Category: Graphic Design

And an Axe to Destroy the Piece

Dadaist Lessons for Modern Creatives

Thought is subversive and revolutionary…
thought is great and swift and free.
     — Bertrand Russell, Why Men Fight, 1917

As a movement, Dada made such a tremendous impact on our modern culture that we are still feeling the aftershocks almost one-hundred years after its inception. Some refer to this as collateral damage, since Dada’s most obvious traits are its most incendiary. It is easy to view the Dadaists as rabble-rousing anarchists who spent their time babbling, banging, and dropping paper on the floor. On the road from Cubism’s innovation to Surrealism’s intellectualism, many critics liken Dada to a mere rest stop. But this is a surface critique, and Dada was not about surface.¹ The movement’s founders — Ball, Tzara, and the rest — were imbued with a purpose deeper than nonsensical revelry.² The Dadaists’ cunning framework of practice, perception, and politics permanently ingrained their revolutionary ideals in the minds of the creative world.

Dada’s methodology is one of its more difficult aspects to encapsulate.³ The fields of art and design are quick to latch on to the visual artifacts and use them as an anarchic taxonomy — to be implemented whenever chaos or subversion is called for. Shallow comparisons of style or composition can certainly be made, but to pursue this route of interpolating Dada’s value into today’s creative practice is a fool’s errand.

Francis Picabia, “L’oeil Caodylate” (detail), 192 1 (Dadart.com)

Francis Picabia, “L’oeil Caodylate,” 192 1 (Dadart.com)

Michael Joseph, “Cover photograph for the record album Beggars Banquet by The Rolling Stones,” 1968 (RollingStones.com)

Michael Joseph, “Cover photograph for the record album Beggars Banquet by The Rolling Stones,” 1968 (RollingStones.com)

In Zurich, Dada’s birth saw literature and drama fulfilling the parental roles. These progenitors were seeking outlets through which they could funnel their angst and disillusionment caused by the Great War. Early gatherings at the Cabaret Voltaire were full of lively performances, including Hugo Ball’s sound poetry, Sophie Taeuber’s marionettes, and Marcel Janco’s primitive masks.⁴ However, the group’s experimental repertoire quickly expanded to include such techniques as painting, sculpture, and collage, albeit executed with “anti-artistic” flair.

Hugo Ball wearing a paper costume, and performing his sound poem ‘Karawene’ at the Cabaret Voltaire, 1916 (Typophile.com)

Hugo Ball wearing a paper costume, and performing his sound poem ‘Karawene’ at the Cabaret Voltaire, 1916 (Typophile.com)

Marionettes created by Sophie Taeuber, 1918 (NYTimes.com)

Marionettes created by Sophie Taeuber, 1918 (NYTimes.com)

This was partially due to the strategic influence of Tristan Tzara, who became Dada’s first outspoken leader after a squabble with Hugo Ball.⁵ Tzara wanted to promote the Dadaist philosophy to a wider audience, and art would become the conduit. Will Gompertz, in his book What Are You Looking At?, describes the Dadaists’ peculiar relationship with the art world as such:

They denied and despised the Modernist movements, like Futurism, from which they had emerged. But for all their bombast and belligerence, the Dadaists would not have gained the notoriety and influence they did without ensconcing themselves within the very art establishment they were railing against.…Dada needed to be in the art world for its message to have any impact. Those rebellious Dadaists knew how to play by the rules.⁶

A primary method for overturning the traditional outlook on art was the incorporation of any and all materials into the work itself.⁷ Initiated by Hans Arp’s randomized paper “droppings” and progressing to Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbilder  —  assemblages constructed from refuse as well as other “low” materials  —  the use of objects previously thought to be too “common” for use in fine art inspired a seemingly endless set of possibilities for future creatives.⁸ As a direct result of Dada’s inclusion, artists and designers today will more willingly change the medium in which they work to find the solution that best suits the job. James Victore, an artist and designer who dabbles in everything from corporate identity and poster design to consumer materials such as watches and plates, works today with the same material freedom (and distaste for the status quo) as the Dadaists did in 1920.

Kurt Schwitters, Merzbild, "Rossfett," 1919 (All-Art.org)

Kurt Schwitters, “Merzbild Rossfett,” 1919 (All-Art.org)

James Victore, “Racism” poster, 1993 (JamesVictore.com)

James Victore, “Racism” poster, 1993 (JamesVictore.com)

Another deviation brought on by Dada is what Dorothée Brill calls “a shift of attention from the object of art itself to the experience of perceiving it”.⁹ Marcel Duchamp helped establish the notion of art being defined primarily by the artist’s intentions with his provocative readymades. This new paradigm —“art as idea”— represents a shift in the viewer’s role from admirer to interpreter, and allows the creator to attach a slew of subversive and outlandish ideas to what were previously regarded as everyday objects.¹⁰

The 2013 show, Subversive Design, at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery showcased the Dadaist ethos. In the same way that the Dadaists commented on their sociopolitical landscape with their work, Subversive Design presents “objects that challenge perceived ideas, contain hidden messages and address social [and political  ] issues…”.¹¹ Reminiscent of Schwitters’ Merz assemblages, designers such as Tapio Wirkkala and Rebecca Joselyn elevate the concept of trash. Other entries include undergarments that awkwardly change the shape of a woman’s body, and designer chairs that comment on “uncomfortable political issues.”

Rebecca Joselyn, “Crushed Can Jug,” 2009 (Culture24.org.uk)

Rebecca Joselyn, “Crushed Can Jug,” 2009 (Culture24.org.uk)

Michael Sanders, “Sitting Comfortably,” 1987 (thelatest.co.uk)

Michael Sanders, “Sitting Comfortably,” 1987 (thelatest.co.uk)

Sebastian Brajkovic, “Lathe v Red,” 2008 (Brighton-hove-rmpl.org.uk)

Sebastian Brajkovic, “Lathe v Red,” 2008 (Brighton-hove-rmpl.org.uk)

Walter Benjamin observes that once “the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on [ … ] politics”.¹² Dada was a political movement focused on shock, surprise, and societal change. Richard Hülsenbeck left the Dada agenda completely unambiguous when he said, “We want to radically demolish the sophistries of kindness, beauty, value, we want to destroy everything”.¹³ Although the current geopolitical balance is quite different from the Dadaists’ world, politically-motivated work continues to be an important endeavor for artists and designers today. Some recent examples include Copper Greene’s 2004 parody of Apple’s iPod campaign that focused on torture practices in Abu Ghraib, and Matt Kenyon’s Notepad project created for the 2011 Talk to Me exhibition at MoMA.

 “Notepad” project by Matt Kenyon of SWAMP, 2007. Each line on the yellow legal pads is microprinted with the names of Iraqi civilians who were killed in the first three years of the Iraqi War.

“Notepad” project by Matt Kenyon of SWAMP, 2007. Each line on the yellow legal pads is microprinted with the names of Iraqi civilians who were killed in the first three years of the Iraqi War.

Enlargd view of the microprinted text. The notepads were sent to members of the United States Congress as a way of subversively distributing the data. (SWAMP.nu)

Enlargd view of the microprinted text. The notepads were sent to members of the United States Congress as a way of subversively distributing the data. (SWAMP.nu)

For all its ambiguity, the dogma of Dada is alive and well in the twenty-first century. The creative community has embraced the freedom of methods and materials, subversive work has a prominent platform to preach its social critique, and art and design continue to engender political acuity by stating what, if left to words alone, could be too bitter a taste to swallow whole.

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Notes
1. Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. 237. Print.
2. Gompertz, Will. What Are You Looking At?: The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art. New York: Dutton, 2012. 226. Print.
3. “World War I and Dada.” MoMA Learning. MoMA.org, n.d. Web. 1 Mar. 2014.
4. Dickerman, Leah, and Brigid Doherty. Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris. Washington: National Gallery of Art in Association with D.A.P./Distributed Art, New York, 2005. 27–32. Print.
5. Dickerman, Leah. 35.
6. Gompertz, Will. 224.
7. Brill, Dorothée. Shock and the Senseless in Dada and Fluxus. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College, 2010. 61. Print.
8. Dickerman, Leah. 37, 163.
9. Brill, Dorothée. 61.
10. Grambo, Isaac. “Art, Meaning, and Language Part 2.” Contemporary Critique, 24 June, 2011. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.
11. “Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.” Latest 7. thelatest.co.uk, 8 Oct. 2013. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.
12. Benjamin, Walter. 224.
13. Brill, Dorothée. 62.

About the Author

Patrick Gosnell is a graduate student and teacher at Texas State University San-Marcos. He has a background in fine art photography, and currently focuses on international typographic practices. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and daughter. You can follow him on Twitter or check out his blog, TYPEATX.

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Can Wes Anderson’s Archer-y Skills Hit the Bullseye?

Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson

This week marked the release of the first promotional poster and trailer for the new Wes Anderson film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. This second film of Anderson’s to include the word Hotel in the title follows the misadventures of a crafty concierge (played by Ralph Fiennes) who mentors a young lobby boy in Europe between the two world wars. Anderson has cultivated a loyal fan base over the course of his career, due mainly to his charming narrative wit and his meticulously appointed visual universe. From a design point of view, almost every detail seen in his films is specifically chosen to evoke a clear emotional tone—even down to the selection of typefaces. In fact, not since the likes of fellow auteur directors Stanley Kubrick and Woody Allen has a filmmaker so carefully considered their choice of type. With Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson has made yet another typographic decision that has designers trying to ascertain its significance: Archer.

But before diving into the ramifications of such an intriguing selection, a historical recap of the director’s ardent relationship with type is in order.

The first half of Wes Anderson’s career is easy to identify—just look for an extra-high frequency of Paul Renner’s Futura Bold. The extremely popular geometric sans-serif, designed in 1927, has always been a favorite of Anderson’s. Perhaps the use of Futura was a nod to Kubrick (who favored the extra bold cut), or maybe the prominent visual impact of the clean, forceful letterforms simply helps to underscore the distinct deadpan delivery of Anderson’s characters. Either way, it’s hard to miss Futura’s omnipresence in Anderson’s early work.

Just a few of the many examples of Futura seen in The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore

Just a few of the many examples of Futura seen in The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore

The choice seemed like a great fit. By the 1990s, Futura (despite its name) had the cultural cachet of being quaintly retro—it was, after all, the typeface used on the lunar landing plaque. And though we aren’t often given exact dates or time periods in Wes Anderson’s films, they each bear their own nostalgic brand of yesteryear. The honeymoon continued on through The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), and with the semi-revisionist aid of both Criterion and inspired fan art, the link between Anderson and Futura became that of folk legend. The typeface earned a place on the Wes Anderson bingo card, and the relationship increasingly became a part of the hipster vernacular.

In the minds of Wes Anderson fans everywhere, he owns Futura!

In the minds of Wes Anderson fans everywhere, he owns Futura!

For a while it seemed that Wes Anderson would not be able to unhook himself from Futura’s pointed vertices. However, with his fifth feature film, The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Anderson began to expand his typographic arsenal. Darjeeling was the first film in which Anderson requested a custom typeface—a partial-inline sans-serif designed by Boris Dworschak. Next, the stop-motion adventure, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), introduced a surprising use of Helvetica. (His earliest use of Helvetica came with any book cover design in The Royal Tenenbaums not written by an actual Tenenbaum.) And Moonrise Kingdom (2012) showed us what can happen when Anderson actually goes sans-sans, and trots out a custom script typeface designed by Jessica Hische.

Jessica Hische designed the custom script typeface for Moonrise Kingdom

Jessica Hische designed the custom script typeface for Moonrise Kingdom

Whatever his typographic choice, Anderson has consistently brought it to the audience’s attention. Whether they’re aware of the typeface’s name—or even the difference between the words “typeface” and “font”—is irrelevant. Anderson raises the role of type in cinema to that of a character with its own lines to deliver.

So, why Archer? Why now?

Archer was designed in 2001 by Hoefler & Frere-Jones. It has the credibility and sturdiness that slab serifs are known for, yet with a tinge of friendly invitation. It was originally commissioned for the magazine Martha Stewart Living, and upon its release to the general public in 2008, became extremely popular and overused. Many designers spent time on the critical fence complimenting Archer’s exquisite design and lamenting its unfortunate overuse. In a 2010 column on Scott Hansen’s blog, ISO50, Alex Cornell asks, “Is it just a matter of time before the next summer blockbuster uses Archer for the movie poster?”

Even Archer's promotional screenshot on H&FJ bears a similar color palette to a Wes Anderson film

Even Archer’s promotional screenshot on H&FJ bears a similar color palette to Wes Anderson’s films

While its “summer blockbuster” status is yet to be determined, The Grand Budapest Hotel’s marketing materials have now brought us to Cornell’s prophetic dilemma: Will the wunderkind slab rise to the occasion and lend its hospitable elegance to promote a film about a bustling, ritzy hotel? Or will Archer’s ubiquitous implementation prove a misstep for Anderson, who has for so long held the respect of film geeks and type nerds alike?

It’s perplexing that Anderson would now opt for an established typeface. One with baggage. And one so anachronistic with the film’s setting (1930s Europe). The decision to break the mold and apply a decorative flourish to Moonrise Kingdom’s titles seemed to announce the director’s desire for typographic experimentation. His quirky cinematic style firmly entrenched, Anderson played a gambit, and won. Hische’s delightfully ornate letterforms expertly illustrated Kingdom’s adolescent lavishness.

So why not continue in the vein of custom type design?

We know this: Wes Anderson is too fastidious to make a design decision so prominent without considering the fallout. Perhaps the friendly demeanor of Archer is meant to allude to the hospitable service you’d receive while staying at the Grand Budapest? Maybe Anderson hopes to give Archer an injection of mid-career hipness à la Pulp Fiction-Travolta?

Regardless, it remains probable that Anderson is making what he feels is an artistically-sound decision, and will leave it to the nay-sayers and conspiracy theorists to sort it out amongst themselves. He’s not one to shy away from owning something with a troubled past. Remember the campaign “Art Directors Against Futura Extra Bold Condensed?”

And to anyone who puts too much stock into the idea of “Wes Anderson, Type Designer,” he would probably reply by paraphrasing Bert Fischer from Rushmore, saying, “No, I’m a Director, but a lot of people make that mistake.”

The Grand Budapest Hotel arrives in March of 2014, so the design community will have ample time to debate the merit and the impact of Anderson’s choice. ♦

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You can view the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel by clicking on the poster.

Promotional poster for The Grand Budapest Hotel, opening March 2014

Promotional poster for The Grand Budapest Hotel, opening March 2014

About the Author

Patrick Gosnell is a graduate student and teacher at Texas State University San-Marcos. He has a background in fine art photography, and currently focuses on international typographic practices. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and daughter. You can follow him on Twitter or check out his blog, TYPEATX.

Hustwit Vérité

Hustwit-1

Gary Hustwit (source: Fastcodesign.com)

“I might record two or three hours worth of interviews with one designer,
only to use less than two or three minutes of it in my films.”
—Gary Hustwit

Director’s Cut

Gary Hustwit is not a designer. He is, however, a huge fan of design. As a filmmaker, he sets out to create the films that he himself would want to watch. Eight years ago, Hustwit noticed a lack of films about design, and more specifically, type. This is the origin story for the documentary, Helvetica (2007). The film was extremely successful and led to two more design-centered projects, Objectified (2009) and Urbanized (2011). These films have become known as the Design Trilogy, and are not only cherished by the design community, but have been credited with expanding the general public’s awareness of and appreciation for design.

Helvetica (2007), Objectified (2009), Urbanized (2011) (source: Hustwit.com)

Helvetica (2007), Objectified (2009), Urbanized (2011) (source: Hustwit.com)

To create the three films, Hustwit interviewed over 75 designers—everyone from up-and-comers to pillars of industry. In a recent interview with Fast Company, Hustwit discusses his open-ended interview style: “I don’t go in with a set list of questions, but just invite designers to talk about what interests them, which really shapes the narrative,” Hustwit [says]. “I might record two or three hours worth of interviews with one designer, only to use less than two or three minutes of it in my films.” Such a glut of recorded material cut down to three hour-long documentaries leaves a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor.

Several of the designers that Hustwit interviewed for his films. (Top-left, clockwise: Dieter Rams, Stefan Sagmeister, Alice Rawsthorn, Erik Spiekermann, Smart Design, Jonathan Ive, Massimo Vignelli)

Several of the designers that Hustwit interviewed for his films. (Top-left, clockwise: Dieter Rams, Stefan Sagmeister, Alice Rawsthorn, Erik Spiekermann, Smart Design, Jonathan Ive, Massimo Vignelli)

It was the thought of that unused material languishing away on some remote hard drive that spurred Hustwit to start his latest manifestation of the Design Trilogy, a book called Helvetica/Objectified/Urbanized: The Complete Interviews which will be completely funded through Kickstarter. Hustwit admits to cherry-picking the soundbites he needed from the interviews to support his films’ narrative arcs. Yet, the entirety of the conversations form a repository of knowledge and insights about the current world of design that the director felt was too valuable to keep to himself.

But rather than going the traditional cinematic route—releasing the extended director’s cut of each film—Hustwit decided the information would be more suited for a more archival—even academic—role: a book. On September 18, 2013, Hustwit launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the transcription, editing and arrangement of over 100 hours of interviews. The project has already been fully funded, even with more than half of the campaign’s time remaining. This clearly demonstrates that the design community (and fans of design) are not satiated with Hustwit’s work yet.

Helvetica, Objectified, Urbanized: The Complete Interviews (source: Kickstarter.com)

Helvetica, Objectified, Urbanized: The Complete Interviews (source: Kickstarter.com)

Designing the Archive

Gary Hustwit was interviewed by Don Lehman on a recent episode of Core 77’s Afterschool podcast. During their talk, Hustwit mentioned that he is interested in making films on a variety of other topics, and developed the idea of making his design series a trilogy to “give him an easy out” when the time came to move on. So why revisit the material again so soon? The answer lies in the cold truth about time itself…

…it keeps on ticking.

Several famous graphic designers have passed away in recent years, including Saul Bass (1996), Paul Rand (1996), David Carson (1996) and Storm Thorgerson (2013). Massimo Vignelli, Wim Crouwel and Milton Glaser are all pushing their mid-eighties. When they are no longer with us, a vast amount of design knowledge and skill will also vanish—unless it is properly archived. Hustwit has always been saddened by the fact that there is no dependable online repository for designer interviews. While he is continuing to move forward with other film projects, Hustwit felt it was necessary to get these full interviews into the public’s hands as soon as possible, in the hopes that it might instigate a push for a more permanent archive.

While online portals such as Design Is History and RIT’s Graphic Design Archive are excellent resources for design artifacts and biographies, there aren’t very many places to view extended interviews with those figures who shape, promote and change the field of design. By making his full interviews part of the public discussion of design, Hustwit is furthering his cause to bring notice to design and its effects on our world. The anecdotes and opinions contained within Helvetica/ Objectified/ Urbanized: The Complete Interviews that didn’t make it into the tight structure of the films will now paint a more complete picture of design’s cultural importance.

Spine and Interior views of the book project (source: Kickstarter.com)

Spine and Interior views of the book project (source: Kickstarter.com)

But Why a Book?

So why is a 400-page paperback volume the best format to package this information? Shouldn’t Hustwit stay within his directorial wheelhouse and deliver the extensive interviews as feature-length bonus footage, as it were? Could some important visual aesthetic be lost when we no longer see the person telling us their story, but rather, simply black (Helvetica) type on a white page?

I could take the pessimistic view and say that Hustwit made a choice to simply deliver a collectible product that would be desirable enough to guarantee full funding for his Kickstarter project. Or, I could say that it’s highly probable that no one would actually be willing to sit through 100 hours of unedited video content.

But I think it’s more than that.

With this book project Hustwit has embarked into the realm of the designer himself. Like the concentric thematic rings of his three films, he is the one now adjusting type and layout; he is the one creating the object fit for our consumption; he is the one participating in the formation of corporate space (in this case, the online community of Kickstarter). Sure, Hustwit wants to promote the importance of a public database for an oral design history. And I’m sure this tome will advance that cause, for the benefit of us all. But in addition to that, Hustwit is synthesizing his learned knowledge into a fitting (and practical) homage to the discipline he loves so much.

Cue music. Slow fade, and…cut!

You can learn more about Gary Hustwit’s projects at hustwit.com, and you can check out the details of his Kickstarter campaign here.

About the Author

Patrick Gosnell is a graduate student and teacher at Texas State University San-Marcos. He has a background in fine art photography, and currently focuses on international typographic practices. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and daughter. You can follow him on Twitter or check out his blog, TYPEATX.