Blogs The Gradient

Karel Martens, Joy, and Five Years of P!: An Interview with Prem Krishnamurthy

  Even after four years of programming, the New York storefront P! has managed to elude any form of archetypal gallery classification. The freewheeling spirit of P! can be attributed to its founder, Prem Krishnamurthy, whom many reading this blog know from his graphic design studio, Project Projects. Prem’s profound understanding of both graphic design and curating elucidates interesting relationships […]

Karel Martens, Recent Work. Photo: Sebastian Bach


Even after four years of programming, the New York storefront P! has managed to elude any form of archetypal gallery classification. The freewheeling spirit of P! can be attributed to its founder, Prem Krishnamurthy, whom many reading this blog know from his graphic design studio, Project Projects. Prem’s profound understanding of both graphic design and curating elucidates interesting relationships between the two disciplines. In each show Prem makes it a priority to juxtapose work from a spectrum of fields in order to question boundaries and reveal connections between seemingly disparate practices. It is this sort of inter-disciplinary approach in P!’s programming that we at the Walker design studio find so engaging.

If you’ve unwittingly happened upon the space over the years, you are just as likely to find a reading room, experimental techno celebration, or currency exchange station. In response to the diversity of work, the architecture of P! finds itself an active collaborator; evolving to create a unique spatial context for each show. At one point this meant a green ceiling under the guidance of a feng shui master; at another, it evolved into a new gallery altogether under the name K.  Kicking off the final season in the storefront is the exhibition Karel Martens, Recent Work. The show is an appropriate bookend, not only because of Martens’s participation in the inaugural P! show, Process 01: Joy (2012) but the way many of his pieces occupy the ambiguous ground between graphic design and contemporary art.

In the following interview we discuss Recent Work, the relationship between Prem’s design and curatorial practice, and what’s next for P! after the storefront.


Karel Martens: Recent Work, opening

Karel Martens, Recent Work, opening. Photo: Emily Smith



The Ceiling Should Be Green (天花板應該是綠色的), curated by Prem Krishnamurthy and Ali Wong. Artists: Mel Bochner, Rico Gatson, Tony Labat, Ohad Meromi, Shana Moulton, Connie Samaras, Jessica Stockholder, Wong Kit Yi, Wen Yau (2013). Photo: Naho Kubota



Michal Helfman, I’m so broke I can’t pay attention (2015). Photo: Sebastian Bach


Ben Schwartz: To begin, could you tell us a bit about putting together the current show, Karel Martens, Recent Work? Given Martens’s history with printed matter, I’m particularly curious about the inclusion of a sculptural piece as well as a video installation.

Prem Krishnamurthy: I’ve worked with Karel now a number of times. He was included in the first show at P!, Process 01: Joy, and was one of the reasons why I opened a gallery in the first place. Since that initial exhibition, we’ve worked on a number of other projects and presentations of his work in other venues, but this is his first solo show at P!

Our past projects with Karel have focused primarily on his letterpress monoprints, his best known works apart from his commissioned graphic design. Although Karel has always worked across media and scales, there hasn’t been a venue for these works to be shown. We’ve been developing Recent Work together for nearly a year; the longer timeframe presented an opportunity for Karel to think through his work since the 1950s and pick up on a number of strands that he’s wanted to develop further. For example: the clock piece, Three Times (in Blue and Yellow), is a new work but its origins range back to Karel’s early kinetic clock works of the 1960s. And the interactive installation, Icon Viewer, is an extension of the custom icon-pixel language that Karel developed nearly 15 years ago. So there is an incredible amount of continuity within the work.



Karel Martens, Three Times (in Blue and Yellow) (2016). Photo: Sebastian Bach


One of the things that I admire about Karel’s practice is that he has embraced technology with a sense of openness and curiosity. Although graphic design has changed radically over the nearly 60 years since he started, Karel has adopted successive tools and continued to stay on top of contemporary methods. This has allowed him to push his ideas about color, pattern, reproduction, and form further, so that they don’t remain static, and to experiment in different dimensions and media.



Karel Martens at the opening of Recent Work. Photo: Emily Smith


BS: In past shows P!’s role has extended beyond what one would typically expect from a gallery. In many ways the space becomes an active element that works in tandem with the artist. Would you consider Recent Work a collaborative effort?

PK: This raises the open-ended question around the place of design and curating within the broader realm of artistic production. P!’s role—as well as my own—in a given exhibition modulates greatly based on the circumstances. In some exhibitions, we have a strong hand in formulating the initial framework and creating the context that brings everything together. In this exhibition, as in other solo presentations, our role was quieter yet still present.



Karel Martens, A4 Wallpaper (2013/2016). Photo: Sebastian Bach


Karel’s exhibition emerged from the start as a dialogue between us, but with his practice, rather than a discrete curatorial premise, at its center. We’ve been in close conversation from the start to decide how to approach the exhibition, what works to display, and how to show them. Together we made models, plans, and elevations of the exhibition, batted around ideas for each part of the show, determined which new works needed to be produced, and edited down from a larger a set of works and projects. However, Karel is ultimately the author of the work and exhibition.

At the same time, I think that this particular show couldn’t have taken place right now in another space, whether in New York or elsewhere. It represents a confluence of Karel’s work and the unique profile of P!, along with my approach to curating exhibitions. Together they generate a situation that goes beyond the individual components.



First P! logo by Karel Martens, 2012, reinstalled in 2016. Photo: Sebastian Bach


BS: You and Karel seem to have a very close relationship. Over the years, what have you learned from him as both a curator and a designer?

PK: Each of the artists whom I work closely with at P! challenges my ideas and forces me to grow. I’m thinking here of Céline Condorelli, Aaron Gemmill, Mathew Hale, Maryam Jafri, Christopher Kulendran Thomas, Wong Kit Yi, and many others. I’ve also had the pleasure of exhibiting figures from an older generation—designers, artists, writers, musicians, and more—who have been fundamental to my own thinking. I consider myself lucky to have had a chance to learn from their deep experience and wisdom, while also exposing them to new audiences and approaches. This includes not only Karel, but also Brian O’Doherty and Elaine Lustig Cohen. I am terribly sad that Elaine just passed away recently, but she remains an ongoing inspiration for me through her unique work, life, and generous embrace of new ideas.


Elaine Lustig Cohen, solo exhibition at The Glass House (2015). Photo: Andy Romer Photography


Over these past years, Karel has taught me a lot. Some things are practical and aesthetic: for example, how he thinks about hanging a show, which is very related to how he arranges a layout on a page. Rather than hanging a show according to classical curatorial or museum approaches, he uses other structures like grids and margins, which give his installations an unusual energy and freshness.

A more fundamental thing that I’ve learned from working with Karel is how he likes to leave some things unfinished and open-ended. I can tend to be very, very structured and try to control nearly ever detail. Working with Karel, I’ve observed his tendency to be precise about certain aspects of a piece or exhibition but quite relaxed about others. I think this is what allows the work to breathe.



Karel Martens’ studio, Full Color, Roma Publications


For this show, we were trying to settle on the order of the monoprints in the wall grid. As we laid them down to look, I began to shuffle them around in order to achieve the “perfect sequence.” I was attempting to account for their size, color, formal relationships, and other variables. After a while, Karel said, “Prem, it’s done. Don’t worry so much about it. They’ll all look good next to each other.” I protested and tried to keep fiddling with it, but eventually had to admit that he was right.

Karel also has a Dutch sense of work/life balance—so he tends get a beer or dinner at 6 pm, even if he comes back to the studio or exhibition space later on. I’m still trying to learn from him here, too!



Karel Martens, Recent Work, installation view. Photo: Sebastian Bach


BS: I’ve always loved that about his personal work, the way intuition and spontaneity play a large role in his process. Each move is a reaction to what’s already on the page and to what he’s feeling at a particular moment. The decision-making process seems oppositional to graphic design, where there is the need to justify every aesthetic move.

PK: You’re right, but it’s a specific case with Karel. He’s been working for nearly 60 years and so is truly a master of his field. Even his intuitive decisions about form, color, and typography arrive with an incredible degree of innate practice and knowledge.

When I was younger, I used to be a real perfectionist as a typographer. I wanted even the most basic typesetting to be absolutely precise and complete. Something I’m working on in my design and curatorial practice is to have more trust and confidence, to let go just a little bit. Chris Wu, whom I work with at Project Projects, tried to convince me years ago that great design is sometimes all about the gesture—just the right gesture can work perfectly.

The question of context and what’s already on the page is also very significant here. For Karel, as for myself, there is an interest in what exists before one steps into a given situation as a graphic designer. This happens with his monoprints: he chooses to print on things that already have a past life and a formal order. It’s a kind of recycling but also a response to something that’s already there. For me, it’s about a sense of making history visible.

Several years ago, I was leading the design of the signage program for the Yale University Art Gallery. There had already been a number of signage programs that had existed over the years before we were commissioned. Rather than approaching the project by starting from scratch, I decided that we would retain aspects of those older signage programs, layering our own system on top. This lends the viewer a richer sense of what’s been there before, and what’s still to come.


Project Projects, design for Yale University Art Gallery signage (2010). Photo: Naho Kubota


This is how I approach exhibition spaces, too. I don’t look at the gallery space as being a tabula rasa, blank slate, or white cube. One aspect of my exhibition-making is that I consider the architecture and history of a space as inflecting whatever’s displayed in it. A show in a gallery is just one more archaeological layer added to the top.

When preparing P!’s space for its final year of programming, I opted to remove a cork floor that had existed since early 2015 and expose the floor panels below. In doing so, I realized that they are nearly a work in their own right. The vinyl flooring, which has been here since I took the lease, makes visible a history of the past floorplans of the storefront, and how it has changed over these past four years. While installing Karel’s show, I recognized the connection for the first time: the way that I treat existing spaces relates directly to how Karel overprints on existing cards and ephemera. Both are a form of palimpsest, just in different dimensions and scales.

BS: For Karel, I’m curious about what he’s responding to on the found material. Is he paying attention to content or is he more focused on formal relationships?

PKHe describes it as being a combination of both aspects. On the one hand, he doesn’t like to print something with a direct relationship to what’s already on the card, as it can result in feeling too illustrative. On the other hand, as he mentioned in the New York Times T Magazine, he sees the typewriting and tabular typography on the found cards as being a form of concrete poetry—the poetry of administration—which inspires him to print on top of them.



Karel Martens, Untitled (2016) Letterpress monoprint on found card, 8 × 5 inches, unique


BS: I think this current show of Karel Martens occupies an interesting space in regards to graphic design and contemporary art. Karel is of course a seminal graphic designer, but the work being shown is uncommissioned. Did you ever feel the need to make the distinction between design and art when putting together Recent Work?

PK: I don’t make that distinction; rather, I try to look at the unique values and qualities of objects, regardless of what genre they belong to. Karel is foundational to the program of P! because he occupies this ambiguous ground between art and design. He makes works that are not commissioned, but sometimes the forms that he create in his monoprints make their way back into his commissioned graphic design work. There is a healthy back and forth. Both his commissioned and uncommissioned works are equally beautiful.

In Karel’s case, I see this as a kind of visual research. He’s spent the last 60 years experimenting with form and color, constituting a body of knowledge and practice that flows into all of his different work. In this way, he occupies an in-between space. For much of the history of the 20th century avant-garde, there wasn’t a strong distinction between applied and “free work.” This overlap, exemplified in Karel’s work today, is at the heart of my interests and why I wanted to include him in P!’s program from the first show. We’re in a historical era in which there is a strong boundary established between disciplines—which has much less to do with intrinsic distinctions and much more to do with the market and how different kinds of labor are currently valued.



Karel Martens, Architecture as a Craft (2009); Karel Martens, Terra Incognita posters (1995)


I always ask myself with Karel’s work and that of others I’m interested in: Who cares whether people call it graphic design or art right now, but what’s this going to look like in 50, 100, or 1,000 years? Many of the things that we value most from past generations may have once been functional, whether they’re pottery, printed remnants, or cave paintings. They had one relevance in their original moment but they’ve also maintained their integrity. Their relevance to us now is that they have acquired a new meaning, which is in excess of the original purpose.

On a panel that I organized recently at the New York Art Book Fair 2016 with Karel and David Reinfurt (of Dexter Sinister and O-R-G), Karel said something that really resonated with me. To paraphrase him, if you’re making a piece of graphic design and you’ve just fulfilled the project’s assignment, then you’ve only done half of the work. There is a large part of design that goes beyond functional requirements; perhaps this aspect contributes to what makes the work enduring in the long term.

BS: Although you mentioned not looking at a hard and fast line between graphic design and fine art, with P! do you feel a particular responsibility to give graphic design more representation in the gallery space?

PK: Since I come from a background in graphic design, it’s one of the key contexts and bodies of knowledge that I carry with me everywhere I go. Graphic design is an embedded filter for how I think about the world. In a broader sense, the history of graphic design is extremely intertwined with larger narratives of historical and contemporary visual practice. It’s impossible to disentangle design from how we look at art since the beginning of the 20th century. Beyond the crossover of the disciplines and practitioners, even the reproduction, publication, and dissemination of art has been traditionally mediated through graphic design.

When I consider what to place into an exhibition space, it’s quite natural to me for those things to come from the different worlds with which I engage, whether contemporary art, graphic design, music, or writing. However, with graphic design in particular, I have tended to come at it from two directions. Sometimes I’ll show things from a graphic design context that I think are compelling within a broader discourse; other times, I present contemporary art projects that might resonate with graphic design in a significant way.


Vahap Avşar, Lost Shadows, [AND Museum] (2015). Photo: Sebastian Bach


In this latter category, I have in mind exhibitions we’ve done with artists such as Vahap Avşar, who worked with the archive of a defunct Turkish postcard company to make new postcards for distribution. Another example is Maryam Jafri, who examines histories of consumer products from an anthropological and artistic perspective. Her show at P!, Economy Corner—I think one of our best—was an exhibition about economics, branding, markets, and class, while also being legible as a show about typography, even if that’s not Maryam’s primary interest. Another crucial show for me from our fourth season was Pangrammar, a freewheeling and highly personal exhibition that mapped my interests in the overlaps between typography and art in a loose, associative way. By mixing works that were art and design, new and old, unique and multiples, within a single idiosyncratic curatorial structure, it gestured towards the more open-ended yet critical ways I’d like these fields to be looked at.



Maryam Jafri, Economy Corner (2016). Photo: Sebastian Bach



PANGRAMMAR, Various artists (2015). Photo: Sebastian Bach


BS: When you do include graphic design in particular shows, it’s never really looking inwards at the practice itself. I’m thinking of the Anton Stankowski and Klaus Wittkugel show; although both graphic designers, the work seemed to point outward toward larger ideas about East and West Germany. The display of graphic design seems very different than say, Graphic Design: Now in Production here at The Walker. How does bringing design into a gallery context change the viewer’s relationship with the work?

PK: It’s good that you bring up Graphic Design: Now in Production. As you know, Project Projects collaborated with the Walker on the graphic identity of the show; I then directed the exhibition design for its New York presentation by the Cooper Hewitt. In fact, the show immediately preceded P!’s opening and surely influenced some of my decisions. Curated by Andrew Blauvelt and Ellen Lupton along with a team of others, Graphic Design: Now in Production took a more classical approach to displaying graphic design, organizing it according to projects, specific media types, and functionality.


Graphic Design: Now In Production, Walker Art Center (2011).


Project Projects with Leong Leong, exhibition design for Graphic Design: Now In Production, Governors Island (2012). Photo: Prem Krishnamurthy


This is quite different from my curatorial approach. For me, context is extremely important in looking at design objects—for whom and why was something made?—but I’m equally compelled by a work’s broader significance, whether aesthetic, conceptual, cultural, or ideological. The challenge is how to make these registers legible within the exhibition setting, which I’ve tried to address in a number of ways. The Wittkugel / Stankowski exhibition was one approach, which involved using particular strategies of contemporary art display to present historical graphic design work, freeing it from some of its baggage while also situating it within broader political discourses.



OST UND oder WEST, Klaus Wittkugel and Anton Stankowski (2016). Photo: Sebastian Bach


OST UND oder WEST, Klaus Wittkugel and Anton Stankowski, 2016

OST UND oder WEST, Klaus Wittkugel and Anton Stankowski (2016). Photo: Sebastian Bach


I’m committed to an approach to presenting design that does not separate it from other fields of visual and artistic inquiry. That’s not to say that there are no differences between these disciplines, but rather that I’m interested in their confluences. I take issue both with how graphic design is exhibited in a closed-off way, but also with recent exhibitions of early 20th-century avant-garde figures that focus primarily on their paintings or their sculptures, when they made equally important contributions in graphic design, photography, exhibition design, and beyond. By relegating these practitioners’ “applied” work to a secondary status, the exhibitions are actually undoing in large part their intended legacies.

Recently I heard someone voice that typical refrain: “Oh, I wonder if graphic design is still going to exist in 20 years.” I’d bet that it will, but that it will look quite different than it does now. Rather than navel-gazing, I’m interested in graphic design’s potential to look outside of itself to connect with other discourses.

BS: As this is the last year of P! in its physical manifestation, I want to go back and discuss some of the history of the space. As you mentioned, the first exhibition was Process 01: Joy which explored the relationship between joy and practice. In the context of your own work, how has P! been a source of joy for you?

PK: Framing the first show at P! in this particular way was both self-reflective and self-deprecating. After all, opening P! alongside my work at Project Projects, my teaching, my writing, and everything else was basically a choice to double or triple my workload! And then to focus first show around labor and name it Joy was also a slightly perverse joke. But it also had a very serious dimension. All three of the participants in that first show—Chauncey Hare, Christine Hill, and Karel Martens—had explored, both implicitly and explicitly, the complex relationship between vocations and avocations, labor and pleasure. The show embraced the fact that much of the most significant work, of any kind, falls outside of the typical 9-to-5 workday, while being part of a dialectic with this economy of production.



Process 01: Joy, Chauncey Hare, Christine Hill, Karel Martens (2012). Photo: Naho Kubota


Process 01: Joy opening (2012). Photo: Judith Gärtner


What creative people produce to make a living is often circumscribed into very specific categories. After the show, I began to look at what works from somebody’s practice might be marginalized, and hone in on those. If P! has, in part, created a home for people’s “off-projects” that don’t fit in neatly with what they’re necessarily known for, then I’d be happy.

P! was an activity that complemented my work as a graphic designer at Project Projects, and it was a project of love. On the other hand, I can’t overestimate how much it has influenced my own graphic design over the past four years, as much as the space has been informed by the work I had accomplished before it.

BS: That’s actually a point I wanted to touch on: the relationship between your curatorial practice and graphic design practice. How have the two influenced each other?

PK: For a number of years, I’ve been planning to write a longer text or at least put together a lecture about the relationship of curating and design. Maybe I’ll have more time to finish this once P! on Broome Street closes! I hold that the two fields—graphic design and curating—are quite similar in a number of historical, structural, and practical ways. Both disciplines are focused on mediating content rather than necessarily generating it themselves. Curators and graphic designers alike work with other people, other objects, other ideas that are outside of themselves—they’re exogenous pursuits.

As a graphic designer, you work with your clients to make their content legible for a set of publics. As a curator, you working with artists to translate their work and interests to a broader audience outside of their studio.



Matrix / Berkeley: A Changing Exhibition of Contemporary Art, edited by Elizabeth Thomas and Project Projects, book design by Project Projects (2008)


BS: We talked a bit about collaboration. The collaborative dynamic seems at the heart of both P! and Project Projects. In your design practice Project Projects seems involved at a much deeper level than a traditional designer/client relationship. P!’s involvement as well goes beyond the traditional white cube approach. Can you talk about P!’s unique curatorial point of view?

PK: From the beginning, I’ve always thought of the space itself as an actor. This is both with regards to P! and more generally when I’m designing and curating exhibitions in other venues. One of my fundamental texts is Brian O’Doherty’s Inside the White Cube. It dates back to 1976, but Brian’s argument still reads quite true, 40 years later.



Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (1986) (originally published as a series of essays in 1976)


I believe that the context of presentation, the architecture and the display of an exhibition, can be as meaningful as what’s being shown. One of the first decisions I made when after I signed the lease for 334 Broome Street was to talk with Leong Leong, the architecture firm whom I had brought in to work with Project Projects on Graphic Design: Now in Production in New York (and who now share a studio space with us). They designed the space in a brilliant way—both functional and conceptual, overt and subtle in the right ways. Their original design also highlighted the context of the storefront space and its previous life, a Chinatown HVAC contracting office. Over the years, as the space has developed through the interventions of artists and my own curatorial ideas, Leong Leong has remained involved in the conversations around how the space evolves.



Original architectural design for P! by Leong Leong. Photo: Naho Kubota


More broadly, apart from simply trying to foreground mediation, architecture, and display, I have a strong belief about self-reflexivity and transparency: since curating is a discipline that makes things visible yet also orders the world according to its own agendas, the curatorial act—the very process of framing—ought to itself be laid bare.

One of Brian’s core arguments from Inside the White Cube is that the white cube gallery makes nearly anything displayed inside of it into a kind of sacral object, increasing its market value. As a counter to this kind of invisible conditioning, I’m interested in trying to expose for the viewer how such operations construct values.

This is also something that figures into much of my design work. For me, the challenge is not just to make a compelling identity, book, exhibition, or website that presents its content in a neutral way, but to also design it in such a way that makes the viewer aware of its own mediation and influence. Undermining one’s own authority—or at least, calling it into question—is an important quality.

BS: In regards to making things visible, I feel like a lot of that is coming from playing with the context of various disciplines. Placing work in a gallery that may not typically exist there, but also with other practices it may not normally exist alongside. For example, in Permutation 03.4: Re-Mix you put Thomas Brinkmann, a DJ, alongside visual artists Katarina Burin and Semir Alschausky, the architectural practice Fake Industries Architectural Agonism, and a video essay by Oliver Laric. In creating these sorts of experiments in recontextualization, what are you hoping to communicate?


Permutation 03.4: Re-Mix, Semir Alschausky, Thomas Brinkmann, Katarina Burin, Fake Industries Architectural Agonism, Oliver Laric (2013). Photo: Naho Kubota


PK: Thank you for reminding me of that show, the last show of our very first year. It feels like such a long time ago! It was a pretty important exhibition to me. It brings up similar questions around how context and juxtaposition affect the meaning of individual objects. This particular show was also the conclusion of a four-exhibition cycle examining ideas of copying, authorship, and originality. The series had a looping structure in which artworks, idea, and specific display strategies echoed each other across shows.

Through my work as a graphic designer—but also through other interests, including filmic montage and psychoanalysis—I’ve learned to work with the principle of juxtaposition: if you show multiple objects within the same frame, whether on a page, in a space, or within a limited time period, a connection will be formed between them in the viewer’s mind.


Thomas Brinkman

Thomas Brinkmann performing at opening of Permutation 03.4: Re-Mix opening (2013). Photo: Prem Krishnamurthy


This particular exhibition suggested a set of conceptual, formal, and methodological relationships between the disparate participants. Thomas Brinkmann is an experimental DJ and musician who had originally studied art and who has worked in a way that resonates with contemporary art practice. In the exhibition, he showed a custom two-armed turntable that he developed in the late 1980s, which can “double” an audio track in a specific way; at the same time, its unique fabrication evokes a Russian Constructivist sculpture. Katarina Burin had developed a fictional female designer of the Eastern European avant-garde whose architectural drawings resonated formally with Brinkmann’s work while similarly challenging notions of the copy and the original. Semir Alschausky premiered an unusual and intricate painting on paper that remakes a well-known historical painting using a technique resembling the circular grooves of a record. Subverting the entire frame of presentation, Fake Industries Architectural Agonism appropriated the temporal structure of a recent exhibition at a nearby gallery, in which an artist had shifted the opening hours of the gallery to dusk; Fake Industries simply changed P!’s hours to mirror those (which meant we were open into the evening, appropriate for the musical context of Brinkmann’s work). Finally, Oliver Laric’s piece was a kind of cover version of a cover version: his essay film Versions had appeared in an earlier exhibition of the cycle. Here, an adaptation of the film into a musical play by students at the Juilliard Academy played on a screen, in nearly the same position where it had appeared two shows earlier. A kind of uncanny doubling, taking place over time.

In any case, that’s just scratching the surface. There are other ways in which the works spoke to each other. It’s like a lively dinner party: the most fun ones include people who are more different than alike!



Permutation 03.4: Re-Mix exterior view featuring Fake Industries Architectural Agonism and Semir Alschausky (2013). Photo: Naho Kubota


BS: This season marks the last season for P! in the Broome Street space. I feel like the storefront has played such a major role in many exhibitions, and its location in Chinatown seems to be an important factor. What does the move mean for P!? Does it have to do with a shift in ideology or is it more related to logistics?

PK: A “move” is a slight misnomer insofar as we are not announcing a new location after this, at least not for now. It’s actually more that P! is shifting its focus. For its first five years, P! existed primarily as an exhibition program housed in a single location, with occasional off-site presentations and projects. Moving forward, P! will take the shape of a dispersed institution that can assume and inhabit different spaces through its programmatic focus. It will still organize exhibitions and presentations, collaborating with museums and other venues. P! will also continue to work with artists, designers, and others on these shows as well as on producing publications. So it’s more of an opening-up of the focus of the organization.

P! as a storefront in Chinatown was always intended as a “limited-time offering,” with a start and end date. This accompanies the strong narrative component to its program thus far. Each of the past seasons or years of the space have had a specific structure and arc to them; this even includes the fact that we changed the name of the gallery for a five-month period, becoming another gallery, K. I thought of that moment as our version of a “play-within-a-play.” And as with a literary work, there may be an ending, but that doesn’t preclude sequels and continuations.


Various P! logos from 2012–2014 by Karel Martens, Aaron Gemmill, Rich Brilliant Willing, Société Réaliste, Rivet, and Heman Chong


BS: It seems to me that P! has always been about evolution, whether that be through a changing architecture or a flexible identity system. Now, to not even be tied down to a specific location seems like a logical progression in regards to what’s next.

PK: Yes. P! has also represented an exploration of a different mode of “institutionality.” It’s an outgrowth of my many years of work with institutions, especially those that have an unusual, non-normative shape—such as SALT in Istanbul or the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive’s MATRIX project space. I’ve made this part of my program at P!, allowing it to constantly shift its profile and visual identity, so that it might appear as something quite different to its various audiences.

Bricks-and-mortar spaces are only one aspect of a contemporary institution. While I’m still committed to exhibition-making, the next institutional challenge is how to disperse activities and programming yet still maintain an audience and a community.



Project Projects, identity program for SALT, Istanbul (2010–ongoing)


BS: To close things out, I want to ask a bit of a sentimental question. With any sort of major milestone I think it’s important to look back on what has been accomplished. Are there any particular memories that stand out to you during your time at the Broome Street location?

PK: I liked your question about Thomas Brinkmann and the exhibition Permutation 03.4: Re-Mix. For the opening of that show, there was a special performance where Thomas invited his New York friends to bring records to play on his special double-armed record player. Each original record was transformed into something like a slow, dub-inflected shuffle, with a tremendous sense of stuttering rhythm. It turned into an incredible, dance-floor moment, with everyone anticipating what would come next. The floor seemed like it might collapse. It was such a special moment, I remember thinking, we could end P! right now, and it would have all been worth it. We’ve already accomplished in a microcosm what we originally set out to do: to bring people who would never otherwise know each other into a space together, and to create a dialogue.

"Concept 33" from p-exclamation on Vimeo.

BS: I want to really thank you for your time. It’s been exciting following what you’ve been doing with P!, and it has been a real inspiration. Congratulations again on such an amazing body of work, I’m looking forward to what’s next.

Designing Bon Iver’s 22, a Million: An Interview with Eric Timothy Carlson

  When I first started to see fragments of the artwork for Bon Iver’s new album, 22, a Million, I immediately recognized the hand of Eric Timothy Carlson, an artist and designer based in Brooklyn, originally from Minneapolis. Carlson’s work frequently mutates from medium to medium, a sketch becoming a poem becoming a sculpture becoming […]



When I first started to see fragments of the artwork for Bon Iver’s new album, 22, a Million, I immediately recognized the hand of Eric Timothy Carlson, an artist and designer based in Brooklyn, originally from Minneapolis. Carlson’s work frequently mutates from medium to medium, a sketch becoming a poem becoming a sculpture becoming a shirt. Through it all, the idea of reading—the fluidity between text and image, the discarded pictographic origins of alphabets, the semiotic slide between icon to index to symbol—guides his work.

Symbols especially fascinate Carlson, who has obsessively explored their cryptic and explicit power within the realm of music, having created logos, icons, and glyphs for a number of midwestern bands like P.O.S., Gayngs, and Doomtree. In Carlson’s world, symbols rarely speak with the intent of reifying meaning, or branding something with repressive authority, but in a way that evokes multiple readings at once, asking to be adopted and infused with new life. It is this spirit that is on ebullient display in his new artwork for Bon Iver. This work is thick—an extensive collection of symbols and drawings and texts that spill out from the dense LP design (the legend/key to the entire transmedia system) to populate Instagram posts, giant murals, lyric videos, etc. The work is less a graphic identity for an album and more a documentation of a collaborative network of players, places, times, and tools.


In the following interview we present the finished artwork, supplemented with process work and related materials. Eric takes us down the rabbit hole, describing the intense, fluid work sessions with Justin Vernon and others at the Eau Claire studios, the numbers that permeate the track list, the influence of digital culture on the new album, the prevalence of cryptic symbolism throughout the Minneapolis/Wisconsin music scene, and the Packers.





Emmet Byrne: How were you approached to work on this? Do you specialize in music packaging?

Eric Timothy Carlson: It’s been a long process. Five years ago, I received a message from Justin that said “I like what you’re doing, and I want you to know that.” A year or two later after actually meeting for the first time: “Can we work on something together? You should come over and we’ll vibe.”

Music has always been an important aspect of my practice. I’ve played music my whole life, and I come from a musical family, raised with it. In college I interned with Aesthetic Apparatus, screen-printing gig posters. My first design projects were for friends’ bands, and posters for art/music shows. Never really wanting to pursue any sort of traditional employment, I’ve made my way on small projects, working with musicians and artists and performers.

I lived in Minneapolis for a decade before moving to New York, so much of my work is born of that Midwest community. P.O.S’s Never Better was the first complete art direction project I had the chance to fully develop. It was a crash course in working with an artist and a label in unison, and aligning the intent and capabilities of all the involved parties/minds. I owe a lot to that community: P.O.S, Doomtree, Rhymesayers, TGNP, Building Better Bombs, Poliça, Gayngs, Skoal Kodiak, The Plastic Constellations, Marijuana Deathsquads, Dark Dark Dark, The Church, Organ House, Medusa. It was an opportunity to participate in defining a decade of music in Minneapolis.

For a couple of years, I also worked with Mike Cina, who is a book and record collector, and really learned and internalized a lot about typography and album art in my time with him. My practice has expanded outside of that through zines and the internet, but a lot of my work to this day has spawned from this continuum.




EB: How did you work with the Bon Iver crew to create this artwork?

ETC: Some projects, you can see what the cover is supposed to be—a floating image in the mind—or there are certain “rules” that you’re supposed to play by that determine much of what is being created. This project, however, could be whatever it wanted to be.

The original desire from the start was to create a robust world of work. So instead of pursuing a specific vision right off the bat, we just worked and experimented and tested ideas. I worked closely with Justin. I worked at April Base—the recording studio—a couple times a year, each time was a unique experience focused on that stage of the music. Usually with an intimate group of two or three guests (musicians, writers, chillers, curators) and the studio crew, for a week or so at a time, to make a unique creative space, where each of us would be a part of defining that period of creation. The whole Bon project is for the most part entirely driven in house. Each visit would be a new experiment—creating temporary installations and interventions, painting murals, sharing books and inspiration, playing music. We came to listen and work and get to know one another, to get a feel for how to work and talk and think together. Not overthink anything. Developing the conversation, making art, and sharing our scope of vision and capabilities.


In the rural setting of Eau Claire, when it was freezing outside, almost everything took place inside the studio, and we barely even left the property. It puts you in a certain headspace, and you develop a pattern of waking up and just getting into the work and process of it from noon to midnight—an uninterrupted cycle for a week at a time. But we’d make sure to sleep and eat well too, and not miss too much of the limited winter sunlight.


There were some early birds in the studio, and of course the night owls as well. The amount of people shifted depending on what was happening, and the vibe changed depending on who was around. I think the Indigo Girls were recording the week before I first visited, and there was another project in one of the sound rooms overlapping with my time there. That first visit was one of the most frenetic, fluid experiences, multiple projects developing and recording simultaneously. Sax and string players visiting to record their own work, and then session on the album in process as well. The later visits were more focused—everyone was there for the album, in a no distractions kind of mode.

I’m a habitual drawer, so these visits to the studio resulted in an accumulation of many, many sketches, like writing. Later, these sketch pages became a reference point for the final work. There was an honesty in the notes and collection process that very much influenced the final work.




EB:  How does the artwork respond to the music?

ETC: The songs were all numbers from the start, multiple numbers at first. So we would listen to each song, talk about the numbers, talk about the song, watch the lyrics take form, makes lists, make drawings. Real references and experiences are collaged in both the music and the artwork. I was able to interview and interrogate each song—digging into weird cores—and by the end of each visit, each song would develop a matrix of new notes and symbols.



Between the numerology, the metaphysical/humanist nature of the questions in 22, a Million, and the accumulation of physical material and symbolism around the music—it became apparent that the final artwork was to be something of a tome. A book of lore. Jung’s Red Book. A lost religion. The Rosetta Stone. Sagan’s Golden Record. Something to invest some serious time and mind in. Something that presented a lot of unanswered questions and wrong ways. A distant past and future. An inner journey somehow very contemporary.

02_bi22_collage_002b_small 01_bi22_collage_001b_small

EB: When I saw the artwork for the first time I immediately recognized the feeling of it, the general design language. The use of rune-like symbols felt very much like your previous work, and like the work of some of your collaborators—but it didn’t feel like Bon Iver, at least as I understood it. Was Bon Iver looking for something different than their previous, pastoral vibe?

ETC: Early on in the process, it was said, “I want each song to have a symbol,” and I knew exactly what that meant. Symbols just naturally come out of me, which is why I use them so much. Icons, signs, symbols—they are cultural fragments and a well made one can cut so deep into our language. I’ve been mentally collecting these all my life. There’s an exercise I enjoy—sitting down to draw out all of the symbols you know without reference: logos, symbols, characters, etc.—and it’s often surprising what comes out, what we have locked away in memory. The anarchy A, yin yangs, Mr. Yuck, Super “S,” Kilroy, peace sign, etc. I admit that one of my desires regarding design and art is to add something to that deep cultural symbolic well of knowing. But they also come from a decades-long conversation within this specific community. I designed the Gayngs symbol for Ryan Olson in 2010 and worked with Doomtree in 2011 on their No Kings album, which also involved the generation of a series of glyphs. These ideas—claiming icons, masks, unknowables, unsayables, unpronouncables—resonate with that community. The Artist Formally Known as Prince. Zoso. CRASS. etc.





And as far as the feeling of the previous Bon albums, I mean, they brought me in for a reason. That version of Americana was ripe and appropriate when For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver happened, but the Bon project didn’t want to further perpetuate that aesthetic. The new album remains explicitly connected to those before it, but the feeling has undeniably evolved, as has the culture around it.


I spent years in a perfectly weird corner of the heartland making apocalyptic noise art in the vibrant community of Minneapolis. Landlocked bloggers. High and low are just as much the fabric of our home as is a melting pile of snow. So on the surface, the new album aesthetic might seem like a dramatic shift in the Bon aesthetic, but I see it true and deeply bonded to its current state as well as the history out of which it developed.

For 22, a Million—in their creation—they felt automatic. I enjoy the puzzle of creating a ligature. Justin assigned a specific meaning to the numbers and a logic to their creation, but in the end, they are open containers to be filled with new meaning. Symbols in the context of music have a lot of power, and people are very willing to own and wear/display their cultural experiences and allegiances.


As the artwork developed, it became clear how we would seed the material into the public. With 10 symbols, we would make 10 murals, and 10 videos, and a 20-page book, etc. As with many numerologies—just follow the numbers—be them true or not.

The artwork is a collection of hundreds of pieces, icons, ideas, motifs, most of which are capable of standing on their own. The proper album packaging is the legend of symbols, where you find everything all in one place. When applying the art to outside uses (murals, ads,Instagram posts, etc.), we could utilize individual components. But no piece should be as comprehensive as the album packaging.


EB: How did you land on the prominent use of the yin yang symbol?

ETC: In establishing that each song was to have a symbol or a set of symbols designated to it, I wanted to also arrive at an overarching symbol, to house them all within. The yin yang proper was in play loosely from the start, working well in the context of the humanist/spiritual pursuits of the project. I created the collage compositions for the LP package by hand at 33˝ x 33˝, as it proved the best way for me to deal with the amount of material produced, and to massage it all into a sound and organic composition. The center was originally occupied by an altered mandala, as a satisfying placeholder, waiting to be filled with the final symbol. The yin yang design we ended up with happened while working in vector—on something of a whim. Changing the symbol into a square format proved to be enough to keep it recognizable but make it unique to the project. The “smile in the mind” bit of the “i” and “b” emerging from the mark was the final step in both owning the mark, as well as settling its roll. It is a simple design, two circles centered, but the point where they touch in the center is sensitive and requires some optical adjustments. Following the geometric paths produces a little tick that requires massaging to look right. The proportions of the “i” work within the proportions system created for the LP design, and align with the typographic proportions as well. As organic as it feels, it’s a tightly made structure throughout it all.


BI22_Single_1000000 BI22_Single_45 JAG299-BonIver-12"_5 JAG299-BonIver-12"_5 BI22_Single_666 JAG299-BonIver-12"_5 JAG299-BonIver-12"_5 BI22_Single_715 JAG299-BonIver-12"_5 JAG299-BonIver-12"_5

There was a short conversation as we arrived near the final art design, where I wanted a very clear confirmation that this was where we were going to land, “There are going to be yin yangs and down crosses on your album cover … and … you’re down with that?” and the response was more or less, “Dude, yesssssss!”



img_8454 img_8146



EB: You’ve described the way ideas of digital collage, digital formats, digital thinking really encompassed the creative conception of the album, both musically and visually.

ETC: 22, a Million to me still feels very tied to Emma and the self-titled album. There is still the gospel and folk and mountain songs, but in the studio I could feel and see the visceral digital collage of it all, how our technology and the internet has truly affected the way we collect, organize, think, and make. This album is built on our history of music, noise, poetry, and Americana, but also seamlessly incorporates and celebrates the technological nuances of our contemporary—employing it and expanding it.

Visualizing music has been an exercise I’ve practiced since I was young. The first PlayStation had the visualizer function where you could customize your equalizer/screensaver with the controller, responding to any CD you put in, which informed a bit of how I approached it then. I try to let the ideas be more expansive now. When I first heard the digital disturbances crackling over these new songs, it was such a trip, seeing layers and relationships I hadn’t yet encountered.

The computer so readily pairs with futurist visions, pushing forward futuristic, technology-oriented aesthetics. But the reality of our relationship with digital technology always retains this messy pulsing humanity. Marshall McLuhan predicted computers in every classroom, people connected around the world, utopian vibes. Technically he was very right, but we still have bad carpeting and ugly plaid couches and gas station tchotchkes and dirty bathrooms. Regardless of time passing, we remain in communion with the century preceding us, and even the previous millennium or two.

BI22_tp0004c_Double_Gate_Cover3-PROD bi22_bonsadsax

EB: How do you understand album artwork in the context of the digital music economy? Prior to the proper release of the album, your artwork was published in a variety of ways, from a cryptic track-list graphic approach on Instagram to the YouTube lyrics videos. The graphics seem to be very front and center in Bon Iver’s pre-release strategy—they are presented as standalone thoughts, with very little context, in lieu of a slick marketing campaign. Was this the intent from the beginning?

ETC: I believe Bon Iver has had unique success with both digital and physical album sales, perhaps an anomaly of sorts. Being of my generation, I can’t help but desire access to music and movies and such things for free—I understand how that is problematic, but upon tasting Napster, it was hard to go back.

Labels, album makers, vinyl fetishists—people love the richness of album art, the nostalgic object to own and consume. It’s fun to produce that stuff, and much of the best album art was made for that format. CD’s are junk, and Digipaks are junk, in my opinion. (My favorite CD format is those massive Case Logic binders of poorly labeled CDRs.)

Given the opportunity, I like to make artwork first for the LP format because it is the most generous format for artwork (assuming one pursues the object creation). Then I try to find a good way to make a system of format conversions. I love old cassette tapes where they just drop the square album art on the cassette cover, and type out the titles again bigger underneath in the worst/best way. So honest.

Format conversions are such a crazy part of doing a big release like this, because there are so many when it comes to international releases: LP, CD, Cassette, Euro LP, CD, Central/South American CD, Australian CD, Japan CD, etc… all slightly different sizes, with different printers, different distributors. Aspects of this obviously become a certain hell, but I can’t help but pursue quirky packaging details in the different designs, which, if done well, can result in so many unique details that make each version special in their own little mutant way.


When working with bands, I’ve often made the case that they should find a way to make an album available for free, since someone will do it anyway, and if you try to control it, you end up keeping people away from the work. I can’t back up any financial rubric supporting this, but it feels right to me. Most of my friends are posting their work on SoundCloud or YouTube. When they release an album that is freely available, the ideas that form around the real base are a little more true to humans than the rules as laid out by companies.

For 22, a Million, there will be lyric videos that I created with Aaron Anderson for each song that will be available for free on YouTube (save the ad experience/big data), which is great as it opened another gate for us to expand the language of the artwork into an entirely different realm—time and motion and the casually fluent—because internet. 

EB: Lyric videos are an interesting choice for an album like this. Vernon references Richard Buckner when talking about becoming comfortable with writing words that sound like something, instead of lyrics with explicit meaning. “Sound things out and find out what it means later. Gave me the courage to write like that.” I feel like your cryptic use of symbols matches that strategy pretty closely. It suggests a deep, diverse world of language but the viewer is allowed to fill in the meaning of what it is actually saying.  The lyric videos seem deliberately deadpan in their delivery of the lyrics—a little too straight up for lyrics that make very little “sense” at first listen. There’s something unnatural-feeling about literally reading these lyrics while listening to the music…

ETC: The lyric videos initiative came from Justin. I’m not sure they ended up looking like what he was imagining, but that’s one of the things that has been so great about the project: the trust in the work of everyone involved. I was originally a little hesitant about the lyric video concept, largely due to the quality of lyric videos in general, and because I was dreaming of an entirely abstract/ambient visual component to live with the music online, without typography. But many lyric videos found online are made by fans—iMovie/After Effects motion graphics class projects. I feel that that amateur aesthetic has gone on to inform what official, professionally produced lyric videos look like. Those videos are getting a lot of views, so they are probably important to produce and control, but I can’t imagine any of them are allotted budgets comparable to that of a music video—they are more of a checked-off assets category in the end.

But it was good challenge, figuring out how to do it good/weird/right, how to acknowledge the format, and how to expand the album art into this realm. They didn’t need to be explicitly narrative, and they didn’t need to live by the rules of the print material. They are made for YouTube, to ultimately listen to the music in that format—but we wanted to prod at the format, and use it to expand upon the inherent digital truth of the album.

The simple and natural aesthetic of digital collage that these videos utilize is deeply rooted in the core of 22, a Million. From the start, the note taking, the creative process, and the music embrace the idea of digital collage. For example, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” samples a low-resolution YouTube video of Stevie Nicks casually singing backstage. These lyric videos where the perfect place to expand upon this digital aesthetic.


img_5103b screen-shot-2016-05-14-at-11-48-33-am screen-shot-2016-05-14-at-11-52-47-am-copy

It would be amazing to take a 5K to New Zealand and make all the videos of Gandalf blowing lyric smoke rings, but we have a lot of readily-available capabilities in our pocket already, and feel capable of making something great on a napkin. I’ve always loved making design work in text edit, for example. The initial footage from “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” is all video screen captured in Acrobat. The video for “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” is a slowed down video text message, with the lyrics applied in a broken subtitle generator, shot off the screen because it wouldn’t export correctly. It feels right to leave some of these inconsistencies, like a painting’s visible underdrawing. Something beautiful in mistakes—techno wabi-sabi. Folk motion graphics… motion graphics are so bad.

I like the idea of domestic psychedelia. Which isn’t so much tie-dye as it is being half asleep on an ugly couch and the floaties in your eyelids.


The artwork certainly goes to reference something ancient—a lore—but so does the music, with the voice, the folk and gospel music. But it is also inherently new, and defining what comes later, the future, so it seemed important to address the contemporary, to break the contemporary, and show how fucked up good and weird our domestic tools can be through simple layered process.




EB: It feels very natural, the way you mash up your ancient/masonic-looking symbol system with contemporary, mundane imagery such as football jerseys, bad YouTube videos, old hotel rooms, beer cans, rainbows. What’s that about? Nostalgia? High/low? Irony? Is it recontextualizing the everyday iconography we live with? Is it something much simpler?




ETC: I like the natural humanity of all these things. These just feel like very human marks to me, from the fabric of communication and the material of our lives. I like acknowledging how weird and aesthetic our environments and immediate cultural surroundings are. Prodding at basic structures of communication and language. At the same time, I’m drawn to these old symbols, as they have so much responsibility for what we are and how we communicate today.

The symbols are deeply ingrained in the social mind, and define so much for us. We grow up seeing and accepting symbols as part of our reality. Spades, clubs, diamonds, hearts: where do these come from, and is there a deeper meaning? Are they violent, or controversial, or of the tarot? The cross, the star, sun and moon, the spiral: they all have vast meaning and association inherently available to anyone and everyone—owned at times by a particular culture or movement—forever shifting, but retaining a trace of a cultural pulse.

The letters of the Roman alphabet developed out of other symbols older and of meaning that no longer register in their use. Quelled by changes in regime and religion. Conquerers assimilating the occupied. Symbols collage through time.




These simple things—jerseys, beer cans, rainbows—function in a similar way to the symbols. They too are symbols. The beer can is there, suggesting traces of the people behind the project. Everybody drinks the same Coca-Cola Classic. Chipotle has the same burrito any place you eat it. The football jersey—I mean, nothing ever got done at the studio on Sunday afternoons because the Packers were on, and I was like, “Noted.” It’s real.



Above: unrealized concept art of a Bon Iver/Packers mashup

Though of course, contemporary symbolism is heavily influenced by branding and advertising. I imagine a good portion of the last century’s most enduring symbols come from that sector. “I Heart NY,” though an endearing sentiment, in part serves an economic end.


We so naturally have embraced a form of communication now defined as the social spaces of the internet. Images work in this space in a way unique to the speed and format of it all. We can accumulate and disperse vast immaterial fields of information, sifting through it all collectively. This field absorbs all that is fed into it and expands exponentially.

I’m not explicitly working to employ irony beyond what is casually interlaced. I don’t see it as nostalgic or particularly mundane—though at times perhaps critical, taking specific notice of problems, things understood as ugly or wrong. The Papyrus typeface. A simple awareness with unpleasant political implications—the peripherals we blissfully allow to escape notice. So re-contextualizing, yes, but also exposing some truths.

Stop and smell the flowers, connect the not obviously connected to new end. I find a lot of beauty in these things, which doesn’t require aesthetic and defies design. Slick is good and buttoned up but so often such a facade.

We also collected a massive amount of found imagery during the process, often texting these images back and forth. Some of these images appear in the newsprint zine released the day before the album came out in cities around the world—drawings of my own, a number of images from the Taschen Book of Symbols, a still from the Eames’s Powers of Ten, and a napkin drawing from one of our first conversations about the album art. The found imagery also showed up in other formats: the lyric videos, posters, etc. The actual album packaging itself very strictly required entirely original work, though.



EB: Why Optima?

ETC: I didn’t want anything too tricky. A system font felt good, since I was working with the lyrics in text-edit documents. Optima just looked so right spelling out “BON IVER.” It sung the first time I saw it. I didn’t share it with them right away, or even implement it in design off the bat—but it continued to resonate every time I went back to it, which is usually a solid test. The first example I found of Optima in use that stuck out was the McCain presidential campaign, and I thought, “That’s legit” —thought it was funny—so there’s your irony. Helvetica-y was too sterile, and Garamond was too sentimental. Optima proved it could be both contemporary coffee-table book and Magic the Gathering. Find yourself a font that can do both.

I also just use Univers and Garamond for pretty much everything I do, so I wanted to do some due diligence in playing with other things. I had been using Courier New for all of my process pdf’s—because I think it looks great digital—when its all the same size (12pt or under), but kind of loath it any larger.

EB: How did you approach designing the booklet?

ETC: We knew from the start that we wanted a substantial booklet in the LP. Upon establishing that all of the drawings would be on the jacket, I was excited to limit the booklet to just typography, and find a way to keep that experience just as rich and nuanced as the rest of the system. I started using Courier, and that immediately started evoking the feeling of concrete poetry and ’60s conceptual art, employing the limitations of a typewriter. The hipster in a coffee shop working on a typewriter is the worst thing ever, and I was perhaps towing the line of steampunk a bit, but the direction felt right.

By the time I was working on the book I had listened to the album in process nearly a hundred times, so the layout decisions proved natural and intuitive, knowing where the phrases broke, making visual decisions in response to the music of it, using parallel columns where the lyrics overlapped.

Personally, this approach also connects to strategies of working with text digitally, such as finding ways to successfully break a blogspot layout.


45 33 29 22 8


EB: One last question: How does it feel to blatantly expose the Illuminati once and for all?

ETC: “Ouroboros! Obelisk!” Such perfect confirmation. I’d like to note that there is no Ouroboros in that video.■


bi_newprint01_small-cover bi_newprint01_small-2_3 bi_newprint01_small-4_5 bi_newprint01_small-6_7 bi_newprint01_small-8_9 bi_newprint01_small-10_11 bi_newprint01_small-12_13 bi_newprint01_small-14_15 bi_newprint01_small-16_17 bi_newprint01_small-18_19

Above: spreads from the newsprint zine that was distributed at surprise listening parties worldwide the day before album release



bi22_666crossc bi22_45bi22_33peace

bi22_22_lore_03 bi22_21_lore_01cbi22_symbol_22bi22_symbol_1000000

Avant Museology Symposium: Structure as Identity

Avant Museology is a two-day symposium co-presented by the Walker Art Center, e-flux, and the University of Minnesota Press. Using the newly published book, Avant-Garde Museology as a point-of-entry, the conference will explore artistic practices, sociopolitical contexts, and historical complexities associated with the contemporary museum.   We wanted to create an identity that would serve […]

Avant Museology is a two-day symposium co-presented by the Walker Art Center, e-flux, and the University of Minnesota Press. Using the newly published book, Avant-Garde Museology as a point-of-entry, the conference will explore artistic practices, sociopolitical contexts, and historical complexities associated with the contemporary museum.

Avant Museology

We wanted to create an identity that would serve as a container for the questions posed—a system designed in anticipation of the discourse that the symposium would yield. We were interested in creating a framework capable of representing a range of contributors in addition to the collaborative effort of the institutions involved. The identity intends to place an emphasis on this relationship, providing each with a prominent role within the visual solution, underscoring their role as facilitators but also making their presence tangible.



The web-based variant of the identity consists of collected content, generated by the symposium and its contributors. Interpreting the notion of museum as a recording device; the cube becomes a model, rendering, or construct that provides links to publications, essays, artwork, and other supporting material. It is built using markup language (HMTL/CSS) in an effort to remain fluid; a device that is easily adjusted, updated, and interacted with. This was an important aspect in which the resulting form remains true to the medium in which it was created, operating as a dynamic solution as opposed to a representation of the form. Various images, speakers, and links were added as the conference was being finalized, in essence constructing the identity. The grid structure, a reference to the Soviet Avant-garde in its form and ideology, becomes a lattice-like structure that maintains content.

The interactive version of the cube is used on the Avant Museology micro site.


Drawing a parallel between the program established for the symposium and Rationalist architecture, we were interested in these structures for their experimental nature as well as for their cultural significance. Many of these buildings never materialized in a physical sense, and instead served as speculative constructs of progressivism. We were interested in the socio-political conditions that perpetuated the existence of such platforms: what did it mean for a concept to supersede its manifestation?



A model of Vladimir Tatlin’s tower (c.1967), an unrealized cultural landmark. It has been referred to as being “made of steel, glass and revolution.”1


Horizontal Skyscraper El Lissitzky

El Lissitky’s speculative drawings of horizontal skyscrapers or Wolkenbügel (“Iron Clouds”) stood for technological progress, futurism, and an avant garde ideology that would reverberate in the proceding century. 2


In addition to the rotating cube, two typefaces were used: one that would reference the ideology in terms of the grid structure, and another referencing the Soviet underpinnings of the symposium—Literaturnaya (Poligraphmash, c.1940) and Monospace 821 (Max Miedinger, c.1957), respectively. Literaturnaya is a Soviet typeface used for many texts until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 (When it was replaced by Times New Roman). Monospace 821, a product of Modernist ideology (The monospace version of Helvetica), was used to reference the uniformity of the grid used throughout the identity.


Avant Museology - Frieze


A few early lock-up studies that incorporated various sketches/movement and reference imagery.


Avant Museology will be taking place on November 20–21, in conjunction with the Walker’s upcoming exhibition, Question the Wall Itself. Speakers include Jonathas de Andrade, Claire Bishop, Adrienne Edwards, Boris Groys, Ane Hjort Guttu, Wayne Koestenbaum, Nisa Mackie, Fionn Meade, Sohrab Mohebbi, Timothy Morton, Elizabeth Povinelli, Walid Raad, Hito Steyerl, Anton Vidokle, Cary Wolfe, and Arseny Zhilyaev. Tickets can be purchased online at

In addition to the symposium at the Walker Art Center, Avant Museology will also take place at the Brooklyn Museum on November 11–12. Speakers include Bruce Altshuler, Lynne Cooke, Boris Groys, Fionn Meade, Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Nikolay Punin, Irene V. Small, Anton Vidokle, Fred Wilson, Arseny Zhilayev, and more.



1 Ri︠a︡bushin, A. V., and N. I. Smolina. Landmarks of Soviet architecture, 1917-1991. New York: Rizzoli, 1992. Print.

2Vladimir Tatlin: Moderna Museet, Stockholm, juli-september, 1968 (Moderna museets katalog)

Modern Nostalgic Fantasies

The following text was originally published in Modern Nostalgic Fantasies, a collection of texts about politics, virtuality, and science-fiction and their relation to a graphic design practice. All texts were written by Raf Rennie during the completion of a two-year MFA in graphic design at Yale University. Rennie is a designer and writer from Toronto, now […]

The following text was originally published in Modern Nostalgic Fantasies, a collection of texts about politics, virtuality, and science-fiction and their relation to a graphic design practice. All texts were written by Raf Rennie during the completion of a two-year MFA in graphic design at Yale University.

Rennie is a designer and writer from Toronto, now based in New York. He currently serves as the designer/art director of Canadian art criticism magazine C Magazine and his previous work includes select projects for Scapegoat Journal, Serpentine Gallery, TBA21, and Metahaven.

A special thanks to Jan Horčík for his typeface Atlantic.

CgDxVsxUUAI0mx7A map


His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

— Walter Benjamin, about Angelus Novus (1920) by Paul Klee



October 4th, 1957, Elementary Satellite 1, better known as Sputnik, broke through the barrier of our atmosphere to become the first object to originate from Earth and enter Space. The journey of Sputnik signified the end of one history of progress and the creation of a whole new one—Sputnik was a catalyst that introduced modernity to the world. I am speaking less of the means of modernity in this, than I am speaking of the space in which modernity is concerned—that, as an endlessly utopian project, is the future. Marked by its relentless order, modernity is the aim to draw rational responses to the zeitgeist and extrapolate them into a vision of the future, so we can, in present, begin to develop infrastructure to shape the future of civilization on this planet into a rational utopia. To think about the future is to be modern.

The Soviet Union was a massively modernist experiment that took over trying to structure a union of countries under a strictly rational system, that of communism. While the Soviet Union struggled to continue on, politically and economically, they managed to put together a space program and became the first nation to enter space. This was possible because the core of the Soviet project was an immense importance placed on the shaping of the future. From after, the Tsar was the image of the new Russia and with this the modern Soviet man. The Soviet Union believed that the joint project of technological advancement and exploration would become the economic and spiritual backbone that kept the union together and ahead of the rest of the world—especially ahead of the United States whom the Soviets where in a cold war with accelerating technological threats and shows of power. The future was the endgame for the new Russia.


Left: Russian science-fiction film The Sky Calls (1959), Right: SpaceX lands rocket on drone ship (2016)

So, the Soviet Union put Sputnik into space, showing the world they were literally and figuratively on a technological and raw powerful level above the rest of the world—though Sputnik means “fellow traveler”, it was a body of a ballistic missile, a tool of war. It was the punctum, the apex, of the Soviet Union’s futurist, modernist ideal. By being the first to enter a new unexplored terrain, the Soviet said to the world the future belonged to them. It was off this fear of losing the future to Russia, that the United States founded their own space program, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), on July 29th, 1958, nearly 11 months after Sputnik had made it to space. With NASA, the United States revitalized their modernist project that once kickstarted the American economy before the World Wars with the Industrial Age and Fordist manufacturing and economics. Thusly, the Soviet Union spread modernity back into the United States, sparking what would be considered Late Modernity. Over the next few decades the Soviet Union and the United States raced their advancing space programs aiming to be the first to put man on the moon. This space race had many implications for the nations as world superpowers, enemies, and the eventual outcome of the Cold War. However, there was a side effect of this race, the massively accelerated invention of new technologies. This acceleration drove the American economy for those decades as subsequent technologies and advancements came from the research and work being done at NASA. NASA put together a sub-part of their association called the Technology Transfer Program to showcase and explore practical applications of the strides being made when aiming for the moon. New inventions were catalogued in an annual report called NASA Spinoffs and introduced; freeze-dried food, infrared thermometers, heart monitors, LED lights, artificial limbs, and much more. These technologies fed into the American dream of the future, from this rapid growth in technology artists, designers, manufactures, all started to imagine an American future. DisneyWorld built the “World of the Future” amusement park, designers like Ray and Charles Eames showcased America’s technological utopianism at the World’s Fair, manufacturers pushed ideas of the homes, the food, the car of the future. Dreaming about the future became the galvanizing force of the whole American economy—America became modern.


The overlay of Modernity

Scan001-xs Scan002-xs


July 20th, 1969, just shy of 11 years after the founding of NASA, the space mission Apollo 11 brings the first men to the moon. America’s race with the Soviets was over, the new frontier was won by the United States. The modernism passed on by the Soviet Union found a better system for itself and flourished past the Soviet communist ideal. Forward-thinking became the mantra of the “American way”, which pushed their industries and economy into unprecedented production and wealth, spurred by an unbound hubris that America could achieve anything. Through new technological breakthroughs and abundance new products would fuel American commerce while industry used the latest manufacturing technologies, or took advantage of a new age of globalization, to maximize their returns. Here began that period of Late Modernism, the utopian future thinking, joined with American style capitalism to thrive in the existence of emerging mega-corporations that saw themselves as the tools to create a new future.


“We are ready and willing to ignite just born too late.” — Peter de Potter

As America continued in a Cold War with the Soviet Union and a hot war in Vietnam, the political left found this new American hubris to be a dangerous flag to fly. The American economy, driven by technological advancement and superiority, had led to the boom of a major thriving industry, the military-industrial complex. Corporations that lauded themselves as the builders of a better future worked with the American government and military, and their quick growth and globalization posed a threat of the exporting of American idealism and capitalism. In such, the left took opposition to this mantra of the American-way and therefore took up opposition to the future project of Modernism. As philosopher Simon Critchley put it, “we have to resist the idea and ideology of the future, which is always the ultimate trump card of capitalist ideas of progress.” The future was modern, the future was therefore capitalist, and to build a world outside of capitalism the people had to stop thinking about the future and start dealing with the reality of the present day. This thinking ushered in a movement of post-modernism, an ideology that aimed to reject the utopian promises of late modernism and remove the glossy veneer it had coated prevalent thinking with. Across America spread the notion that, in the mists of wars and a plateauing economy, spending federal money on missions to the moon was a frivolous vanity project, that was no longer needed as the United States had already claimed the moon and beaten the Soviet Union in the space race. Under growing pressure and economic difficulties, NASA’s budget was cut drastically. The last manned mission to the moon took place in December 1972 and no person has gone to the moon since.


Scan004-xs Scan003-xs


With the end of the manned missions, NASA’s missions switched from the near frontier of our own satellite to the exploration of deep space. The late 80s and 90s usher an age of probes, telescopes, and rovers, tools that no longer focused on the immediate but set out to explore the vastness of the universe. What led was the discovery of whole new worlds and planets outside of our solar system. From being taught in schools there are nine planets we have come to learn there are solely nine in our solar system, elsewhere, in hundreds of other solar systems exist thousands of other planets, some much like our Earth—these planets are given the name “exoplanets.” As the changing thought and politics of the time seemed to push NASA aside in favour of focusing on our world, our countries, and local, tangible issues, NASA pushed back the other way, instead of looking at the local and at hand, to the very distant and unreachable. In 2004, NASA constructed the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) to search deep space for new Earth-like planets—it has discovered 130 planets, a small part of the over two thousand known exoplanets in our universe. With the discovery of whole other possible worlds, solar systems, and possibly lives, Earth becomes decentralized in our understanding of the Universe.


Construction of the James Webb Telescope, NASA’s new deep space telescope set to launch October 2018

Modernism, which looked to a singular whole, and post-modernism, which looked to act upon the present, both were eclipsed by the decentralizing of Earth within the universe. The Earth now was neither a totality, just a singularity in a vast cosmos, a planet that seems as a small pale blue dot in the night sky of another planet. Semantically, the human race no longer were the sole authors of the cosmological reality, but perhaps just a subjectivity in relation to 2,000 other planet’s realities. This model of thinking is shared, within the same vein, as the basis of an ideological, that is a predecessor to post-modernism, known as post-structuralism. Post-structuralism is an ideology that rejects singular narrative by rejecting the author as the sole authority or voice, it aims to seek out the peripheral to decentralize an idea from a singular subjectivity. The discovery of exoplanets does so on a, literally, universal scale—and such was the argument made by NASA. By exploring outwards, deep space, distant planets, dying stars, we could learn more about our own planet and existence than we could from an archeology of Earth.

Post-structuralism ushered in a model of thinking where subjectivity is everything, denying the notions of “objectivity” and “rationality” presented by modernism on the grounds that they were de-fined under a euro-centric, masculine, paradigm. Post-structuralism stands on two tendons, the first being Foucaultian anthropologies of all the standing structures we see governing in the world. The second, being more confusion, not listening to singular narratives or the belief in non-bias media, but an openness to varying voices and the proliferation of the minority’s voice, in order to disrupt any attempt at the creation of hegemonic structures.

 Scan005-xs Scan006-xs


In the time of Late Modernism progress—societal and economic—was created through the aims of a singular goal. For everyone to work towards this goal they must understand each other as part of a whole, Modernism was a structure that was used to encapsulate nations and move them towards this goal. However, with emergence of Post-Structuralist thinking, the ability to maintain a super-structure is becoming challenging. The structure of Late Modernism no longer fits the public as the minority has come to view themselves in the position of being parts within the structure but not of the struct-ure, therefore they reject the goals of the structure. If the notions of progress and capitalism that Late Modernism proliferated and replicated, for its own expansion, were to continue, the fundamental structuring of those notions would have to adapt—and adapt it has.

Nearing the end of Late Modernism, before the Post-Modern moment, a collective of academics and theorists formed an inclusive society where they set themselves the goal of directing the global thinking to what they saw as a sustainable structure. The new structure would be open enough to allow multiple narratives and voices to exist in constant exchange, in fact it would be encouraged, so it could subsume political discourse within itself—for this the idea was named Neoliberalism. The specialty of Neoliberalism was a combining of Late Modernist notions of progress with Post-Modernism’s desires for locality. In place, Neoliberalism would encourage minorities and local politics but would proliferate an ethos of collectivism through it. By acknowledging all this disparity we could celebrate diverse people coming together to achieve a singular goal.

NASA, in 1998, became part of such a project, that would bring numerous people and nations together. In fact, NASA would come to work with their competitor that caused their creation and spurred on a Cold War, the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), and Japan whom the United States had attacked with atomic weapons fifty three years earlier. The project of the International Space Station brought together the United States (NASA), Russia (Roscosmos), Europe (The European Space Agency), and Japan (JAXA)—later on The Canadian Space Agency would join in the project as well. This International Space Station was a proving to the world, that regardless of history and politics, all kinds of people and nations could come together and work towards a better future—a wonderful case-and-point proof for Neoliberalism.


Orbiting Neoliberal base

Diversity, the political calling card of Neoliberalism, also functions as its economic model, the freedom of choice. Late Modernism gave the world large mega-corporations that worked within a Fordist model of capitalism. Companies like IBM and Microsoft dominated the emerging technological market and ruthlessly tried to shut down competitive companies in order to maintain a monopoly. Neoliberalism instead encourages diversity, no large monopolies, but endless small companies that could be hyper-specialized to make them act at a local and global scale. This is the market of Silicon Valley and start-up culture, a womb for technology companies to build up and die out at unprecedented rates.

Within this market the investment into a singular entity is not financially sound. Why make one company to try to do everything when you can have numerous companies hyper-specialize in different areas and then bring the pieces together? It is also a way of hedging your bets, why invest everything in one pot? Diversify. Long standing entities have fallen to this new logic, even NASA. NASA is no longer seen as the one entity for the hopes of space exploration, but in the mists of smaller budgets has had to diversify and export some of its functions to smaller new companies. NASA now offers contracts to competing small companies to take over functions that NASA used to do exclusively, let delivering payloads to the International Space Station. Notably, a large portion of NASA’s contracts have gone to Silicon Valley company SpaceX, founded by the start-up veteran Elon Musk. NASA now functions as the overseer and manager of Space exploration, it is the neoliberal who brings together dispersed parts towards a singular goal.


Scan007-xs Scan008-xs


Through the dispersed model of space exploration, NASA acts as the determinant, it defines the goal and brings various individually autonomous parts together to form relationships that work to-wards that goal. What goal is that? As a product of and the engine of Late Modernism, NASA functions through ideas of exploration and frontierism. The aims of the International Space Station as a laboratory for scientific experimentation had failed to capture the imagination of the public who could not grasp the intangible new grounds that would be made. As a result, NASA struggled on with diminishing funding. However, the new model of the Neoliberal market and the new ability for NASA to start exporting larger tasks, allowed NASA to refocus and now pull in other entities to work together towards a new goal that would spur on the public to support progress. NASA was looking for a renaissance of the golden age of Space Exploration when they were racing to the moon. The best disciple trying to bring about this renaissance of NASA is Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who is known for his poetic and passionate speeches about why we need to economically support space exploration. Tyson appeals for support by evoking the technological and economic boom that accompanied the Apollo missions to the moon. To re-invigorate the space program he fantasizes manned missions to the next closest heavenly body, Mars. Mars is a tangible frontier, akin to the Moon, with new “firsts” to be made, something the public could understand and celebrate. Effectively Mars is to the current times, what the Moon was in the 1960s.


As the ISS brought together old Cold War enemies Ridley Scott envisions space as answer to American anxiety over relations with China in The Martian (2015)

Thinking and fantasizing Mars has been around in science-fiction since the birth of the genre, but now the push to get the general public joining in has become stronger than ever. On August 6th, 2012 the Curiosity Rover successfully landed on Mars, two days later it began to send back our first images of the foreign landscape. Not since the moon had we seen another world the way we see our own. Mars was no longer something we saw through a telescope, as a dot in the sky, we did not see it as a massive distant whole, but we viewed it as we experience our own world, limited, with perspective, and a gaze that lead to a horizon line. We were no longer looking at Mars but through photographic transmutation able to experience it—images from Curiosity have now been stitched together into 360 degrees images explorable through virtual reality to further push the feeling that we are in fact already on Mars. With the new images flooding in to NASA and being released to the public almost daily, Mars began to play a part in the cultural zeitgeist. Space exploration became not just resigned to the world of science-fiction, the obsessives, and the “nerds”, but entered into a total cultural space. Neil DeGrasse Tyson revised the classic show Cosmos (2014), first recorded by astrophysicist Carl Sagan in 1980, blockbuster film maker Christopher Nolan creates his space epic Interstellar (2014), and science fiction legend Ridley Scott directs the heroic survivalist film The Martian (2015). Based on the novel of the same title by Andy Weir in 2014, The Martian is a tale of an astronaut stranded on the planet Mars after his team mistook him for dead and his struggle to survive on the foreign planet to make it back home to Earth. The film plays out the mythos of American determination and ingenuity that became the marker of the “American spirit” through the industrial and technological age. The can-do and ability to overcome any obstacles in the name of progress is the same mythos that drove the Cold War space race. The Martian presupposes that NASA, and therefore the United States, have already made it to Mars and began temporary colonies for exploring how one could sustainably live. When stranded alone against unimaginable odds, the hero, Mark Watney, learns how to tame and control the new world, a recurring theme in American history and mythos. At one point in the film, after having gotten potatoes to grow in Martian soil, Watney even claims that he has now officially colonized the planet. While set in a near future the film looks back to a nostalgic fantasizing of the American spirit, when America was great, innovative, and able to make new grounds through their dominance and greatness. Even more, under the guile of Neoliberal togetherness, the film imagines all the world coming together in support of the American heroic figure. As the ISS brought together old enemies to work towards one project, The Martian  imagines a future were their current tentative relationship with China is overcome, in the Chinese space program willingly offering up their aid, resources, and secrets to the Americans. At the climax of the film, shots are shown of people around the world watching out on the streets, from New York to London to China, anxiously to see if the American hero has in fact been able to overcome all odds and survive.

The film in itself appears as propaganda for a new space age—an age that is relentlessly American. This space age is already subsumed by the same rhetoric and ideology of the first space age of the 1960s and the missions to the moon. Mars is already claimed and a part of the capitalist progressive framework of Late Modernism, now reborn through Neoliberalism. It is simply an updating of prior rhetoric which it is looking to re-institute, a modernization of past fantasies.


Government-backed nostalgia



What is there now for the left? For those who aim to step outside the ideological encapsulation of the capitalist progressive narrative? If Modernity means to be focused on the creation of the future, the future as laid out before us is already subsumed under its rhetoric. Neoliberalism, Modernism, and Capitalism have already exported themselves to become extra-planetary frameworks. What is the future if we keep playing out the same fantasies out of nostalgia? It is as Walter Benjamin describes the angel of time in Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, instead of a chain of new events we keep piling the same wreckage upon wreckage—our time is not linear but a circular loop transpositioning rhetoric and ideologues into the present and future. Perhaps what there is now is the attempt to step outside our natural history, out of our time and space, to worlds without a past and without nostalgia. The legendary and progressive science fiction writer Ursula K. LeGuin once called for science-fiction writers to pick up where theorists have failed and to start imagining the end of capitalism. In her novels, such as The Left Hand of Darkness, LeGuin defines new worlds with their own genders and non-genders and its own concept and working of time. Perhaps, it is by these propositions we can begin to step outside of our world into new ones where we can think and posit outside the looping nature of our time. In these worlds we are free to define progress for ourselves, not left to the modernist-capitalist understanding which we keep falling back upon. Through these postulations we can begin to imagine new futures that differ and reject the ones we are presented with. Instead of Mars, which is a modern nostalgic fantasy, we should look to the exoplanets and embrace their multitude and the confusion and possibilities they bring. In these worlds, upon these distant heavenly bodies, we are the Ubik, outside of time, the creators of suns and worlds.•


CiUOtNWWEAACzojA space


Type Designers Q&A: Milieu Grotesque

  Milieu Grotesque, established in 2010 by Timo Gaessner and Alexander Colby, is a Zurich-based independent publisher and distributor of typefaces and related products. Milieu Grotesque’s collection of typefaces combine the rigor and precision of a seasoned type foundry with a particular edge that keep their typefaces looking timely and contemporary. One is struck by a feeling of familiarity […]



Milieu Grotesque, established in 2010 by Timo Gaessner and Alexander Colby, is a Zurich-based independent publisher and distributor of typefaces and related products.

Milieu Grotesque’s collection of typefaces combine the rigor and precision of a seasoned type foundry with a particular edge that keep their typefaces looking timely and contemporary. One is struck by a feeling of familiarity within their typefaces—typefaces which often nod to certain timeless greats. There are modern takes on IBM typewriter-inspired classics as well as slick reworkings of geometric grotesques of the previous century.

Below, Timo has responded to ten questions regarding his and Alexander’s practice as type designers. Timo, who made his start as a graphic designer, frames-out a healthy introspection (and even, at times, cautionary observation) of the discipline of graphic design and it’s interlaced relationship to type design.



Ryan Gerald Nelson (RGN): To start, a foundational question: How do graphic designers see typefaces differently than type designers?

Milieu Grotesque: Well, it’s always difficult making general statements on this regard, but maybe type designers tend to be more concerned about details like conceptual and historical references, formal aspects, execution, etc. While graphic designers tend to approach, select and judge a typeface by its looks and appearance.

RGN: Assuming that graphic designers define the majority of your customer base, you undoubtedly observe the field of graphic design. Are your observations more subconscious and undefined? Or do you take the time to survey the sub-genres of graphic design? How do your observations enter into the equation of how you conceive your typefaces?

Milieu Grotesque: As we are both graphic designers by trade, naturally, some of our experience gained over the last 15 years of practice is influential. It is part of our professional philosophy to approach a project based on research—so yes, we do observe and follow what’s happening (sometimes with concern).

But we’re not much interested in, nor do we survey any sub-genres. We are rather interested in, what we believe to be, substantial matters that contribute to a progressive development of how we conceive design and communication and that will pass the test of time. So we’ve strived to develop a library that is a modern, comprehensive selection of typefaces that contribute to these ideas and therefore hopefully remain somewhat relevant.

The basic ideas that drive our typefaces have many different sources, but so far it’s never been based on the calculation of an upcoming trend or genre. After all, we’ve never managed to develop and release a typeface in less than a time span of 3 years (sometimes even longer). That said, it’s quite unlikely to be able to foresee what’s supposed to be happening, especially in graphic design.



An assortment of projects showing Milieu Grotesque typefaces in use.


RGN: Do you guys cater the stylistic elements of your typefaces to appeal to a particular type of graphic designer? Or is that irrelevant?

Milieu Grotesque: Maybe due to our background as graphic designers, when developing a typeface, we often aim to implement a somewhat different, additional stylistic variation to offer and maybe aspire for a certain application and, to our understanding, an interesting usage. Naturally, we want to reach as many designers as possible, offering modern, well-executed typefaces that are suitable for as many applications as possible. Then, after all, choosing a typeface is the easiest part of the job.

RGN: Could you elaborate on one or two examples of specific ideas or conceptual underpinnings that have been embedded within your typefaces and how they derived?

Milieu Grotesque: With our most recognized typeface Maison Neue, the design referenced certain sans-serifs dating back to the early 20th century. Many of these early grotesk typefaces were created in the spirit of the parallel-happening architectural movement called “Neue Sachlichkeit,” implementing a simple, reduced formality (ornament is crime!) based on constructed principles (grids). To us, this roughly executed principle, including all of its oddities, has a particular flavor that a “modern,” optically well-balanced grotesk is missing. However, the new version (Maison Neue) is based on the same principles yet executed in a less dogmatic way.



Specimens of the upcoming Maison Neue family—enhancements include two lighter weights, two heaver weights, and also a corresponding extended family. Release is scheduled for Fall 2016.


Lacrima is based upon the famous IBM Golfball typewriter called Light Italic. We have added additional weights and two interpretations to the original design, Serif and Senza, to conceive a comprehensive family with a variety of styles.



Lacrima family


Additionally, our typeface named Patron is based on the contradictory approaches and ideas of type designers Günther Gerhard Lange and Roger Excoffon. Günther Gerhard Lange, a war veteran and longtime art director of Berthold Type Foundry, was most famous for his historically-derived and strict approach. His work includes precise, consequent, and modern interpretations of today’s classics, such as: Akzidenz Grotesk, Garamond, and Bodoni (to name just a few). Roger Excoffon on the other hand, a former adman and French bon vivant, was known for his more expressive body of work. Most notably is his typeface Antique Olive which is defined by a number of unique formal ideas and attributes that are still considered outstanding today.



Promotional image for Patron


RGN: It certainly seems as though a commonality amongst most type foundries operating today is that most have one or more inspired-grotesques in their offerings. Have you taken notice to this as well? Either way, do you believe that it’s obligatory or a part of some unspoken tradition for any serious type foundry to create and offer their own take on a classic grotesque? More specifically, given their appeal, do you think the creation of these sorts of typefaces (such as Brezel Grotesk in your case) are driven by a competitive spirit amongst new type foundries?

Milieu Grotesque: Yes, of course, we have noticed this. But, we believe the large amount of the clean, minimalistic grotesks that have been released lately have their roots in commercial interests. Comparable to the recent hype around SUV models for the car industry, there is an ongoing demand for neo-grotesks due to reasons one can only assume. Some early adaptations have been successful, and their success has been recognized and has encouraged others to try to achieve the same. So yes, there is a certainly a competitive spirit. And no, we don’t think it is obligatory to offer a grotesk as a modern foundry.

RGN: Past year’s within the field of type design have seemingly given rise to many typefaces which are imbued with a certain degree of, shall we say, willful awkwardness. One might see the bends, flourishes, and forms of these typefaces as strange and unnecessary. Or one might see these sorts of details as vital and responsive to the proclivities of graphic designers. Are these sorts of “willfully awkward” typefaces something that you recognize? Support? Practice? Oppose?

Milieu Grotesque: It’s surely positive that type design has become more popular amongst young designers lately and that there is the will to test its limits—after all, it’s a rather slow developing discipline. Most of those willfully-awkward-designed letterforms are not meant to work as a versatile typeface and may therefore be simply (expressively designed) letters (and not a typeface), per definition, which is much easier to achieve than the sorts of well-executed and versatile systems that we understand as typefaces. We pay little attention to this trending style as we believe it will pass and vanish, like many others have before them.



Coperto specimen


RGN: There does seem to be an uptick in the number and popularity of, for the lack of a better term, “pop-up” type foundries. Maybe this can be attributed to the easy accessibility of font-making software? Or perhaps this can be attributed to the rise of entrepreneurial graphic designers who have not only a cursory knowledge of how to make a font, but also the desire to design every known aspect of a given project for the sake of achieving the idea of a “bespoke” creation?

Milieu Grotesque: Indeed, we are astonished and curious about the vast amount of foundries that have been popping up lately. It seems as if type design has taken over what, a few years back, self-publishing used to be. It became fashionable amongst graphic designers then and we can see the same happening for type design now.

Sure, one aspect is that font editors aren’t as complex and abstract as they used to be, which makes the tools more accessible. Also, type design has gained more interest amongst students, hence schools and universities are reacting and offering more on that subject.

Yet, apparently, there is a certain understanding and respect regarding copyrights that is missing. To our experience, developing a typeface from scratch takes at least 2000 hours—which is more than a year of straight working time. So it leaves us wondering, how is it possible for a small-scale foundry, founded by one or a maximum of two persons (presumably in there mid 20’s and having just finished their studies), to enter the market with several families?

RGN: Spinning off of the last question: do you see that the existence of this type of individual (this sort of entrepreneurial graphic designer) who is successfully and simultaneously able to act as both graphic designer and type designer within a single project is a becoming more of a rarity? Or a new, pervasive reality?

Milieu Grotesque: To our understanding, entrepreneurship is an important part of running a contemporary design studio. We believe that design, as the service-orientated practice that we have known since the rise of modernism, might vanish due the digital revolution (just as typesetting and lithography have gone before). Consequently, future (graphic) designers will have no other choice than to develop entrepreneurial skills and set up there own multi-disciplinary businesses, whether it will be a type foundry or something completely different.



Recently released Chapeau family



A letter written by Johnny Cash, addressed to former U.S. president Gerald Ford. The letter is typeset in IBM Doric, a typeface which was a reference point for Milieu Grotesque’s typeface, Chapeau.


RGN: In almost all creative disciplines, it seems as though almost everything is a derivative of something (or a multitude of things) from the past. Some disciplines embrace the inescapable reality of the influence of their predecessors by directly sampling their work (i.e., sampling beats or lyrics in hip-hop, or with filmmakers, like Quentin Tarantino, who have developed a style for themselves that relies on referencing and nodding to filmmakers of past eras). All that said, it seems difficult, especially within the discipline of typography, to not be referential of the history of type design. In your view, does reference material seem tied to the discipline of type design and it’s creations? If not, where do you believe innovative and new forms stem from within type design?

Milieu Grotesque: We consider the term “revolution” as the greatest myth of today’s (graphic design) postmodernism. What revolution has fundamentally changed graphic design since the early/mid-20th century and still holds up today? We believe in evolution rather than in revolution, and believe that slow and naturally-developing progression has a more sustainable impact. After all, even as a type designer, it’s simply impossible to reinvent the (latin) alphabet. So yes, we are very much tied to design history and the only innovation possible is in technical context. Due to digital evolution, we are now able to draw and develop typefaces that perform with more precision and complexity than ever before.

We think most of the innovation happening lately is due to the understanding of typefaces as being larger systems. Not in terms of weights, but more in terms of style and their variations as a means of creating a family/system that is suitable for any application there is. Those “Super Families” are based on a formal scheme/structure and embody large variations that include different contrasts, serifs, and sans-serifs, proportional and mono-spaced, engraved, shadow, stencil, etc.




RGN: On the Milieu Grotesque website, in addition to the typefaces that are for sale, you offer an assortment of promotional products for sale. Some are expected (such as type specimens and posters) and some are not so expected (beanies, necklaces, etc). How did you arrive at the decision to offer this mix of products? And has it changed how you are perceived by your peers and customers?

Milieu Grotesque: Besides our professional practices, we have a large interest in DIY and what has lately come to be known as “Maker Culture.” Many of the “not so expected” products you have mentioned have there roots in this interest and turned out to be a fun addition to the (sometime too serious) business of distributing typefaces.

Though, we initially conceived the product section to be the print-publishing part and a space where we could distribute specimens plus various (external) writings as a theoretical extension to the rather practical aspects of graphic and type design.

But we soon let go of this rather restrictive concept and went on to understand this section as a more experimental part for related products and ideas. We have come to realize that this is a great opportunity to interact and start a dialog with other designers whom we might not have met and talked to otherwise.



Patron specimen posters, designed by Sulki & Min


So we started to reach out to individuals and studios whose work we find interesting and we asked them to contribute to this section. It’s an approach that has turned out to be an enriching and influential part to our personal development and professional understanding. Since launching this section, we have gratefully collaborated with many interesting people, including Maiko Gubler (Berlin), Sulki & Min (Seoul), and Bunch (London) to mention a few, and we have a future project with photographer Tobias Faisst (Berlin) which we are very much looking forward to.

RGN: Many thanks for your time, Timo!




—See more of Milieu Grotesque’s work on their website, Facebook, or Twitter. (Image credit: digital rendering at top of post made by visual artist Maiko Gubler)

Never Not Learning (Summer-specific)—Part 1: Intro and Identities

Still of Mark Harmon, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Fabiana Udenio, Dean Cameron, Kelly Jo Minter, Gary Riley, and Shawnee Smith in Summer School (1987).   –––––– Never Not Learning (Summer-specific) is a series of 4 blog posts (to be published here, on The Gradient) reflecting on the (not-so) recent wave of self-initiated graphic design workshops which have been […]


Still of Mark Harmon, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Fabiana Udenio, Dean Cameron, Kelly Jo Minter, Gary Riley, and Shawnee Smith in Summer School (1987).



Never Not Learning (Summer-specific) is a series of 4 blog posts (to be published here, on The Gradient) reflecting on the (not-so) recent wave of self-initiated graphic design workshops which have been self-characterized as Summer Schools. This and the blog posts to come feature extended conversations between the organizers of:

A Escola Livre (BR)
Asterisk Summer School (EE)
Escola Aberta (BR)
Maybe a School, Maybe a Park (CA)
Parallel School (which belongs to no one!)
Registration School (UK)
Van Eyck Summer Design Academy: Digital Campfire Series (NL)
The Ventriloquist Summerschool (NO)

(For those curious about the list and the selection of participants: it is, quite literally/limitedly, derived from a breadcrumb trail of friendships and encounters made over the past five years).

We raise topics such as deinstitutionalization, continuing education, student debt, the joy of being together, long-distance relationships, regional conditions and forum-making. These topics (among many others) were on the table for discussion, and often at the same time.

A Escola Livre (Brasil)



(Organized by Guilherme Falcão and Tereza Bettinardi)

A Escola Livre (Free School) is named that way because we wanted things to be clear from the start. Our proposal–working with cycles of a month, month and half, mixing subjects, not having a fixed venue, having interviews instead of classes or lectures–might be interpreted as too experimental and weird, almost more as a “project” than an actual school. So we wanted the name to express both things: it IS a school–because it is about learning, the exchange of knowledge and creating a community–and it is a place where anything can happen (or at least everything can be at least discussed and considered).


Asterisk Summer School (Estonia)

Photo by Andree Paat

Photo by Andree Paat

(Organized by Elisabeth Klement and Laura Pappa)

Asterisk Summer School takes its name from the Asterisk portable bookshop, which was a pop-up bookshop format we were previously running in Estonia. It’s hard for us to decipher now where exactly the name Asterisk originates from as we were young design students when deciding on our moniker and it seems to have stuck ever since. We don’t really read into its meaning so much because, for us, it’s more of a marker that shares a connection with the bookshop events.


Escola Aberta (Brasil)

Photo by Radim Peško

Photo by Radim Peško

(Organized by Nina Paim, Clara Meliande and Tania Grillo)

Escola Aberta is Portuguese for “Open School.” The title is always followed by a colon and a verb (“Escola Aberta is:____________”) as a direct and open question on “what makes a school?” as well as an attempt to spark a conversation and question the necessary conditions for learning to happen. We wanted to investigate these questions on different levels: what is the physical structure of the school?, who makes the school?, how are participants selected?, how can they interact?, what are the modes of learning?, what drives the the activities?, etc. The program was drafted by a group of 40 participants from the Gerrit Rietveld Academy, who individually responded to the question “what makes a school?” We started by listing the different environments where knowledge could be produced and exchanged. Each participant then became responsible for initiating one activity in the framework of these environments/set-ups. Some examples were: a pop-up library, a design court, a radio station, a bar, a therapeutic booth, a talk show, a cinema, a silent scriptorium and a typographic safari. Finally, a group of 60 participants from Brazil were selected based on an open application which consisted of answering three fundamental questions: Who are you? What do you want to learn? and What can you teach?


Maybe a School, Maybe a Park (Canada)

Photo by Richmond Lam

Photo by Richmond Lam

(Organized by Sean Yendrys)

Maybe a School, Maybe a Park grew out of initial uncertainty towards how we wanted to frame ourselves and the week-long experience. There were admittedly a number of different names (perhaps far too many) being thrown around in the process leading up to our launch, but none felt right. They either felt like they claimed to be too much or nothing at all. We did not like framing ourselves specifically as a school and the weight that might be attached with the expectations of it. After all, it’s summer time and in many ways this is less a school and more an excuse for many people to simply come together over common interests and have a good time, while also perhaps creating some school-like camaraderie in the process of making great/bad/weird/cool/fun things. In the end, embracing and acknowledging a kind of indecision and uncertainty that exists between the more academic settings of a school and the free-for-all attitude of a park felt quite nice. Also, the space we’re using is an old parking garage turned gallery and bookshop, so perhaps the word Park plays into this too.


Parallel School



(that, although not belonging to anyone, was represented here by Till Wittwer and Robert Preusse)

Parallel School formulates the idea of an imaginary structure, a place to engage and discuss in parallel to the existing universities and academies. It arises from a sense of dissatisfaction with some of the conventional institutions, their approaches towards teaching, and the personal need and interest in a mutual exchange with like-minded people. One of the forms in which this exchange takes on is the Parallel School Workshop, usually lasting 4–5 days. The self-organized education model can be performed by almost anyone—its only requirement is that all participants contribute in the form of a lecture, intervention, or workshop to the Parallel School.


Registration School (UK)



(Organized by Callum Copley)

The name of our School (Registration School) is in part derived from the idea of “Registration,” in relation to printing. However, within printing it refers to the alignment of layers of ink, but in our context it relates to the coming together of peoples and ideas in a single place and the sharing of knowledge and creativity that comes with this act. The word “Registration” also has a second reference to that of a “School Register” of the names of students taken at the start of a class.


Van Eyck Summer Academy: Digital Campfire Series (Netherlands)

design by


(Organized by the Design Displacement Group)

Our Summer School was named “Digital Campfire,” a reference to the way we communicate in our current day and age. In 2015, the internet is fast becoming the campfire of modern times, the place where we gather: our hectic lives are freeze-framed around it. There, we circle with friends, share and tell stories, exchange, and inform. This is where our new ideas arise, and where the old and the new meet—in a conditional game between the digital and the archaic.


The Ventriloquist Summerschool (Norway)

TVSS Public Programme 2015: Jan-Robert Henriksen presenting one of his characters.

TVSS Public Programme 2015: Jan-Robert Henriksen presenting one of his characters.

(Organized by João Doria and Kristina Ketola Bore)

The Ventriloquist Summerschool began to take shape after a continued discussion between the 2 of us about the role of voice in design practices. We established that ventriloquism would be an apt metaphor given that there’s an alternation between gaining, losing, and recovering a personal perspective in the creative process and while performing creativity as well. The choice for a summer school format was an experiment in jumping into what we recognized as an ongoing conversation and figuring out whether it would make sense to our local audience.


A genuine thanks to all the organizers mentioned above and, additionally, to Roosje Klap, Paul Bailey, and Gilles de Brock for all the prompt responses and shared material.

The next posts will address issues such as economy, regionalities and globalities, audiences, motivations, and more.


Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly—The making of a visual identity

  Exhibition view   On the exhibition Curated by Misa Jeffereis, the exhibition Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly marks visual artist Lee Kit’s first U.S. solo show. Kit invites you to wander into soft-lighted galleries, hold your breath in quiet anticipation, and slowly sway from nook to nook to the melody of Elvis Presley’s […]




Exhibition view


On the exhibition

Curated by Misa Jeffereis, the exhibition Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly marks visual artist Lee Kit’s first U.S. solo show. Kit invites you to wander into soft-lighted galleries, hold your breath in quiet anticipation, and slowly sway from nook to nook to the melody of Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling in Love (1961) to experience the various emotions created by Kit’s work.

As Kit worked in the gallery space in the two weeks leading up to the exhibition opening, he arranged objects and projections, created new artworks, and found unity with the space itself. He formed an emotional installation, where visitors can feel traces of the body which previously inhabited the space. Contrary to more open gallery spaces, Lee offers us a domestic space with many walls and doorways which—together with tables, folding chairs, lamps, and other household furnishings—creates an intimate and deeply personal space.


Invitation for the xhibition opening

Invitation for the exhibition opening


Invitation for the xhibition opening

Invitation for the exhibition opening


Lobby monitors–museum signage.

Digital lobby signage


Title wall vinyl–museum signage.

Vinyl title wall signage


Exhibition view.

Exhibition view



Exhibition view


On the visual identity

As an artist who makes site-specific installations, we had relatively little information (knowing only the title and the exhibition floor plan) to respond to before Lee’s arrival to the Walker. I took the title: “Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly,” and composed it in a way that the viewer could begin to feel the type of space and motion seen throughout the exhibition. In response to the various material sizes on which the title would be displayed, as well as the various routes one could enter and move through the gallery space, I decided that the title should be typographically rearranged in each of its iterations. This small intervention allows the viewer to both read each word separately and to connect them into the original title in various orders. As I realized later on, during the two weeks working with Kit, this approach/method was also his way of creating installations: finding objects, rearranging them, and making associative connections between each element until they created a substantial entity.

The gallery guide contains not only the traditional three-dimensional drawing of walls, but it also contains discrete representations of elements found within the exhibition, such as lamps and a TV-rack, as a way facilitating one’s navigation of the space and to underline the domesticity of the exhibition. The gallery guide also features images that showcase Lee Kit’s interest in light as a medium. Through the use of subtle duotone colors, the images become softer and evoke associations with the artist’s video projections and natural light. In further response to this quality of lightness (in terms of both visual lightness and perceptual feeling), the exhibition’s title is typeset in white (or, at times, in dark blue) on a light blue background in order to achieve a light, floating vibe. Furthermore, this quality of lightness within the typographic compositions is further emphasized through its relationship to the gallery itself and the way in which it functions similarly to the experience of navigating through the gallery space.

Light is one of the primary elements seen in Kit’s body of work. In the exhibition at the Walker, Kit used standing lamps and projectors as a source light. Fragile and ephemeral video works often capture the sunlight and projections fade into each other, merging with visitor’s shadows. Kit plays with stretching moments that attract his attention, extending them again and again in such a way that visitors to the gallery become detached from their familiarity to the common, domestic products seen throughout the exhibition. This feeling is amplified further by the nature of the installation which seems to have no beginning, middle, or end.

After researching Kit’s work, I came to understand that the work can be poetic, fragile, emotional, subtle, dynamic, and open, but that it can also be bitter and sometimes direct. Two paintings—Fuck you. (100g) and a piece called You, where Kit placed words produced by an inkjet transfer stating “You feed yourself everyday”—create moments of directness and harsh typographic messages which clash (visually and emotionally) with the tranquil mise-en-scène of the exhibition. Responding to this duality within Kit’s work informed my choice of Stanley as a typeface. Stanley is a font inspired by Times New Roman—perhaps the most classic typeface of the 20th century. The selected typeface is characterized by wide and sharp counter forms as well as short ascenders and descenders that generate neat typeset arrangements. The very graphic shape of the triangle-like serifs benefit from a maximum of contrast. This, in combination with the fully-justified texts that compose both the invitation and gallery guide, gives the typographic texture a strong and highly constructed appearance. As such, my use of Stanley became a means of highlighting the contrast between the very graphic forms of the typographic messages and the soft, lightness of the floods of blue projections.

Photos and design: Gabriela Baka


Gallery guide, with introduction text, map and installation views.

Gallery guide (which includes an introductory text, map, and installation views)




Details exhibition floor plan.

Detail view of the exhibition floor plan



7 Genders, 7 Typographies: Hacking the Binary

In a recent panel at the New Museum, artist Jacob Ciocci defined technology as “anything that organizes or takes apart reality,” which prompted a realization: gender could be also be understood as a kind of technology unto itself. The 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial proposes that the ultimate aim of design is a redesign of the […]


In a recent panel at the New Museum, artist Jacob Ciocci defined technology as “anything that organizes or takes apart reality,” which prompted a realization: gender could be also be understood as a kind of technology unto itself.

The 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial proposes that the ultimate aim of design is a redesign of the species. Under this premise, in an era where hormone molecules are produced in laboratories and distinctions like “female” and “male” are eroding, the “gender hacker” can be seen as a radical innovator in the ongoing design of the human. Hormones, regardless of their origins, flow through our bloodstream distributing “chemical messages”—to borrow a term used by Paul Preciado in Testo Junkie (The Feminist Press, 2013) —just as letterforms distribute words throughout bodies of text.

Language bears the responsibility of communication, and like typography, gender must be understood as an expressive format that evolves with the needs of its user. As a species, we continue to move beyond the constraints of the body. So, too, must the constructs of gender and the vocabulary we use to describe them. One voice in the construction of this language is Esben Esther P. Benestad, a progressive sexologist and one of Norway’s most public trans figures. Hir work as a therapist has flipped the script on gender norms by actively documenting people’s response to the question, “What is your gender?” All responses are equally validated, the subject dictates their own status, and gender is self-determined rather than diagnosed. Through these conversations with real people Benestad has observed seven unique genders: Female, Male, Intersex, Trans, Non-Conforming, Personal, and Eunuch.

Linking Ciocci’s thinking with Benestad’s, Façadomy invited seven graphic designers (Mylinh Trieu Nguyen, Andrew Sloat, Riley Hooker, Ely Kim, Nontsikelelo Mutiti, Ksenya Samaskaya, and Lobregat Balaguer)—each having pushed the limits of the “d” word in their own practice—to reflect on the seven genders through typographic metaphor. Below, each gender definition—created by Façadomy with Benestad—is followed by each designer’s response.



Pronouns: She/Her

A Female is an individual who describes herself as Female and can be considered one of the gender majorities. Femaleness derives most of its conventions from the characteristics attached to individuals that are chromosomally XX: production of ova, milk-producing mammary glands (after childbirth), a higher ratio of fat to body weight than Males, fairer voice, motherhood and caregiving. When an XX individual with the conventional characteristics of Female also perceives herself as Female, this is understood as Cis-Female. Females may have another chromosomal constellation or may not possess any of the traditional characteristics at all.

By Mylinh Trieu Nguyen


Lisa had a face of her own, one that you’d recognize almost immediately, even years later. Her curveless figure, tapered edges, and bold stems did not reflect feminine conventions. What made her distinctly female however was the context in which she was born.


A product of the 1980s, she represented the rise of a minority workforce, another advancement in the technology of feminism. Through a complex union of intuition and pragmatism, she grew from an innate desire to communicate, to connect, and to be open. Her existence dislodged generalizations.


Her bare body, undressed from frivolity, focused on function and iteration; imagining the countless possibilities that her form could actualize. The complexity of her make-up is illuminated at varying distances. From afar, her features are softened, her contours implied.



01-chicago-special copy

In intimacy, she reveals her true construction, from edge to edge. The strength of her face is in her ability to be simultaneously ubiquitous and individual. Her body, in all of its bitmap glory only lives on as a memory of a specific time and place. Edges replaced by semi circles, her image resolved to embracing all of her curvature. The terms of her femininity are not monolithic but always in flux.

Brand-New-02Like Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, she does not submit to the gender definitions of her time. Rather her fractured body and jagged lines come to symbolize a new model and archetype for femininity (constantly) moving forward in the modern world.


Chicago 12pt, 1984. First typeface designed for Apple Computers by Susan Kare.

Mylinh Trieu Nguyen is principal and creative director of STUDIO LHOOQ and codirector of LORD LUDD, a contemporary art gallery in Philadelphia.



Pronouns: He, Him

A Male is an individual who describes himself as Male and can be considered one of the gender majorities. Maleness derives most of its conventions from characteristics attached to individuals that are chromosomally XY: sperm production, Male sex organs, deepened voice after puberty, a higher ratio of muscle mass to body fat than Females. When an XY individual with the conventional characteristics of a Male also perceives himself as Male, this individual is understood as a Cis-Male. Males may have another chromosomal constellation or may not possess any of the traditional characteristics listed above.


By Andrew Sloat

Unimark, briefly the largest design firm in the world, proposed to tame the raucous diversity of 1960s NYC subway signage by choosing to consolidate it into Helvetica. This turned out to be impossible on the existing machines, so eventually they settled for the available typeface Standard (an American name for Akzidenz Grotesk), with its beefier stance, swingy S, and underbite e. But after the entire graphic system was installed, sign-making technology improved; reverting to the intended Helvetica became too hard to resist. The initially unwanted and slightly-off Akzidenz, which had done the job when no one else could, was slowly and quietly replaced with the more generic option, with its straighter lines and broader shoulders.

Arial was created so that typewriter companies wouldn’t have to pay for Helvetica. It’s mathematically built to replace Helvetica exactly, but with enough details stolen from other typefaces so that it isn’t really the same—and yet only experts can easily differentiate them. The story is convoluted, and ultimately Arial gets lumped in with the rest of the middle-ground sans serifs. To most readers Helvetica and Arial are effectively the same: normal and authoritative.

But some people like to make a big scene over how the subtle adjustments between Standard or Akzidenz or Helvetica or Arial or whatever actually make them totally different. We pay those people more.

Andrew Sloat is a graphic designer and filmmaker who lives in Brooklyn, teaches at RISD, and is currently the creative director at BAM.



An individual who describes themselves as Intersex.

Benestad includes Intersex as a gender category, although medically it is understood as a classification of sex, for those born with a variation between Male and Female anatomy and/or genetics. Variations are endlessly diverse. In 2016, nearly 25 percent of the world’s population has access to a legal Intersex identification at birth with India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh as major contributors. The remaining 75 percent of the world, including the United States, are only left with the options of Male or Female. Intersex individuals are often surgically and/or hormonally “corrected” (AKA mutilated) at birth or near puberty to fit within the dominant societal sex/gender categories of Male and Female. Because these measures are taken so early on, they often grow to identify with another gender later in life. In this respect, they become, for instance, Male-to-Intersex (MtI) or Female-to-Intersex (FtI).


Detail of the title sequence for Octavia St. Laurent: Queen of the Underground (1993), directed by Adam Soch

By Riley Hooker

Octavia Saint Laurent (1964–2009) was born out of New York City’s vogue scene in the 1980s and is perhaps best known for her iconic appearance in the 1990 film Paris is Burning. Her proto-queer existence was radical—anticipating an event horizon in the history of sexual difference. No, she is not a woman. No, she is not a man. Neither and both, she is Octavia by design.

Meanwhile in the virtual underbelly of online bulletin boards a symbolic language called “L337 sp34k” was born in resistance to a new regime of online filters. To many it was the death of grammar. To others it was the grammar of death. Death to the privatization of knowledge and power online. A superfluid cipher that could be applied to a multitude of languages. Traces of this rebellion are found in the title treatment to the 1993 documentary, Queen of the Underground, starring Ms. Saint Laurent.

This stylistic hack brings a new logic into the typographic vernacular, effectively bringing an endless variation of forms into a cohesive whole. Intersexness to the gender hacker performs the same feat, exploding the linearity of the Male/Female spectrum to achieve elite status in the third dimension.

Riley Hooker is a graphic designer based in New York and is the editor and designer of Façadomy.



Pronouns: He/Him, She/Her, Ze/Hir, et al

When an individual’s gender identity does not align with the sex they were assigned at birth, they may be inclined to transition to another point within the vast constellation of gender. A full transition in the subjective sense is to adjust the body as much as is necessary for that individual. Sometimes, the adjustments will go as far as is possible toward the other gender majority, but those whose Transtalents are particularly strong will still identify as Trans. In this sense, Trans-identifying individuals do not succumb to the societal pressure to be passable as either Female or Male. It is not necessary to pick a fixed point. For many, the transition is fluid and ongoing.


By Ely Kim

When I was a kid, I had an alphabet book that illustrated each letter as a person. They were dressed in clothes, wore shoes, and carried accessories. Most of them were dressed for a day at the office, and were dressed as either a Male or a Female. A completely arbitrary gender assigned to each letter of the alphabet by the illustrator. Seeing each letter existing as one end of a gender binary gave me a complex. It made me see gender in places that I had not before. Everything became arbitrarily gendered.

As an adult I have a lot of questions…

Why is most of the alphabet male?

Why was the “F” not a female?

Why was every one of the last six letters of the alphabet assigned as female?

Why do these distinctions matter?

It was a similarly puzzling exercise to choose a typeface with any meaningful representation of a trans experience. As arbitrary as an illustrator assigning each letter of the alphabet a gender. To be honest, every typeface I was experimenting with started feeling trans because it’s completely subjective. So I ended up just going with my very first try, Avenir Next Heavy.

Ely Kim is an art director/dancer/healer based in New York.



Pronouns: They/Them, Ze/Hir, Other

A gender Nonconformist is an individual who describes themselves as not gendered—maintaining the potential to subscribe but actively refusing to do so. Often these individuals hold strong political beliefs that gender does not exist or that it is a social construct that can be ignored. Many individuals in this category seek to adjust their appearance to reflect their non-gendered status by, for instance, removing their breasts or wearing gender-neutral clothing.


By Nontsikelelo Mutiti

My first type design project was based on the characters I found in 18th- and 19th-century missionary bibles. For my research I requested the Ngoni, Xhosa, and Zulu bibles, along with The Negro English Bible, a translation of the scriptures into a pidgin dialect used at that time between the British and number of tribes in the region of Southern Africa.

As I traced the letterforms, researching approximate typefaces, what I thought would be a lesson in conventions became an exploration of the contradictions in the forms of certain characters. It was these deviations that aided in asserting the identity of the typeface, and distinguished it from the others.

In my mother’s childhood Zulu hymnal printed in 1956 a Ъ represents a specific sound, that melting together of the softest b and w. This interests me less as a design technique or answer but as a question around the gaps between our languages and the capacity for the predetermined set of 26 characters to reconcile them.

As a “born free” Zimbabwean, my expression emerges from the collision between cultural frameworks. Often times I feel most articulate when speaking mispronounced broken vernacular. An exercise that began with a goal to faithfully redraw these colonial typefaces ended as a lesson in transgression, which is perhaps where identity becomes visible.

Nontsikelelo Mutiti is a Zimbabwean visual artist working across geographies and disciplines.



Pronouns: et al

When Benestad asked Oscar what Oscar’s gender was, Oscar simply responded, “I’m Oscar.” Though fully presenting as a lady (with a visible bulge), Oscar wants to be referred to as “he.” A Personal gendered individual is someone who identifies as Themselves. Oscar engenders himself with his own name (and pronoun of choice). It is not a political statement, but rather one that it requires an introduction because, in order to properly address Oscar, one must first know Oscar’s name. A Personal gendered individual relies only on their self to be validated as such.


Personal, Wyeth from Solonka Type Foundry

By Ksenya Samarskaya

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been actively discussing, questioning and considering gender. Wherein our recent generational past, it’s been weighted at the male/female poles… I’ve watched it shift, over the course of my heed, beautifully, prismatically towards the scatter-plotted center. Towards the personal. Towards the individual, self-defining, authentic re-mixing of all the codifiers.

As we (Samarskaya & Partners) refine and draw out the character of typeforms, the same divergent synaesthesia comes into play. With type, as well as with gender, I’m most compelled by a well-defined balance and a strong point of view. For example, there’s the graceful lines and unadorned details that form the mainstay for Wyeth. You sense its proper posture, its understated decorum, the worn-in button-up shirt. Or Diote, with its square shoulders and soft curves, an Eighties icon without the teased hair.

While type isn’t (hasn’t/shouldn’t be) inherently associated with gender, each well-developed typeface is full of personality… so if we’re gonna take to anthropomorphizing, I intend to continue drafting type that has the complexity and the versatility of the personal. Not an absence of gender, but an irrelevance that embraces the particular. Embraces function. Embraces idiosyncratic beauty.


I am what I it: Diote from Solonka Type Foundry

Ksenya Samaskaya is creative practitioner, type designer, and board member of the AIGANY.



Pronouns: Et al

Historical accounts of Eunuchs go back almost as far as recorded history. It was a practical solution to an age-old problem, preserving patriarchal bloodlines. And what better way than by castrating the Males charged with protecting royal Females? Today’s Eunuch is a Male that consciously decides to be castrated. With the aid of testosterone injections, they are able to boost their sex drives, receive erections, and even ejaculate. Post-castration, it is often reported that (due to the lack of testosterone) Eunuchs feel patient, clear-headed, and don’t get angry. They also tend to develop more fatty tissue. Some Eunuchs say it is an act of liberation from the societal pressures that masculinity has placed on to them.


By Lobregat Balaguer

In design, one type of eunuch could be social architecture. For castration to be achieved, the social architect should be truly immersed within a beneficiary community, committed to putting their input and needs as a priority. Control of the design libido is sacrificed, willingly or under coercive duress. This does not necessarily mean that whatever the amputee produces must be of inferior quality or value. It simply means that traditional standards of what is desirable, beautiful, functional, full of design libido, no longer apply.

If the castration is forced, this is generally a traumatic experience which can later be leveraged towards another identity of enlightenment or redemption—the warrior or priest eunuch. If the castration is sought after as a tool for spiritual gain, it is a liberation from classic, archaic, centralized tenets of what is and is not a design’s strength.


This doesn’t imply a disappearance of the architect’s stamp, a fear native to many designers. It is merely a commitment to putting a beneficiary community’s will on an equal level as the donor’s will, thus reversing the traditional sources of power, which generally flow from north to south; west to east, or Developed to Developing.

Some architects find this reversal of power (sacrifice of male organs) difficult to comprehend as a necessary component in social projects. They are used to practicing within another power struggle almost exclusively: designer vs. client. Some architects take a community’s need or a disaster’s devastation as a tabula rasa opportunity to impose their egos and utopias full force, whether or not the utopia has any congruency to the landscape, social mores and aesthetic traditions of the construction site (colonization of the uterus).These kinds of projects still belong to the realm of social architecture, but cannot be considered a manifestation of the design eunuch. They are but projections of the designer’s archetypal “libido” as a performative monument, thrust into an archaically feminine site or beneficiary.


Aerial Bold: Benedikt Groß & Joey Lee. A type family (and research project) built from aerial photos of buildings and other landscape forms. Aerial Bold is in intellectual essence a eunuch, as it views phallic objects not as singular monuments but as shapes that can be abstracted into further meanings. Still, it is eunuch in that it has socially influenced characteristics. It is a Kickstarted project, which means control of its existence was relinquished first to the support and approval of a social group. The typefaces included in the family—Aerial Bold Buildings, Aerial Bold Suburbia, and Aerial Bold Provence—are referred to as fonts, which indicates that social usage of the term “font” trumps its more precise academic definitions. In other ways, it is more of the same architectural ego born of traditional North-Western technocracy. It uses buildings from developed countries but purports to be a “world” view. In its process of creation, its authors rated the typography on designer-generated scales of beauty. That would be a point against its castration, as the designer retains the agency of creating something they think is beautiful. Rather than serve a social purpose on the outset, this technology was created for its own end, a social purpose to be found later or never. The impact of Aerial Bold on language processing, whether poetic or incidental, is secondary to its initial intent: simply to materialize a “beautiful” idea. Thus, though it resembles a eunuch in some ways, Aerial Bold is perhaps not a true one.

Lobregat Balaguer is a writer, publisher, and graphic designer based in Manila. She runs the Office of Culture & Design, a platform for social practice projects and research, and co-founded the publishing and design “hauz” Hardworking Goodlooking.



Support Façadomy!
This post was conceived and created for The Gradient by Façadomy, a new publication that explores contemporary identity through the lenses of art and architecture. The funding campaign for the next edition of their inaugural issue, “Gender Talents,” is currently live on Kickstarter.

Clearing the Haze: Prologue to Postmodern Graphic Design Education through Sheila de Bretteville

Author’s preface: At the outset, this project was defined as an intensive effort to examine and reassess the work of Shelia Levrant de Bretteville. The initial motivation was driven by the connection of the rise of feminist voices in design, the Woman’s Building, postmodern design, and experimental pedagogy. We recognize that many female designers worked […]

Author’s preface: At the outset, this project was defined as an intensive effort to examine and reassess the work of Shelia Levrant de Bretteville. The initial motivation was driven by the connection of the rise of feminist voices in design, the Woman’s Building, postmodern design, and experimental pedagogy. We recognize that many female designers worked in the 1970s and 80s, however we saw that few had as large a contribution on contemporary graphic design today, as Sheila Levrant de Bretteville.



Sheila Levrant de Bretteville


In the process of researching the historical contribution of de Bretteville, it became clear that while several publications exist that address the history of graphic design and female designers, an in-depth exploration on the topic has not been documented. There is tendency within design history to glaze over important accomplishments and accolades by women. If anything, we can say there has been false nostalgia as to the honest history of what happened. The commentary of these times is scattered in hard to access publications and with this, our research questions the cultural and academic recognition written in history books in current circulation.

Acting as facilitators, instigators, and participators, this essay was conceived with a level of framing extended towards feminism, equality, women’s rights, challenging the status quo, and encouraging students to think proactively and experimentally. It was our feeling that if we are going to talk about graphic design in our contemporary landscape, it is imperative to go beyond presuppositions and intellectual establishment and clear the haze of historical contribution. The impacts of these examinations interject important conversations into the creative and academic fields. De Bretteville’s teaching and practice changed the face of contemporary graphic design, and should be adequately acknowledged in history for her monumental work.



Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Arts in Society: California Institute of the Arts: Prologue to a Community, 1970


Historical perspectives are important for the enrichment of the history of North American graphic design education. The history of graphic design in the contemporary construct is increasingly hard to unravel, let alone the history of the Design School at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Valencia, California. Nevertheless, let’s consider this a unique moment in the history of graphic design: an interesting moment as a result of the people who had been involved in shaping, inspiring, and educating graphic designers at a high-level; yet also interesting as a result of the dissemination of the methodologies and philosophies that CalArts developed within it’s graphic design program, specifically of those developed by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville. Clearing the Haze, is an attempt to contextualize the design education of the times rather than to explicate or theorize it. The context is of our own experience as graphic designers and former CalArts students, in a way linking our participation and passion to our own pedagogy.



Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, California Institute of the Arts: Admissions Bulletin, 1973–1974



In the fall of 1969, Sheila returned to New York after working in Italy in a design studio at Olivetti. She took a desk in an office shared by Robert Mangurian and Craig Hodgetts. Shortly after Craig was tapped to become Associate Dean of the School of Design at CalArts, Sheila was asked to come and work on preparing branding materials (letterhead, posters, etc.) to attract students for each school at the newly established CalArts. A special issue of a journal fell into her lap, making her editor as well as designer of the issue titled, Arts in Society: California Institute of the Arts: prologue to a community1 which came out in June 1970. The School of Design was seeking students for whom “ecology, technology, and human needs trumped taste and style”2 as the basis of meaningful work. At the request of Richard Farson, Dean of the School of Design at CalArts, Sheila joined the Design faculty as CalArts began its first academic year at an interim campus at Villa Cabrini in Burbank in 1970.

Having no previous teaching experience, Sheila drew from past assignments3 from her studies at Yale4 and from a former high school5 design faculty’s text,6 which included a chapter on design education, to create the curriculum. Additionally, Sheila reviewed the way in which she had been taught, in the light of her experience to the events occurring around her at while attending Yale—the civil right movements in the States, the protests of our war in Vietnam, the assassination of MLK and the Kennedys—in addition to her work collaborating with Emanuel Sandreuter on freedom of the press and TV posters for the Italian Communist Party. In Italy, Sheila read the teaching pedagogy of Paulo Freire and was convinced that teaching could be a horizontal exchange of information. She explored the best ways to open up assignments in such a way as to capitalize on the different experiences, knowledge, and skills which the CalArts students brought to the school.



Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Announcement poster for the CalArts School of Design, 1970


Mashing up these international influences—Bauhausian/Modernism from Yale; a progressive/radical awareness; a more traditional graphic arts education from her Brooklyn, New York, high school years—Sheila reworked assignments in a prescient Postmodern graphic design pedagogical mode. Her choices can be seen directed to “enable the sexploration of visual phenomena.”7 Sheila knew that an able designer required a set of visual and formal skills in order for that student/designer to better access their own unique voice in a well thought through and well made manner. In this new context, students were encouraged to express their own experiences and make choices that reinforced their ability to speak through form. The intent was for all students to move toward producing meaningful content of their own.

The spirit of the early 1970s was one of collaboration where each person’s contribution was honored and the work done was not strictly circumscribed by media specificity. For example, Sheila taught a class with Craig Hodgets where two-dimensions and three-dimensions of form were created by each student. Another was an interdisciplinary class taught with Jivan Tabibian, a political scientist and Ben Lifson, a photographer. This multi-disciplinary class included an aspect of what has become known as “the object project,”8 and the beginning of her faith in the meaning of every choice in physical and visual form making. “The object project” asked each participant to bring in an object. As students went around the room and each person described the physical aspects to the object chosen, Sheila was astonished to see how much information was inadvertently being revealed about the person as the student described their chosen object. New to teaching, Sheila was unsure how best to deal with what was embedded in the physical form of the objects, which was much more than she had ever anticipated. She knew that each of us is intimately connected to the things that we choose, but it took a fair amount of time for her to recognize that she could use this intuitive attraction to objects, events, and situations to develop the intimate connection to the physical qualities of the work that students produce.



CalArts exterior, 1970. Designed by architecture firm Ladd & Kelsey. Courtesy of the CalArts Archive.


In 1971, two years later, CalArts moved out of the temporary quarters at Villa Cabrini and into the current CalArts Thornton Ladd9 building in Valencia, California. Sheila had outfitted the printing lab to not only have lithography and engraving but also a Vandercook flat-bed printing press, a Rotaprint Offset Printer, and a Diatronic photographic typesetter. This made it possible for students to have their hands on the means of making multiple copies. The first years at CalArts were open to having “Institute Students” who could take courses at all or any of the CalArts Schools and students like Albert Innaurato and James Lapine who became dramatists, along with Bia Lowe and Bernard Cooper, who both became fine writers—all took classes taught by Sheila.



Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Everywoman newspaper centerfold, 1970




Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Everywoman newspaper centerfold, 1970


During the summer after Sheila’s first year of teaching at CalArts, she was asked to create a special issue of the Everywoman newspaper.10 Sheila designed the layout in the format of Consciousness-Raising (C-R), which creates an equality of voices. The newspaper gave a two-page spread to each writer, each having an equal amount of space, regardless of hierarchy in the newspaper. The dissolution of hierarchy was also a way to counter patriarchy. Empowered by the new publication’s focus on women and as the only female faculty member at the CalArts School of Design,11 Sheila approached Victor Papanek, then Dean of the School of Design, to start the Women’s Design Program,12 in which reading and discussion had an equal place alongside design work. After some prompting, he agreed. The work of the program was published in the sixth issue of the British journal Icographic13 along with an essay by Sheila on the rigid separation between men and women in design and the workplace. Sheila’s writing, titled “Some Aspects of Design from the Perspective of a Woman Designer” asks designers to help to revalidate what have been designated as ‘female’ values and devalued as such.14 The publication also included comments from each of the students and their visual work, which included type studies, photography, and documentary video. Sheila’s critique of both design and contribution to feminism worked to establish an equality based on reframing not by gender (male and/or female), but as equal individual people, individual designers.



The Women’s Design Program at CalArts, 1972. Unknown Artist, Courtesy of the CalArts Archive


The Women’s Design Program ran in tandem with Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro’s joint Feminist Art Program at CalArts. Paul Brach, Dean of the School of Art, had agreed to offer the Feminist Art Program, a separatist program, at the behest of his wife Miriam Shapiro and Judy Chicago considering that there were no permanent women faculty members to mentor young women. Both the Women’s Design Program and the Feminist Art Program were investigatory, meaning that the class structure was about a way of exploring things they didn’t know about. It wasn’t just the transfer of knowledge from teacher to student: it was about the teacher and students exploring something together from which both were learning. Ultimately, both Chicago and Sheila decided that they would do better without CalArts and in 1972 they sent out brochures inviting students to their separatist program for the following year. In 1973 Sheila, Chicago, and Arlene Raven named their newly established program the Feminist Studio Workshop (FSW): the first independent school for women artists, which later became the Woman’s Building in downtown Los Angeles.



Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Feminist Studio Workshop brochure, 1973




Courtyard of the Grandview Woman’s Building, 1973. Courtesy of Otis College of Art and Design Library


Woman’s Building: Women’s Graphic Center

The Woman’s Building rented the former Chouinard Art Institute building (which officially dissolved in 1972) from CalArts for $3,000 per year—a deal brokered by Sheila—and opened on November 28, 1973.15 Woman came from around the country to work and create in this new feminist, creative, separatist space, until the Building’s unexpected sale in 1974, at which time Sheila and Cheryl Swanack searched Los Angeles for a new Woman’s Building, eventually relocating to downtown L.A. during the summer of 1975.16 The Woman’s Building fostered a kind of utopian communalism which was a unique philosophy for the time. Being an artist meant “accepting the responsibility for being one (lone artist as individual producer).”17 Moreover, it was about something other than being an artist: it was about being a fully formed person, who was able to come to terms with the suffering and/or injustice she had previously experienced in her girlhood, through her family, and/or through her community of origin. During the renovation of both Woman’s Buildings (one at MacArthur Park, the other a public center in downtown L.A.), the help of men and children affiliated with the women there was enjoyed and welcomed.



Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Pink, 1974


The exhibitions and educational programs at the Woman’s Buildings were intended to form a participating community of like-minded women who were collectively seeking to remake themselves through the new formats offered at the Woman’s Buildings. The pedagogy that Sheila had fostered was one in which instructors and mentors respected and gave “unconditional love toward a student.” This encouraged students to freely change what they needed and wanted to develop.18 The program focused on Consciousness-Raising (C-R) (also called awareness raising), a technique that focuses the attention of a wider group of people on some cause or condition. “Using [C-R] techniques as the basis for developing an intensive, two-year curriculum that acknowledged the unique vulnerabilities and social pressures faced by young women.”19 C-R was an omnilateral, relatively leaderless, group-directed exploration in the verbalization of individual experience, which embodied a “person is political” motto, positioned within second-wave feminism. This radical pedagogy used self-expression as the paramount element in art-making, which, at the time, was atypical for an art school. It was as much about asking questions as finding answers.

Chicago left after the first year while Sheila and Raven stayed at the Woman’s Building. Housed within the Woman’s Building was the design program of the Women’s Graphic Center (WGC) which, under the guidance of Sheila, was considered one of most important features of the Woman’s Building. A number of the faculty were CalArts alums such as Helen Alm, who guided the printing in the WGC and Suzanne Lacy20 who taught performance.21 The WGC was built on the precepts of Sheila’s egalitarian pedagogical attitude—a sort of Marxist approach, which treated design as a public communication imbued with the efficacy of social change. In 1973, Sheila reprised her statement on the FSW brochure when she delivered a conference paper to the American Institute of Architects saying:

The process by which forms are made and the forms themselves embody values and standards or behavior that affect large numbers of people…. For me, it is this integral relationship between individual creativity and social responsibility that draws me to the design arts.22

Sheila wrote a number of compelling articles on woman’s rights and space often ending up in feminists publications published through the Woman’s Building such as Chrysalis, a magazine of women’s culture, a contribution to culture, media studies, and women’s studies before there were courses in women’s studies in colleges and universities.



Chrysalis: a magazine of women’s culture, Cover of Volume 1, 1977


Projects at the WGC focused on typography, printing, and criticality within the social sphere. The wooden typeface Kabel was discovered as a part of the building’s past and was used for the Woman’s Building entry signage. Traditional fine art printing (such as etching and lithography) were not included due to limited resources and space. Their focus was on self-publishing in the form of letterpress-printed, offset-printed and silkscreen-printed posters, postcards, broadsides, artist books,23 poetry chapbooks, stationary, and other kinds of small-press endeavors.24 Sheila again brought back “the object project” in a Feeling to Form class taught with social psychologist Jane Stewart, urging students to find suitable forms from which women could derive content as a way of upending Modernist precepts of form as content.25 Feeling to Form, then, was a literal reversal, extracting form from content, rather than content from form. This class arguably produced the most highly realized art at the Building, often in graphic form.

The art of the Woman’s Building sought action in addition to expression. Some of the best-known performance work was also the culmination of Sheila’s graphic design pedagogy. In particular, Leslie Labowitz’s and Lacy’s Three Weeks in May (1977), which updated a map with reports from the L.A.P.D., printing the word, “rape” on spots on a map of greater L.A., generated large-scale public awareness and media attention. The event combined a performance piece on the steps of L.A. City Hall with self-defense classes for women in an attempt to highlight sexual violence against women. As WGC student Emily King said, “printing gave work power and distance.”26



Three Weeks in May, Suzanne Lacy, 1977. Courtesy of Suzanne Lacy


Sheila’s format of direct address in public spaces, offered an original and persuasive lesson in feminist pedagogy, personal growth, and the search for authentic forms. In this vein, Sheila developed and taught the class, Public Announcements/Private Conversations (1975), which then became a series of site-specific art projects produced from 1977 to 1978 in which participants were asked to “write, design, print, post their posters, negotiate with the owners of the public places, and collect responses about and for places in the shared environment… Within this theme each woman gives graphic form to her concerns, placing this work—and thus placing herself—in public view.”27 The project could then be tailored to each students needs and support the individual to find her own personal material and forms to express in. Through this class and others, form became a transformative experience, resulting in the perception of personal wholeness and collective unity at the Woman’s Building.

Eventually the continuing short-fall of funds, and a level of dissatisfaction within the Woman’s Building ranks caused the WGC to unravel. The program’s final year was from 1979–1981. Despite being hired in 1980 to create a program of Communication Design and Illustration at the Otis Art Institute/Parsons School of Design, Sheila stayed on the board at the Woman’s Building until 1981 when the FSW was terminated in favor of salvaging the Building itself. In an interview with Jenni Sorkin in 2010, Sheila says, “it made sense for the next generation to take it over. And maybe they’d have fresher ideas or a way to relate to the community that they felt stronger about coming there. I know that I couldn’t do it anymore. The Women’s Graphic Center as a commercial entity just didn’t capture my imagination in the way that the Woman’s Building as an entity did. It just simply didn’t. And it’s not that I wanted to get a job at Otis/Parsons. It’s more that I wanted to go somewhere else, do something else. And I like beginnings, and it felt like endings to me.”28 The Woman’s Building remained open as a rented studio space until 1991. Times had changed and the seemingly utopian collectivity proved to be an ideal that was not sustainable.



Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Poster for Women in Design, conference, 1975


Otis & Yale

The educational model that was developed by Sheila at the Woman’s Building carried on at Otis Art Institute/Parsons School of Design (presently known as the Otis College of Art & Design) and helped to shape the Otis curriculum. Sheila initiated and chaired the Department of Communication at Otis from 1981–1990 which included an outreach design group called Brook7n where students created and completed community based projects. Working to bring in faculty from various backgrounds, Sheila hired Laurie Haycock and P. Scott Makela, Ave Pildas and Everett Peck, Jim Hieman, Leah Hoffmitz, Gary Panter and Georgianne Dean. Her work with Brook7n was collectively designed for non-profits, doing projects such as murals in Sam Good hospital and a billboard using a rebus (a puzzle in which words are represented by combinations of pictures and individual letters) to communicate to non-literate people about classes in reading.

The Communications Design and Illustration Department that Sheila had developed at Otis was a parallel department to the Communication Department at the Parsons School of Design. Both programs, headed by David Levy in New York, were designed to allow students to travel from New York to Los Angeles. This newly developed bi-coastal college for the arts was the first of its kind, but proved challenging. Sheila describes the difficulty of this time: “It took a while for me to figure out the flights [and] travel, because actually, a sustained program makes a lot more sense at that age level. But I didn’t know that at the time, and it was another activity.”29 Over the next nine years, Sheila worked through the logistical strains and developed a curriculum that contributed significantly to the field of design and visual communications pedagogy. In 1990, one year prior to the end of the Otis/Parsons partnership, and shortly before Levy’s departure in 1991, Sheila was appointed a full professorship at the Yale University of School of Art.



New Haven Register, 1990. Courtesy of Sheila Levrant de Bretteville


As Sheila replaced Alvin Eisenman30 as the new director of the graduate program in graphic design at Yale in 1990, she also became the Yale University School of Art’s first tenured woman. While most faculty and alumni affirmed her appointment, others were outraged. Paul Rand, who had been a member of the faculty since the late 1950s, resigned as an act of protest against Sheila’s appointment, and then convinced his long-time colleague Armin Hoffmann to do the same. Starting in the 1950s the Yale program, based in modernist theory, was instrumental in establishing the profession of Graphic Design in the United States. Acting as a conduit between Yale and the Kunstgewerbeschule in Basle, directed by Armin Hoffmann, the Yale program was unique for its time. The graphic design curriculum established at Yale became the model for most education institutions, changing its focus from advertising to graphic design during the 1960s.

Sheila’s design pedagogy at Yale was pluralistic and pushed design as a proactive practice (rather than focusing solely on corporate service). The program was person-centered (emphasizing the students’ desire to communicate, and focusing on what each student felt necessary to be made and said and to whom they wanted to say it). Students were assured that they would be able to see themselves within the large body of work that they produced in the two-year program.

As the director of Yale’s program, Sheila acknowledged her role as a leader but was quick to point out that although she called together faculty meetings, she wanted the faculty to talk about what they found interesting and to question issues of the moment. In an interview in 2008, Sheila spoke about her past experiences which continue to influence her design pedagogy today:

“Freedom to fail, sense of community, support, taking chances: these are lessons I bring from my initial teaching position at CalArts, 41 years ago. Our past experiences are really what we bring to the pedagogy of graphic design.”

The lessons and guidance that have been experienced by hundreds of Sheila’s students throughout the years has meant that her influence has been disseminated across multiple facets of our visual and cultural landscape. Her contributions to postmodern design pedagogy opened doors to female voices in a male-dominated society, encouraged students to be more experimental, and supported non-traditional art environments. Without a more concise and complex understanding of the past, we fail to stay open to the future. It is in this vein that we strive to clear the haze of historical contribution and reach beyond the theoretical and formal exercises that most of us learn in art school today.



Sheila Levrant de Bretteville photographed in 2014, at her home, in New Haven, CT   Photography: Thomas Giddings


In realizing this project, we are deeply grateful for the generosity of our contributors and supporters, in particular Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Peter de Bretteville, Naomi Honeth, Michael Ned-Holte, Jenni Sorkin, and Lorraine Wild.


Editor/publisher’s note: For more on Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, see Lorraine Wild and David Karwan’s essay titled “Agency and Urgency: The Medium and Its Message,” published on pages 44–57 of Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia (Walker Art Center, 2015). In Wild and Karwan’s essay, de Bretteville is heralded as an influential designer that “led projects and developed strategies that exemplified the new experimental and reformist attitudes about pedagogy, which continue to resonate today.” De Bretteville is also described as being “part of a [group of] influential designers and architects from the late 1960s and early ’70s who began to question the hierarchical, authoritarian aspects of design and the fading modern idea that there were singular formal principles that were universally appropriate.” (p. 54)




1 Arts in Society: California Institute of the Arts: prologue to a community, Volume 7, Issue 3, 1970.

2 Sheila de Bretteville, phone conversation with the authors, April 20, 2013.

3 Wayne Peterson, a Yale colleague kept all the assignments given at Yale and sent Sheila de Bretteville copies.

4 Sheila de Bretteville received her MFA from Yale University, 1962–1964.

5 Sheila de Bretteville attended Abraham Lincoln High School, a public school in Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York, which includes many notable alumni, including Alex Steinweiss and Gene Federico who became influential graphic designers working in New York City after the war. Leon Friend was the chairman of the art department at Abraham Lincoln High School and “exposed students to working artists and visiting critics, including emigre designers such as Austria’s Joseph Binder and Germany’s Lucian Bernhard.” He also directed a student club called Art Squad, which “produced work in all media, including graphic design.” The work of Art Squad “was an awkward yet energetic interpretation of the modern style that reflected the influence of sources ranging from Bayer to streamlined product design.” (Wild, Lorraine, ‘Europeans in America,’ from Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History, 1989, 153.)

6 Friend, Leon, Graphic Design: a Library of Old And New Masters In the Graphic Arts, New York and London: Whittlesey house, McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1936.

7 Sheila de Bretteville, email with authors, April 17, 2013.

8 “The object project” is an assignment Sheila de Bretteville has been giving to her students since the beginning of her teaching career, and has become a requirement for first year graduate students at Yale from 1990 to today.

9 Thornton Ladd was a Modernist architect who designed CalArts and the Pasadena Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum).

10 Everywoman, designed by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, 1971. Everywoman was a collective newspaper designed for the Fresno Feminist Art Program by Sheila de Bretteville, who had encountered the program as an invited visitor.

11 “CalArts was a place of intensive masculine bravado; the premiere American art school of the 1970s, the place to make a Happening alongside Kaprow, the progenitor of the genre.” Sorkin, Jenni, Learning from Los Angeles: Pedagogical Predecessors at the Woman’s Building, 40–41.

12 The Women in Design program (1971–1973) came out of a question posed by Sheila de Bretteville, “what would happen if I only taught women?”

13 de Bretteville, Sheila, Icographic 6, Croydon, England, 1973.

14 de Bretteville, Sheila, Icographic 6, “Some Aspects of Design from the Perspective of a a Woman Designer,” Croydon, England, 1973.

15 Sorkin, Jenni, “Learning from Los Angeles: Pedagogical Predecessors at the Woman’s Building,” 47.

16 What followed was then a frenzied search for a new building that would offer the same public visibility, until the former headquarters of Standard Oil in downtown LA was secured as a location. Sorkin, Jenni, Learning from Los Angeles: Pedagogical Predecessors at the Woman’s Building, 48.

17 Sorkin, Jenni, Learning from Los Angeles: Pedagogical Predecessors at the Woman’s Building, 42.

18 Sheila de Bretteville, email interview with Ginger Wolfe-Suarex, interReview 08, 2007.

19 Sorkin, Jenni, Learning from Los Angeles: Pedagogical Predecessors at the Woman’s Building, 49.

20 Suzanne Lacy is another individual who came out of the CalArts design pedagogy and went on to hold several positions at academic institutions, including Dean of Fine Arts at California College of the Arts (CCA) from 1987–1997 and Chair of Fine Arts at Otis College of Art and Design from 2002–2006.

21 Starting in January 1975, twenty-two women began a 4-month intensive workshop learning offset lithography, screen printing, and letterpress.

22 de Bretteville, Sheila, conference paper delivered to the American Institute of Architects, July 1973.

23 Artist Books by the likes of Frances Butler, Poltroon, and Ed Ruscha (who began his student career as the editor of Chouinard’s student newspaper) made a distinct impression on students, including WGC student and artist, Emily King.

24 Self-publishing was crucial to progression of individual feminist communities in the 1970s, including the proliferation of lesbian press culture.

25 Such as the Bauhaus-style graphic models that permeated American Modernism via the emigres who brought them, like Laszlo Mohloy-Nagy at the Institute of Design in Chicago and Serge Chermayeff at Yale.

26 King, Emily, Artists’ Books by Women, 57.

27 Public Announcements/Private Conversations, course description, 1975. Woman’s Building files.

28 Jenni Sorkin interview with Sheila de Bretteville, an oral history with Sheila de Bretteville about the Woman’s Building, CCS AS-AP project, June 22, 2010.

29 Ibid.

30 Alvin Eisenman founded and headed Yale University’s graduate program in graphic design beginning in 1951—the first graduate program in graphic design in the United States. He remained the director of that program until he was replaced by Sheila in 1990.

31 !Women Art Revolution, video interview with Sheila de Bretteville, February 15, 2008, New York, NY, Stanford University Digital Collections.

Call for Applicants: Walker Art Center Mildred Friedman Design Fellowship 2016–2017


The Walker is pleased to announce that its 2016-2017 Mildred Friedman Design Fellowship is now open for applications. APPLICATIONS ARE DUE: MAY 23rd

Since 1980, the Walker’s Design department has maintained a graphic design fellowship program that provides recent graduates the opportunity to work in a professional design studio environment. Selected from a highly competitive pool of applicants, fellows come from graphic design programs throughout the United States and abroad representing a diverse range of design programs, such as Art Center College of Design, California Institute of the Arts, Cranbrook Academy of Art, Eastern Michigan University, Ecole cantonale d’art de Lausanne, Minneapolis College of Art and Design, NC State University, Rhode Island School of Design, Royal College of Art, Werkplaats Typografie, and Yale University, among many others.



Ideal candidates will be firmly grounded in visual design principles and the print design process with some experience in interaction design. In addition to print-based projects such as exhibition identities, wayfinding, and collateral materials, this year’s fellow will also work on select online publishing initiatives. The fellow will join an accomplished team of professionals known for creating industry-leading work. Immersed in the Design department, which includes Editorial, Photography, and Videography, fellows gain a deeper understanding of design, work on projects with rich, interesting content, and are expected to produce work to the highest standards of design excellence.


See samples of previous fellow’s work here and in this video highlighting 75 years of Walker design. The fellows will also be key contributors to the Design department’s blog, The Gradient—so an interest in the discourse of graphic design and contemporary culture is highly desirable. Fellows are salaried, full-time employees and are involved in all aspects of the design process, including client meetings and presentations through production and development. Duration of fellowship: September 1, 2016 – August 31, 2017



For consideration, submit the following materials by PDF attachments only: 1. a letter of interest; 2. a resume, including names and contact information of 3 references; 3. a PDF portfolio containing 8–10 examples of graphic design work (total file size can be no larger than 19 MB, otherwise your file will be rejected).


Email application packets to If you do not receive an automatic confirmation of your application, please send another note to the same email address, without any attachments. No phone calls please. For more information, visit our fellowship page. Also check out the Walker’s job listing.


 fellowship imagesbritish-arrows-awords_web IMG_4075 winter-of-love_web_2 OPEN-HOUSE_web IMG_2452_grey 153_square_1024x1024 IMG_4675_greyinsight_lectures_poster_1_web IMG_4701 TEENS_BAKA_web IMG_1913 butner_3 IMG_0174  fellowship images2international_pop_mockup2_1024x1024insight_lectures_poster_web IMG_4090_grey FFS_web IMG_0175 IMG_0053 IMG_0464 butner_15 IMG_2285 winter-of-love_web_3 BAKA_OUTTHERE18.jpg IMG_4077_grey IMG_4717 WEBOrdinary-Pictures-Edit1_1024x1024 Lee_kit_identity_2   fellowship images4 OP_flyer_2_web.jpgspirit_award_hand_1.jpg MONK_postcard004_web.jpg BAKA_OP_17.jpg BAKA_OP_18.jpg winter-of-love_web_1 BAKA_FF_02.jpg  Hippie_animated_gif british-arrows-awords_web_1Hippie-Modernism-catalog_002a-1024x818 Antony_cube BAKA_mag_walker_02.jpg fellowship images3 BAKA_mag_walker_08.1.jpg IMG_2924_iamge.jpg chair_hippie BAKA_mag_walker_11-2800x1613  IMG_2588 IMG_4711 IMG_4791 IMG_4857 IMG_4845 fellowship images5

No posts