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Volume: The New Music Mag from Bloomberg Businessweek’s Alexander Shoukas and Devin Leonard

  As today’s music culture is often considered a “singles era,” Volume feels like an appropriate new entry into the mix of music magazines. Created by Bloomberg Businessweek employees Alexander Shoukas and Devin Leonard, Volume is a new music publication that focuses each issue on only one artist. The first issue, in fact, is one essay and one photograph, but the results […]

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Volume Issue 1, flat sheet front. Photo by Qiu Yang

 

As today’s music culture is often considered a “singles era,” Volume feels like an appropriate new entry into the mix of music magazines. Created by Bloomberg Businessweek employees Alexander Shoukas and Devin Leonard, Volume is a new music publication that focuses each issue on only one artist. The first issue, in fact, is one essay and one photograph, but the results are impactful. The simplicity of Volume recalls early music fanzines (but with much higher production value), and allows the content and design details of each piece to standout. Beyond Volume‘s particular one-subject format, the publication as an object brings something unique. Volume comes as an unfolded press sheet that gives the reader the option to fold the piece down into pages or leave it flat to act as a poster. If Volume is print’s response to a singles culture, then its format is an invitation to the reader to create his or her own remix.

In this interview, I chat with Volume designer Alexander Shoukas about the intention behind the publication, the process of putting together the first issue, and how its DIY format was the result of a happy accident.

Ben Schwartz: To begin, what led you and Devin to start Volume?

Alexander Shoukas: Devin and I have gotten to know each other at Bloomberg Businessweek, where we both currently work (him as a writer and myself as an art director). Not long after I started there in early 2015, I was working with him on features for the magazine. We eventually started talking about and sharing music with each other, and noticed we had a shared enthusiasm for that, as an action. Given his experience in covering musicians (including Taylor Swift, Mike Will, Jay Z/Tidal, and Wu-Tang’s one-of-a-kind record) we thought it could be fun to start a project together, covering artists in a context outside of Businessweek.

 

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Spread from Bloomberg Businessweek by Leonard and Shoukas

 

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Spread from Bloomberg Businessweek by Leonard and Shoukas

 

Schwartz: How do you see it operating differently from other music publications?

Shoukas: I think that would have to be in its form, which acts as the determining factor for a lot of things. The idea of it started as a single broadsheet from my end, under the guidance that it should be something manageable for us next to our work at the magazine, easy and not too expensive to print (this would not be true), and something that doesn’t feel taxing on the reader. There are swaths of new publications out there, and something about it being concise would serve its approachability, in my opinion. It wasn’t about making something comprehensive, but rather, more gestural. Also, it being a large sheet, I had to think of this idea of the music poster—something that was much more present when I was younger, but I’m not sure if this is so popular anymore. Do fans still get prints of their favorite artists for their wall? Either way, the form was clear early on: a large image on one side (poster) and text on the other (publication).

 

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Volume, Issue 1. Cover when folded as a publication

 

Schwartz: Any publication is a form of collaboration, and in this case you had previous experience collaborating with Devin at Bloomberg Businessweek. What is the collaborative process like for Volume?

Shoukas: The initial idea, editorially speaking, was that it would cover a number of artists at a time, and the process of piecing together a lineup was a way for us to set the tone and get to know each other’s background and references. It was fun, almost like putting together a playlist, finding the right mix.

Making time is always the key to a self-initiated project, and we adjusted our thinking as the project progressed. I think the best ideas come out of constraints, and when time wasn’t on our side because of work, the idea of having just one subject for each issue emerged. This made a lot of sense not only for our schedules but also in aligning the form: one sheet, one photo, and now, one subject. It would give it further distinction as a publication, and further that idea of it feeling like a gesture.

 

Volume, Issue 1. Flat sheet back

 

Schwartz: You also worked as designer at Fantastic Man. Did that influence what you’re doing with Volume?

Shoukas: I think it would be impossible to develop a magazine project without giving a great deal of consideration to my experiences there. Working with Jop van Bennekom taught me to see in a lot of ways—especially when it came to working with photographers and understanding the subtlety images can have. The idea of Volume boiling down to a single subject naturally made me think of Jop’s Re-Magazine and his genius in letting absolute editorial logic dictate form. That thought made me feel like we were on track with something.

 

Re-Magazine, Winter 2004–2005 by Jop van Bennekom

Re-Magazine, Winter 2004–2005 by Jop van Bennekom

 

Schwartz: What are you looking for when you choose artists to feature?

Shoukas: I don’t think we’ve set a rubric for this, but at this point I would say they are artists that Devin and I share enthusiasm for, who lie in the peripheries of (but not unrelated to) popular music.

 

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Volume, Issue 1. Spread when folded as a publication

 

Schwartz: I’d love to hear more about how you chose BEA1991 for the inaugural issue? How did you discover her, and what was it like working with her? I know that she is based in Amsterdam and you attended school at Gerrit Rietveld Academie. Was there any overlap there?

Shoukas: In a way, yes. I originally met Bea while living in Amsterdam, but it wasn’t until last year that I had familiarized myself with her work. After seeing the way she gives consideration, and actively involves herself in every part of what she does, it was immediately intriguing to Devin and I, both in the sense that we wanted to learn more about her through the story, and to see what the visual outcome could be for an image.

 

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Outtake photograph by Qiu Yang

 

Schwartz: As you mention in the article, BEA1991 has gained quite a bit of attention as a result of her videos. There is this very visual, very designed aspect about her that includes not only her videos but her fashion as well. Do you see that as being a point of emphasis for Volume, highlighting artists that are tuned into the more visual aspects of his or her work?

Shoukas: With our focus being on music, I think finding an artist as widely versed as BEA1991 would be a difficult standard to set for all of our subjects. I also think her total approach is specific to her work, and not necessarily something we would be looking for in every musician.
 

Schwartz: Beyond the subject matter, I’m curious as to what role you see artists playing in the creation and production of the publication.
 

Shoukas: Ideally, the image is an opportunity to bring more from the artist. It should be the counterweight to Devin’s story—and offer just as much insight. This worked out extremely well for the first issue. Knowing BEA1991 was based in Amsterdam, I immediately considered the possibility of pairing her with photographer Qiu Yang, who also happened to be a mutual friend. Part of this project is defining a photographic component, which in a way is being a matchmaker between subject and photographer. This was as far as my role went in creating the image, which was a conscious choice, knowing that what would return would be considered and carefully made.

 

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Photograph by Qiu Yang for Vogue US

 

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Photograph by Qiu Yang for Vogue US

 

Schwartz: Could you tell us a bit about the production process? Were there any particular ways that the content influenced the printing and finishing?

Shoukas: We had originally planned for this to be produced in newsprint, as the format was based on a standard broadsheet, but things quickly changed after seeing the results of Qiu and Bea’s work. Based on the color and the quality of the image, I realized the production would have to take on a different form in order to produce the best result. This is where my expectations of a quick and inexpensive print job would go flying out the window, but it was also where the project put me in one of my favorite working scenarios: conceiving new production specifications that are defined through their own logic, and advance my understanding of a particular process. Put simply, because of the composition Qiu had decided on, and the way he distributed color through his incredibly considered lighting configuration, it immediately evoked the idea of printing the image in a different color space, so that I may try and reproduce it most vibrantly. After much research, testing and failing, the image would be printed in three spot colors.

 

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Initial color separation test, simulated in Photoshop for Volume, Issue 1

 

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Color separation from Volume, Issue 1

 

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Color separation from Volume, Issue 1

 

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Color separation from Volume, Issue 1

 

Schwartz: At the release of issue 1, I was especially struck by the DIY fabrication of the publication. I liked the fact that you could roll it up as a poster or fold it down as a reader. This sort of DIY ethos has played a large role in various music genres and subcultures. Was there any specific inspiration for choosing this format?

Shoukas: It’s funny you say this because, though it may have appeared to be the idea, it was the byproduct of an intense run-up to the event, wherein we had to reprint the paper just two days before going to Los Angeles. My first attempt at printing the image went horribly wrong (my fault), and the only way I could convince the printer to do the job again in time was if I requested the sheets unfolded. While it made sense in the end to give people that choice—ultimately giving equal presence to both the image and the text—that’s not at all how it was planned. I’m happy we kept them flat!

 

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At the Volume launch party, the publication was presented flat, as a poster.

 

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Schwartz: I also see a relationship to Volume being a single-subject publication and music fanzines. Is that a culture you were ever into? Would you consider Volume a sort of highly produced fanzine?

Shoukas: I’ve never been directly involved with zine culture—though close enough, you could say, having worked on smaller independently published book projects—but I could see how Volume would fit into that universe, it being so concise. I like that stipulation of “highly produced,” though. I think subconsciously, that would be my approach to zine making.

Schwartz: At the Walker we’ve been talking a lot about Businessweek’s strength in generating cover graphics that both get to the heart of the story attached and evolve into an online poster of sorts. I’m wondering what have you learned from Businessweek that you have carried over into Volume?

Shoukas: Working at Businessweek is like accelerated experience in communication design. Working so quickly, and constantly, directly with others on a weekly publication has been this intense exercise in editorial understanding and effort. I think we both have the ability to quickly discern whether something is working—Devin especially, since he is more experienced. While Volume is a departure in style and purpose, I think the idea of producing it came a lot easier because we’re used to handling a lot more on a regular basis.

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Spread from Bloomberg Businessweek by Leonard and Shoukas

 

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Spread from Bloomberg Businessweek by Leonard and Shoukas

 

Schwartz: To finish things off, what’s next for Volume?

Shoukas: That initial work we did in putting together a lineup appears to have set up something of a roadmap for future issues. I’d say we have plans for at least the next two or three, just based on that. What I find crazy though, is the rate at which music comes in and out of focus now, both albums and artists. At this point, every week presents a new batch of people and their work—most streaming services frame something for their users literally every week—so I’m interested in thinking about how Volume could react, counter, or anticipate this expectation of rapid content.

No hints just clues—Footnotes: a periodical bulletin of applied research in type design

As a Design Fellow here at the Walker Art Center in 2008, curiously browsing through the stacks of archived journals on art and design in the Walker’s library, I found a group of old journals and magazines on typography. There, I came across Typographica and eventually gravitated toward a feature written by Alan Bartram in […]

As a Design Fellow here at the Walker Art Center in 2008, curiously browsing through the stacks of archived journals on art and design in the Walker’s library, I found a group of old journals and magazines on typography. There, I came across Typographica and eventually gravitated toward a feature written by Alan Bartram in Typographica 6 (1962), titled “Typewriter type faces.” Bartram’s writing was accompanied by an extensive index of typewriter typeface specimens. These specimens not only showcased the quantity of typefaces that were produced by the likes of IBM and Olivetti, but also, to my intrigue, the range of stylistic offerings made available to typewriter users during the prime of typewriters. Condensed typefaces, stylized italic typefaces, sleek sans serif typefaces, proportionally spaced (non-monospace) typefaces, “Pin-Point” typefaces, blackletter typefaces, script typefaces that mimic cursive handwriting, and many more.

I loved that moment of true discovery—of learning that the available range of typewriter typefaces was not as limited as I would’ve previously guessed. Rather, as Bartram’s feature illustrated, I found that the typewriter market back in the day was full of nuanced, specially-designed typefaces.

I ended up sharing my discovery that spring on The Gradient as a part of a blog post titled Typewriter Typefaces.

Fast-forwarding eight years, to this past fall, I received a note from Geneva-based designer Mathieu Christe. Mathieu had written to tell me that he and La Police had just recently published a new type design periodical titled Footnotes. Not only that, but this debut issue of Footnotes included a very faithful reprinting of Bartram’s “Typewriter type faces” feature. Considering that my post from 2008 hadn’t crossed my mind in quite some time, you can imagine how thrilled I was to receive Mathieu’s note.

Using our shared interest in “Typewriter type faces” as a jumping-off point, Mathieu and I, among other topics, had a conversation about precision, his collaborations, looking back on the history of Swiss type design, inventing a portmanteau, the study of typewriter typefaces in criminal investigations, affordable means of publishing, and what to expect in the forthcoming issue of Footnotes.

 

Footnotes issue A

View of cover of Footnotes issue A

 

Ryan Gerald Nelson (RGN)
Hi Mathieu! So tell me about your first encounter with Alan Bartram’s “Typewriter type faces” feature in Typographica 6.

Mathieu Christe (MC)
Having just finished my studies at the TypeMedia Masters course in 2008, I was enjoying some time off in Holland before relocating to Switzerland. After just one, although very intensive, year of drawing, I felt that I needed to practise a lot more. So, I set myself to work on two revival projects: a Didot and a typewriter (a round one from the firm Olympia). Redrawing a forgotten typeface is a way to remember the past and learn from it. I always research about the type and the period—an essential part of the process for my motivation too.

Honestly, I can’t remember if I read your blog post beforehand, but I ended up visiting the Special Collections at the Library of the Universiteit van Amsterdam to read Alan Bartam’s article. I remember the very tactile cover made of Braille dots.

 

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View of opening spread of “Typewriter type faces,” Footnotes issue A

 

RGN
So you were eventually in correspondence with Bartram, correct?

MC
My reaction to this discovery was the same as yours, fascinated by the rich spectrum of styles. As I wanted to know more, I decided to get in touch with Alan Bartram in 2013. He replied that he couldn’t add much to this 47-year old article and that I was free to reproduce it.

Sadly, he passed away before issue A was released. I sent a copy to his brother though.

 

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View of type specimens in “Typewriter type faces,” Footnotes issue A

 

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View of type specimens in “Typewriter type faces,” Footnotes issue A

 

RGN
I see that you had a crew of collaborators. I imagine that they helped you to bring this reprinting back to life? It was really encouraging to read that you and your collaborators had taken such care with regards to the research, reproductions, and to all of the details. Was it difficult to find individuals to collaborate with and who shared in your interest in faithfully reprinting “Typewriter type faces”?

MC
If you’re referring to the list of names under the “acknowledgments,” most of these people helped me contact Bartram. At some point along the chain of contacts, my message was forwarded to him and I received this bit of info: “Please note that he [Bartram] does not use email so any correspondence will be by letter or telephone.”

As I was researching typewriter typefaces, I visited many blogs (from the Typosphere, an online community) and forums, sometimes posting questions or requests (under my name). This led Nicolien van der Keur to contact me in 2012. She is a PhD student in The Netherlands, doing a thesis (under Gerard Unger’s guidance) on the topic of the development of typefaces for typewriter. We’ve been in touch ever since, exchanging documents, and helping each other. She scanned the whole of Bartram’s article in hi-res, using Gerard Unger’s personal copy.

Regarding the quality of reproduction, my lithographer and colleague, Nicolas Robel, took care in preparing all samples for a reprint, which proved to be a surprisingly daunting task. Initially, I thought we could simply tune every page, but close inspection revealed that every sample (about 200 altogether) needed individual care.

 

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View of type specimens in “Typewriter type faces,” Footnotes issue A

 

RGN
Speaking of details—I really respect that all of the details in Footnotes are so consistently and cohesively executed: from the typesetting, to the image captioning (i.e., stating the scale percentage at which type specimen images are being reproduced), to the index, to the writing itself. Seen together, it all demonstrates a true commitment to the content that is seemingly difficult to find in other periodicals today. Do you see this approach to detail as a signature editorial and design style? Or is that the nature and precision of typography-related content simply demands an approach centered around detail?

MC
Thanks for noticing and I hope it’s not too overwhelming for some readers. My attention to these details is a personal trait but also a reaction to hollow and careless editorial content. I can see this precision as a signature too. As with typefaces (La Police will also publish fonts), details are key but shouldn’t overshadow the whole “picture.”

 

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Spread view of Footnotes issue A

 

RGN
For the other feature articles in this issue, you’ve collaborated with a number of writers and designers, including Atelier Carvalho Bernau and Louise Paradis (known for her work on the Typographische Monatsblätter Research Archive). Were these features commissioned/written specifically for Footnotes? And as an independent publisher/designer/editor, how did the process of working with these writers and designers unfold?

MC
Yes. Both of their contributions are part of the series “One-off.” The idea is to present a type project developed for a certain, sometimes unique, context. I’m expecting contributions from graphic designers—not only pure type designers—curious to learn from their practise of typography and type design.

Although these final pieces read smoothly, I initially sent questions to the designers with a note saying that they have to answer knowing that I would remove the questions in the end. It’s a rather common practise for documentaries and, in the printed medium, an efficient way to save space. Each issue will include one or two essays from that series.

 

RGN
The feature on Haas Typefoundry Ltd. presents a fairly extensive and detailed history of Haas, its origins, and operations. Seemingly, it’s rare to ever read about a type foundry in this capacity, if at all. But as Haas has a 400-year history (which is, assumedly, relatively well-documented), I imagine it’s easier to pull together content on this subject matter. Did you have a particular vision or direction in mind for how to shape this content in relation to a contemporary periodical on type design?

MC
You’re right, Haas’ adventure is fairly well-documented. The most comprehensive document «Schweizer Stempelschneider und Schriftgiesser» (Albert Bruckner, 1943) was our starting reference. Nevertheless, to bridge the gap between 1943 and today, we needed an update.

Considering that La Police will also publish typefaces and, as a Swiss digital typefoundry, I felt it was important to look back on the history of Swiss type design with a historical essay. In the end, I think it contrasts nicely with the other articles. Initially I tried to commission a history of type foundries in Switzerland but soon realised that it’s a potentially boundless task and decided to focus on a more key contributor instead. The former and last director of Haas, Alfred Hoffmann, welcomed Brigitte Schuster (the writer) with much enthusiasm and generosity, which convinced us to go this way. This text will be followed in issue B by a shorter text from a digital foundry in order to make the technological transition to today and the future.

 

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View of opening spread of feature on Haas Typefoundry, Footnotes issue A

 

RGN
You use a term throughout Footnotes in each of the acknowledgments texts: “iconotrack”. I can’t say I’ve ever seen that term before and have been curious about it’s origin and meaning. Is it used in connection with your use of the word “iconography”?

MC
Iconography is treated with great care, not only in terms of reproduction quality but also with regards to image and reproduction rights. Making sure that you’re granted permission (sometimes by paying fees), involves contacting many people. To credit them, I’ve invented this portmanteau made up of “iconography” and “tracking.”

 

RGN
On the back cover, you published a portion of a ransom note that describes a set of very specific and peculiar instructions that the murderous duo Leopold and Loeb had typewritten in 1924. Reading this made me super curious, and I ended up digging into some reading on Leopold and Loeb. I know that the typewriter used to produce the ransom note became a key piece of evidence in the murder trial, so it’s intriguing to me to imagine how you came across this case in your research related to type design. What was your path to discovering this murder case from Chicago in the 1920s?

 

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Leopold and Loeb’s ransom note, typed with a typewriter stolen from a fraternity house, 1924

 

MC
If I remember well, the secretary at ASQDE (The American Society of Questioned Document Examiners) mentioned the name of Mr. Tytell, a typewriter expert in New York. I contacted him as I was looking for a story and picture for the cover (more below about my choice). He told me about the Leopold and Loeb case and I decided to re-transcribe the ransom note as a piece of curious evidence.

As a coincidence, shortly after the release of issue A, a local movie theater (Spoutnik, “Le plus beau cinéma du monde”) was screening the movie Swoon (Tom Kalin, 1992) about the infamous duo. I also realised that Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948) was based on that case.

 

RGN
What’s the story behind the cover image?

MC
One day Nicolien van der Keur mentioned the Haas Typewriter Atlas, a resource for forensic document examiners. Unknown to me, and unrelated to the famous Swiss typefoundry, it showcases the (probably) largest collection worldwide of typewriter typeface specimens.

With the pure image cover (no typography), my aim is to show intriguing images that are not obviously related to type. Knowing that experts from a different field are studying letterforms for other reasons, I set myself to find a photograph from a criminal case which used the Haas Typewriter Atlas as an identification tool. This proved impossible and, for that reason, it forced me to find a “simple” picture from the local police archives. The A D H letters on the cover are part of the original picture, probably rubbed off from a Letraset sheet.

 

Footnotes issue A

Detail view of cover of Footnotes issue A and bookmark

 

RGN
I appreciate the extra bits of printed ephemera that were included with Footnotes: a bookmark, two visual table-of-contents-like cards, and a simple business-card-sized advertisement for the lithographer of Footnotes, supertiptop. The two visual table-of-contents-like cards are, graphically, really enticing. Can you tell us a bit about the significance of the graphic bits and icons that live on these cards?

MC
On press, two covers are printed on one sheet with extra room for these goodies. The bookmark with issue A’s table of contents will be inserted into issue B’s copies, and so on. That way, the reader will know about the previous issue’s articles, which is important when articles are split between issues. This bookmark is meant to be used as a “shelfmark” too since Footnotes is stapled, thus without a flat spine.

The visual cards display graphic extracts from the respective articles’ iconography. I use them as promocards, which I occasionally drop at bookshops or various venues. “Enticing” is the right word as my aim is to tease the visually oriented people.

 

Footnotes issue A

Detail view of Footnotes shelfmark

 

The before/after lithographer’s card (supertiptop) was designed by him to prove that you need to take care of black and white images, more so when printing on uncoated paper. He supported my project by offering a very careful preparation of all of the images. As he’s only working for cultural projects, I took the opportunity of my many mailings to spread the word about supertiptop.

And, of course, the printing of Footnotes is very important. In this regard, I worked with the passionate and knowledgeable printer Noir sur noir impression in Geneva. As the editor and publisher I feel a responsibility to offer readers original and well-reproduced images. In that sense, the visual information is treated with as much respect and care as the written content.

 

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View of printed ephemera included with Footnotes issue A

 

RGN
That’s a smart move—to make use of the extra space on the press sheet! The economy of that decision, as well as the overall modesty of the printing of Footnotes, brings me to my question about the production and funding of Footnotes. How did these two factors come to shape your thinking and decisions about what Footnotes could be in the end? Did certain compromises need to be made to aspects such as size/format, page number, and printing during the process of making Footnotes? Or, rather, did you let the limitations of the production and funding inform your decisions from the very beginning?

MC
As references, I’d mention the bulletins and flyers from societies of collectors (i.e., mushrooms, stamps, etc.). These printings are simple transmitters, produced with affordable means. Of course, they also have an aesthetic which seduces me and I tried to preserve that charm.

In terms of reader’s impressions, I wanted to play with contrasts: an understated appearance with in-depth content and obsessive attention to details.

With the help of subsidies (in the form of services and time) from my friends, no ads, and wise production decisions, Footnotes can be released quite independently. I should also mention that with no strong connections to institutions or schools, I am able to preserve a certain editorial freedom.

The production decisions were also influenced by observing the evolution of print. In the field of sequential art (I co-run B.ü.L.b comix), books have become more and more refined. To maintain affordable prices, or to put it another way, to keep the price psychologically inviting for the reader, subsidies and printing abroad comes in handy. Contrary to the philosophy behind paperback publications—simple and affordable publications for the masses—the market is increasingly seducing readers and collectors by offering more for less and at no real additional cost. Designers, publishers, and institutions have a responsibility too, and I see Footnotes as a statement in this regard.

As for the format: it is defined by the postal service norms (cheapest shipping category) as well as the number of pages that fit on the printing press and press sheets. I see them as constraints, not compromises.

 

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Spread view of Footnotes issue A

 

RGN
What can we expect from issue “B” of Footnotes and subsequent issues after that? Do you have a particular editorial or thematic strategy planned for each issue?

MC
To begin with, I will be publishing the second (and last) part of Haas’ article, followed by a contemporary perspective from one of the earliest digital foundries of the country.

Additionally, I will include: the first part of an extensive research, lead by a French crew (Alice Savoie, Dorine Sauzet, Sébastien Morlighem), on Ladislas Mandel’s typefaces for telephone directories; a critical essay on typeface redesign by Christian Mengelt; after a few lectures on Dr. A. V. Hershey’s fonts, a written-report by Frank Grießhammer who re-coordinated these early vector fonts; and, of course, exciting one-off type projects and the Proofs page showcasing in-progress typefaces.

As you can see, I don’t have a thematic strategy. Some issues might have one, if appropriate. I research to find interesting content and contributors, then try to mix them over the course of a couple of issues. Simple and free.

 

RGN
Thank you for your time, Mathieu. And best of luck on issue B!

 


 

Footnotes issue A features contributions from: Mathieu Christe, František Štorm, Atelier Carvalho Bernau, Alan Bartram, Louise Paradis, Brigitte Schuster, Allen V. Hershey, and Frank Grießhammer.

Stay up-to-date with Footnotes on their website or on Twitter. Footnotes issue A is available from a handful of stockists in the US and Europe, or it can be ordered directly from the Footnotes online shop.

Interview: Simon Johnston Launches Verb Editions

  What happens when you let go of design? In 1993, Simon Johnston handed the pressman at Colby Printing Press a slip of paper containing only the words “God® Bless™ America©.” No other design instructions were specified. The resulting piece is a prime example of Simon’s art practice, which emphasizes linguistic play and exploration of pre-established design systems. The poster was […]

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God Bless America (v.01), Simon Johnston, 1993

 

What happens when you let go of design? In 1993, Simon Johnston handed the pressman at Colby Printing Press a slip of paper containing only the words “God® Bless™ America©.” No other design instructions were specified. The resulting piece is a prime example of Simon’s art practice, which emphasizes linguistic play and exploration of pre-established design systems. The poster was printed more than 20 years ago, but, like all of his editioned works, hasn’t been available for sale—until now. With this interview, he announces the launch of his new publishing house, Verb Editions.

An LA-based, UK-born designer, artist, and teacher, Johnston’s lauded design practice includes projects with Factory Records and founding the design journal OctavoFor more than 25 years, he has been consistently building a body of personal work that has been kept relatively private. In this conversation, I speak with Johnston about the decision to start Verb Editions, several of the works in the catalogue, and the importance of maintaining a personal practice.

 

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Spread from Mr. Below (v.14), Simon Johnston, 2016

 

Ben Schwartz: First of all, congratulations on launching Verb Editions. Already it looks like quite an interesting catalogue. To begin I’d love for you to talk about the sort of ethos behind Verb Editions.

Simon Johnston: Thanks. The primary focus will be on printed materials as artworks in themselves, as editions, multiples. Mostly books and prints, but I like the word “editions,” as an edition could also be a sculpture, for example, or even a recording, or a poem in some form. And you can do an edition of one. I like the sense that multiplied forms allow the work to be accessible to a greater number of people—is more democratic if you like—even though democracy isn’t looking too clever at the moment. I am also interested in the idea that a catalogue or book could be a work in itself, and come before or instigate an exhibition, instead of the other way round. Seth Siegelaub’s catalogues come to mind in that regard—the possibility of catalogue as exhibition. I think of it maybe a bit like a record label, releasing a few singles and the occasional album, some of it quick and raw, and some a bit more polished. The word ethos in your question reminded me of Tony Wilson of Factory Records, who we worked with in England back in my 8vo design studio days. I always liked Tony’s trust in his intuition and his commitment to cultural production, just putting stuff out there, frankly without any real regard for a business model. I like that ethos. So, not really a press in the commercial sense, nor just a book publishing house, more of a label.

 

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Album cover for The Durutti Column’s Circuses and Bread (1985) on Factory Records. Designed by 8vo

 

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Octavo, Issue 1. 1986. Article on Anthony Froshaug by Robin Kinross.

 

Schwartz: It seems you’ve been producing these sort of editions throughout your career, why the decision to start Verb Editions now?

Johnston: I have been producing books and prints right from college days. I made a silkscreened book in college at Bath Academy of Art in England called Some Antics, which played with meaning and language. And when I started the typographic journal Octavo in London, it was a publishing adventure into the relationship between language, design, and art. Since then, having moved to California some time ago, I’ve been involved in publishing, designing books for galleries, museums, and artists. So it’s not really a big leap, more a case of wanting to make the work in the books as well as design the books. The main idea is to facilitate a sideways shift from design practice to focus more on my art/photography practice. I have always done both, but for pragmatic reasons, design and design education has always been on the front burner and my own projects on the back burner. I always felt like I was only making guerrilla raids into art territory, sort of a weekend conceptual artist, which was satisfying, but never led to building up the necessary momentum for a sustained practice. Publishing allows me to do both to a certain extent, but the design component is now in the service of artistic practice of some sort. It’s easy enough to print something, but distribution is the key. I have sold materials before at Printed Matter and Arcana, but the digital tools are available now to create a fairly painless online gallery, sales, and distribution channel. It just feels like the right time. Carpe diem—Fish of the day.

 

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Flag (v.02), Simon Johnston, 1996

 

Schwartz: I’d love to hear a bit more about some of the editions. To start, both God Bless America (v. 01) and Flag (v.02) seem particularly interesting within today’s political climate. They also are the first two editions in the catalogue. What do you think about them taking on a new sort of relevance today?

Johnston: Both of those were made more than 20 years ago, and were reactions to what I saw as underlying conditions in society here, the ever-present commercial imperatives, for want of a better term. There’s a fabulous Allen Ginsberg poem called “For Sale,” in a slim volume I have called Sad Dust Glories, which may have been an inspiration, or at least is related. The God Bless America print was made at Colby Poster and was an early example for me of trying to let go of design. I just gave them the handwritten text to set in their usual manner. I can see how some people might feel these works have heightened relevance in today’s brave new political world. But, frankly, what is going on right now is another thing altogether, much darker—the apple-pie fascism that Gore Vidal warned us about—which requires a different kind of response. I did make some prints on Presidential Inauguration Day, January 20, but I am not sure whether they will make it onto the Verb Editions site yet.

 

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John Baldessari holding John Baldessari Catalogue Raisonné: Volume Two: 1975–1986. Photo: Simon Johnston

 

Schwartz: Mr. Below is another interesting project, not only for the subject matter, but also the process and resulting visual effect. I’d love to hear more about how these books were produced.

Johnston: On press at Shapco in Minneapolis with the first volume of John Baldessari Catalogue Raisonée, I could not help noticing how the accidental layering of the works on the make-ready sheets looked very interesting and related to John’s work somehow. It’s fair to say that probably all print designers fall in love at some point with the random over-printed nature of press sheets, before the press guys get the ink densities adjusted, but in this case something about the consistent grid and image placement, combined with the “Mr Below” (Make-Ready Below) tags made me wonder if something could be made from it. I worked with the press guys to save some sheets and had some very able assistance in sequencing and binding the copies.

 

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Make-ready (MR) sheets at Shapco

 

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Over-printed make-ready sheets for Mr. Below (v.14)

 

Schwartz: It looks like there’s a theme of playing with language throughout many of the editions—whether it be the cut-up narratives of Fiction Fiction (v. 18 and v. 19) or your analysis of the word “this” with the Thisness newspaper (v. 04). Can you talk about your interest in linguistic play and how it relates to your design practice?

Johnston: I have always been mildly obsessed with language, and a lot of my personal work does deal with issues related to the operations of language. The Thisness newspaper grew out of a slightly earlier project called Investigation, which consists of 256 framed pages from two copies of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, with every word painted out except for instances of the word “this.” In the book, Wittgenstein is writing about how language functions in use, and in order to give examples I found he would be using the word “this” a lot. For me it became the secret subtext of the book, being a word that refers only to itself, its physical typographic presence, in each instance, rather than referring to something outside of itself. In semiotic parlance, the signifier collapses into the signified, and it becomes a kind of black hole of language.

 

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Language Machine (v.05), Simon Johnston, 2016

 

I had the idea for Fiction Fiction over 20 years ago, but only recently made the books. Time is slippery stuff, but I still liked the idea enough to make it happen. One hundred and twenty-eight similarly sized novels were trimmed at their spines, and their pages resequenced. Each book contains a page from each of the different novels, whilst maintaining consecutive page numbering. I am interested in setting up frameworks or systems, and then pouring material content into the frame to see what new chemistry happens. In this case the frame is works of fiction made from works of fiction. Messy nonsense narratives abound. I am also intrigued by time as a material and a medium. I like the idea of making something and not releasing it for 10 or 20 years, not just as a reaction to the instant reactionary Twitter-world of now, but as a rhetorical tactic. I am working on a related project just using some of the found cross-over texts from Fiction Fiction. I suppose you could say the interest in language relates to my design practice in the sense that I don’t think you can be a good typographer unless you care about language.

 

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Binding process for Fiction Fiction

 

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Fiction Fiction (v. 19), Simon Johnston, 2016

 

Schwartz: In addition to your interest in language, can you also talk a little bit about your photographic projects?

Johnston: Photography is one medium I use, yes. I also make paintings, prints, and sculptural objects. I tend to work in photographic series, and I am as interested in the thinking behind the image as much as the image itself. Even though the book Unsigned is a photographic project, at its heart it is also a study of language, or rather its absence, in this case. Both the empty signs and the graphic faux-captions are typically sites of information, but in both cases the language is absent or withheld. And a book of photographs I took in England in 2012 and 2013 called Meridian is being published by Gerhard Steidl in Germany this month (I think, I hope). Landscapes taken facing due north or south on the line of zero degrees longitude, with a fluorescent orange line superimposed on the center of the image representing the meridian line. I have the book on the Verb Editions site as well. I have seen the images on press but not a bound copy yet. Unsigned is older, but both that series and Meridian were shot on film, 4×5 in the case of Meridian.

 

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Photograph from Meridian (v.20), Simon Johnston, 2016

 

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Spread from Unsigned (v. 07), Simon Johnston, 2003

 

Schwartz: As you have been producing these editions throughout your career, I’m curious how you were able to strike a balance between your more client-based work and these personal projects? Do you feel that your personal practice provided a different sort of creative fulfillment from your design practice?

Johnston: One of the reasons to start Verb Editions is to set up a structure that allows me to alter that balance and to produce more of my own work and curate and publish work by like-minded collaborators. For me there is no comparison between making personal art work and commissioned work. They are different things. I know it has been fashionable to talk about “blurring the boundaries” between art and design, as if that is automatically a virtuous position to take, but I feel that is often a position taken by commentators, non-practitioners, or designers who want their work to be taken/perceived as art. Being a practitioner in both fields, I see them as different activities. Both are creative forms of expression, but art is expression liberated from function, whereas commissioned design is motivated expression, a form of agency on behalf of others. To confuse the two is just lazy thinking. Of course there is an “expanded” field of design, and interest in the area of intersection between the two practices—as this blog is evidence.

There are different forms of satisfaction from both. Designing a catalogue for an exhibition or artist is always very much a collaboration and a team project between artist, institution, author, editor, designer, printer, bindery, and others. So when a design project turns out well, it reminds us that at its heart, design is a commissioned, social, collaborative, commercial practice, with all of the associated financial and time-based parameters. The satisfaction there is of being part of a successful team project and of responding well to your responsibilities within that team.

By contrast, the creative fulfillment of personal works is different. The only responsibility is to yourself and the viewer. The third party (the C-word so absent from a lot of recent design discussion) that exists in the design process is not there. I think the challenge is to find, excavate maybe, the work that only you could make, from your interests and unique experiences. That’s also a bit scary. No parameters. Like freewheeling downhill with dodgy brakes and no map. But liberating at the same time.

 

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Ed Ruscha: Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors, 2004. Designed by Simon Johnston

 

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Ed Ruscha: Psycho Spaghetti Westerns, 2011. Designed by Simon Johnston

 

Schwartz: I know you’ve done several books with Ed Ruscha. I can’t help but of course find similarity behind Verb Editions and what Ruscha was doing with his artist books. How do you feel your design practice has influenced Verb Editions?

Johnston: Of course, Ed’s work has been enormously influential, both for artists and designers, and his early publications are seminal works in the area of artists’ books. As a designer, it has been a highlight to be able to work with him on a few projects, most notably the Whitney Museum Cotton Puffs catalogue and Psycho Spaghetti Westerns for Gagosian. But, to be honest, the first artist’s book I produced at college was made before I was aware of Ed’s work, where one of my teachers was John Furnival, a pretty well-known concrete poet. This was probably my first introduction into the possibility of a unity between artistic practice, language, and typographic form. And speaking of concrete poetry, I should also say that another figure whose work was very influential for me was Ian Hamilton Finlay, whose Wild Hawthorn Press is a touchstone. I was in correspondence with Ian and commissioned an article on his work for the third issue of Octavo, and I have quite an extensive collection of cards and booklets produced by his press. I also have a copy of IHF’s Ocean Stripe 5, still one of my favorite printed works, using found images and text, although that was published by Tarasque Press. He operated Wild Hawthorn Press long before computers and the internet, but I like the fact that, even though he is gone, the site is still up and his printed works still available. In terms of influences regarding art as printed matter, I could also point to Dieter Roth, Guy de Cointet, and particularly Marcel Broodthaers, whose work for me is an endless source of intellectual and aesthetic stimulation.

As for the second part of your question, my design practice helps in the sense that I know my way around typesetting, composition, color correction, paper choices, press checks, and all aspects of print production. You pick up a few things over the years.

 

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Ocean Stripe 5, Ian Hamilton Finlay, 1967

 

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Wild Hawthorn Art Test, So You Want to be a Panzer Leader, Ian Hamilton Finlay

 

Schwartz: Beyond a publishing imprint, you mention that Verb also acts as an online gallery as well as a vehicle for collaboration? What sorts of things are you looking for in future Verb collaborators?

Johnston: It’s all a bit of an open-ended experiment, but I plan on commissioning and publishing some work by other artists, photographers, and poets, at the same time as producing more of my own editions. In that sense the online gallery is a way of showcasing work by myself and others, as well as sidestepping gallery and curatorial gatekeepers to a certain extent. It’s all made possible by the internet, of course, but also by a general acknowledgment that print is not going away now, despite earlier rumors to the contrary, and that it has a vital part to play in cultural production, because it is a language in itself. It’s possible that the online gallery might manifest itself as a temporary physical gallery at some point in some way, as well as show up at an art book fair or two. Collaborations are mostly by invitation to be honest, but I am open to conversations and ideas from wherever, and plan to do some projects outside of the US.

 

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Recent release on Verb Editions: Tony Manzella, True Image

 

Schwartz: What lies ahead for Verb Editions?

Johnston: Now that I have built the glider, it is going to be interesting to see if and how it flies. More immediately, as I mentioned, I am hoping to see copies of Meridian very soon. Then there’s a book project called System I started printing in Berlin a couple of years back at Erik Spiekermann’s letterpress shop, p98a. I will finish the letterpress printing here, although the final version will be printed offset. And we will have a small event of some sort soon in LA. My hope is that Verb Editions can become a quietly sustainable publishing platform for artists, thinkers and makers.

 

In addition to the recent opened Verb Editions, Simon Johnston runs the design office Simon Johnston Design, and is Professor and Creative Director of the Hoffmitz Milken Center for Typography (HMCT) at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, CA.

When Is an A not an A?: Shannon Ebner and Julia Born on A Public Character

  When is an A not an A? A Public Character is a new catalogue designed by Julia Born, documenting Shannon Ebner’s recent exhibition at ICA Miami. In this body of work Ebner extensively explores one of our most rudimentary graphic signifiers, the letter “A,” shifting between media and roles as a definite and indefinite article.  The creation of such […]

APC_cover2

 

When is an A not an A? A Public Character is a new catalogue designed by Julia Born, documenting Shannon Ebner’s recent exhibition at ICA Miami. In this body of work Ebner extensively explores one of our most rudimentary graphic signifiers, the letter “A,” shifting between media and roles as a definite and indefinite article. 

The creation of such a beautiful artifact is of course the result of a successful collaboration, one in which two individuals hold a mutual trust and respect allowing each to bring her respective expertise to the project. With the typographic nature of Shannon’s work, and Julia’s deep involvement with content and concept, I was interested in learning more about their working exchange. In the following interview we discuss the process and collaborative efforts that lead to the creation of A Public CharacterA Public Character is available for purchase via Roma Publications.  

 

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Spread from A Public Character, 2016

 

Julia and Shannon, what was your relationship to each other’s work prior to this collaboration?

Shannon: I had a copy of Moyra Davey’s SPEAKER RECEIVER book that Julia designed, and I was really attracted to how the book was handled design wise, specifically how it responded to or was a part of what drove Moyra’s content. But it was Mark Owens who introduced me to Julia’s work when we started working on Auto Body Collision together. I was looking for a recommendation for the ICA catalog and Mark raved about Julia’s work and so when I realized that Julia was in fact the designer for Moyra’s book I got really excited about the prospect of working together.

 

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SPEAKER RECEIVER, 2010

 

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Spread from SPEAKER RECEIVER, 2010

 

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Spread from SPEAKER RECEIVER, 2010

 

Julia: Shannon’s book The Sun as Error, made in collaboration with Dexter Sinister, is one of my five all-time favorites. I’ve looked at it many times; the work, the editing, the design—all of it becoming one. For some reason it didn’t immediately ring a bell when Shannon first emailed me about a possible collaboration for A Public Character. It was only when I googled her name that I found out it was her, and of course I was thrilled! Both Shannon and I share an interest and fascination by the very elementary cornerstones of language. Her work fascinates many graphic designers because she manages to capture and magically bring together typography, poetry, philosophy, politics, language, and aspects of the vernacular– “Concrete Photography” as Laura Hoptman calls it.

 

The Sun As Error, 2009

 

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Spread from The Sun As Error, 2009

 

Before beginning work on the book, what were some early conversations like between the two you? Were there any upfront goals that you both had with this publication?

Julia: I had the opportunity to spend two months in LA right at the beginning of our collaboration. This was a nice coincidence as these meetings and conversations at Shannon’s studio allowed for discourse about the book and created an understanding of shared interests. For an entire week I was reading texts she gave me. Through this exchange we got to know each other professionally and personally, which helped in the numerous late night/early morning Skype conversations.

I also insisted to look at all of her work in order to develop an idea of how A Public Character could define its own place in her already impressive “bibliography.” Shannon envisioned “a book with a proper title page and TOC.” She clearly wanted it to be different from her previous, more autonomous artist books, and in the end the extra material that was considered to be added was left out.

When I left LA I didn’t have a file or mockup (I never make one), but I did have a clear idea of the structure, along with ideas and notes, which eventually shaped the book.

 

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Spread from A Public Character, 2016

 

Shannon: Yes, we were very lucky that these circumstances happened to line up and we were able to have this exchange for an intensive period of time. I also heard Julia present her work at a public lecture (at the HMCT at ArtCenter) around the same time which was extremely informative. I hadn’t quite understood the Rietveld Academy up until this point, and it was very intriguing hearing about this experience and seeing how it is reflected in Julia’s work as well as others like Stuart [Bailey]. Also having Experimental Jetset come through town at the same time for Printed Matter’s 2016 LA Art Book Fair—those guys gave the keynote last year and published their Statement Counter Statement book, and so the ethos around design (not to lump all of these people together because they are all individuals and quite different) and a way of thinking and making around books and publications can be seen in each. Last winter in Los Angeles I felt very immersed in these ideas.

You mention an awareness to allow for the book to “define its own place” amongst Shannon’s previous books. I’m curious as to how this shaped particular decisions throughout the process.

Julia: As mentioned earlier, Shannon felt a need for the book to communicate on a certain level, address the show as a whole, include all works that were in the show, and invite brilliant writers for essays. For every work we were looking for a suitable translation into book form. I don’t think that it differs so much on an aesthetic level from her previous books (I guess they all share a clear, reduced visual language), but it might be the more classical structure of an exhibition catalogue which makes it different from the earlier publications.

 

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Spread from Auto Body Collision, 2015

 

Auto Body Collision

Spread from Auto Body Collision, 2015

 

Shannon: For me it was important that the ICA book not in any way be an artist book, and I was excited for that just because I was coming off of Auto Body Collision and STRIKE and they were both very intense projects. Even though both of those books had essays in them, I approached each as an artist book, which for me means that they themselves are the project, the artwork. I only strictly adhered to that format for The Sun as Error, and in many ways I made a conscience decision with the subsequent two books that I would consider the act of publishing opportunities to commission writing. It felt important for me to do that even though the writing corrupts the purity.

 

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Spread from STRIKE, 2014

 

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Poster included in STRIKE, 2014

 

For A Public Character it was a little unclear to me in the beginning. I mean, I knew I wanted the book to be a catalogue proper, but at the same time here was this opportunity to work with Julia and make some discoveries. Also part of the project of the A’s is that they are discursive, they are promiscuous and not beholden to just this or just that. So if anything that was the larger conceptual conversation—do we stick with the “narrative” of the ICA exhibition or do we further complicate reception by also contaminating the book with external projects?—like when the A’s took part in Erika Vogt’s Artist Theater Program at EMPAC in Troy, or when I worked in collaboration with Erika for her Performa commission and incorporated Cornel Windlin’s A’s into the performance at Roulette Theater, or the first time I showed the work under the title A PHOTOGRAPHY. I felt very committed to an unsettling of the work but eventually I decided it made far more sense to let the book act as a catalogue and tell the story of the exhibition and showcase that experience and this other stuff can get funky somewhere else down the line.

 

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Erika Vogt, Artist Theater Program, commissioned by Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), 2014

 

Shannon, it makes sense that you wouldn’t consider A Public Character an artist book. Yet it feels different from a straightforward catalogue, perhaps landing somewhere in between. I’m curious as to how the working process may have expanded the book to be more than a direct translation of the show?

It could be that I am incapable of making a standard catalogue, whatever that means! It was my original goal to make a conventional catalogue, but the process of working with Julia was entirely unconventional, and so this changed the DNA of the project right away. Julia’s design decisions are content-driven, so ultimately it was the sum of our discussions that contributed to her ideas—things like the french folds for the A’s to give them some body and also what was important to me was this arc in the show from a public character to a private self and how to translate that from the work to the book. Same for the video, which was both the title of the video and the exhibition, how does that get translated? These questions around translation from idea to book became really central, and I think this is what gives the book a different kind of feeling. I still maintain that it is not an artist book, but it is also maybe a little less straightforward from a catalogue. For me the book is very Dutch; it had a job to do, which is to tell the story of the exhibition, but at the same time it has an engagement with material and the book-making process as an integral extension of the work itself that is totally Julia Born.

 

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Spread from A Public Character, 2016

 

Julia, I’m curious about Shannon’s description of the book as seeming “very Dutch.” I’d love for you to expand on this notion as to what that may mean to you?

Julia: I appreciate Shannon’s reference to the books “Dutchness.” I like how she describes, compares, and distinguishes the multiple approaches in designer’s work, who have been more or less influenced and shaped by Dutch culture and education. Having lived there for 16 years myself, it is definitely a huge influence. Even though the work of the designers she refers to are quite different from one another, there is a certain mentality which we all share.

Julia, I’d like to hear more about the working process. As you mentioned, in the beginning  you were fortunate to be able to spend time together which really shaped the ideas for the book. However, moving forward you were working in two different countries in two very different time zones. What was the actual working exchange like with Shannon? How often were you in touch, and what was the feedback like?

Julia: I usually take quite a lot of time to make a book, as I am involved with every step of the process. This book was made in close collaboration with Shannon, despite the location and time differentiations of both our practices. It was important that the decision making on an editorial level happen together, so we did a few late night Skype sessions along with many emails.

Not every artist is willing to be that involved in each step of the process; but it seemed to reflect Shannon’s thorough and committed way of dealing with things. She has a talent to tackle the right questions at stake. I involved her in questions that I typically wouldn’t involve anyone in because I knew I was going to get an interesting answer. Many things we would agree on, and other things we debated about. I am guessing this is why she wanted someone else to design her book.

I’d assume there was quite a bit of dialogue around the way work was shown. I especially enjoy moments such as the close crops of A SINGULAR, the fragmented A SELF, and the decision to do a french fold for Black Box Collision A. Shannon, what sort of conversations lead to these decisions?

Shannon: It had to do with graphic interpretations. I think we both share a dislike for showcasing installation images, and as a result we really worked hard to find a way to represent the sculpture A SINGULAR and the A SELF silkscreen print. In both cases it was a bit of an experiment for me to see what happens when something (in the case of the sculpture) goes from an immaterial font to a three-dimensional, material object back to a flat graphic representation of a drawing reducing the elements to their most basic form, the unit. Same for the silkscreen print, how to let that read like a poem that closes out the exhibition and also as an exit for the book—but also that piece is tricky because it came out of the Auto Body Collision, and the print is very much a collaboration with Mark Owens, so to put it back into book form again is its own riddle. Maybe now would be a good time to say that the letter A can be both a definite and indefinite article which for me speaks to doubt, that an A can be an A and not an A or definite and indefinite depending on the task at hand—something about the space this opens up linguistically acts as a catalyst for how the book and representing the work was approached.

 

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A SINGULAR as shown in A Public Character, 2016

 

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A SELF as shown in A Public Character, 2016

 

Julia, as so much of Shannon’s work is very typographic. I’d love to hear about the decision to use the typeface Mercator throughout the book. To my understanding it’s a typeface that isn’t available commercially, and it has been used quite sparingly.

For quite some time I could not decide whether it should be a serif or sans serif typeface. I eventually realized it needed some pragmatism, something a bit down-to-earth, as every serif typeface I tested looked somewhat detached from the content. There was as well the fact that Shannon herself uses Helvetica in A Public Character in a beautifully brute, raw manner. If I were to use that typeface throughout the book, the borders between work and written content would have dissolved—which could have been an interesting path as well but didn’t seem appropriate in this context. I decided to “color” the typeface for all editorial content just a bit differently, if only subtly.

 

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Mercator in use, A Public Character 2016

 

I encountered Mercator in my years in the Netherlands many times, mostly in letterpress form (the workshop at Rietveld Academie used to have an almost complete set). It was designed by Dick Dooijes who happened to be a former director of my school, and digitized by Laurenz Brunner 10 years ago, though not commercially distributed. Some Dutch children’s books teaching the alphabet use Mercator in a very pure and elementary way. This association with the basics of language seemed quite fitting within the context of Shannon’s work.

 

Dick Bruna, Mercis Publishing bv. License: All Rights Reserved.

 

I’d like to talk about the book as an object. With the large silver foil stamp and the french fold, the book has a remarkably polished feel to it. The production details add a beautiful sense of contrast to the raw photography, concrete sculptures, and even the tone of some writing. Was this sense of contrast a conscious decision or more of a natural outgrowth of the working process?

Julia: I think we both share a deep antipathy towards books that are overdone. It’s a thin line, and we had more than one discussion about whether or not we are pushing it too far. All the elements that we kept, in my opinion, justify their existence as they are linked to some conceptual considerations. The silver foil was an idea prompted by Shannon, as she was considering printing on mirror paper when preparing for the exhibition. At one point she was talking about using reflective material on the cover in which the reader could see him or herself, “from a public character to a private self…” an idea which I really liked. That plus the fact that Luis Zukovsky’s “A” somehow becomes immaterial because the reflection cancels out all material states.

What was the production and printing process like for the book? Were there any difficulties you had to work through?

Julia: The book might look more complicated in terms of production process than it actually was. The only unexpected challenge we experienced was the binding. For most of the black and white images we used a “skeleton black,” which is a technique often applied when printing on uncoated paper. The double hit of black adds extra depth and clarity to Shannon’s images, which I think solidifies their rawness and minimalism. For the foil stamping on the cover I referenced the effect that emerged when we re-photographed the video for the book (long-exposure). I liked how through repetition (an essential element in the video) of the same text, the middle part cancels itself out. This is also a nod to the definite/indefinite topic which is central to the work.

 

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Spread from A Public Character, 2016

 

The only thing that gave us, but mostly the brilliant bookbinder at DZA, a headache was the binding because of the way the french fold pages closed on top. I insisted on printing the A’s each on their own sheet so they feel solid when flipping through the book because of the physical nature of how Shannon defines the “A.” The so called “otabind” binding which we intended at first could not be realized, so the binder suggested this really clever open back, hidden in the dust cover, so the book would still lay flat. This is just one of many examples where bookbinders and printers have contributed precious knowledge and ideas that have shaped the outcome of my books.

 

Image courtesy Roma Publications

French folds in A Public Character, 2016. Image courtesy Roma Publications

 

Shannon, you’ve collaborated with several incredible designers including Dexter Sinister, Mark Owens, and Lauren Mackler. The two of you working together immediately excited me, and the result is stunning. How was this collaboration similar or different than your past experiences?

I have been very fortunate for the people I have worked with and each time I am very humbled by the process and learn a great deal from them. I would be hard pressed to try and parse out the experiences because each one is so very unique. But what I can say is that what I really came to understand through this process is that Julia is a bookmaker through and through and she is engaged in the material form of the book in a very deep way that I totally admire.

 

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Spread from The Sun As Error, 2009

 

To wrap things up, at the Walker we’re preparing for our upcoming Merce Cunningham show, Common Time, which deals significantly with his collaborations throughout his life. Thus, collaboration has been a big topic of conversation. What do each of you feel makes a successful collaboration?

Julia: My entire job is all about collaboration and dialogue. Every assignment, every project I make is developed in conversation with other people, be it artists, institutions, curators, printers, binders, etc. Books perhaps illustrate this collaborative effort in an extreme way, as there are so many parties involved throughout the process. Within this process I see myself as the “guide,” bringing together and coordinating all this expertise. Now and then I need to make decisions, but mostly I am making sure that everything is on the right track.

Merce Cunningham is a truly inspiring example of interdisciplinary collaborations. He was expanding his own field by working together with figures like John Cage or Rei Kawakubo—looking for other visions to expand his own. Together they redefined the boundaries of their individual practices, which is the result of a truly fruitful and successful collaboration. The people that I have closely collaborated with all share a willingness and curiosity to do exactly that, which is why each of these collaborations are truly unique and not comparable.

Working with Shannon once again proved my theory that (at least some) artists are the best designers, but thankfully they still need us to do certain things…

 

On a cach from Paris to Hamburg for the shooting of Cunningham's Ballet"Variations V", Merce Cunningham, movie maker Klaus Wildenham, John Cage(straw hat), 1966.

On a coach from Paris to Hamburg for the shooting of Cunningham’s Ballet Variations V, Merce Cunningham, movie maker Klaus Wildenham, John Cage, 1966.

 

Rei Kawakubo, Merce Cunningham, and company members during costume fitting at Westbath studio, New York City, 1997

 

Shannon: For me it’s about a willingness to exchange ideas and be in dialogue about the process of making something together.  It’s this togetherness but also belief, belief that the end result is not simply a product but is a result of shared time and so the collaboration becomes material evidence of this shared time and the immaterial conversations that were exchanged within this space get put into a form, in the case of many of my collaborations that form is the book.  This question reminded me of something that Will Holder made when working on a project with Stuart and David [Reinfurt] called A Monument of Cooperation. It’s an actual crayon rubbing of a monument on the lower east side.  I don’t know too much more about it but it does seem fitting to me that the basis of a good collaboration is like a monument to cooperation. ◼

 

Brass rubbing of a monument to cooperation found on the grounds of Seward Park Housing Corporation (corner of Montgomery and Grand Streets on the lower east side of Manhattan), Will Holder, 2007

Brass rubbing of a monument to cooperation found on the grounds of Seward Park Housing Corporation
(corner of Montgomery and Grand Streets on the lower east side of Manhattan), Will Holder, 2007

 

 

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

 

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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

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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!

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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!

 

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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.

 

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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

JUST ANNOUNCED: BON IVER TO HEADLINE ROCK THE GARDEN 2017 ON JULY 22, 2017. PURCHASE ADVANCE TICKETS NOW!   Fresh off dual Grammy nominations for his album 22, a Million, Bon Iver has been named as the headliner of Rock the Garden 2017. The first concert on the Walker’s renovated hillside, Rock the Garden will […]

JUST ANNOUNCED: BON IVER TO HEADLINE ROCK THE GARDEN 2017 ON JULY 22, 2017. PURCHASE ADVANCE TICKETS NOW!
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Fresh off dual Grammy nominations for his album 22, a Million, Bon Iver has been named as the headliner of Rock the Garden 2017. The first concert on the Walker’s renovated hillside, Rock the Garden will take place Saturday, July 22. The full lineup will be announced in April. Buy advance tickets now.

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.

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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.

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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.

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AT APRIL BASE 

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.


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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.

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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.

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ON THE SYMBOLS 

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.

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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.


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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.

 

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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!”

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ON THE DIGITAL MILIEU OF 22, A MILLION

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.

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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.

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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 a 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.

 

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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.

 

 

ON FOOTBALL JERSEYS AND RAINBOWS 

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?

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

ON TYPOGRAPHY 

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.

 

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ON THE BON IVER ILLUMINATI 

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.■

 

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

 


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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 […]

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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Recently released Chapeau family

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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!

 

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—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)

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

 

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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)

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(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).

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Parallel School

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(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.

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Registration School (UK)

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(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.

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Van Eyck Summer Academy: Digital Campfire Series (Netherlands)

design by Meeuwontwerpt.nl

 

(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.

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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.

 

Raw Material: An Interview with Google Design

The SPAN Reader, a book released by Google Design in conjunction with its SPAN conferences in New York and London, is an eclectic collection of design thinking that investigates a variety of contemporary issues, such as the ethics of interface design, the implications of smart homes regarding privacy, the nature of time in digital space, the WYSIWYG paradigm, handmade computing, the haptic joy […]

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Dust jacket for Google Design’s SPAN Reader (2015)

The SPAN Reader, a book released by Google Design in conjunction with its SPAN conferences in New York and London, is an eclectic collection of design thinking that investigates a variety of contemporary issues, such as the ethics of interface design, the implications of smart homes regarding privacy, the nature of time in digital space, the WYSIWYG paradigm, handmade computing, the haptic joy of contemporary stonecutting, and even the architectural implications of burglary. The book features original writing as well as several reprints, and many of the authors featured are unexpected (at least to me)—it is one thing to read Keller Easterling’s critique of intangible architecture and power structures in its original context of the theoretical contemporary art journal e-Flux, and quite another to read it within the pages of a Google publication.

As a glimpse into the thinking behind Google Design, the SPAN Reader seemed a good place to start when trying to understand the culture and philosophies at work in the office. This post begins with a short interview with Rob Giampietro and Amber Bravo, creative lead and editor of Google Design NY, respectively, discussing the editorial mission of Google Design, the ever-evolving metaphor of “material,” and the process of creating the book.  Finally, Rob and Amber respond to a number of excerpts from the book (a reading of the reader?), offering us a chance to understand why these issues are important, and how they fit into the larger framework of Google Design. Many of the individual texts are available to read in full online, so please do click through.

 

GOOGLE DESIGN

Emmet Byrne: What is Google Design?

Rob Giampietro/Amber Bravo: Google Design is a cooperative effort led by a group of designers, writers, and developers at Google. We work across teams to create tools, resources, events, and publications that support and further design and technology both inside and outside of Google.

EB: One theme that resonates in the SPAN Reader is the idea of integrating digital design thinking with traditional modes of physical design thinking. Is this something Google Design takes to heart?

RG/AB: Digital design has benefitted tremendously from what’s come before it—print design’s focus on highly controlled and comprehensively specified modular systems, environmental design’s capability to compress, augment, and orient space, product design’s focus on the user and the affordances of a material, motion design’s ability to make information come to life in time, and so on. That said, today’s technology is really challenging the parameters between the traditional disciplines of design. When the interface becomes three dimensional, as is the case with VR, you need to completely reframe your thinking. Material Design mixes media in its framing as well—it thinks about how to make interfaces more immediately graspable, by playing with the dimensionality of light and shadow and thinking about how objects and surfaces like paper behave in the physical world. So we’re certainly interested in all kinds of design and what we can learn from them in our work and the field of digital designer more broadly. We also do a lot of non-mediated things like conferences and events, and in those cases we’ve had to think about how Material Design translates to other contexts—how it works in print, or how it works in space. Lance Wyman spoke at SPAN in New York about the design of urban iconography. As a team tasked with streamlining and evolving the company’s graphic language, we find ourselves often collaborating with teams on all levels of design, down to the tiniest details, like helping to refine product icons. So we really look up to and stand on the shoulders of Lance and others’ work in this field. If we do our jobs well, it’s a symbiotic approach, design and technology co-evolving, and highly attuned to the nuances of a user’s context in all cases.

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Example of a Material Design product icon


EB: When did “Material” come to represent something virtual instead of physical?

RG/AB: Google originated the name “Material Design” for the design system and always intended for it to be a broad, open-source initiative for the design community. We continue to lead and push the system forward, both visually and conceptually, so that it’s best-in-class and up-to-date, and we also rely on the community to push it forward and adapt it for their own uses to really bring it to life. Last year, we even established our first-ever Material Design Award, to acknowledge all the great examples of material design being produced by third-party product teams.

Example of Google Material Design “thickness”

 

In terms of the “virtualization” of material that you ask about, Material Design is a system for thinking about our digital surfaces that uses the traditional tenets of graphic design to suit this new context most appropriately. So, for example, with mobile devices, once you remove the mouse or other pointing device, then you are actually interacting with a surface, and the affordances of that surface—its materiality—become critical. So while it is virtualized, it’s also being touched. It’s still mediated, but less so. And that closer proximity to the interface offers a new set of opportunities. The floating action button (FAB) in Material Design rises up subtlely to meet your finger when you tap it. The number of layers in Material Design cannot exceed the device’s actual depth and fade into illusory space. It’s probably important to note that almost all GUIs have been metaphorically-driven. The desktop metaphor was one of the first, but following that were spatial metaphors (GeoCities, Internet Explorer, Netscape Navigator), and more heavy-handed physical metaphors like bookshelves, dashboards, etc. These metaphors often build a bridge to make a technology more familiar to new users, but, as these users become more accustomed to the technology, this metaphorical layer can be lightened and the technology can become a bit more true to itself. A last word on metaphors: it’s been interesting in the last few years to see the directionality of these metaphors reverse, so that instead of digital technology receiving metaphors from the analog world, it’s actually starting to provide them. In the last few months we’ve been interested to hear phrasing like “paintings as social networks,” “buildings as operating systems,” and so on.

 

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Google Design articles page

 

EB: How do areas like Material Design and marketing intersect with Google Design’s editorial and educational mission?

RG/AB: Material Design is an open-source product and we treat it as such with regular updates and improvements that we share widely. On our team, designers and engineers work very closely together to build, and, perhaps even more crucially, maintain the system and services we develop. That’s a hallmark of our work at Google Design—the fact that we’re lead by design and engineering in equal measure. We’ve created a unique platform for sharing our work and the work of other design teams across Google, but it’s always geared toward the perspective of a team of people who are excited to polish and push the boundaries of design and engineering. We mentioned our mission earlier: to support designers and developers both internally and externally to Google. So part of our editorial and educational imperative is to share Google’s process and thinking with the design world around important topics like design tools or identity systems, and, just as significantly, we want to listen, learn, and respond to what the design world is talking and thinking about and bring the best of those ideas back into the company to power it and make all of our work better. Google is a technology organization, but, increasingly, and especially with the formation of Google Design, it understands itself to be a cultural organization as well.

EB: What is a normal day like for the two of you?

AB: I head up our editorial efforts at Google Design. It’s really important for our team to connect with the community in a meaningful way, through a variety of channels. So I help make those connections via social comms, and editing and producing stories that support the design community both inside and outside of Google. Stories, of course, can take many forms—for example, we relaunched our site for last year’s I/O with a documentary video series that explored the making of Material Design—so storyboarding, script writing, and pitching in on art direction all fall within my general purview depending on the given project. I work closely with the designers and engineers both on and outside our team to help them frame and write their stories. This can sometimes mean parsing pretty technical language, or figuring out the most exciting lens or angle for a given project. And of course, I get to work on amazing, special projects like the SPAN conference and reader, and even dabble a bit in speech writing and technical UX writing for products. My title at Google is “Content Strategist.” Coming from a more traditional journalism background, this felt a bit foreign to me at first, but I’ve come to appreciate its techy charm and the fact that it underscores my special knack for being a generalist! Design.google.com is still quite young, so it’s been exciting to see it grow and evolve every quarter into something a bit more robust and editorially engaging.

RG: Within Google my role is Design Manager, and I am also the site lead for the Material Design studio in New York. This means I get to lead a small studio that’s part of a much bigger effort, meet regularly with designers and engineers to develop projects, structure priorities, provide direction and mentorship, and evaluate impact and success. So it’s a people-focused job, both for the people in the office to make sure they’re creatively challenged, and for finding the most talented people to join our team in New York. I am also one of several creative leads who assume responsibility for inter-office projects—like the SPAN Conferences and Google Design efforts in my case. On a day-to-day basis I meet with groups across the company and outside of Google to provide feedback and direction, share our design efforts, and learn from new projects and research. Much of my work with Google Design has to do with capturing and showcasing some of the most innovative thinking happening around design at Google and also fostering connections between what we’re doing and what we see in the wider design sphere.

 

THE BOOK

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Span Reader (2015)

EB: Why make a book? 

RG/AB: We wanted to go above and beyond the standard swag bag people are accustomed to getting at conferences, and produce something that people would appreciate and hopefully hang onto for a long time. At SPAN, we were able to bring together such an exciting array of talent, we wanted to somehow extend the moment of the conference and let people take those conversations home with them. We also thought the intellects of our speakers merited deeper engagement and they deserved some extended promotion and support from us, which we developed the Reader to provide.

One of our early interests in planning for example was privacy and access and how design could get involved and help to lead the discussions there. When we learned Geoff Manaugh was working on a new book on burglary in the city and that he was willing to share an early excerpt of this book with us for the reader, we were thrilled—this is exactly the kind of thing we were hoping for. Same thing with Amber’s interview with Nick Benson, a third-generation stonemason—we hoped this would shift the conversations we’d been having around materiality to a much different timescale. In addition to all this, it’s fair to say that conferences come and go, but books hang around. Much of why we’re able to learn from the earlier work of IBM and others is because the documents of these projects are still available to us. Olivetti supported a journal on city planning, a literary magazine, and an art gallery. Publishing, as much as convening, is part of building culture, and Google recognizes that it has a responsibility here. Everyone at Google has been thrilled at the reception of the SPAN Reader, we’ve shown we can do projects like this, and hopefully we’ve paved the way for more of them.

EB: How did the project come together?

RG/AB: The whole Google Design team worked together to source speakers for SPAN, and Rob selected and invited these speakers to the conference and worked with them to develop their talks. Once they were involved, Amber worked to assemble shortlists of essays we wanted to consider for the reader, and Amber and Rob worked together to assemble and balance the collection. There were many others on our team who were involved as well, along with crucial input of our book designer Chad Kloepfer [former senior designer at the Walker Art Center], who did a six-month “residency” at Google on our team to help bring this and other projects to life. You can read more about the design of the book here.

 

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Span Reader (2015)

 

EB: The content in this book is quite diverse. On what axes did you plan this diversity? 

RG/AB: SPAN’s subtitle is “Conversations about design and technology, sponsored by Google.” This was critical to our approach. With the Olivetti publishing we just mentioned, there was a diversity of points of view and the context was one of scientific research and development. This is also where Google is at its best. We have the scale and ability to explore multiple directions in a given area of focus, and it’s that diversity of talent and perspectives that enables the company to yield the best and most innovative experiences for our users. With SPAN, we reached out to a lot of people to discuss their ideas and work—some of these conversations were preliminary and others continued to develop. The ideas represented in the reader belong to people who really opened our minds or informed our thinking about how we practice design. In a sense we made this reader to orient and focus ourselves as well as our audience. This first reader had a somewhat historical focus with the inclusion of Davide Fornari, John Harwood, and others—subsequent readers may shift conversations into other fields, or more into the present day. Please check out video of all of our session recordings in New York City and London.

 

THE CONTENT

The following excerpts are from the Span Reader (2015). Rob and Amber were asked to respond to each quote in regard to their work at Google Design.


Page 12
Luna Maurer, from the Conditional Design Manifesto 
“The process is the product.” (read the full manifesto)

RG/AB: Luna (of Studio Moniker in Amsterdam) was one of the first calls we made when organizing SPAN. There is something playful, irreverent, and human about her work while being highly programmatic and process-driven. We responded to it and it was gratifying to see a room full of developers and engineers jump to their feet after her keynote at SPAN London. Code review is a huge part of building products at Google, and Moniker’s process of arriving at a design through a rationalized and systematic processes seems to speak directly to the way in which engineers are equally concerned with the elegance of the string as they are the final outcome. This quote is characteristic of Luna and Moniker’s her work—absolutely rigorous, but arriving at a conclusion that is nonetheless unexpected.

 

Page 25
Paul Ford, speaking to a graduating class of interaction designers, about the implications of the products they will create 
“The things that you build in the next decade are going to cost people, likely millions of people, maybe a billion people depending on the networks where you hitch your respective wagons, they are going to cost a lot of people a lot of time. Trillions of heartbeats spent in interaction.” (Read the full address.)

RG/AB: Paul’s breakthrough essay “What Is Code?” Came out in Bloomberg Businessweek while we were planning SPAN and we remembered reading this earlier talk of his and wanted to include it because Paul is as smart and savvy a tech writer as there is, but he always writes with great feeling and heart. Because Google operates at a staggering scale—we have several products operating at more than a billion users—we wanted to remind ourselves of the responsibility we have in making this work. The Eameses talk about design as “the best for the most for the least.” We aspire to something very similar at Google. Every bit that has to be downloaded on costly rural internet in low-income communities, every notification that takes a user out of what they’re doing or away from someone else—designers make the decisions that yield these outcomes and carry these responsibilities. That’s how we read what Paul is saying here.

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Span Reader (2015)

Page 50
Michael Rock, on the WYSIWYG design paradigm 

“In this new condition, the moment of finishing is not a fact of the medium but the will of the typographer: the work wavers in a transitory state and is only done when the designer commits. The writing may be finished but the type always temporary. This unification of the sentence and the display collapses form and content into something close to the same thing where every work is a work-in-progress.” (Read the full article.)

RG/AB: Michael and 2×4 were involved in helping us to plan SPAN, and they also shaped the interior architecture of the event. He is one of our best thinkers on design, and we loved the way his essay dramatized the flowing, variable, and technologically evolving aspects of typography then and now. His notes were a sketch for what we wanted to do with SPAN as a whole: Read technology as a continuous, rather than a sudden, process.

 

Page 55
John Harwood on IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design

EB: One of the texts you featured in the book was an excerpt from The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945–1976, by John Harwood, which describes a two decade long period of design innovation that brought together IBM’s in-house design team, celebrity designers such as Charles Eames, Paul Rand, George Nelson, Marcel Breuer, and Eero Saarinen, with IBM’s researchers, scientists, and engineers. What about this experiment in corporate design innovation, and others like it, excites you? How do they inform what you are doing at Google Design? (Watch John Harwood’s SPAN talk.)

RG/AB: This year saw an explosion of new projects around the Eameses in particular, with a retrospective organized by Catherine Ince that included a replica of the multi-screen IBM film at the Barbican in London, and an exhibition organized by Stephen Edidin at the New York Historical Society about the “Silicon City” that opened with a different replica of IBM World’s Fair Pavilion, and also included sections on “9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering” and other significant cultural moments around technology. In all of this, perhaps there are three lessons that we want to remember and develop in our own work. First, the IBM effort was generous in spirit and attempted to make what could have been a remote or monolithic effort more accessible to all. Second, it was a critical conversation at a critical moment that happened successfully at scale. And third, despite being aimed at hundreds of thousands of people, the end product was not watered-down or middling—if anything, it was challenging and even avant-garde. Many of the designers who contributed to the projects at IBM considered it to be the best work they ever did. This is exactly what all of us at Google aspire to as well.

 

Page 66
Davide Fornari, on Arte programmata. Arte cinetica. Opere moltiplicate. Opera aparta. 

“The idea that an artwork may include algorithmic behaviors and is completed by the action and interaction of the audience became a reality thanks to the early experimentation of these artistic groups and their collaboration with forward-thinking patrons.” (Visit the Reprogrammed Art website.)

RG/AB: Davide and Rob had met last year in Italy while both were doing research on Olivetti, and we reconnected with him when our team sponsored the AGI Open Conference in Bern, Switzerland. John Harwood observes in The Interface that IBM’s insight to build a culture around “business machines,” starting with the redesign of their showroom on 5th Avenue, really came through Olivetti’s groundbreaking work. With SPAN’s presence in Europe and the U.S., we thought it was interesting to offer both sides of this corporate history, and Davide’s scholarship was an essential way to do it. In terms of contemporary connections with the art world, our team works with the Google Cultural Institute on a number of projects; their 89Plus initiative (curated by Simon Castets and Hans Ulrich Obrist), Paris Lab residency, and numerous museum partnerships, are a few examples of Google supporting the art world in an official way.

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Span Reader (2015)

Page 88
Nick Benson, on evidence of the human hand in contemporary forms of stonecutting
“But that particular memorial, in all of its linear and postmodern purity, has a flavor of humanity that’s difficult to define. In the carving and the design of that inscription, there’s a reflection of that. My effort in designing a character is to have just a little bit of human spark. It’s a very contemporary form, but there’s just a teeny bit of humanity in there. It’s very subtle—almost subconscious—but you see it.” (Read the full interview.)

RG/AB: Nick’s interview has a lot to offer contemporary designers—particularly UX designers who are accustomed to being able to update and iterate ad infinitum. There’s a moment in his interview , where he describes how when he looks at an ancient Roman carving he acutely understands how it was made and can deeply empathize with a stonecarver who lived two millennia prior. That haptic knowledge is something that’s accrued and refined over time. It requires the body and a honed sensitivity. It is something that is incredibly important to keep in mind with an industry as young as ours, but as intimately connected to our daily lives and habits as the written (or chiselled) word. At Google we say, “focus on the user and the rest will follow.” In terms of design, this requires an acute awareness or consideration for how a user is experiencing the entire flow. When we design something as seemingly trivial as a button or switch, how that component sits within the larger ecosystem of the product language you’re building actually becomes integral to the entire experience. It’s not just a single message or action we’re designing. Nick’s assessment that it’s the hand of the designer that humanizes what could otherwise be considered a cold, or rational formal exercise, gets at that importance of honing conscientiousness and nuance in your craft and connecting with the human at the other end of the exchange.

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Span Reader (2015)

Page 100
Taeyoon Choi, on reclaiming our digital autonomy through DIY computer production 
“When our lives are affected by the algorithms and programs, what is the act of resistance and dissent that can preserve our independence from becoming agents of machines?” (Visit Taeyoon Choi’s website.)

RG/AB: Taeyoon’s work inspired us immediately. We knew about his School for Poetic Computation in New York, a place of great curiosity and experimentation. The name itself brings C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” into dialogue—art and science, or, in the case of SPAN, design and technology. While we were working on SPAN, Taeyoon led a workshop at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn called the Handmade Computer, and we had to marvel at the simplicity of sharing the messy work of computer-making with a group of semi-technical students and artists who genuinely wanted to examine and find new connection with the technology they use everyday. We invited Taeyoon to reprise the workshop at SPAN New York, where it was one of our most popular sessions, and for the reader he contributed one of his marvellous hand-illustrated stories. For Taeyoon, the lesson—and perhaps the resistance he speaks of in his quote—comes from placing the computer back into human hands and in the decidedly unpredictable spark that comes from that unstructured programming. Taeyoon’s work is a lesson to us all to leave space in our systems for discovery and delight.

 

Page 115
Keller Easterling, on systems design and “know how” 

“While architects and urbanists typically design object forms with shape and outline or master plans, sometimes more powerful than designing a thing is developing an interplay between things—active forms that serve as a platform for shaping a stream of objects or a population effect.” (Read the full article.)

RG/AB: Much of the core team working on SPAN was familiar with Keller’s deep, probing work with the effects of technological infrastructure on the urban environment, and these moments where technology enters and changes the scene was something we thought SPAN should address with Keller as our guide. As we got deeper into several of her essays, it was a pleasure to find prose that was evocative and suggestive of the ways that technology has reshaped how we assess our present-day existence. That it becomes harder to know how to shape a building without an awareness of the software that runs it, or the data that shapes it, or the flows of activity that surround it, or the hardware it houses. This tangle of issues, she suggests, dissolves a firm sense of knowing that something should be shaped in a specific way into a different kind of accrued knowledge, knowing how. At SPAN New York she explained that “You can know how to kiss.” In her essay, she credits her interest in know how to Gilbert Ryle, a British philosopher who coined the now-widespread phrase “the ghost in the machine,” though the machine in his meaning was our own bodies, not our devices. On a more practical level, as designers working hand in hand with engineers, we could not agree more with Keller’s assessment. So much of our formal expression is borne on platforms where products are interacting and influencing a stream of interdependent experiences. In including this essay in the reader, we wanted to celebrate her work and point to these fundamental concepts as well.

 

Page 134
Justin McGuirk, on the smart home 

“As the primary interface of the “internet of things,” the smart home is effectively the tendrils of the network rising out of the ground and into every one of our household appliances to allow mass data collection and digital surveillance.” (Read the full article.)

RG/AB: Justin’s essay, and his subsequent talk at SPAN London, captured beautifully the complex web of issues at play in questions of privacy and security. We both want our devices to do more and must constantly adjust and check that desire other political and social aspects of our humanity. His talk at SPAN highlighted how different cultures have answered questions of urban privacy in different ways—some requiring more, some less—and like SPAN more broadly we find this complex and nuanced result to be the most truthful. We included the essay to remind designers, especially digital and product designers working in this space, of their responsibility to both delight and guide users. We also included it because Justin’s essay, along with other scholarship on this issue, helps to make what can be an invisible shift of having sensors and data in our domestic spaces more visible. At SPAN, Rob invoked a lesson from Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn as an earlier parallel. Brand says one of the problems with using vinyl siding on houses instead of wooden siding is that vinyl hides rot and other structural flaws beneath the surface. Wood, in Brand’s eyes, is the better material because it doesn’t shield this process. Instead, wood is easy to patch and it alerts a homeowner when repairs needed. In so doing, it makes the home’s real-time structural integrity more visible.

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Span Reader (2015)

Page 156
Geoff Manaugh, on illegal uses of space revealing new dimensions
“The FBI’s unsettling discovery of a hidden topological dimension tucked away somehow inside the surface of the city is a stunning moment—the relation that, on a different plane, point A might illicitly be connected to point B, and that, in a sense, it is the burglar’s role to make this link real, to operationalize urban topology. The burglar, in this context, is a kind of three-dimensional actor amid the two-dimensional surfaces and objects of the city, finding ways out, through, between and around what you and I would otherwise take at face value as walls, floors, ceilings, or even simply doors.” (Read the full article.)

RG/AB: We’ve known Geoff and been fans of his writing on BLDG BLOG for years, and his new book A Burglar’s Guide to the City draws some really wonderful ideas out about urbanism, privacy, security, technology, and experience by looking how how the city is used by those who disobey its laws. He describes burglars as “actors” in the quote you’ve selected, but they’re “users” of the city just the same, and, perhaps more accurately, they’re “analogue hackers!” For SPAN, we saw such a natural affinity between Keller and Geoff’s work—their tendency to celebrate the margins of the built environment as having the most compelling narratives, or the greatest potential for innovation (“use and misuse”). Disruption is such an overused phrase these days in tech, but Geoff’s plea for designers to find the “design briefs hidden in everyday life” is really empowering designers (and thinkers, artists alike) to be agents of change, not just interpreters. ■

 

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Span Reader (2015)

Most of the content in the SPAN Reader (text and video) can be accessed via Google Design’s website or their Medium page.

Type Designers Q&A: Or Type

Or Type is an Icelandic type foundry established in 2013 by Guðmundur Úlfarsson & Mads Freund Brunse.   Postcard showcasing Landnáma, 2015 (Photography: Moos-Tang).   This past summer, a number of us here in the Design Department first encountered Or Type’s website (developed by Owen Hoskins). In addition to the fresh selection of typefaces, we […]

Or Type is an Icelandic type foundry established in 2013 by Guðmundur Úlfarsson & Mads Freund Brunse.

 
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Postcard showcasing Landnáma, 2015 (Photography: Moos-Tang).

 

This past summer, a number of us here in the Design Department first encountered Or Type’s website (developed by Owen Hoskins). In addition to the fresh selection of typefaces, we were impressed by the interactivity of Or Type’s live, editable font testing fields that cleverly retain the words and characters typed-in by previous (or current) visitors to the website. As a cheeky disclaimer on the website pronounces: “ON AIR—Everything you type is recorded and instantaneously sent out on the wire.”

Other type foundries certainly make use of this type of live/editable font testing feature in varying degrees, but certain subtle moments set the experience of interacting with Or Type’s website a part from others. For example: Try typing in your favorite 4-letter curse word in one of the font testing fields and hit your Enter/Return key, or hit the Rewind icon in the bottom-right corner of the page to witness a sort of sped-up recording which plays in reverse while displaying the characters and words that visitors have typed-in, or click the Or Type logo in the bottom-left corner on the page to reveal so-called poems of the strung-together words that have been typed-in by visitors. This collection of tested words was even used by Or Type to auto-generate several volumes of books (doubling as Or Type’s printed type specimens) that are available through Lulu.

Guðmundur and Mads have created a bold and diverse collection of typefaces that have been making some notable appearances in the past year: from being used on the cover of international photography magazine, Foam, to the cover of the London-based music magazine The Wire, to the typographic identity for the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Below, the Reykjavík and London-based designers have responded to twelve questions regarding their practice as type designers.

 
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Postcard showcasing Separat, 2015

 

Ryan Gerald Nelson (RGN): Do you have an ultimate goal in terms of where you hope to see one of your typefaces in use someday? (Being used by a major car brand? By a sports team? In a film title? Other?)

Or Type: We’ve always wanted to make a typeface for football (guess it’s soccer for you) jerseys and last year that dream came true! We made it to the back of the Icelandic national team jerseys. They then went on to make into the finals of the Euro 2016. In actuality, that project was a bit of a mess though. In the end, they had mixed up weights and styles and it all looked kind of odd. So we’re hoping to be able to fix it before the next Euros, but we haven’t heard from them yet, which is worrying.

 
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An overview photo of the Or Type launch exhibition of in Gallery Þoka, Reykjavík, 2013.

 

RGN: When it comes to creating a typeface, it seems that there are now more alternatives to the traditional font-making program of choice: FontLab. If you use FontLab, what convinces you to stay with FontLab? If not, what is your font-making program of choice?

Or Type: Our program of choice is Glyphs by Georg Seifert. To be honest, FontLab kind of ran out of time. It was getting really outdated and Glyphs just stepped in and convinced us to come on board. I think that even was the reason why Georg started making Glyphs: he just got sick of the old FontLab. Since then, FontLab has made a major update and is looking quite slick to be honest, but we’re really happy with working in Glyphs now.

RGN: Which character do you find the most difficult to draw/create? Give us an analogy to help us understand what drawing this character is like.

Or Type: It’s difficult not to answer “S/s” to this question. It can get extremely frustrating, but then again, of course really satisfying to finish the S/s.

 
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The current selection of Or Type S/s’s.

 

RGN: Have you ever discovered one of your typefaces being used in a really unexpected place or project?

Or Type: We noticed that a cruise ship company recently bought one of our typefaces. Seeing our typeface on a cruise ship would certainly be unexpected.

RGN: Did you both formally study type design? Or are you guys self-taught?

Or Type: We had some courses when we were at school, but we haven’t gone to study type design specifically.

RGN: Your guys’ homepage is quite unique in that it displays a number of font testing areas that record the words and characters that are typed-in by previous visitors of the site. These words and characters are retained and displayed until a new visitor comes along and replaces what’s displayed. That said, what’s the most bizarre thing that you guys have seen typed-in and left behind by a visitor?

Or Type: We see a lot of things—all kinds of things really. We get love and hate letters through there, intern requests, and all kinds of stuff. The other day we noticed that someone wrote “Will you marry me?”, but we’ve yet to hear if that was a real proposal or not.

 
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A screenshot from ortype.is of the possible marriage proposal.

 

 

A screenshot from ortype.is showing someone commenting on Or Type’s kerning.

 

RGN: Of your offerings, which typeface is your most popular amongst your customers? And do you have any theory as to why this is your most popular typeface?

Or Type: Since we launched our new website last year, or best-sellers seem to be Landnáma and Separat. These are also the typefaces which seem to be around and which we stumble upon most frequently.

 
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Landnáma used by GUNMAD for the book Competing Temporalities by Lloyd Corporation, London, 2013.

 

RGN: Of all the times you’ve seen your typeface in use, has there ever been an instance in which you’ve been appalled by how the designer used your typeface?

Or Type: I guess we have a very specific way of using our typefaces, so often when you see people working in a different way it can be strange to see your own typefaces in that context. Having said that, sometimes it feels as though we designed the projects that make use of our typefaces, probably because of the nuanced characteristics of our letters. So never really appalled, no, not yet.

 
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Unreleased typeface, Las Vegas, used by Elana Schelnker for the “Time Travel” issue of Conveyor Magazine, New York, 2015.

 

RGN: In your opinion, are there too many typefaces in existence? Or not enough? Are those questions relevant to you as you begin creating a typeface?

Or Type: You could say that, but the same goes for everything: too many records, too many cars, etc. At least we’re not polluting the earth by making more. Having said that, it’s relevant for us to design a typeface that doesn’t already exist. This is an important part of our practise—to create something fresh and original.

 
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Unreleased typeface, Lemmen Antiqua, used with Rather in the latest “Talent” issue of FOAM magazine. Designed by Vandejong, Amsterdam.

 

RGN: When you describe your work/profession to family and friends who are not acquainted with typography and type design, what do you say?

Or Type: Simply, that we draw letters and sell them.

 
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Or Type exhibition at Geysir during DesignMarch 2015, Reykjavík.

 

RGN: Matthew Carter rocks an iconic ponytail—what are your feelings on this subject? And do either of you aspire to sport an iconic look of your own?

Or Type: I think we both wanna rock the ponytail when we turn 78. Guðmundur already has long hair, so he could sport that look at anytime.

 
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Or Type portrait from DesignMarch 2015, Reykjavík.

 
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Rather used by GUNMAD for a book by Merete Vyff Slyngborg, Copenhagen, 2013.

 

RGN: What’s more of a consideration for you when designing a typeface: screen or print? Or are these contexts irrelevant?

Or Type: It’s been mostly print up until recently, but making fonts ready for both web and screen is definitely a part of the next step of development for Or Type. Given the speed at which these technologies are developing, we’ve never consciously been too geeky about making our fonts for a certain resolution—it will soon all be HD screens anyway.

RGN: Many thanks for your time, Guðmundur and Mads!

 
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Or Type exhibition at Unit Gallery, London, in conjunction with the re-release of the Or Type website, 2015.

 

—See more of Or Type’s work on their website, Facebook, or Tumblr.

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