant in 2012.

Le Petit Néant is an earnest name for a drawing magazine. French for ‘The Small Nothingness’, the title reeks of existential inquiry. The tendency in the past with the naming of such projects has been to liken the pencil to the sword. The connotations of introspection which the title Le Petit Néant invites are markedly different from the weaponry-inspired monikers of preceding independent drawing collectives such as Bazooka or Le Gun. The language of militant revolt and resistance, it seems, has been superceded.

The words, however, are beside the point. Le Petit Néant, like Le Gun before it (which began in 2004) originates from the School of Visual Communication at the Royal College of Art, a department which over the years has garnered a reputation as an incubator prioritising self-experimentation and development over immediate market demands. Conceived by second-year illustration student, Miguel Angel Valdivia under the mentorship of tutor Andrzej Klimowski (see ‘Theatre of dreams’ in Eye 14), and realised in conjunction with graphic design compatriot Guilia Garbin, the new annual magazine showcases drawings from all over Europe and also from Mexico and China.

With little evidence of computer-generated imagery, Le Petit Néant is a veritable compendium of mark-making in all manner of pencil and ink. Garbin has orchestrated the predominantly black and white spreads into a rhythm of light and dark. Some of the black marks colonise the page in their crispness; others seem to emerge from the depths in nuances of shading.

Apart from the title, Le Petit Néant eschews paratextual conventions. The paratext according to French theorist Jean Genette refers to any peripheral text which acts as a formula of presentation or instructions for use as to how a book should be received or read. Le Petit Néant has no page numbers. There are no captions to the illustrations and while a list of the artists / illustrators is included, it has been purposefully concealed inside the gatefold of the front cover. None of the works is attributed.

Words and galleries are mediating structures and Le Petit Néant has been designed so as to avoid anything which will frame the drawings’ reception, fix their meaning, fit them into any genre or category, or pre-empt their value. The images are accordingly presented full bleed.

Added to this, with a cover akin to kraft paper and pages which are untrimmed for creep, as an object Le Petit Néant resembles a pile or folio of drawings casually folded in half. This accentuates the sense of immediacy. This being said, Le Petit Néant is by no means ad hoc. The production values are high and turning its pages one almost expects the residue of graphite to rub off on one’s thumbs.

The editor’s and designer’s reluctance to slot the magazine into any context combined with the emphasis on works executed by hand accedes to the idea that drawing and its immediate relationship to the body offer unimpeded access to an authentic self and unfettered imagination.

Yet being human, it is impossible to approach an image with complete innocence, to separate our apprehension of forms, motifs and symbols or to disentangle the act of looking from the act of reading. As either a producer or viewer, to engage with an image is to associate and to forge connections with the sum total of our memory and experience. As such one can’t look at Le Petit Néant without tying it to certain traditions, for instance, to the dream worlds of Surrealism or in some cases to distinctly cinematic perspectives.

Single figures in nondescript or empty interiors feature, as do bodies with obscured or missing faces. The double-page spread also proves a convenient vehicle for the mirror image. They are formal meditations on repetition and difference on reflection and the desire for interaction.

A baboon crouching upon a pile of banknotes holding a pitchfork elegantly rendered in the style of Victorian illustration is the closest Le Petit Néant comes to biting commentary. Playful but sombre, more searching than vehement, as a statement of independence, Le Petit Néant has a different mood from its anarchic predecessors. By on the whole rejecting the well worn strategies of irony and cool detachment, it instead seems to be feeling its way towards independence.

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