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Text/Messages: Books by Artists

Text/Messages: Books by Artists, organized by Walker curator Siri Engberg and Walker librarian Rosemary Furtak, is a very exciting exhibition opening tomorrow, December 18, 2008, and will be up until April 19, 2009. It will feature artist books from the Walker’s extensive library and collection that rarely get displayed for public viewing, so its an […]

Text/Messages: Books by Artists, organized by Walker curator Siri Engberg and Walker librarian Rosemary Furtak, is a very exciting exhibition opening tomorrow, December 18, 2008, and will be up until April 19, 2009. It will feature artist books from the Walker’s extensive library and collection that rarely get displayed for public viewing, so its an absolute treat for this show to be happening. As a designer, many of these books have been highly influential, especially the typographic works by Dieter Roth and Lawrence Weiner. I was overwhelmed with nostalgia when I saw some of Edward Ruscha’s Los Angeles influenced books like Every Building on the Sunset Strip. Here are some installation images from the exhibition and a few of my favorite pieces on display:

Edward Ruscha

fig.1 fig.2 fig.3

fig.4 fig.5 fig.6

fig.1: Dieter Roth; fig.2: Lawrence Weiner; fig.3: Edward Ruscha; fig.4: Allan Kaprow; fig.5: Yoko Ono; fig.6: Richard Tuttle

About Text/Messages:

“Books have historically been an important arena for artistic endeavor. Early in the 20th century, artists often illustrated existing texts, creating deluxe publications released in limited editions. By mid-century, many were beginning to see books as a more democratic way to present visual information. The rush of underground publishing in the 1960s and rise in widely distributed leaflets, posters, and magazines set the stage for an unprecedented exploration into the book as an art form, often reflecting contemporary movements such as Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptual Art, and feminism. Since then, newer modes of commercial printing and experimentations with handmade papers, unconventional methods of binding, and unexpected materials have vastly expanded the book’s potential.

Over the past 30 years, the Walker Art Center Library has amassed a significant holding of artists’ books and illustrated volumes that numbers some 1,600 objects. Usually accessible to the public only by appointment, these works, supplemented with pieces from the museum’s permanent collection, are now on view in the galleries for the first time in two decades.

Co-organized by Walker librarian Rosemary Furtak and Walker curator Siri Engberg, the show highlights this important trove of material and showcases examples from a broad range of artistic movements. The books and book-based works on view come from some of the most recognizable names in contemporary art as well as lesser known artists. The process of selecting the works in Text/Messages: Books by Artists was a fascinating endeavor for the curators, who found the premise of the exhibition to be an ideal opportunity to explore many areas within the Walker’s collections. Even in today’s digital age, artists’ continued engagement with books—as medium, material, and subject—is evidence, say Engberg and Furtak, that this is an area of artistic invention alive with ideas and possibilities.”

The exhibition’s identity, graphics and labels, designed by Walker design fellow Noa Segal, reference the card catalog system the Walker Library uses to organize it’s books. The actual call number for each book is beautifully and cleverly used as an informational and graphical basis for the show’s printed materials. In an upcoming post, a conversation between Segal and Walker curatorial fellow Dan Byers, will describe in detail the process and development of the visual identity of Text/Messages: Books by Artists.

Until then, make sure to check out upcoming events related to this exhibition:

ARTIST’S BOOK WORKSHOPS
THURSDAYS, JANUARY 8, 15, 22, AND 29, 6 – 9 PM FREE
STAR TRIBUNE FOUNDATION ART LAB
Minnesota Center for Book Arts instructor Aki Shibata and artist Sam Hoolihan lead the curious on four bookmaking adventures that utilize audience-generated text messages, photos, found objects, and even paper! All materials will be provided. For details on individual workshops, visit calendar.walkerart.org.

CURATOR TALK—
THURSDAY, JANUARY 15, 7 PM FREE
MEET IN THE MEDTRONIC GALLERY
Text/Messages exhibition curators discuss the history of the Walker’s collection of artists’ books and point out examples of works that have been key contributions to this dynamic area of artistic production.

PANEL DISCUSSION: THE ART OF THE BOOK—
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 5, 7 PM FREE CINEMA
Free tickets at Bazinet Garden Lobby desk from 6 pm
Artist’s books have always held an important place in the Walker’s collection, yet they are rarely exhibited in the gallery. David Platzker, book dealer/scholar and former director of Printed Matter, Inc., moderates a discussion on the current state of artist’s book production. Panelists include artists Buzz Spector and Harriet Bart, and James Hoff of Primary Information.

Copresented by Minnesota Center for Book Arts and Rain Taxi Review of Books.

MULTIPLES MALL: A BOOKISH FAIR–
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 21, 11 AM – 4 PM FREE
CARGILL LOUNGE AND LECTURE ROOM
Minnesota artists who make book-related multiples set up shop at the Walker for a day of merriment, complete with short presentations on the history of chapbooks, radical reasons for making multiples, and more. Artists’ books, chapbooks, zines, and other booklike objects will be featured. Come browse the offerings and purchase a piece from this local and thriving creative scene. For a full schedule of activities and a list of participants, visit mnartists.org/multiplesmall.

Copresented by mnartists.org, the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, and Rain Taxi Review of Books.

* * *

In the spirit of Text/Messages, I will be posting in the upcoming month, conversations I’ve had with artists, designers and independent publishers at this year’s NY Art Book Fair about the various books, periodicals, and ‘zines that they’ve put out.

Talking with Kris Latocha of Paperback Magazine at NY Art Book Fair. Photo: Jessica Williams

Samuel R. Delany is speaking at the Walker

It seems too good to be true, but SF author Samuel R. Delany is speaking at the Walker on November 15th, in conjunction with the exhibition Tetsumi Kudo: Garden of Metamorphosis. Of his mind-bending masterpiece Dhalgren, critic Kate McKinney Maddalena writes  “… [it] ranks Delany with Samuel Beckett; I would teach it as a Nouveau […]

It seems too good to be true, but SF author Samuel R. Delany is speaking at the Walker on November 15th, in conjunction with the exhibition Tetsumi Kudo: Garden of Metamorphosis. Of his mind-bending masterpiece Dhalgren, critic Kate McKinney Maddalena writes  “… [it] ranks Delany with Samuel Beckett; I would teach it as a Nouveau Roman alongside the work of Duras and Borges.” If you’re new to Delany, I might start with Babel-17, in which he manages to extend the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to it’s unnatural and delirious conclusion.

It seemed as good a time as any to post some of my favorite science fiction book covers. Many designers unconsciously scan bookstore shelves for the work of Fred Troller, or Penguin paperbacks in general (omg Penguin Books has an online dating service?), or maybe now it’s Jon Gray, but for me it’s this series of Bantam science fiction covers from the ’70s and ’80s. I’ve found maybe 10 of these guys and a whole slew of rip-offs from other publishers. (Don’t ask me why I assume this series is the original and not itself a ripoff—I just know it. In my heart. They’re better.) The combination of the retro-futuristic illustrations, the bastardized Futura Black, and the sobriety of the layout is a beautiful example of restraint in a genre that relies on the fantastic. ***One detail you can’t see here is that the titles are all printed in metallic ink. ***I also threw in the cover for A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller, Jr., which is another amazing post-apocalyptic novel.

They weren’t sure, but Bantam publishing thinks that Leonard Leone was most likely the art director for these books. I managed to talk to him on the phone a few months ago, but that’s a story for another day . . . (he seemed more interested in talking about some books he designed in the basement of the White House than these science fiction paperbacks, go figure).

And if you want to see a more recent interpretation of Delany’s science fiction novels, look here. Otherwise, make sure to check out the lecture!

Towards Relational Design

The following is extracted from a series of lectures about relational design practices. A related article can be found at Design Observer. A seemingly random selection of projects from various design fields with an underlying thread: An expansion strategy for the Hermitage Museum in Russia simply annexes the surrounding government-owned buildings in St. Petersburg, increasing […]

The following is extracted from a series of lectures about relational design practices. A related article can be found at Design Observer.

A seemingly random selection of projects from various design fields with an underlying thread:

Rem Koolhaas/OMA, Hermitage Museum expansion plan, St. Petersburg, Russia, c. 2003.

An expansion strategy for the Hermitage Museum in Russia simply annexes the surrounding government-owned buildings in St. Petersburg, increasing the available space for objects from 629 to 1928 rooms.

Nucleo, Terra: The Grass Arm-Chair, 2000

A chair made of grass must be grown and then trimmed and watered by its owner in order to remain functional.

Worldbike.org, Big Boda cargo bicycle, Kenya, 2002-2005.

A worldwide group of bicycle enthusiasts borrow the open source model for redesigning and modifying inexpensive passenger bikes for transporting cargo in developing countries.

LettError, Twin, typeface for the Twin Cities commissioned by the Design Institute at the University of Minnesota, 2003.

A typeface designed for a city alters its weight and appearance based on changes in the reported air temperature.

Shared Space concept in England, c. 2005, most likely by Ben Hamilton Baillie after Hans Monderman’s schemes.

A Dutch city removes all of its traffic markings and signage in order to reduce collisions between motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians by increasing awareness among those sharing the roadway.

Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, Blur Building, Swiss Expo 2002

A pavilion on a lake containing thousands of jet nozzles adjusts to atmospheric conditions and dispenses a continuous mist around itself, the resulting fog both conceals and reveals the structure: a scaffolding with no “real” building.

Modernista! website, 2008

An advertising company launches its new “website,” which exists as a small navigation bar overlaid on any referencing page, directing users outward to preexisting forums such as Flickr and MySpace for much of its content.


THREE PHASES OF DESIGN

The history of modern design can viewed in three successive phases, moving from form to content to context; or, in the parlance of semiotics, from syntax to semantics to pragmatics.

This third phase of design—which could go by several names including relational, contextual, and conditional design—follows and departs from twentieth-century experiments in both form and content, which have traditionally defined the spheres of avant-garde practice. Relational design is preoccupied with design’s effects, extending beyond the form of the design object and its attendant meanings and cultural symbolism. It is concerned with performance or use, not as the natural result of some intended functionality but rather in the realm of behavior and uncontrollable consequences. It embraces constraints and seeks systematic methodologies, as a way of countering the excessive subjectivity of most design decision-making. It explores more open-ended processes that value the experiential and the participatory and often blur the distinctions between production and consumption.

Some examples of design as they move from form to content to context:

columns and walls were separate from an "aesthetic and functional context," being used instead as part of a "marking or notational system." fig. 1 fig. 2 fig. 3

fig. 1: Peter Eisenman, House series, c. 1970, a formal language in which architectural elements such as columns and walls were separate from a “functional context,” used instead as part of a “marking or notational system;” fig. 2: Content analysis of vernacular architectural languages, in this case the meaning and symbolism of “movie star mansion” iconography applied to bungalows around Los Angeles, 1975 (analysis by Arloa Paquin); fig. 3: Estudio Teddy Cruz, as part of Manufactured Sites, 2008, a prefabricated metal framework, a designed element, is introduced into the ad-hoc, indigenous building practices of Tijuana’s suburban shantytown sprawl.

fig. 4 fig. 5 fig. 6

fig. 4: Dieter Rams, Braun Aeromaster 10 Cup Coffeemaker; a classically modern approach to simplifying the visual form of the product and process of coffeemaking; fig. 5: Michael Graves, Tea Kettle for Alessi, 1985, the bird connoting the sound of the whistle; fig. 6: Naoto Fukasawa, Rice Cooker for Muji, 2002, which has a rice paddle rest on its flat top, solving the problem of where to place this utensil after use. The rice cooker’s form is a result of its relationship both to the paddle and to the behavior of the user.

fig. 7 fig. 8 fig. 9

fig. 7: Karim Rashid, Dirt Devil Kone vacuum, 2006, in a form so refined “you can leave it on display”; fig. 8: Dyson DC15 vacuum cleaner, 2005, the articulation of the “ball,” the pivoting wheel of the vacuum, as well as its color-coded parts, imparts and expresses its functionality; fig. 9: unlike its predecessors iRobot’s Roomba vacuum cleaner, 2002-, maintains a relationship to the room rather to the hand of its owner and uses various algorithms to complete its cleaning tasks.

fig. 10 fig. 11 fig. 12

fig. 10: Vignelli Associates, New York City Subway Map, c. 1972, a classic of modern information design and the belief in the clarity of abstract form in communication; fig. 11: Durst Organization, The National Debt Clock, New York, NY: “a symbol and metaphor, particularly highlighting the fact that the clock ran out of digits when the U.S. public debt rose above $10 trillion on September 30, 2008”; fig. 12: Laura Kurgan, Spatial Information Design Lab, from Million Dollar Blocks project, c. 2006: informatic mapping of individual incarceration costs to inmates’ former neighborhoods in the hopes of shaping public policy.


CHARACTERISTICS OF RELATIONAL DESIGN

In relational design, the role of the designer is closer to that of an editor or a programmer, not an author but an enabler, while the consumer is recast as a more creative agent (in the guise of the designer, DIY-er, hacker, or “prosumer”). It prefers pragmatism over post-structuralism, or Dewey over Derrida, and the prosaic and banal over exotic vernaculars. It is governed by social logic and the network culture of the many to the authorial culture of one. It embraces generative systems over formal iterations and contingent solutions to variable interpretations.

Some examples from one strand of the diagram: open-ended processes and generative systems.


OPEN-ENDED PROCESSES AND GENERATIVE SYSTEMS

Experimental Jetset, John&Paul&Ringo&George T-shirt, 2001, and variations from others: the archetype as meme.

Luna Maurer and Jonathan Puckey, workshop with kits for poster-making using game-like, rules-based instructions for participants. Graphic Design in the White Cube exhibition, 22nd International Biennale of Graphic Design Brno, 2006.

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For a Brief Time Only…

ASDF’s For a Brief Time Only… is a purchasable exhibition of 24 artists available at a photo developer near you. You can find it at any store that allows file uploading via the internet (including most major US drug-stores). The image files will be sent to the closest location near you, and within minutes you […]

ASDF’s For a Brief Time Only… is a purchasable exhibition of 24 artists available at a photo developer near you. You can find it at any store that allows file uploading via the internet (including most major US drug-stores). The image files will be sent to the closest location near you, and within minutes you will be able to walk in and pick them up as prints.

This exhibition contains 24 small 4×6 photographic prints contained within the packaging provided by each store. Also included are a contact sheet with all the artists’ information, and a letter to the store employee reassuring that there is nothing wrong with the order.

The artists featured in this exhibition are Ken Ehrlich, John Sisley, Martin John Callanan, Miranda Lichtenstein, Lucky Dragons, eteam, Jim Skuldt, Mira O’Brien, Joshua Kit Clayton, Matt Keegan, Emily Mast, Brian Kennon, Lukas Geronimas, Amy Lam, Paul Pieroni, Moyra Davey, Graham Parker, Paul Branca, Penelope Umbrico, Lucy Raven, Bik Van der Pol, Emilie Halpern, Tim Ridlen, and Vlatka Horvat.

No money is being made by ASDF in this exhibition. You will purchase the show directly from the store (unless you can acquire it another way), which will probably cost around $5. So far this show is available throughout the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. If you live elsewhere, and know of a store that meets the necessary requirements, please email ASDF and we will send the show near you.

The show is on view from November 6 to December 4.

For instructions on how to view the show at a location near you, please visit:

http://www.asdfmakes.com/nearyou

Saving (Crit) Face

Alberto Rigau created a set of buttons to keep his fellow NC State University graphic design graduate students perky during marathon critiques. They spread like a viral video… appearing on the t-shirts, lapels and bags of undergrads in my classroom. I too coveted the buttons. It may be superstition, but crits seem to go smoother […]

Crit Face Button Set

Crit Face Button Set

Alberto Rigau created a set of buttons to keep his fellow NC State University graphic design graduate students perky during marathon critiques. They spread like a viral video… appearing on the t-shirts, lapels and bags of undergrads in my classroom. I too coveted the buttons. It may be superstition, but crits seem to go smoother when I rock a crit button.

The phenomenon spread to SpeakUp, Design Observer and Alberto even gave away a set of 50 free buttons on his website now long gone. Keep your eyes peeled to his site, I’m sure these will be making their way to a design classroom or client meeting near you…

The Great Bear Pamphlets

fig. 1 fig. 2 fig. 3 On my way out of the Walker Library the other day a little red spine caught my attention. I grabbed the hardback book off the shelf and started paging through and was immediately charmed by what I was seeing and reading. What was bound between those two red covers […]

fig. 1 fig. 2 fig. 3

On my way out of the Walker Library the other day a little red spine caught my attention. I grabbed the hardback book off the shelf and started paging through and was immediately charmed by what I was seeing and reading. What was bound between those two red covers was a small sampling of the Great Bear Pamphlet series. Each pamphlet is simply produced with black printing on colored sheets of paper (each pamphlet a different color) except for Cage’s poem DIARY: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) Continued Part Three (1967) [fig. 1, and 4] which uses multicolored, and shifting type-faces to help realize his idea. The overall affect is a beautiful stack of reading.

fig. 4 fig. 5 fig. 6

The Great Bear Pamphlet series was published by Dick Higgins, Something Else Press, from 1965–67. Numbering 20 in total the thin-little pamphlets represent some of the seminal themes of the avant-garde and cultural scene of the times. Each pamphlet, except the Manifestos issue [fig. 2, 5, and 6], features a single author, with some notables being John Cage, Allan Kaprow, Dieter Roth, Claes Oldenburg, George Brecht, Jerome Rothenberg, and Jackson Mac Low. The pamphlets represent a sampling of artforms from concrete poems, and plays to happenings/events, and collages.

Higgins himself was a composer, poet, and early Fluxus artist. He studied under John Cage at the New School for Social Research in New York City, and was married to artist Alison Knowles (who also contributed a pamphlet). Many other students of Cage’s ‘Experimental Composition’ classes  would later contribute to Great Bear. In describing the aesthetic of publications from Something Else Press Higgins seemed to make some decisions based on themes of chance learned from Cage:

“I set poems and short chapters flush bottom on the type pages (usually they are set in the middle). I used larger and bolder running heads at the tops of pages than is customary in order to tie the page together and because I liked the legibility it gave to a sometimes rather scattered or unorthodox page. Since I did not wish to develop favoritism among typefaces, I used whatever faces a particular supplier had, often making my selections by means of chance operations, using dice… [this] gave the Something Else Press books their look of old-but-new.”

Spread from Allan Kaprow issue, Untitled Essay and other works, 1967 fig. 7 fig. 8 fig. 9 fig. 10 fig. 11 fig. 12

fig. 1–3: Sampling of covers from Great Bear Pamphlets, 1965–67

fig. 4: Spread from John Cage’s pamphlet DIARY, 1967

fig. 5–6: Spreads from the Manifestos issue, 1966

fig. 7: Spread from Allan Kaprow’s pamphlet Untitled Essay and other works, 1967

fig. 8: Spread from Robert Filliou’s pamphlet A Filliou Sampler, 1967

fig. 9: Spread from Dieter Roth’s pamphlet a LOOK into the blue tide part 2, 1967

fig. 10: Spread from Luigi Russolo’s pamphlet The Art of Noise (futurist manifesto, 1913), 1967

fig. 11–12: Spread and back cover from Philip Corner’s pamphlet Popular Entertainments, 1967

Typeface (the Movie): Interview with director Justine Nagan

Please join us on Thursday, November 6, at 7 and 9 pm, for two screenings of Typeface. After the screening will be a conversation with its director, Justine Nagan; Bill Moran, St. Paul-based designer and letterpress guru who cowrote a book documenting Hamilton; and Greg Corrigan, designer and Hamilton technical director. Typeface documents the Hamilton […]

Please join us on Thursday, November 6, at 7 and 9 pm, for two screenings of Typeface. After the screening will be a conversation with its director, Justine Nagan; Bill Moran, St. Paul-based designer and letterpress guru who cowrote a book documenting Hamilton; and Greg Corrigan, designer and Hamilton technical director.

Typeface documents the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, the only such institution dedicated to the preservation, study, production, and printing of wood type. With 1.5 million pieces and more than 1,000 styles and sizes, the Hamilton’s is one of the premier wood-type collections in the world. The museum, however, is not just host to static holdings of preserved artifacts behind glass, but rather is an active educational center for letterpress workshops for designers and artists from across the Midwest and around the country, and a place where the last generation of skilled men and women who once created these intricate fonts—now in their seventies and eighties—can share their knowledge of this enduring craft.

In anticipation of this sneak preview, we interviewed Justine Nagan about the process of making Typeface.

WALKER: How did you get involved with this film? Was your entry point the museum, the craft, or the people?

JUSTINE NAGAN: I’ve always had an interest in design and preservation, but my introduction to the museum was fairly random, and serendipitous! My husband Matt and I were coming back from a wedding in Door County and saw the sign for Two Rivers’ Ice cream sundaes… We stopped and stumbled on the museum.  Once inside we were just blown away by the collection and the space and I thought—this should be documented. After looking into it further, things clicked into place and it seemed the perfect collaboration for my first film.

W: Why make a film about an obsolete technology?

JN: I became fascinated with exploring the changing importance of analog technologies in our digital age. There is this theory that as we as a society sit at our computers all day, in the off hours, tactile and sensual experiences become all the more important. People are craving things with texture that they can hold in their hands—whether it’s knitting or playing guitar… Then there’s the whole nostalgia factor: LPs vs. ipod, film vs. video, letterpress vs. inkjet.

W: What kind of research did you do in preparation for the film?

JN: I reached out to people in the graphic design, letterpress, printing history and craft communities. I spent a lot of time on the internet. Paul Gehl at the Newberry was a wonderful resource.

W: Seeing as how you’re making a documentary about a museum which is already a very didactic source of information, how did you go about drawing the subtext out of the place?

JN: We use the museum as the locus and then follow several strands out from there. Through our cast of characters across the Midwest, all connected to the museum in some way, we are able to weave a thematic narrative that covers the various ideas we’re interested in. Among other things—how the value and purpose of older printing methods has changed as our society has transitioned into a digital age?  How is contemporary graphic art influenced by the history of the artform itself?  We try to raise questions about what to preserve, how to preserve it, and why it’s worth the effort.

W: Some obsolete technologies manage to take on a second life by addressing a different need or being adopted by a new (sub)culture in a different context. Do you think a revival or re-interpretation is inherent to any successful preservation movement?

N: I think evolution is key to preservation. Re-imagining and adapting technology, while maintaining the elements that made it interesting in the first place, ensures longevity of the medium. I think the new interest in letterpress and craft is sustainable. The current styles of letterpress may fade, only to be re-invented again by some future generation.

W: It’s hard to talk about your film’s potential impact in the design community without bringing up the immensely successful Helvetica — do you think Helvetica has opened any doors for your film, and how do you compare the two? Do you see them as complimentary films?

JN: I had been working on Typeface for years when Helvetica was released. At first, I was worried that they would compete, but then as soon as I saw Helvetica (and enjoyed it) I realized they were totally different works. I think Helvetica has shown what a voracious audience there is for films/discussions about type and design and that both films raise points about the prevalence and importance of type in society, but in the end they cover very different ground.

W: I was excited when I realized that Kartemquin Films, known for films such as Hoop Dreams and Stevie, was producing this. How is Kartemquin making this film differently than someone else would?

JN: Our films take a very long time to make—largely because we follow subjects over time and are invested in getting the story right. I think we worked to flesh out the documentary beyond just a film about type to be more of a discussion about the state of our culture in its current frenzied state. We try to show the opportunities and obstacles inherent in preserving a collection like Hamilton. I hope it resonates with audiences—both designers and laymen alike, and that it gets people thinking about how to take care of the things in their lives, jobs and communities that they value.


TypefacePoster

Nick Sherman

Saarinen, Target, and the Art of Good Design

In the exhibition Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes, which I co-curated last winter, the big box store figured prominently—a newer form of suburban retail that is undergoing change. While installing the exhibition, Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future, I happened to learn that Target had been planning a new specially designed store near Bloomfield Hills, a […]

Photo: Justin Maconochie

In the exhibition Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes, which I co-curated last winter, the big box store figured prominently—a newer form of suburban retail that is undergoing change. While installing the exhibition, Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future, I happened to learn that Target had been planning a new specially designed store near Bloomfield Hills, a suburb of Detroit that is home to the famed Cranbrook campus, designed by Eero Saarinen’s equally famous architect father, Eilel, and the place where Eero grew up and established his world famous practice. I sat down with Jim Miller and Rich Varda to discuss this new store and its context of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

Andrew Blauvelt: Tell us about the design of your new Target store in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, which is home to Cranbrook, the educational community designed by Eliel Saarinen and where his son Eero lived and worked.

Jim Miller: When we first decided to bring Target to Bloomfield Hills and engaged the township, they had some very preconceived notions about what a retail store should look like. They referenced some upscale retail centers in their community, which we visited, but it was basically a lot of garden-variety retail design with upgraded materials. Given the location of this new store, we felt there was an opportunity to influence the direction of its design by going back and looking at Saarinen’s work. He was always mindful of this tension between community and the individual—how one influences the other. Given that Cranbrook is in their backyard, we felt it was natural to explore that context. If you look at Saarinen, especially with Eero, you see this tension between expressing the individual and expressing the community, for instance, at Yale with the Morse and Stiles dormitories. Yale just wanted institutional buildings, but he wanted individual housing to emerge, so that is what came out of that.

AB: At Yale, Saarinen also had a difficult preexisting context to deal with and a very irregular shaped site.

JM: Our site for the Bloomfield Hills store was also a difficult site—being a triangle, very tight and restrictive, affronting residents on two sides, and a major street on the third side—a transition of this really hard edge retail thoroughfare into this very upscale residential area.

AB: You’re also dealing with a broader kind of imaginary context in which everybody in the township knows the Cranbrook campus, its materials and its formal language—the way Eliel Saarinen played with the brickwork. At first glance it doesn’t look like the usual Target store at all. It almost looks like a civic building, perhaps a new library.

Rich Varda: Well, the large glass lobby is the most visible element in front of the building, which makes it look civic but it is entered from the other side from the parking field that is below the building.

JM: If you are familiar with Detroit, they have what is called the Michigan Left, which means you can’t just can’t turn in, you have to drive past the building and then return back to turn into the site. On an extremely busy road it gives the opportunity to help orient yourself to a single point of entry into this entire site, which we normally don’t like.

AB: Obviously, this is not the typical Target store. How about the larger context? Are these kinds of Target stores part of a general trend?

RV: We call them “unique stores.” And we have a unique store team, but most stores are modified in some way to better fit the community they are in, or to fit the retail center they are part of. Most stores are developed as part of a complex of buildings that is going to be a town center for the community or the neighborhood, and often the developer will develop a stylistic or material tone working with the community, and we work within that tone, or sometimes we help set that tone with the developer. Occasionally, we meet with the community directly, like Jim did on this store, and learn more about what they are about and what they are expecting and try to develop a statement that reflects those expectations.

Cameron Wittig

Left to right: Andrew Blauvelt, Richard Varda, and Jim Miller; Photo: Cameron Wittig

AB: I imagine the reaction to this store is very favorable.

JM: It has been very favorable. It took nearly 18 months just to get to the point where the township was comfortable enough to allow us to go through the formal approval process, but once we got to that point they were very pleased. About two weeks ago I did get a call from the township supervisor who is the equivalent of a mayor and they had just got the signage up inside and the lights were coming on. He was just blown away.

It is a difficult thing to try to convey what the real building will look like through sketches and try to accurately represent the architecture and the materials. I think most people still don’t quite visually understand it in their minds. As much as we went through excruciating detail and explanation he said, “It still does not come across as the building comes across.”

RV: I think part of that is the because of the materials that Jim used on this design. The texture of materials, the contrast between the wood panels and the glass as compared to the rustic and substantive materials of the stone and how all of that affects the form of the building.

JM: Of course, Saarinen experimented with materials with the General Motors Tech Center and even with the IBM buildings in Rochester, Minnesota. We aren’t so much creating new materials, but we were applying materials much differently than normally would be found in retail.

RV: I think most people expect, because of their everyday experience, that retail architecture is the least expensive box you can have with some kind of pasted-on façade. It is very visible, but not a building of substance—a building of temporary qualities. It is certainly our objective at Target that not only are regular stores, but also modified and unique stores are buildings of substance—that the materiality, the form, and the function have been thought about and they all work together. It is not the least expensive possible box with a façade tacked onto it. I suppose to make a grandiose leap; Saarinen comes from that Finnish background that design should infuse every aspect of life. It is practically a national sport in Finland. It is fabulous to experience when you are there. Cranbrook represents that too. I think Target in a way has that same kind of spirit. The “Design for All” attitude asks why can’t good design infuse every aspect of life—from a Michael Graves toilet brush to utensils to furniture to buildings. That is what is expected as our brand, and our CEO supports that.

JM: Many times design is created and but too often it has absolutely nothing to do with people and their community. Eero Saarinen was really of his parent’s culture—of the Arts and Crafts, where design infused every aspect of the entire community.

AB: The Saarinens’ roots were in a culture where design was completely integrated.

JM: He totally integrated it. He naturally came out of that and knew how to bring that together. It is the same thing here. It is for the community and of the community.

AB: I think that is a really great point that when design and architecture is fully integrated into the largest context, which is the community, you do read it as substantive. Coming into town and setting up shop like an old Western storefront or using materials that break down in 20 years, or as long as it takes the plywood to rot. Then it is gone.

Your use of landscaping in this project also looks substantive. I recall Saarinen’s work on corporate campuses and how he basically started with a blank slate in most of these suburban locations and thus created his own context—designing not just the building, but natural environment.

JM: The landscaping requirements were extensive. Over-storied deciduous trees had to be significant. We normally use an inch and a half or two inch, but it was 4 inch. Evergreens specimens had to be a minimum of 14 feet tall. When they brought the landscape in and stockpiled it on the lot, it looked like a nursery. The shrubbery was already taller than myself.

RV: It is also laid out as an extension of the geometries and rhythms of the building similar to what Saarinen did with his corporate campuses—at least in the immediate vicinity of the buildings.

Photo: Justin Maconochie

AB: When you are working on these unique stores, given that the context is going to vary tremendously across the country, what are the aspects that you end up taking away that go into the library or the memory banks for the next project? Or do you feel like you find yourself starting from zero each time?

RV: We have definitely made an effort to document them, creating a kind of nomenclature of past examples. We have design guidelines handbook that we use that not only picks out the best examples, but also tries to understand if we are looking at a stylistic or regional vernacular. By doing so, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but we can improve upon it each time. Having that kind of vocabulary available helps when we go into discussions to negotiate our design with city staffs and neighborhood groups. We have a lot of material we can bring for discussion, and we have already gone through and we understand that we can afford that achieves our goals and their goals.

JM: Good design is a lot more complicated than it appears. In negotiating, when we go into communities, when we talk to design review boards, when we talk to planning commissions and trustees, the common ground is that they all shop. They all have some preconceived idea of what good design is in retail. It really is not that easy. We really have a way in which our guests have responded how we merchandise our store, and this was all truly the effect of the store plan. The store plan is kind of sacred because we really understand how that works, we really understand what our guests need, and how they shop. So when they come in and they ask us to put windows in here and there, it doesn’t quite work.

AB: And to clarify, this is the idea that if I go to the Target in Edina versus St. Louis Park, that I can find the laundry detergent because I know the basic store plan.

RV: Saarinen had a very careful understanding of the program, the functions, and the behavior of people in public buildings. We have studied the actions of people in our store environment extensively, and we understand shopping as well as other behaviors, including guest service, food service, checkout, and approaching the store from the parking lot. We try not to reinvent it all every time.

I will make another extreme comparison to Saarinen’s airports. When you are in an airport there are a lot of people moving through and toting their luggage around with them. But in our stores, everyone is pushing a shopping cart around with them, or pulling one—maybe with kids in it. That cart effects vertical circulation, whether parking garages can slope, and everything that the cart can bump into has to be thought through.

AB: The turning radius of the cart.

RV: The width of the carts crossing each other in an aisle is very important.

JM: One of our typical guests is a mom with children and to facilitate her needs and a two year old while negotiating the store. The signage, the way you find things, how the space is relayed so that it is easy so that it is almost intuitive we try to make it as intuitive for them to navigate through the store as possible. We are adding a complicated layer when we have a store on grade: it isn’t as easy as she gets out of the car and sees the entry. The condition in Bloomfield Hills is not quite the same, but the response has been favorable.

AB: It is interesting because at the Target in downtown Minneapolis the store is two stories. You have a similar situation where you are trying to brand something from the inside to the outside through a glass atrium. You have got the underground parking structure to deal with. How does the tight urban footprint fit into the Target store approach? Or do you generally just try to avoid it all together?

RV: We even have one now that is three levels of sales floors that replaced a department store that departed a very successful mall in Los Angeles and we wanted to make it work, but when you are taking shopping carts between floors you have to do it just right so that your guests will be happy to do it, so that they can travel all parts of the store.

AB: Right, it’s elevators or “Vermalators,” a kind of escalator for shopping carts.

RV: If you do anything wrong—all the way from getting into the parking, getting from your car into the store, and then getting back out with the cart to your car— it will affect your overall sales. That is a lot of dollars. So our attention to doing it correctly is one of our biggest research focuses. It is applied to every new store design.

AB: With the former department store example, does it become more of a department store, where the first floor is clothing, the second furniture, and so on?

RV: Actually, our three-level store was actually done like that. In that the first floor which is the main floor of the mall that it connects to is all apparel and soft lines. And it really looks like a department store when you come in. Then the middle floor is everyday products, like the market, the pharmacy, health and beauty and then the top floor are destination items, such as electronics and entertainment, which really pull people up there.

AB: Saarinen is extremely prolific in that he only practiced on his own for only 11 years. Although he practiced in so many typologies of architecture—college and corporate campuses, churches, airports—he did not as far as I know build any retail structures. It would be interesting to imagine how he would have handled a store design.

RV: Right, it is tragic what was missed because he did die at a relatively young age for architects. He could have easily had another 25 years in his practice.

JM: They used to say that architecture is an old man’s career. By the time you assimilate all of this knowledge and experience, when you reach the zenith of your career, is the age when he passed away—at age 51. But he had an amazing number of projects.

Photo: Justin Maconochie

AB: Saarinen’s approach to the idea of branding was, I think, really a head of his time in terms of doing major corporate buildings from John Deere, to IBM, to General Motors to TWA. There is a famous photograph we have in the exhibition of “Black Rock,” the CBS headquarters in New York and on the top of it he puts the famous CBS logo. He certainly never shied away from the corporate embrace.

RV: It is interesting that his in terms of branding, he really cared about the idea that how does this building solution emerge out of everything in relationship to it. Not just the nature of the community or the program itself, but rather the idea of what the activity is, for example, the TWA terminal and the expression of flight and the glamour of air travel. And then his corporate headquarters are about the business and the activities of a headquarters and how should architecture reflect that kind of disciplined thinking. What a contrast to the iconic names of architecture today. I think they have allowed too much success to happen simply by creating architectural signatures, which can be repeated from place to place with minor modification. Without really thinking through how this solution is correct and admitting the fact that if you do each solution based on the nature of its location and you might not have a visible signature for yourself, which makes it harder for you to create your own brand as an architect. Saarinen reflects a very interesting testament about values as an architect.

JM: This particular store is a result of the dialogue with the township and was not so much about branding this building for Target. Because at the same time I was also working with a store outside of Boston, the same concept raised up, but it is truly a building branded for Target. The aesthetic is 180 degrees, it is metal panel and precast panel and a very clean very simple, very straight forward but in its own right, a very compelling design. This was a store about branding the community. It was personifying that aspect of community.

RV: At Target everyone understands what we call our Best Company Ever goals and objectives and they are really four things we always think about: how to be best in our community, how to be best for our guests, how to be best for our team members, and how to be best for our shareholders. So they are all balanced together and that means a lot about the people in the buildings and the people living around the buildings.

AB: It seems like this particular store is a win-win. A big win for the community to get the kind of store architecture that they desire at the same time.

JM: We hope so.

RV: We are counting on that.

AB: How do you innovate within the same retail typology and with an in-house team? Because it is different when you are moving from one type of building to another, one day it is hospitals and the next day it is an airport.

RV: One of our areas of innovation, that is the least visible, are circulation issues for stores that are not on grade or are multileveled and within larger complexes. Vertical transportation issues of materials as well as people are extremely complicated. We have a store that recently opened in Brooklyn that is on the second and third level of a three-story retail center that we built and developed. The loading dock is on grade, part of the stock room is below grade, part of the stock room is above the store, part of the stock room is at store level. There is also a 500-car parking garage. It gets incredibly complex and if you don’t have the right innovative solution, it isn’t going to succeed financially in the long run.

JM: One of the things that are different then say private practice is that with Target stores the rules are very rigorous and fairly rigid because we know what works. But on the other hand, because we know those so well, we can explore other areas. We can be much more efficient by really expanding design innovation by knowing the constraints.

RV: I am the Senior Vice President for store design. Store design in-house at Target is almost 300 people. They are equally divided between architecture, engineering, and store planning. I don’t think any of our competitors have a group of that size. They rely upon outside consultants almost exclusively.

We just got an award an hour go from Xcel Energy for being energy partners on five different stores. We will receive large rebates for what was achieved on those stores, and that is different, I think. The Design for All philosophy can then be part of our culture as an internal team and every team member understands it and applies it as Jim has to this store.

JM: It brings a real clarity when you have 299 other people that are speaking the same language.

AB: There must be such incredible efficiency here. I have an in house design team and there is shorthand that happens and it is not like you’re constantly re-interpreting everything.

RV: On our corporate website there is an area for Target acronyms that is 32 pages long.

JM: Don’t test us on that.

AB: Don’t worry, I won’t. What would be your ideal test store if you could have a test store? It sounds like you are more of a learning culture – learning from every project.

RV: We do tests all the time.

JM: I’ve always tried to see the store as a non-building, you come in and you feel like you are part of an exterior environment. I would love to see glass where we typically put stock, and store where we put stock—with everything open to this glass box on the outside. So it really blurs that line between inside and outside, but I think I just broke every rule, so that it would probably NEVER happen.

RV: You are free to sketch it all you want too.

AB: What makes Target’s support of the Walker and MIA’s joint presentation of the Saarinen exhibition so meaningful?

JM: There is certainly a design-for-all attitude in Saarinen’s work that we support. Everyone deserves good design. It can be accessible; it doesn’t need to be this kind of upper echelon, out-of-reach thing. I always refer back to my freshman year in college; in architecture school we had to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book talks about how you can put all these parts together, which are meaningless, but if you put them together in a fashion that makes sense, they do have meaning. I think people can understand that.

RV: There was an old department store system of merchandising called “Good, Better, Best,” where department stores would relegate good design to the best. Meaning, you would pay more to get good design. Our attitude at Target is not to divide items. Design can go anywhere. The good, the better, and the best may all be in a number of options and in the quality of the overall product. Design should be there at all levels.

AB: I think that is what Saarinen was trying to get at as well, in trying to impart the experience of good design to the public. The United States is a vast and diverse country. When you go to Finland or Japan, these countries are smaller and the culture more homogenous and it is easier to transmit those values. So it is really important to have that conversation coming from a major retailer.

Take our blog survey, win an iPod Shuffle

Every so often we like to take a survey of our readers to see what you think. Our last survey was in March of 2007, so it’s time for a new one. The questions are focused on the blogs and a little demographic information, which you can skip if you like. We’re sweetening the deal […]

Every so often we like to take a survey of our readers to see what you think. Our last survey was in March of 2007, so it’s time for a new one. The questions are focused on the blogs and a little demographic information, which you can skip if you like.

We’re sweetening the deal this time. If you take the survey, you can enter your name into the pool and we’ll select one person to win a 1GB iPod Shuffle.

Take the survey.



Photo by bluetsunami.

ASDF & 100 $1 Grants

ASDFMAKES.com is a web-site that hosts projects by myself and David Horvitz. Most can be translated through digital mediums, enabling free access and reproduction of the files. Some of ASDF’s projects include Are Photographs, a free PDF photography “magazine,” A Wikipedia Reader, a publication that documents different artists travels through Wikipedia, and It’s Easy to […]

ASDFMAKES.com is a web-site that hosts projects by myself and David Horvitz. Most can be translated through digital mediums, enabling free access and reproduction of the files. Some of ASDF’s projects include Are Photographs, a free PDF photography “magazine,” A Wikipedia Reader, a publication that documents different artists travels through Wikipedia, and It’s Easy to Find, a group show that exists inside a P.O. box in Upstate New York. ADSF will mail (real postal mail) anyone who is interested in viewing It’s Easy to Find a postcard that describes how to get to and open the P.O. box.

For our most recent project we are offering 100 $1 grants to all creative projects. Anyone is eligible to apply and there are no restrictions on proposed projects. All forms of creative activity are encouraged! The deadline is Nov 30, 2008.

All accepted proposals will be presented as a downloadable digital exhibition in early 2009. For all the details and the application form go to ASDFMAKES.COM.

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