Blogs The Gradient Interviews

2015: The Year According to Michael Oswell

Berlin, December 2015 To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from graphic designer Na Kim to filmmaker Tala Hadid, artist Adam Pendleton to the Black Futures project—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2015. See the entire series 2015: […]

2015-header

TYAT_MO_Michael

Berlin, December 2015

To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from graphic designer Na Kim to filmmaker Tala Hadid, artist Adam Pendleton to the Black Futures project—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2015. See the entire series 2015: The Year According to                                   .

Michael Oswell is a British–born designer based in the Schengen Zone. He is interested in operating in unconventional contexts, regarding design as a kind of terraforming; mediating between fact, fiction and rumour. He has made songs about graphic designers. Teaching, exhibitions, accolades, etc. More words. Client list. Call today.
 

Firstly an apologetic preface: this is less a catalogue rarefied selections from a tastemaker at the top of their game so much as a collection of personal synaptic touch-points that marked 2015 as a difficult, disturbing, joyful year. The first months were spent freaking out over mysterious health problems that culminated in an emergency cholecystectomy. Two weeks later, a tentative move to Berlin—a thoroughly revitalising experience later dulled by the theft of my backpack containing items that consitute ‘home’ to a nomad. My laptop, my phone(s), my passport. A second psychological scare, resolved through a rich tapestry of friendship, colleagues, collaboration.

As such, a number of the following selections didn’t materialise this year; they just happened through circumstance to play a role in it. I didn’t read as much this year as I should have; I went to fewer art openings and film screenings; and my experience of new music came from frequenting (admittedly rather good) techno clubs. I have been a Bad Graphicdesigner: I have failed in my task to actively take in the world and infuse it into my life’s work. I’ve used culture this year as a comforting eiderdown, my filter bubble is in full effect. With apologies, here are my things of 2015.




2015-01

TYAT_MO_Vril

Torus XXIII, by Vril

In the Hall on the evening of January 1st, I heard the distinctive 110bpm clicking; the continually descending, guitar-like riff signalling that 2014 was in the process of being sucked down and remodelled. The clicking continued onto the train back, onto my bike through the streets in the rain, into waiting rooms of varying medical specificity.

 




2015-02

TYAT_MO_Easterling_Extrastatecraft

Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft. Published by Verso. Designed by Michael Oswell.

Extrastatecraft, by Keller Easterling

Two confessions. Firstly, this book was published in late 2014, and secondly, I designed its jacket (art directed as always by Verso’s Andy Pressman). One of the dictates of book cover design is that you should always read the book before you design the cover – a dictate established by someone with no concept of contemporary publishing production timelines. I didn’t have a chance to read the book until this year, so in it goes.

 




2015-03

TYAT_MO_Ashkan

MOUNTGROVE / Everything I know about Technocapitalism, I learned at Berghain

Ashkan Sepahvand is a writer who amongst other things runs the Technosexual reading circle here in Berlin; in its extended and informal incarnations it’s resulted in some stimulating conversations of varying degrees of coherence about contemporary selfhood, collectivity, sex, technology and the future of the species. Everything I Know About Technocapitalism…, a performative lecture, falls under the umbrella of Mountgrove – the sprawling, delirious science-fictional imaginary of a well-known techno club, home to the intermorphs and other demiurgic concepts. It was first performed at the ICA in May; I managed to see a later performance at Spektrum in Berlin. Delirious, super ambivalent, and ultimately accurate. Our happiness is a horizon, and a platform.

 




2015-04

TYAT_MO_Sans_Soleil

Sans Soleil, by Chris Marker

 




2015-05

TYAT_MO_Nausea

The Nausea of Uploading, by Jaakko Pallasvuo

Commanding attention in exchange for network kudos doesn’t feel like a sustainable form of life. The mainline kick of getting retweeted has dulled. Public discourse got soured by layer upon layer of second-guessing and assumption of bad faith. This year, the backchannels were more rich, more vital. But I don’t want to Quit Social Media To Focus On Real Life. I want to lurk—as Jaakko says, deleting twitter is just the “having a buzzworthy twitter.”

 




2015-06

TYAT_MO_Buffalo

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Buffalo), 1988–89

Untitled (Buffalo), by David Wojnarowicz

At some point in the summer, I made Untitled (Buffalo) the wallpaper for both my computer and my phone. It must surely have something to say about 2015. The image came back to me after seeing it used on YouTube as the background for a Delia Derbyshire radio composition, in which different voices recall dreams of falling. The combination did a certain something to the image, which is so rooted in a certain epoch of AIDS activism. All these different ways for buffalo to fall.

 




2015-07

TYAT_MO_Vainqueur

Reduce 2, by Vainqueur

A single notch-filtered FM chord, breathing, in, out, in, out; a jittering high-pass-filtered stab of noise for a hihat; a round, enveloping kick – this track, which came out in 1996, unfurled itself at approximately 3:30am on October 12, in the process becoming a new affective cipher I’ve yet to fully dekode.

 




2015-08

KIC 8462852

Probably not a Dyson swarm. But not definitively not-A-Dyson-Swarm until definitively proven not to not be not-a-Dyson-swarm.

 




2015-09

TYAT_MO_Black_Transparency

Black Transparency: The Right to Know in the Age of Mass Surveillance (2015), by Metahaven

Black Transparency, by Metahaven

The bare possessions of a non-person living in a non-place.
A laptop.
A backpack.
A night with friends.
An on-and-off relationship.
A temporary job.
A trove of secrets.

We have a non-plan.
All we do is show that we still exist.

A delicious neapolitan ice-cream of a book.

 




2015-10

TYAT_MO_Dave

David Cameron Fucked A Dead Pig

The British media’s reaction to Jeremy Corbyn showed what a deeply fucked up establishment it really is, but its treatment of this delicious pink faberge egg of a story really sealed the deal. I had the great pleasure of reading defences of Cameron that amounted to the underclasses are simply jealous that they don’t get to FUCK DEAD PIGS and who *hasn’t* fucked a dead pig in their youth?. Hilarious but irrelevant. None of us will ever look at Dave the same way ever again. He will forever be David Cameron, Who Fucked A Dead Pig. This whole affair was an oasis of pure and unblemished joy, a real highlight.




Bonus:
11. IMF: It Gets Better (Pinkwashing Version)

Extra:
12. Saying “No” to Nomadism (#NeauxMoNomadisme)
13. The Continued Evolution of ASMR Videos (#Rule34b)
14. Hay guise its meh (#NeverGiveUpOnYourDreams___________LikeEvenIfYouReallyWantToJustDzohnt)
15. Goodbye, by Bottoms
16. Enya Revival (#LetTheOrinicoFlow)
17. Progress Bar (#WhatWouldOstgutDo)
18. Pierre Bernard
19. ISIS Dildo Flag (#SexToysAsLanguage)
20. London’s continued decline and war on nightlife
21. Bono’s on-stage tribute to Paris (#NousSommesTousParis)
22. PrEP
23. 9/11 Building 7, by Martin Noakes (#OpenFireCantMeltSteelItsNotHotEnough)
24. Unedited Footage of a Bear
25. The concept of Yanis Varoufakis
26. Trance (#ItWillAlwaysBeWithYou)

2015: The Year According to Na Kim

To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from graphic designer Michael Oswell to filmmaker Tala Hadid, artist Adam Pendleton to the Black Futures project—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2015. See the entire series 2015: The Year According […]

2015-header

Na Kim. Photo: LESS

Na Kim. Photo: LESS

To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from graphic designer Michael Oswell to filmmaker Tala Hadid, artist Adam Pendleton to the Black Futures project—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2015. See the entire series 2015: The Year According to                                   .

After receiving her MFA in 2008 from the Werkplaats Typografie (Arnhem, NL), Na Kim launched her own Seoul-based studio. Most recently, Kim has been an artist-in-residence at Doosan Gallery in New York since July 2015 (and concluding in December 2015).


2015-01

SET, exhibition view

SET in New York

Since this past July, I’ve been staying in New York for a six-month artist residency program at Doosan Gallery. During this stay, I created a solo exhibition in addition to publishing an artist book—both of which are titled SET.

SET, exhibition view

SET, the solo exhibition of Na Kim—one of the DOOSAN Artist Awards 2013 recipients—was on exhibit from October 8th–November 5th, 2015 at Doosan Gallery in New York. With a background in graphic design, Na Kim creates expansive work that freely traverses the boundary between fine art and design. By doing away with pre-existing rules and symbolic meanings, Kim studies the essential elements in form, rearranging it based on its geometric standards. In SET, Kim’s work from the past 10 years will be exhibited in one space, and a namesake catalogue will be shown as part of the exhibition. Regardless of production year, medium, commission, etc, the catalogue comprises of design and other works that are reordered according to the visual elements found in each work. The production and editing of this catalogue is a collaborative effort with graphic designer Joris Kritis. As it is the first time Kim has handed over the designer role to another person, she intends to redefine the notion of the artist and the designer’s role. Along those lines, the wall and floor space of the exhibition will be divided in a similar proportion as the catalogue’s design, then the works in the catalogue will be made into wall drawing, serving as the set for a performance that will coincide with the visual aspects of Kim’s work. In this way, Kim’s work brings out the intrinsic distinctions between fine art and design, tearing down the boundaries of process and form. And by expanding into the realm of installation and performance, the artist shows the possibilities of a cohesive and unified body of work. It is these reconstituted and restructured heterogeneous elements that point towards and reveal new meaning and potential.

 

SET, Publication by Roma

 




2015-02

Je_suis_Kiri_1

Je suis Kiri

The whole world was shocked by the shooting at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Paris endured additional terror attacks in the latter part of this year, but the Charlie Hebdo attack was the starting point of the debates on many aspects against terrorism in Europe. I became aware of Hara-Kiri—a former body of Charlie Hebdo which had been more progressive and daring than now—as a result of this tragedy. RIP the brave, Stupid and Vicious. Look at those covers!

Je_suis_Kiri_2

The French journal Hara-Kiri was a satirical journal published once per month. The journal contains many insults, plenty of black humor, abominations, vile pictures, and really harsh writing. The main featured themes were adult content, violence, body horror, as well as political provocations. See more amazing covers.

Je_suis_Kiri_3




2015-03

selfie stick

Tourists use a selfie stick outside The Louvre in Paris, which is expected to follow Versailles and ban the selfie stick from inside the building.

Narcisstick

This new invention has undoubtedly become a must-have amongst tourists and social networking types. Now, the selfie stick has become a nuisance and potential liability. Read more about why galleries and museums and banning selfie sticks.




2015-04

zaha-hadid-reinhold-messner-mountain-museum-mmm-corones-kronplatz-alps-mountaintop-designboom-06

MMM Corners mmm

A few years ago I saw a concept image for the MMM Corners museum and immediately thought that I have never seen such an aggressive and stupid work of architecture before. And now, unfortunately, it’s real.

Read more about the museum on Designboom or from the evil architect, Zaha Hadid.

th_65d1300db123ce22f6e2569fb36764f8_08_zha_mmmcorones_wernerhuthmacher_05
zaha-hadid-reinhold-messner-mountain-museum-mmm-corones-kronplatz-alps-mountaintop-designboom-09
zaha-hadid-reinhold-messner-mountain-museum-mmm-corones-kronplatz-alps-mountaintop-designboom-07

 




2015-05

NAWROT_11-web

Karl Nawrot, Selection from LIG Art Hall poster series

Karl Nawrot & Mind Walk

One of my favorite graphic designers, Karl Nawrot won the first prize at the Chaumont International Poster and Graphic Design Festival in 2015. His LIG Art Hall poster series was a great example of how a graphic designer can create an autonomous approach for translating and giving form to the content of contemporary culture. Recently, Karl is having an solo exhibition at Bel Ordinaire, Pau.

NAWROT_12-web

Karl Nawrot, Selection from LIG Art Hall poster series

 

NAWROT_13-web

Karl Nawrot, Selection from LIG Art Hall poster series




2015-06

unlimited-edition

Unlimited Edition

Fairs, Art and Books

“Why has there been such a boom in art book fairs?”—Supporting Yannick’s point, there were 2 events in Seoul in the past year. One is Goods, the (sort of) alternative art fair and the other is Unlimited Edition, the art book fair already in its 7th year. This kind of culture, comparably, has a short history, but both of these art/book fairs were a great success in attracting visitors. Additionally, young artists and designers are finding their own way to exhibit and sell their art works or products. Read more about Goods.

 




2015-07

martyanddocbrown_backtothefuture

After 30 years

I have to admit that I was a fan of Michael J. Fox. Not only did the Back to the Future trilogy celebrate the 30th anniversary of its beginning this year, but the moment in the future that Marty McFly travels to—October 21, 2015—was also celebrated. I miss these adorable guys—Dr. Brown and Marty, from my childhood.

01-Mr-Fusion

 




2015-08

Na Kim, Identity for Art Sonje Center, 2015

Identity for ASJC

I designed a new visual identity for Art Sonje Center in Seoul, which they began applying to their website and materials this year.

Na Kim, Identity for Art Sonje Center, 2015

 

Na Kim, Identity for Art Sonje Center, 2015

 




2015-09

na-kim-avatar

Na Kim, avatar

Want to transform yourself?

It’s easy and fun. My Idol is an amazing new app for making avatar. A great way to kill time, but in certain moments quite scary.

 




2015-10

image00

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster at Centre Pompidou, Paris

The best exhibition in 2015.

image04
image05

 

2015: The Year According to Hassan Rahim

To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from graphic designer Na Kim to filmmaker Tala Hadid, artist Adam Pendleton to the Black Futures project—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2015. See the entire series 2015: The Year According […]

2015-header

390528_285373248235693_1444958694_n

To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from graphic designer Na Kim to filmmaker Tala Hadid, artist Adam Pendleton to the Black Futures project—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2015. See the entire series 2015: The Year According to                                   .

Hassan Rahim is an artist, art director, and publisher. He has worked with a variety of culture producers including Ghostly International, Jay-Z, Suited Magazine, THVM, Wet, Marilyn Manson, MMOTHS, and more. He is co-founder of publishing platform Shabazz Projects, and has shown his personal work in Amsterdam, Milan, Miami, and Los Angeles.


2015-10

NYC-Under-Water-Flooding

Surging Seas

“In 100 years, this is going to be beach front property!” This map from Climate Central illustrates how the ocean’s water will overflow in best and worst case global warming scenarios. Additionally new reports suggest the sea level rise has slowed the earth’s rotation by 1.7 milliseconds.


2015-09

Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 10.03.02 PM

Björk Live at City Center, NY

Tickets were $$$ but we had to make it happen. First time seeing Björk live. I wasn’t even familiar with the new album, which initially concerned me but turns out it barely mattered, her great performance paired with the general soundscape felt like I knew every song. Arca was low-key the star of the show with his outfit though.


2015-08

Floating Points, Elaenia

Album of the year, hands down. Floating Points has been on my radar for a long time, and I don’t think anyone expected a jazz album from him. Oh, and he’s studying for his PHD in “The Neuroscience of Pain.” You know, on the side.

© The Vinyl Factory, 2015 best LP vinyl record releases, Photography Michael Wilkin


2015-07

tumblr_nhtsvuDAMy1qbzelyo1_1280

Damaris Goddrie

2015 showed the rise of many great models of color in the fashion world. I keep up with the industry pretty closely, especially as my girlfriend (Jessica Willis) is a stylist. In particular we both were dead in love with Damaris on sight—she has such a classic look.


2015-06

Assassins

What Are Thooooose?!


2015-05

Nl8KjBO_-_Imgur

“The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence”

An eye opening piece on the exponential growth of human technology. Long read. My favorite vocabulary takeaway was the term “DPU,” or “Die Process Unit” — the amount of years a person would have to travel into the future to “literally die of shock” at how advanced and incomprehensible the world is to him.

Tesseract scene from Interstellar2014


2015-04

on stage during the BRIT Awards 2015 at The O2 Arena on February 25, 2015 in London, England.

Kanye West, “All Day” (Live At The 2015 Brit Awards)

The song wasn’t huge, but this was the most powerful TV performance in years. Clearly racially charged and totally unexpected. The looks on the crowd’s faces.


2015-03

b06705f918880a60e6746df3206bc388

Martine Syms, Vertical Elevated Oblique

Walker readers may know her name very well by now, but if not, watch for it. Martine had an amazing debut solo show at Bridgette Donahue this year, the works of which were primarily inspired by a riff on a popular joke, “Everybody wanna be a black woman but nobody wanna be a black woman.”


2015-02

18DYINGweb1-superJumbo-v2

The Lonely Death of George Bell

A riveting article by the New York Times, chronicling the process of investigating the life of a rather unknown hoarder who quietly passed away in his filthy Queens apartment. The journalist follows the city on their full journey, from tracking down his family/friends, to allocating his estate, and eventually burial. “Sometimes, along the way, a life’s secrets are revealed.”


2015-01

L2010.35--S

West to East

On a personal note, 2015 will always be important to me as the year I moved to New York. My girlfriend Jessica and I left Los Angeles, clearly against the flow of most artist migration, to experience a new pace of life. So far, living in New York has given me perspective I couldn’t attain in California. But mostly, imagine growing up with movies like Home Alone but never having snow on Christmas!

Thomas Demand, Gangway, 2001

2015: The Year According to Åbäke

To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from graphic designer Na Kim to filmmaker Tala Hadid, artist Adam Pendleton to artist and publisher Hassam Rahim—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2015. See the entire series 2015: The Year […]

2015-header

SONY DSC

official portrait, Aurélien Mole 2012

To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from graphic designer Na Kim to filmmaker Tala Hadid, artist Adam Pendleton to artist and publisher Hassam Rahim—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2015. See the entire series 2015: The Year According to                                   .

Åbäke is a transdisciplinary design studio based in London, working in the fields of graphic design, fashion, art, publishing, film, cuisine, music, furniture, dance, architecture, etc. “[Åbäke] means ‘something in between’, ‘a hulky rusty car which still functions but is not pretty’, ‘something clumsy’, ‘very large thing’, ‘monstrosity’, rather negative definitions but they somehow loosely describe what we do.” *


2015-01

polls_25290_mute_0722_189607_poll_xlarge

No news

A strange year regarding what news comes into one’s life. I gradually stopped buying newspapers or RSS-feeding myself with media which felt either focused on the negative or simply lying to us. Of course, Fox News is still a must to understand how low we have come. The only place I’d get a glimpse of what was happening was at airports. Even there, television screens are mute, which leaves some place to imagination. It’s just a ride, as Bill Hicks said once.


2015-02

Marty-McFly-Costume11

21 October 2015, the day Marty McFly arrived now

I was in the audience at a talk on that day. The speaker was wearing too many layers for the over heated conference room and kept taking clothes off and on while speaking of what has now left my memory. Retrospectively I understand he was wearing the Marty McFly outfit or equivalent, celebrating it for himself.


2015-03

flagsmall_bw

31 December 2015

I fell asleep early and dreamt of the Olympics and the US presidential election. I know who won yet cannot remember.


2015-04

Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 6.02.02 PM

25 February 2015

My friend Yair Barelli and I are locked in a house for a week with ten students. We all agree to not discuss what happened with people outside.


2015-05

Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 10.18.22 PM

11 July 2015

A year ago (take or leave a few days) On Kawara died. He’s still present, that’s cool.


2015-06

Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 10.47.25 PM

13 March 2015

A baby was born in Sweden. In exactly 17 years time, few people know she will win the football World Cup for Nigeria, abolishing racism. Wow.


2015-07

0.285

25 October 2015

Lotte Keller made a beef stew. Her children happily judged it the absolute best dish ever in the history of cooking. They even ate the salad without dressing.


2015-08

24-horas

3 January 2015

Stefano Carcetti, a student from Rome, didn’t use Internet or buy anything for the whole 24 hours.


2015-09

12-leonidas-pure-praline-belgium-chocolates-seafood-collection234

25 November 2015

Julia Simon, a waitress in Brussels, buys a box of chocolate. She realises how bizarre it is they should be shaped as mussels and shrimps. She spends the next week asking people what they think of it.

Type Designers Q&A: Heavyweight

Heavyweight, a Prague-based type foundry, was established by Filip Matejicek and Jan Horcik in 2014. Filip and Jan were kind enough to set aside some of their time to respond to ten questions regarding their practice as type designers. They elaborate on their entry points into type design, observing their typefaces in use out in the world, their […]

Heavyweight, a Prague-based type foundry, was established by Filip Matejicek and Jan Horcik in 2014.

Filip and Jan were kind enough to set aside some of their time to respond to ten questions regarding their practice as type designers. They elaborate on their entry points into type design, observing their typefaces in use out in the world, their aspirations as a type foundry, reacting to and evolving alongside the field of graphic design, and more.

 

11

Endless Illusion Records (CZ), Ideomatic (FR); Graphic design by Filip Matejicek and Jan Horcik; Font by Heavyweight: Pano (coming soon)

Ryan Gerald Nelson (RGN): In looking back at your younger days, are you aware of the moment or period of time at which you first became interested in letterforms and how they were made?

Heavyweight (Jan): I came across typography and typefaces as such for the first time while painting graffiti in the first year of high school. Back then, I was highly interested in hip-hop culture, a part of which is graffiti, yet this culture intertwines with several fields which are often associated with authentic visual expression. It was only during my studies of Typography at a college in Prague when I experienced the need for basing my graphic design works on a distinctive typeface, considering that I was quite unimpressed by the generally available typefaces at that time.

Heavyweight (Filip): I remember the moment when one of my friends shared with me a catalogue of graphic design creations (unfortunately, I do not recall the title of the book). It happened during my first year of high school. While flipping through the book, we reached a chapter solely about typography. There was this pure use of typography and beautiful layout, of beautiful books, large details of shapes, etc. This chapter, for me, was completely different from any other graphic design which the book offered. I fell in love with those forms. Right at that moment, I naively desired to develop a coherent set of characters and use them in my own works. Yet it was impossible, since I was unable to create it at that time. That is, in my opinion, the moment when I became interested in typography in a rather complex way.

 

Heavyweight type specimen

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.

Heavyweight: This is quite a challenging question, considering the amount of letters and characters that an entire typeface demands. However, if we look at it from a general perspective and ignore the coherent characteristics and feelings of the letters in relation to the entire alphabet, then the most difficult letters are those which stand-out on viewing the entire alphabet as a whole. We presume that you will not be surprised when we mention the characters of “s”, “g”, and similar characters. However, in order not to sound so superficial, also such relatively overlooked characters of “,” or “~” cause a lot of trouble while being created. All of these examples are not that difficult to draw by themselves without any connection to other letters. Yet, when it comes to gracefully fitting these characters into the nature of the alphabet and even support it, then they become very important and difficult.

 

Heavyweight type specimens; Font in use: Left

Heavyweight type specimens; Font in use: Left

RGN: What’s your process for naming your typefaces?

Heavyweight: When choosing names for typefaces, we attach importance to the reason of their creation. In our case, a lot of typefaces were created for a specific occasion, even though they were not drawn to be strictly customized. When inventing names for typefaces, we also consider the practicalities of promoting the typefaces and their inclusion into specimens and similar promotional materials. For us, the name should simply support the feeling that the typeface awakens.

 

Heavyweight type specimen; Font in use: Left

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?)

Heavyweight: This is an interesting question which we honestly haven’t entirely considered yet. Perhaps because none of our typefaces have made it to that level yet. A better idea of what is and what isn’t possible will be realized when we launch our website (which should happen soon). However, we would be lying if we said that we don’t envision our typefaces being generously used, for example, within the cultural sphere, or in certain international art galleries, or as part of a graphic identity for a city’s transportation system, or a large sign on a huge cargo ship, and more. We also like to imagine, for example, a typeface of ours being applied to a space shuttle which heads for the universe as part of a space agency’s visual identity.

 

Heavyweight type specimens; Font in use: Gletscher

Heavyweight type specimens; Font in use: Gletscher

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

Heavyweight: In some cases, it is quite difficult to trace all applications of our typefaces. Yet it is true that the power of the internet is obvious and there is a lot of information coming our way through the graphic design community.

As the time goes by and while growing up with and observing the field of graphic design, we’ve become more naturally inclined to create typefaces which are less characteristic and more universal, yet still with the Heavyweight authenticity. The only exception that we can recall is the Topol typeface which was our first jointly-produced typeface, and while celebrating its creation we offered it for free download for one week. As a result of this benevolent move, we received paradoxically strange, often even surprisingly negative responses from people who didn’t belong to the graphic design community at all. This was an unintended, yet very interesting and valuable insight into the perspective of other people and their reaction to “different” typefaces.

 

Heavyweight type specimen—silkscreened poster (594mm x 841mm); Font in use: Topol;

Heavyweight type specimen—silkscreened poster (594mm x 841mm); Font in use: Topol;

 

Heavyweight type specimen; Font in use: Topol Narrow Sans

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?

Heavyweight: At the moment, we offer four typefaces and the most popular of them all is Danzza. We always find it interesting to ask ourselves the question of why it is that this typeface is so popular as well as questioning how to make other typefaces that can be equally as popular. When Danzza was being created, our thought was that this typeface should be drawn as a grotesque that was more geometric, all the while capturing the current tone of graphic design. But we also followed our own taste while creating Danzza.

The truth is that all of our typefaces have been based on the model and approach we used to create Danzza. Thus, if Danzza had less stylistic character, it would probably not be so popular. In the end, we feel that an ideal typeface should contain only as much (or as little) stylistic character as to not feel stale, but to also be created in such a way as to reflect the leanings of contemporary graphic design.

 

Heavyweight type specimen; Font in use: Danzza

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?

Heavyweight: We haven’t really been dismayed by anything we’ve seen yet. However, we were surprised regarding certain uses of our typeface, Topol, which reached a lot of people over the internet and who used the typeface in many different ways.

Honestly, we would like to see our typefaces used in a manner which we are not used to. This is related to your earlier question, since seeing a typeface in use, from a different perspective, also helps to uncover the typeface’s hidden potential. On the other hand, it’s also interesting to see the slightly erroneous or odd uses of the typeface that emerge when the typeface is used by a “lay person”. We have, of course, seen typefaces being used by lay people, yet not in an odd situation that’s worth mentioning.

RGN: What’s the impetus behind the making of your typefaces? Being commissioned by client? Attempting to fill a void in the world of available typefaces? A custom creation for a project that you’re a graphic designer for? A combination of? None of the above?

Heavyweight: In fact, all of the above is true. Sometimes, we create a logotype which then evolves into an entire typeface. Sometimes it is an entire project which is so important that it’s worth it to create a special typeface. And sometimes we are also approached directly for the creation of a specific typeface. However, should we talk about the future, we’re most inclined to create typefaces that further complement our selection of current typefaces. We would really not like to find ourselves simply offering standard grotesques or headline typefaces, nor oldstyle serif typefaces, for example.

 

Heavyweight type specimen; Font in use: Joe182; Photo: Michaela Čejková

Heavyweight type specimen; Font in use: Joe182; Photo: Michaela Čejková

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

Heavyweight: Prior to any drawing of a typeface itself, we do not think about the way that the typeface is going to work in print or on the screen. More importantly, we consider a range of things: the manner of the typeface’s functioning within a text in general, the feelings that the typeface awakens, how modern the typeface should be or how much of a link to history the typeface should include, as well as similar topics.

Considerations of screen or print applications are mostly of secondary importance, yet the client may, at times, give us an assignment which will limit the typeface only for use on a website, for example. In that moment, we clearly approach the task differently. We do not consider the influence of technology and the quality of display, but rather the form of the media as such. After all, these two different manners of application can be combined successfully.

 

Heavyweight type specimen; Font in use: Left

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

Heavyweight: This is a very good issue which is discussed in our circles of friends who do this for living, or who are fans of this field. When a person becomes engaged in a specific field in any way, that person then sees the given field as more significant than other relative fields and practitioners, and this also applies to typography.

Although typography is an important field, it clearly does not save mankind, and therefore we try to keep its significance only amongst the circles of those who are interested. On many occasions, we’ve found ourselves interested in a distant field of practice/profession, and then, naturally, we’ve asked ourselves whether our field is interesting to other people after all.

Yet, there is still the prevailing question of how it is possible to make a living from doing this considering that typography was discovered a long time ago and, relatively speaking, cannot be moved much further anymore. When we talk about typefaces which maintain a contemporary appeal and which are still both usable and readable, then yes, it is possible.

In the end, we are honored to be involved in the expansive field of graphic design, yet, when asked by someone outside of this field about what it is we do, we often simply reply that we engage in graphic design with a focus on letters for a living.

RGN: Many thanks for your time, Heavyweight!

 

Heavyweight Type Services—Filip Matejicek & Jan Horcik

—See more of Heavyweight’s type design on their website or on Facebook.

 

 

Refugees Welcome: A Storefront Sticker Campaign by Veda Partalo and Burlesque

How can someone know that they’re welcome in a new place? What can we do to tell them they are? In response to the current refugee crisis and harsh anti-refugee sentiments harbored and broadcasted by some Americans, Veda Partalo collaborated with Mike Davis and Wes Winship of Burlesque of North America to create a set of window stickers which will enable local businesses to […]

How can someone know that they’re welcome in a new place? What can we do to tell them they are? In response to the current refugee crisis and harsh anti-refugee sentiments harbored and broadcasted by some Americans, Veda Partalo collaborated with Mike Davis and Wes Winship of Burlesque of North America to create a set of window stickers which will enable local businesses to create visibly welcoming environments for recent refugees. I spoke with Partalo and Davis about the process of creating these stickers, from initial ideas to design and distribution.

First, could tell me a little bit about yourselves—who you are, what you do?

Veda Partalo: I’m a refugee, a woman, and a terribly loyal person—loyal to family, friends, and to my sense of right and wrong. By day I am an advertising strategist in corporate America. I’m also an activist, a filmmaker, and a dog owner.

veda portrait 3

Veda Partalo

Mike Davis: I’m one of the owners of Burlesque of North America, a creative studio focusing on graphic arts and high quality screen printing. We do a lot of screen printed concert posters and art prints, and we also publish art prints for a pretty big variety of artists from all over the world.

20151205_haleyryan_untitled shoot_IMG_9920

Mike Davis in the screen-printing studio at BRLSQ

Where did the idea for this project come from? How did you get the ball rolling?

Partalo: This Thanksgiving marked the 19th anniversary of my arrival to America. I came here with my mother and sister as a Bosnian refugee. Every year, in remembrance of our own arrival, we donate goods and money to the Immigration Center. This year, with the influx of refugees coming into Minnesota, I posted a call for extra donations on Facebook trying to get my friends to help as well. While most of the reactions were positive, I received hate mail. Really nasty stuff. And I remembered those first few years in Minnesota, and how harsh people could be.

It was in that moment that I realized something very essential: my family’s ability to integrate into American society had everything to do with how we were received upon our arrival. The more we felt welcome, the more we were able to contribute, the more we felt at home.

Because of this, I wanted the newest refugees in America to have a great sense of welcome. While there is a lot of vitriol online and in the media, I wanted to create a physical manifestation of the feeling of welcome in their day to day lives—I wanted to create safe zones within our community. Places refugees could feel accepted in. That’s when I reached out to Wes and Mike to create a welcome sign.

Wes, Mike, and I have worked together before. We shared a studio back in the Life Sucks Die magazine days, probably 15 years ago now. I love their work, and I love them as people. When I called Wes and said, “I’m tired of this anti-refugee BS. Can you help me make people feel welcome?” It only took a few minutes for us to agree to make a “Refugees Welcome” sign for businesses and homes. We both felt that it was important that the gesture was physical, not just digital. We wanted something that created a space of comfort and safety and appreciation for the newcomers.

Five minutes after our talk, Wes got a hold of Mike, and within a day Mike had a design in mind. Mike nailed it pretty much on the first try. Because Mike is seriously that good.

A sticker at Glam Doll Donuts, one of the first businesses to participate in the project

A sticker at Glam Doll Donuts, one of the first businesses to participate in the project.

Davis: Over the last couple of years, Wes and I have been wanting to get into more socially conscious or socially aware projects, something that would allow us to use our design and screen-printing skills to make something beyond concert posters or advertisements. We just wanted to do something that would have a bigger message in the grand scheme of humanity. There’s a lot of crazy things happening in the world right now, and we talk about it a lot. Even if we may not do any actual design work to work towards fixing it, we’ll at least discuss it as we’re working on other stuff, so we’re both very aware of what’s happening in the world, and also right here in our own community in the Twin Cities.

We’ve always been wanting to get into more projects like this, but we can get overwhelmed by all of our day-to-day projects, so it can be hard for us to step back and say, “Alright. We’re going to do this.” So I think it really took Veda lighting fire under us, to be like, “Hey, I’m basically hiring you guys to work on this with me. How can we make it happen, and what do we need to do to get this out?”

It’s hard to tell just walking up and down the street and looking at someone: Do they know that I’m from a different country? Do they care? Are they threatened? Are they scared? So it’s nice to be able to just walk up to somewhere and to see an actual symbol or a sign that says, point blank, “Hey, you’re welcome here. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from. You’re human, come on in.”

20151205_haleyryan_untitled shoot_IMG_9918-2 (2)

The stickers were screen-printed at BRLSQ’s studio in Minneapolis.

Can you tell me more about the process of designing the sticker?

Davis: I wanted to create an image which was very simple and would be recognized by anybody and everybody. I’ve always liked the really stripped-down design of symbols and logos such as the ones you see at the airport for restrooms, food, gift shop, arrivals—the really basic symbols that anyone across the world can immediately recognize and know what to do when they see it. Our symbol should be just as simple, but also clearly say, “Refugee families are welcome here.”

My wife Mali is also from a refugee family. They moved to Minneapolis in the late 1970s after escaping the Secret War in Laos. She’s an artist and designer, and I ran my ideas past her for input and approval, since I knew this was a logo her family might have been looking for when they first arrived. I wanted to imply both a family and travel, but wanted to keep details to a minimum. I chose to keep the genders vague to just suggest “two adults, two children,” and I included the suitcase and backpack to suggest they had recently arrived from a long trip. Mali told me that a suitcase and backpack would have been luxury items for many refugee families, but I still felt it was a universally recognized symbol of travel, so I ended up keeping it in. I made sure to leave out any other frills or ornaments with the exception of the tiny zipper pull on the backpack.

20151207_haleyryan_untitled shoot_IMG_9939

The stickers come in two versions, for inside or outside of windows or shop doors.

What are your plans for distributing these, and getting people to display these in their windows?

Partalo: Our distribution method is simple: connecting with local friends who are business owners. And them reaching out to their friends. It’s purely grassroots and requires people to think about what sort of community they want to live in. What they want to stand for. Within minutes, we had an acupuncturist (Amy K Acupuncture), a donut shop (Glam Doll Donuts) and an ad agency (Mithun) raise their hands up and ask for the sticker. They were on board with what we wanted to say: refugees are welcome in our community.

Why stickers, and why shop windows? How does the form affect the message?

Davis: From the perspective of a business owner, quite simply, posters are huge. It can be a big, overwhelming statement. We just want something a little more subtle. You know when you walk into a shop and you see a small, little credit card sign on their window, like, “Hey, we accept Visa”? We just thought it would be a nice, small gesture that somebody can do without having to make a giant, big show out of it. Something subtle and simple and a little understated.

Partalo: There are a lot of words of encouragement online, and that’s great. Thing is, when you are completely new to a place, everything seems scary. The architecture is different, people speak a new language, the money doesn’t make any sense, you’re constantly lost on city transportation. Life is really hard the first few days, months, years. And you feel out of place and very alone. No one will stop a refugee on the street and say, “Hey there, welcome to America. I’m glad you’re here. How can I help you?” That just doesn’t happen.

But I wanted that feeling to occur, even if that conversation wasn’t going to. I wanted recent refugees to walk down the street and see a sign of welcome, a simple gesture that assured them that they would be treated with respect and care should they walk through the doors that carried our sign.

My goal is to make refugees feel welcome. It’s also to create a physical manifestation of that welcome, so we can become more comfortable saying it out loud.

Update: All stickers from the first print run have been distributed. To help pay for production costs on a second printing, consider buying a sticker set

Enter the Matrix: An Interview with Ken Isaacs

The following interview of Ken Isaacs by Susan Snodgrass was originally published in the exhibition catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia, 2015. — The highly individual practice of American architect and designer Ken Isaacs (born 1927, Peoria, Illinois) challenged conventional definitions of modernism through designs that sought radical solutions to the spatial and […]

EnterTheMatrix

The following interview of Ken Isaacs by Susan Snodgrass was originally published in the exhibition catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia, 2015.

The highly individual practice of American architect and designer Ken Isaacs (born 1927, Peoria, Illinois) challenged conventional definitions of modernism through designs that sought radical solutions to the spatial and environmental challenges of modern life. Fueled by the optimism that defined the postwar period, Isaacs began working with the new forms and technologies offered by modernism and advances in science, at the same time shunning the consumer-laden values of the American dream. The result was a lifelong commitment to a populist form of architecture that, because of its low cost and ease of construction, allowed a broad range of publics to participate in the design process.

These designs, all founded on Isaacs’s concept of the matrix or total environment, were built using a three-dimensional grid and took the form of modular units called Living Structures that unified the multiple functions of furniture and home, including nomadic, sustainable architectural dwellings or Microhouses. Isaacs also applied his matrix idea to various multimedia information systems, most notably The Knowledge Box (1962), which was re-created by Isaacs in 2009, an experimental learning chamber that eschewed the traditional classroom for “environmental” concepts of education.

(continue reading)

370

ICA’s Excursus: Interview with Alex Klein and Mark Owens

Emmet Byrne: What is Excursus and how did it come about? Alex Klein and Mark Owens: Excursus was a two-year, four-part initiative at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia positioned at the intersection of art and design, programs and exhibitions, and the archive and the museum. It took the form of a […]

01_EXCURSUS_WALKER

Emmet Byrne: What is Excursus and how did it come about?

Alex Klein and Mark Owens: Excursus was a two-year, four-part initiative at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia positioned at the intersection of art and design, programs and exhibitions, and the archive and the museum. It took the form of a rotating installation on the ICA mezzanine, a curated series of intimate events, and an online residency on the Excursus website, which also acted as a form of real-time documentation. Each of the four invited participants— Reference Library, East of Borneo, Ooga Booga, and Primary Information—work in a space between artistic domains that don’t always have a comfortable place within a traditional gallery setting, such as publication, distribution, archival research, and programming.

Alex was hired in 2011 as ICA’s newly-created program curator, and Excursus was a way to explore and activate the “discursive space” of the museum as it approached it’s 50th anniversary and to challenge the notion of how a program could function and how we might gauge its success. ICA is a non-collecting institution with a long history of ground-breaking exhibitions—Andy Warhol, Paul Thek, and Martin Kippenberger each had their first U.S. solo museum shows at ICA, for example—and thus ICA’s extensive archive is in a very real sense its collection. Each of the participants was thus invited to delve into the ICA archive and to make connections both with their own concerns and the exhibitions currently on view in the main galleries.

An “excursus” is a literary term describing a digression or supplement to a primary text, and the project was conceived very much in that spirit, with every element, from the installation to the programming, emerging from these conceptual and material connections. The aim was to provide a platform that could be responsive and flexible–both in terms of form and authorship–and that could could bridge the gap between extra-institutional and institutional activities while still maintaining a strong framework and a grounding in the physical space of the ICA.

02_EXCURSUS_WALKER

EB: The project has a very strong design sensibility, from the participants selected, to the design of the space, to the design of the ephemera, and of course the catalogue. Was there a philosophy at work behind the design of the whole program?

AK & MO: Certain binaries seemed to anchor each season of the project: East Coast vs. West Coast, black-and-white vs. color, social vs. contemplative, etc. Although each iteration of the project revolved around a kind of kit of parts–a flexible space for discussion, a display system for the event broadsides, a set of flat file drawers to display archival material, an auratic object of some kind, and a projection in the lobby–each of the invited participants contributed a strong visual aesthetic that was linked to the thematic of each of their installations. Thus, the form of each installation, from the materials used to the seating and furniture, reflected a distinct sensibility that changed radically from project to project and sat apart from the rest of the museum identity and the exhibitions in the main galleries. For example, Reference Library’s Andy Beach used custom-designed furniture in unpainted wood in combination with Martino Gamper’s bright plastic Arnold Circus stools in shades of blue and a Wharton Esherick Hammer Handle Chair on loan from the Hedgerow Theater in nearby Rose Valley. This then gave way to East of Borneo‘s exploration of California arts pedagogy circa 1970 with seminar tables, vintage David Rowland 40/4 chairs in period colors, and an actual Metamorphokit table, designed by Peter de Bretteville and Toby Cowan, shipped directly from the CalArts library. For her installation Ooga Booga’s Wendy Yao recreated the unmistakable look and feel of her two Los Angeles stores, complete with a hammock, bookshelves, and a custom table and benches designed by Manuel Raeder, which are now installed at her Mission Road space. Finally, Primary Information drew inspiration from ICA’s seminal 1975 Video Art exhibition with a more spare, conceptualist, black-and-white aesthetic, punctuated by Sarah Crowner’s dramatic Vidas Perfectas curtain (2011), originally produced for a Robert Ashley performance, which created a literal backdrop for the activities that ensued. In this way, the design of the projects themselves marked out a distinct physical space that was at once rich with material and metaphor, but also flexible and open.

Below: Various images of the four installations/residencies.

03_EXCURSUS_WALKER

05_EXCURSUS_WALKER

04_EXCURSUS_WALKER

23_EXCURSUS_WALKER

EB: How did the graphic identity for the project come together?

AK & MO: To serve as a frame for the four installations the Excursus identity took the form of a diagrammatic mark that served to describe a set of relationships — between Art, Design, Archive, and Conversation — that summed up the matrix of concerns that shaped the project rather than a wholly separate visual language. The mark itself appeared at a range of scales, including on gallery notes, print materials, and the ICA’s sidewalk sandwich board, as well as on tote bags, a flag hanging in the Ooga Booga space, and a large window graphic in Reference Library’s installation.

08_EXCURSUS_WALKER

AK & MO: In addition to the mark, an identity within the overall identity system was created for each of the individual iterations of the project. In each instance this was employed through a series of Riso-printed broadsides produced at PennDesign’s Common Press that announced upcoming events and through the color palette of the website. Each of the four modules were designed in consultation with the invited participants to reflect the aesthetic and ethos of each resident while also maintaining a consistency that sat next to but largely apart from the museum identity and website. In addition, the Risograph posters designed by Mark Owens and the WordPress website designed by Other Means meant that updates and announcements could be made relatively quickly and inexpensively and allowed for a kind of responsive design process that is rare within institutional settings. ICA has the distinct advantage of being located at the University of Pennsylvania, which gives the museum an immediate audience among students, faculty, and staff, as well as a proximity to the nearby neighborhood of West Philadelphia and close connections with the city’s broader artistic and academic communities. The responsive design process allowed for events to be conceived, organized, and advertised in a matter of weeks or even days, rather than the longer timeframes required for most museum programming. By the same token, the website functioned as an online residency, which allowed each of the participants to participate throughout the duration of their Excursus, long after their installation was complete. In this way, Excursus gained a following both among ICA’s local audience here in Philadelphia, and a much more dispersed audience who followed the project online. Of course, there is no substitute for the actual experience of visiting a museum, but taken together the printed material, website, and catalogue now serve as a both a record and an archive of the project.

09_EXCURSUS_WALKER

Above: Posters for Excursus I: Reference Library residency

10_EXCURSUS_WALKER

Above: Posters for Excursus II: East of Borneo residency

11_EXCURSUS_WALKER

Above: Posters for Excursus III: Ooga Booga residency

12_EXCURSUS_WALKER

Above: Posters for Excursus IV: Primary Information residency

20_EXCURSUS_WALKER

Above: Excursus website design by Other Means

EB: What were some of the most unexpected moments, and were they documented?

AK & MO: One of the aims of Excursus was to explore questions of audience and exhibitionality in ways that could put some critical pressure on the terminology of “engagement” as it is currently being discussed in the broader cultural field. As a result, some of the most surprising moments occurred in the context of a “program” involving only two people, or in the unplanned interaction between participants. One instance that particularly stands out was the Madchester event organized by artists Anthony Campuzano and Dan Murphy in conjunction with Oooga Booga’s installation and the concurrent Jeremy Deller exhibition, Joy in People, which was then on view in the museum. Campuzano and Murphy led an afternoon discussion on fandom and their own teenage fascination with 1990s Britpop and the Manchester music scene centered around the famous Hacienda nightclub. Purely by chance, legendary Hacienda DJ Dave Haslam happened to be in town and had come by ICA to see the Deller show. Campuzano recognized him walking around the galleries, and was thrilled to have him participate in the conversation and offer his own first-hand accounts. The entire afternoon was documented and archived on the website, as were all of the events. Although the documentation is no substitute for the in-person experience we were very conscious of photographing the project along the way so that people could follow it from afar. Because there were so many events, participants, and archival materials, the website and publication have played a crucial role in making the connections between the projects more legible and ultimately as a new archival document.

14_EXCURSUS_WALKER

 Above: Excursus I-IV catalogue

EB: What was your guiding principle behind the presentation style of the catalogue? Why did you decide to go with the image-heavy, bit-like approach instead of a denser, text-heavy book?

AK & MO: Excursus was a project with many moving parts, including four installations, archival material in flat files and vitrines, over 50 events, and more than one hundred participants. In order to make all of these components legible in a modest 128-page catalogue it made sense to atomize the elements and to separate them out. So, the documentation of each Excursus opens with a full-spread image of the space and is then divided into installation, archive, and event sections followed by a complete checklist. What results is a Whole Earth Catalogue-meets-Sky Mall page structure that both reflects the density of the material but also isolates each element and allows the reader to appreciate both the material quality and rich variety that resulted from each participants’ response to the Excursus prompt.

16_EXCURSUS_WALKER

17_EXCURSUS_WALKER

18_EXCURSUS_WALKER

19_EXCURSUS_WALKER

Above: Selected spreads from the Excursus catalogue

EB: Between the catalogue, the internet residencies, and any other archive of the project, what is your hope for the project in the future?

AK & MO: Very much in keeping with the mission of ICA, Excursus was meant as a radical proposition and a provocation to probe the boundaries of the museum and to test what might be possible. As such, it required an enormous amount of effort and attention and by necessity demanded that it have a finite timeline. That said, Excursus‘s commitment to intimacy and flexibility, to questions posed by distribution and publication, and the successful occupation of an interstitial space in the museum, has infused some the current thinking at ICA and has led to other exhibitions and programmatic activities that might not have been possible otherwise. Going forward it is our hope that the website and the catalogue will remain as a record of the project and that it will spur continuing dialogue and encourage others to take up similar questions in new and exciting ways.

21_EXCURSUS_WALKER

Muriel Cooper: Turning Time into Space

We hope to make the tools and to use them. “She often wandered around barefoot… and climbed up on tables when she was excited about a project… Muriel was clearly in her element, making trouble,” recounted MIT Press editors Larry Cohen and Roger Conover. Muriel Cooper, who was best known for articulating the graphic language […]

muriel_cooper
We hope to make the tools and to use them.

tumblr_n10mavOtQs1s9ihgzo1_500

“She often wandered around barefoot… and climbed up on tables when she was excited about a project… Muriel was clearly in her element, making trouble,” recounted MIT Press editors Larry Cohen and Roger Conover. Muriel Cooper, who was best known for articulating the graphic language of MIT for more than 40 years, also challenged the limitations of contemporary communication. As a troublemaker, she conceptually (and literally) transformed conventional principles of design into new strategies for visualizing information. And her enthusiasm for shaking things up was matched by her eagerness for working with emerging technologies, a precursor to our increasingly seamless relationship with information and tech. All while barefoot.

GSAPP_Muriel_Cooper_James_Ewing-6468

Installation view of Messages and Means: Muriel Cooper at MIT; Photo: James Ewing Photography

Captured through memories, ephemera, video clips, publications, and other works, Cooper is the focus of the exhibition Messages and Means: Muriel Cooper at MIT, currently on view at the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery at Columbia in New York City. I recently had a chance to catch up with co-curators David Reinfurt and Robert Wiesenberger to talk about this project.

Hello David and Rob. Can you tell us a little about yourselves?

Robert Wiesenberger: Hi Dante. I’m a PhD candidate in art history at Columbia. Officially, I study 20th-century architecture, though I also tend to focus a lot on design, variously defined. This fall I began teaching a seminar on graphic design history in the MFA program at the Yale School of Art.

David Reinfurt: I am a graphic designer in a fairly expanded sense. I am often working on projects which aren’t strictly graphic design, or not in the way it is conventionally understood, and these can be set in art contexts as often as not. Much of my work is together with Stuart Bailey under the name Dexter Sinister. I also work with Stuart and Angie Keefer on The Serving Library, an online and printed publishing project. I also teach at Princeton University and this feeds my practice. Finally, I also do projects on my own or with other people, such as this one with Rob.

MRC photo : foot on table 1969

Muriel Cooper in conversation with unidentified males at MIT, 1970s

Who was Muriel Cooper?

RW: Muriel Cooper (1925–1994) was a graphic designer who spent the bulk of her career working at MIT. In the mid-50s, she started as a designer in the Office of Publications. By the mid-60s she was the first Design Director at the MIT Press, where she rationalized their production system and designed classic books like The Bauhaus (1969) and Learning from Las Vegas (1972), along with about 500 others. In the mid-70s she founded the Visible Language Workshop in MIT’s Department of Architecture, where she taught experimental printing and hands-on production. And by the mid-80s, she was a founding member of the MIT Media Lab, designing early computer interfaces.

tumblr_n15rjqLrGv1s9ihgzo1_500

Muriel Cooper, Poster to promote The Bauhaus, 1969

Why were you interested in collaborating on an exhibition about her work?

DR: I first bumped into Muriel’s work shortly after she delivered a talk at the fifth TED Conference in Monterey, California in 1994. She presented radical new work in computer interface design, showing a constellation of three-dimensional typographic interfaces developed with her students and colleagues at the Visible Language Workshop in the MIT Media Lab. I had just started a job in the brand-new area of “interaction design” at IDEO in San Francisco, working for a former student of Muriel’s. At this point, her work was everywhere — the cover of ID Magazine for example. And it was the model for what we were trying to do there. She passed away unexpectedly soon after the TED talk and I had often been surprised (dismayed) that the provocations she offered were not taken up more fully in the following years.

tumblr_n0xwpjSQCD1s9ihgzo1_500

Muriel Cooper with David Small, Suguru Ishizaki and Lisa Strauseld, still from Information Landscapes, 1994

RW: My first exposure to Muriel was on my bookshelf, looking at her designs for classics of art and architectural history in the ’60s and ’70s, and her seven-bar colophon that still appears on the spine of every MIT Press Book. The story only got better when I learned about her work with interfaces.

Muriel-install--Walls-2-3 Muriel-install--Book-flats Muriel-install--Bauhaus-2 Muriel-install--Asterisk

Could you walk us through the exhibition? What can we expect to see?

RW: This show brings together Muriel’s photos, sketches, prints, mechanicals, books, and videos. In many ways, preparing it was a media archaeology of the very recent past: We salvaged some incredible materials, from a variety of sources, and in an amazing range of formats (slides, digital and audio cassettes, laser discs, etc.).

tumblr_n180i1tZfR1s9ihgzo1_500

“Graphics and New Technology.” Slide talk by Muriel Cooper at MIT’s Visible Language Workshop, 1981. Download this podcast via iTunes or iTunes for iPhone/iPad, or view in the iTunes store.

The GSAPP exhibitions team did a smart job creating a custom steel structure that suspends three long walls in the gallery, two of them angled. The works are sandwiched between sheets of clear plexi, and appear to float. We tried to mix media, as Muriel would, and treat all media in the same way. We also wanted to mix visual and verbal material, reveal process and show some of Cooper’s teaching materials. Work by students and colleagues runs through the show — traditional notions of authorship weren’t terribly important, and it was an extremely collaborative environment. In many cases, Muriel is the author of the process or system, or created the environment in which it was produced, whether or not she designed the graphic you’re looking at.

tumblr_n15rp5dgsc1s9ihgzo1_r1_500

Muriel Cooper, Sketch for the MIT Press colophon, 1963–1964

RW: The three panels broadly — over-simplistically — reflect the three overlapping phases of her career: As a designer (for the Office of Publications and MIT Press), as a teacher (for the Visible Language Workshop), and as a researcher. The chronology is loose, but generally follows these three successive phases. Still, we don’t want to suggest a lockstep teleology toward new media, that all Muriel’s work culminated in the digital. We think her concerns with production and rapid feedback were quite consistent throughout, that the tools (many of which she made or modified) finally caught up with her.

DR: Central to our approach is Muriel’s idea of responsive graphic systems and design processes that embed an explicit feedback loop. Describing Messages and Means, the course she taught at MIT and which gives our exhibition its name, she said:

muriel_cooper
Messages and Means was design and communication for print that integrated the reproduction tools as part of the thinking process and reduced the gap between process and product.”

tumblr_mzxi9lp1v61s9ihgzo2_r2_500

Muriel Cooper and Ron MacNeil, Messages and Means course poster, designed and printed at the Visible Language Workshop, MIT, c. 1974

RW: We included a handful of Muriel’s key books on art, design, and architecture in the show. She also produced beautiful books on chemistry and geophysics, but she was really involved with the debates on architecture, design, cybernetics, artificial intelligence, and so on; this environment at MIT and in Cambridge more broadly, full of Bauhäusler and remarkable researchers, both shaped her, and was shaped by her. These few, full books in the show (we show many other book covers) form a kind of spine for an intellectual history that runs through it. They’re overdetermined, in terms of both form and content.

Muriel Cooper for Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, A Significance for A&P Parking Lots, or Learning from Las Vegas (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972).

Muriel Cooper for Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, A Significance for A&P Parking Lots, or Learning from Las Vegas (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972).

For example, Nicholas Negroponte’s The Architecture Machine (1970) is interesting both as a design object and as an insight into the AI (artificial intelligence systems) being developed at MIT at the time — for him about architecture, for her about graphic design. Muriel worked with Negroponte and his Architecture Machine Group, which evolved into the MIT Media Lab, where Cooper taught. The idea with these books is that, given the premium on “visual communication,” you really can pick them up in the gallery and get a good sense of what they’re about. 

What was the exhibition process like?

DR: We spent a ton of time in archives, making some kind of order, and trying to understand various artefacts — what were they, who made them, how were they intended? Talking to Muriel’s many, still-active colleagues and students was crucial to figuring out what was what. The selection process was frankly quite tricky: Selecting a small group of outstanding objects was difficult as her interests remained consistent, but neither the media nor the situations stayed still. So it was challenging to pick what to show. Plus it was the first time a show like this has been organized since Muriel died in ’94. (Though there was a small exhibition convened in that year, at MIT, by Cooper’s friend, Tom Wong, who also consolidated her papers at MassArt.)

tumblr_n0xwv0tF0t1s9ihgzo2_r1_400

Muriel Cooper and MIT Press Design Department for Donis A. Dondis, A Primer of Visual Literacy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1973).

Colophon Artwork

Muriel Cooper, mechanical artwork for the MIT Press colophon, 1963–4

What was the MIT’s relationship to design at the time she began working there?

3_8001

Gyorgy Kepes

RW: MIT was doing serviceable design work when Muriel began there. Gyorgy Kepes, a former colleague of Moholy-Nagy’s, and since 1947 a teacher at MIT, thought MIT’s design presence could be much stronger and suggested that they hire a dedicated designer for their Office of Publications. Both there and at the MIT Press Muriel created systems to standardize formats and production and give a consistent look to publications. And her earliest work at MIT — which we debated whether or not to include — is in fact quite “pretty” in a mid-century way that Paul Rand would be proud of (and indeed was proud of; Cooper met Rand during a brief stint at ad agencies in New York, and he later recommended her to work for the MIT Press). It’s not really representative of her later work, which is rougher, and more about process and dynamism, but does suggest her formation, and a point of departure.

muriel_cooper
It is not hard to imagine Moholy using a computer.

tumblr_mzxhioGLhm1s9ihgzo1_500

Muriel Cooper, self-portrait with Polaroid SX-70, video imaged and printed at the Visible Language Workshop, MIT, c. 1982

Cooper claims that the Office of Publications — renamed “Design Services” under her tenure — was the first dedicated design program at an American university. We couldn’t confirm that, but it certainly was one of the first. Likewise, no academic publisher had the kind of dedicated design department that she established at the MIT Press, and nobody else’s typography was as modern. Clearly Cambridge was an exciting place for design. When Cooper started at MIT, Gyorgy Kepes was teaching there, and Walter Gropius was the head of the Harvard GSD.

muriel_cooper
… make more intelligible the highly complex language of science… and articulate in symbolic, graphic form the order and beauty inherent in the scientist’s abstract vision.

tumblr_n1m11bEZMT1s9ihgzo1_1280-1

Letter from Muriel Cooper to Jeffery Cruikshank on the Visible Language Workshop letterhead. Excerpt from the exhibition booklet, with extended captions keyed by panel number. Download the PDF here.

Were there other designers at the time who were exploring themes Cooper was also interested in?

JSCasey_001

Jaqueline Casey

RW: Definitely. Muriel hired her college classmate Jacqueline Casey to work at Design Services. She would soon head the office until her retirement in 1989. Casey, Ralph Coburn and Dietmar Winkler were the core of that office, and they also had guest designers, one of whom, from Basel, pretty much got them on their Helvetica kick.

3054 Jacqueline-Casey_poster1 3117_0 3111

They recall that people like Gerstner and Müller-Brockmann also came through the office. So Muriel imbibed a lot of this “International Style” typography from her colleagues, and no doubt from what she was reading. It’s not something she, or anyone else at the time, would’ve gotten from an American design program. It’s a visual language she used, but also reworked significantly.

muriel_cooper
Experiment and play as a part of professional discipline is difficult at best. This is not only true of an offset press but of all activities where machines are between the concept and the product.

murielcooper001_web
murielcooper002_web
 murielcooper003_web murielcooper004_web murielcooper005_web murielcooper006_web murielcooper007_web murielcooper008_web murielcooper009_web murielcooper010_web murielcooper011_web murielcooper013_web murielcooper014_web

Design Quarterly 142, Walker Art Center Archives

Design Quarterly 142, Walker Art Center Archives

What do you think was her interest in transitioning between spaces, from print to digital, or from flat to dimensional?

DR: Muriel was frustrated with the limitations of the printed page, and always interested in quicker feedback, non-linear experiences and the layering of information. She used an offset printing press, as she said, as “an interactive medium.” So when she first encountered computers, it was clear that these would present even greater possibilities.

RW: Integrating word and image on screen (“Typographics”), in a way that filtered and communicated information based on the reader/user’s interest, was her goal. The computer screen offered more depth, and information environments — real or simulated — offered more possibilities for orientation within this space. It was crucial to her that information be usable. She saw the designer’s job as creating dynamic environments through which information would stream, rather than designing unique and static objects.

Do you think she was aware of how deep our contemporary relationship would be with technology and interfaces?

RW: Muriel seems to have always had the newest gizmo, whether it was a special digital watch or the highest-resolution computer displays available outside NASA —  and whether or not she always knew exactly how to use them (she was a bit of a klutz). It also seems that she predicted so much of our connection to interfaces and the need for them to be intuitive and anticipatory. Yet even she may have been surprised at the extent of it. And very likely frustrated. Not so much at their usability — so many products are pretty and intuitive — but at their inflexibility, their resistance to being hacked, or to using them to make new things. I think she would also be deeply troubled by their intrusiveness, and current questions of privacy and mass surveillance. As she noted in an essay for the Walker’s Design Quarterly in 1989 (one of the few that she would publish), artificial intelligence in computers presents important ethical questions for the designer of these systems. Coupled with her awareness of the corporate and defense sponsorship model for the MIT Media Lab, which was indispensable for her research, the question of the ends to which her research might be put was not far from her mind. In addition to being a technologist, she was, I think, always also a humanist.

muriel_cooper
Some people believe that the computer will eventually think for itself. If so, it is crucial that designers and others with humane intentions involved in the way it develops.

Does the exhibition addresses any contemporary issues in design around communication and information?

DR: We don’t make the connections explicit, but we think they’re absolutely present at every turn. Muriel’s words, in some of the documents we show, are incredibly prophetic, and her process is no less relevant today than it was then.

As curators of the exhibition, has this project influenced your own thoughts about your relationship with design?

DR: We had an idea that this exhibition would document her work, her persistent concerns, and her generous spirit while also serving as a charge or challenge to those thinking about these things today to pick up these ideas and develop them.

RW: There’s so much work to do in studying and presenting graphic design to a broader public. We hope this show generates  interest in Cooper, and in the field — but as the kind of inter- or anti-disciplinary one she envisioned. At one point, in our earlier descriptions, we called the exhibition both an archival project and a manifesto for future production.

Messages-and-Means

muriel_cooper
This stands as a sketch for the future. Best wishes, Muriel

Messages and Means: Muriel Cooper at MIT runs from February 25 to April 17, with galleries open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 12 to 6 pm at the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery in Columbia University. Afterwards, the exhibition tours to the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And as a bonus, here is Muriel presenting an Insights lecture at the Walker in 1987, pulled from our archives and unpublished until now.

YOU’LL NEVER BELIEVE WHAT FONT THE WESTBORO BAPTISTS USE

It’s Boulder. And Boulder is just some free ripoff of Kabel Black. But whatever. Weird things happen late at night, when we are sleep deprived and surfing the web. Sometimes I end up buying stuff on eBay, and sometimes I end up interviewing the Westboro Baptists. About three years ago, I was preparing a lecture […]

WBCsignsIt’s Boulder.

And Boulder is just some free ripoff of Kabel Black. But whatever. Weird things happen late at night, when we are sleep deprived and surfing the web. Sometimes I end up buying stuff on eBay, and sometimes I end up interviewing the Westboro Baptists. About three years ago, I was preparing a lecture on unexpected forms of self-publishing and stumbled upon an article about how the Westboro Baptist Church has its own graphic design/media/sign production studio embedded within its walls (Sister Corita Kent now appears before me as the spiritual antithesis of this operation). I contacted Steve Drain, the church’s media director, through the comment box of the group’s Sign Movies website. Now, with the news that Westboro founder Fred Phelps has died, I dug it out of my junk-ridden Yahoo inbox and re-read the exchange. I confess a perverse curiosity about the subject, not to mention the irony of a homo talking to a bigot about the medium and not the message. Is there anything to be learned about design from someone whose values are so radically different than my own? “Sometimes sparking a dialogue can be a good thing,” Drain says, “as long as the end of it is obedience to God. :)”

 

WestboroBaptistsCryptic

 

Emmet Byrne: When you were designing your signs, how did you choose the typeface, and was the graphic style (color, layout) referencing past historical models, such as old political campaign signs? Or did they just develop as you went along? How did you decide what typeface the word of God should be rendered in?

Steve Drain: We use Boulder (ttf). It’s what our pastor just settled on years ago — and since it is very readable, yet not commonly used, I always thought it gave us a distinctive look. Every once in a while, if it is topically warranted, we vary from Boulder, but not often.

EB: How do you understand the relationship between a church and its communication stream? Is your print shop, and by extension your sign campaign, a more fragmented/media-savvy alternative to an “evangelist”? Would you consider your sign campaign to represent a manifesto of sorts?

SD: Wow. That’s a long and convoluted questions [sic]. Here’s what I think you’re looking for: Our job is to preach this word to every creature. So we hold brightly colored signs at events that lots of people go to. And sometimes these signs end up in photos on TV, in newspapers, and online. Our signs have timely, topical Bible sentiments on them. Our “manifesto” is the Bible — the word of God.

EB: You write/design your signs to be concise so that they transmit easily through various media streams, but many of them are also slightly cryptic. For example, “Pray For More Dead Soldiers” probably confuses many people the first time they read it. It requires a level of decryption, almost like a puzzle, to understand the logic (of course, once you understand the message, the sign reveals itself to actually be incredibly straightforward). How did you come to this strategy of provoking people with outrageous but perplexing statements and forcing them to make an effort to understand you?

Steve Drain

Steve Drain. Photo: Ashi Fachler, Flickr

SD: Our signs have short, pithy messages on them for two main reasons: 1.) so we can make the words big so that you can see them from far away, and 2.) because we live in the “sound bite” generation, so you have to get after it quickly. We aren’t about being “cryptic.” We are about being plain and clear (the pastors of this world are the ones who confuse). Every once in a while a sign needs a bit of “fleshing out,” and if someone is interested in asking us the sign’s meaning or our motive for holding it, we are always good to answer. Sometimes sparking a dialogue can be a good thing, as long as the end of it is obedience to God. :)

EB: How do you come up with the messages for your signs? Is one person responsible for the messages, or do they get generated in a more organic way among the church? Is creating the signs a bonding/conversational moment for members of the church?

SD: All members have ideas for signs. Some of our people design the signs, others assemble them, still others manage them, and all of us hold them.

EB: Of course, the signs would not be as effective if you weren’t using them at controversial places such as funerals. Was there a moment when you had the revelation that protesting funerals would amplify your message? Are the signs really only byproducts of your protest strategy?

SD: The Holy Spirit of God shows us where to go. Our pastor, who has been led by God all of his days, came to realize that these soldier funerals were more patriotic pep rallies than they were serious, mournful exercises in humbling oneself to God — celebrating a nation that is awash in sin at every level — so we started going, telling those present (among other things) that their sons’ and daughters’ deaths are not blessings from God, but curses — and that they died ignoble deaths fighting for a nation awash in sin.

EB: This is kind of a random question, but as people who believe in spreading truth to the masses, do you approve of Julian Assange and his Wikileaks operation? The Westboro Baptists and Wikileaks have both challenged our understandings of what “free speech” entails. Having now won your case in the Supreme Court, do you empathize with the predicament that Wikileaks is in?

SD: God put the First Amendment into play so that we could preach on this day. God caused the Supreme Court decision. We don’t really care much about Wikileaks’ woes. Much of the rest of the world would jail us just for stepping foot on their nation’s soil — because of what we believe and because of our open testimony against this world. It is an evil world. If they don’t like what you say or how you say it, they will try to shut you down. But there is no shutting down God. No man can stay His hand or say “what doest thou?.”

Next