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If you’ve ever dreamed of being an astronaut and going to space, you’ve probably pictured becoming an aficionado in flight maneuvers, gravitational mathematics, and extra vehicular space walks. But for one brief moment during the flight preparations that will take them far beyond the reaches of the earth’s atmosphere, NASA astronauts have to be brand designers, too. 

For each mission, the crew of astronauts hunker down for something akin to a Post-it ideation session to come up with the graphic design of their mission patch. From kitschy covered wagons to Italian couture, the resulting designs that have graced every program from Apollo to the Space Shuttle are portraits of the characters, eccentricities, and quirks of space missions that spent billions of dollars getting to the moon but wouldn’t shell out for a design team. 

Astronauts L. Gordon Cooper Jr. (right) and Charles Conrad Jr. walk across the deck of the recovery aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lake Champlain following splashdown and recovery from the ocean. You can see the Gemini 5 patch just under their name badges. Image c/o NASA

The tradition of patches in the space program originated in the days of the Civil War, when badges were used to identify select regiments. Later, Air Force pilots emblazoned their jets with irreverent names and evocative fuselage art (they were particularly fond of shark teeth and pin-up girls). When the first classes of astronauts arrived at NASA, most of them from military backgrounds, they looked for similar ways to personalize their crafts. Painting the lunar module was out, as was naming, so Gemini 5 astronaut Gordon Cooper pushed hard in 1965 to include a mission patch, thus launching the tradition of astronaut-designed branding. The Gemini 5 patch trundled a pioneer-style covered wagon onto a blank white field. There may have been more elegant ways to suggest new frontiers, but Cooper was the one piloting the wagon to the stars. The wagon stayed. 

Gemini 8 patch. Image c/o NASA

Missions that included a battery of medical experiments (i.e. physiological tests like checking heart rate, blood pressure, etc.)  had badges that referenced the human endurance of the Olympic marathon. The Gemini 8 crew rocked a Pink Floyd-esque prism splitting rainbow, perhaps to suggest the full range of their activities. Engineers and scientists, more used to centrifuges than san serifs, often put out questionably designed patches. “If you look at the history of NASA patches, there are some that are pretty good and some that frankly aren’t,” said former International Space Station (ISS) commander Leroy Chiao. Some missions tried to squeeze their entire workflow into one small circle. “What often happens unfortunately,” said Chiao, “is you get a patch designed by committee, which doesn’t work very well… A lot of the time, you get this kitchen-sink patch, which is not very attractive.”

Once in a blue moon, the renderings for the patch design were outsourced to unlikely places. “When the Apollo 15 astronauts are launched, they will be wearing a red, white, and blue Apollo 15 emblem designed by the couturier Emilio Pucci,” the New York Times reported in 1971. Crew commander David Scott, influenced by his wife’s love of the Italian designer’s clothes, had requested that Pucci create a high fashion emblem for the bulky space suits. The result was three boomerang curves, like winged birds soaring over the craters of the Apollo 15 landing site. “I wanted to give the feeling of motion—a feeling of an object moving in space in a streamlined capsule,” Pucci told the Times. The Apollo 15 astronauts didn’t give the Italian designer carte blanche. They nixed his iconic blue, green, and lavender color scheme in favor of good ol’ red, white, and blue. 

Apollo 15 crew David Scott, Alfred Worden, and James Irwin (L-R). Image c/o NASA

Often, the ideation session served as more than an aesthetic flex. It was how the crew agreed on the ethos of the journey on which they were about to embark. “It was a way for the astronauts to express their creativity,” said Dr. Teasel Muir-Harmony, curator at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and author of Apollo to the Moon: A History in Fifty Objects. “And it was a nice opportunity for them to get together and talk through what they thought the individual mission symbolized.” 

“It was a way for the astronauts to express their creativity”

The Apollo 11 patch marking the 1969 moon landing depicts an American eagle descending onto a lunar landscape to deliver an olive branch. The flight crew Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins paired the idea of world peace with a clear message of American domination in the space race. Aware of the global media attention the mission would receive, the crew left their names off of the badge. “They really wanted to symbolize the mission was for all humankind,” said Muir-Harmony. “It wasn’t just about three astronauts on the mission… They wanted it to be inclusive.” In the same vein, the historic “eleven” was rendered in roman numerals so that it would be legible to a global and non-English speaking audience.

Mission Operations Control Room in the Mission Control Center, Building 30, Manned Spacecraft Center, showing the flight controllers celebrating the successful conclusion of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. (July 24, 1969) Image c/o NASA

Given how chock-full of expertise NASA is, it may seem surprising that, at the crucial stage of brand identity, a team of admitted amateurs would be put at the helm. But the unbridled (if untrained) creativity that the amateur patches showcase was actually pretty indicative of the United States’ approach to the space race. “They weren’t given that much instruction or limitation in how they wanted to express themselves and their experience,” said Muir-Harmony, who noted that Neil Armstrong was allowed to come up with his first words on the moon; the only guardrails were generally to “say something appropriate.” The Soviet Union might keep their missions secret and their cosmonauts on a tight leash, but not the Americans. Embodying a freewheeling national character, astronauts—PhD scientists, engineers, and ace pilots—for one brief moment in the ramp up of each mission, embraced their authentic inner amateur and let their creative personalities shine through. 

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In the South Bronx in the 1970s, hip-hop culture was just beginning to form at large musical gatherings called jams. In abandoned buildings packed with people, a group of DJs developed techniques like sampling, breakbeats, scratching, cutting, and backspinning. But news of a jam didn’t spread by word of mouth alone: Low-fi, photocopied flyers made from Letraset, markers, cut-up photographs, and glue were distributed by hand, traveling fast along the uptown streets. Geometric shapes and action lines merged with collages of artists performing, conveying the energy of whatever night—perhaps emceed by The Sugarhill Gang, Doug E. Fresh, or DJ Kool Herc—was being promoted.

A large portion of these flyers were the work of PHASE 2, a young artist from the Bronx who was becoming known as one of the best aerosol writers in the city, and who could often be found DJing, dancing, or rapping at the local nights. Recognizing a lack of promotional material surrounding jams, PHASE 2 asked hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash if he could design a flyer for an upcoming event. The rest is history. His flyers went well beyond pure promotional material, drawing influence from Art Deco, Jack Kirby comic books, Romare Bearden paintings, and manga. While April Greiman was initiating the “New Wave” on the West Coast, PHASE 2 was having similar impulses on the east, pushing legibility, breaking the grid (as if a grid mattered to him to begin with), and working predominantly with sans serif type. In the mid ’80s, PHASE 2 began art directing and co-editing (alongside founder David Schmidlapp) the notorious street writing and subway art publication IGTimes. Its international distribution brought New York–style writing to city streets worldwide. Today, PHASE 2 works as a fine artist, creating skateboard decks and prints, and most recently working with vinyl.

PHASE 2’s layouts helped to define the aesthetics of the hip-hop movement. Yet while hip-hop evolved from a small music scene of Black youth in the Bronx to the worldwide phenomenon it is today, his influential designs never quite made it into the annals of design history. There’s no mention of him in Meggs’ History of Graphic Design by Philip Meggs or Graphic Style by Steven Heller, the history books that tend to make it into design school curricula. And it’s not like PHASE 2’s work is difficult to come by, either. 

As a party flyer designer in the early 2000s, I stumbled upon PHASE 2’s designs on small hip-hop blogs, and his compositions became deeply influential on my work. In 2014, while researching these flyers in graduate school, I came across Cornell University’s hip-hop archive, which houses hundreds of early party flyers. After curating a show on the history of African-American design practitioners for Maryland Institute College of Art, which featured many of PHASE 2’s flyers, I began a series of email exchanges with contemporary designers for whom PHASE 2 has been a major influence. Eventually, I connected with the man himself. What follows is our conversation, which I hope can express the level of value that I find in PHASE 2’s words of wisdom, his dedication to his beliefs, and the genius of his graphic design.

PHASE 2 flyers. Images courtesy of the ‘As, Not For: Dethroning Our Absolutes’ exhibition at Maryland Institute College of Art.

What inspired you to begin creating artwork growing up in the Bronx?

Long story short, I grew up on music—older sister’s music, mom’s music, the radio. That’s my first love. I wanted to be a radio DJ. So I think it was only natural that I played music even before we called it hip-hop. I basically did it all: danced, created dances, emceed, threw jams, and eventually promoted.

I appreciate that you recognize the flyer designs we did as “graphic art” and not just some hip-hop stuff done by train dudes. I was drawing when the train culture didn’t even exist. Technically, I’ve been making art for a lifetime. I’ve always looked at the flyers as ads. That was my initial reason to do them.

Did you have any other art training outside of aerosol writing?

No. Actually if not for piecing, painting really isn’t my forte. I like to draw and draft. With a ballpoint pen, by the way.

What characterizes hip-hop to you?

It’s a gumbo. That’s what always made it different from what came before. It’s an extension of our past culture… taken to another level. It’s life, it’s evolution. It’s life and flavor.

Whom would you credit as the first artist to create a flyer for hip-hop culture?

Well, the whole “first” thing is always tricky. The first hip-hop flyers that I consistently saw were for Kool Herc’s earlier ’70s jams, even before the term was insinuated. And, as I remember, they were by a brother named Kareem, and then it’s like he disappeared.

I will put it this way: When I went to Grandmaster Flash’s manager to suggest making flyers to advertise their jams, there really wasn’t anything like that happening, and that’s why I suggested it. What you did have were big Merengue posters by Salsa Kenny and Izzy Sanabria, but we weren’t really promoting jams on any real level like that. I thought that it made sense to, so I started doing flyers for Flash, and then the wave came behind it. 

Who else did you make graphic design work for?

Besides the flyers, I was promoting the culture, making logos for Mike & Dave Records of Cash Crew fame. Starting in 1981, I designed logos for the Crash Crew and did a slew of logos for Europe Ones NYC Rap Tour Poster in 1982, and created the original Tuff City Records logo in that same year. I also did the Fast Money LP for Mike & Dave.

Courtesy of Phase 2.

Later on, there was the Boogie Boys Romeo Knight LP. Using different approaches, I did work with Rawkus Records and Definitive Jux, Company Flow, KRS-One, DJ Spinna, El-P, and did a bunch of posters overseas for Soulee B’s flavor of the year jams in Bologna. There’s definitely a love and addiction to creating them.

Was there a community of flyer designers at the time? Was there any competition or collaboration?

It’s kind of a yes and no. Some of us did know one another and actually chilled at times. I knew Buddy Esquire, Anthony Riley, and Sisco Kid. There’s those who I considered the major league and some that just dabbled in it. A good handful of them were super dope tag-team partners. I did a couple of collabs but mostly did my own flyers in an array of styles. I’d never say it made me “better,” but I feel that versatility really separated me from the overall pack. We’d compliment one another when a flyer was just killing it.

Your collages and layouts are so dope. Can you give me an idea of your process from start to finish? 

I love photography, so I’m pretty particular about the pictures I use. I gather them up and basically ad-lib from my mind’s eye, I guess. I imagine that particular influences crept in from all types of things that I saw growing up. Maybe from Kirby to Romare Bearden. Art Deco and slick LP art.

Where did the photography come from? And how did you print multiples of the flyers?

At that time a lot of the collage pictures and the artists’ pics were from my own archives or given to me by the artists or whoever was throwing the jams. Other pics, maybe from magazines. To print the flyers I’d accompany Mike (of Mike & Dave Records) and take the flyer masters way uptown in the Bronx to a very professional print pro named Larry. He was really tedious with the masters. They printed for big companies like Hasbro. It was great: He apparently really respected the work. He put his expertise into it and even asked one day, “Who the heck does this stuff?”

PHASE 2 flyers. Images courtesy of the ‘As, Not For: Dethroning Our Absolutes’ exhibition at Maryland Institute College of Art.

Can you share a memory of putting together a flyer? Who was it for, and how did the jam turn out? How did people respond?

Hmm, that’s a tough one. I can just say that it was always an adventure. There was a lot of anticipation as to how certain jams would turn out. But I can recall giving out the December 31, 1981 Borough Boogie-Thon flyer, and just from looking at it, someone said something like: “What is this? Yo, I’m going to it!” That was type crazy. But it spoke to the whole purpose of doing them. 

Also a different style flyer, The Audubon Ballroom Flash vs. Cash Crew, was pretty slick. I’m not going to proclaim that the flyer brought the crowd in, but as far as attendance, that was one of the craziest hip-hop parties I’ve ever been to. The Audubon was jam-packed from the stage almost to the entrance, and Flash didn’t even show. But no one seemed to care.

Can you talk about how you applied the typography? 

At one time I didn’t have access to the better press type. So I just had to do it with what I had. Stick-on letters are a trip. Letraset, Chartpak markers, and other rub-off letters were easy to maneuver efficiently.

PHASE 2 paste-ups. Images courtesy of David Schmidlapp.

What inspired the composition of the type? 

I was looking forward to trying to create something fresh. On a technical note, it kind of always depends on the amount of info. How many acts, and of course there was a title. Odd or even numbers of acts would determine placement. I like things to look balanced, so I started to make flyers where I would repeat the info on each side. Jumping letters and doubling words were just a matter of feeling.

What tools did you use?

Outside of a ruler, anything that I could make a shape with when needed. I honestly couldn’t say that there was a basic process, besides just figuring out how much space I would need for info or pictures, on top of my mood. I was always amped. I’d say by ’81, I’d perfected a particular style and technique. At this point, I was doing tons of flyers and they were just on another level compared to the earlier ones.

What were your influences and inspirations when you created these flyers?

Partly a love for music and being involved in parties, and wanting to make them known in a bigger way. That’s even how getting pictures from the artists came in. “Let’s do it like the pros,” so to speak. Even though they were pretty crude at first, I had free rein to create in my own way. Phrases, intros, and such. Like “The Founders of Funk.” Mike and I would come up with titles like “Rockathon” and “Funkathon.” It was strictly about drawing the crowd, not just the design.

Are these flyers the only way that hip-hop events were promoted? Were there large posters at all?

Posters, definitely. Mike usually would be the one to have them made up. But I’d say once it started, it was pretty imperative to have flyers. Big or small. They were in demand. To the degree of someone knocking at your door at 11:30 at night. Seriously. 

People would knock on your door at 11:30pm for a flyer? 

Well, usually they would call unexpectedly, probably in desperation. The hypsters would like to make everything seem like we live under the gun; it would sound better for to me to say they’d come to my door with a pistol in their waistband, but it wasn’t that critical. I knew everyone, so…

So what would happen? 

Ring, ring… “It’s Tiny… I really, really, really, really, really, need a flyer, P.” So what am I going to do? Ha! Know what I mean?

Can you tell me more about the way you designed IGTimes? What were your artistic goals? 

Artistically I was trying to create something slick. Mind you, using photos in layers isn’t like using pics from zines. Because of their thickness. So that was different. On the content end, the science that Dave [Schmidlapp, founder] dropped was what drew me to the paper. After the dismissal of the less concerned heads, we were on some next kebob. All the way around the board. Basically we were dropping kamikaze news and mind states that were meant for whoever was hip to reality. No holds barred and not for the marshmallow-in-denial types. It was the source before the source. Kicking state of the state of the state. Even before I popped in: music, art, politics, life. Peace to Bronx Style Bob, wherever you are.

IGTimes magazine cover, vol 12, 1991. Design by PHASE 2. Image courtesy of David Schmidlapp.

In hip-hop, like with a lot of art movements, there are people who originated an aesthetic, but then it gets added to by a community of artists. Are you concerned with being credited when your style is used by others?

As far as “imitating” the style, for me, it’s more of a big deal when people assume that the style is someone else’s. If someone emulates the whole style overall, it’s cool to a certain degree. But not when they know the influence and pretend not to know who it came from. Or they hire someone to do that style as opposed to getting it from the source, and then it goes unrecognized. And heads do know.

The artwork for Dave Chappelle’s Block Party and The Get Down Netflix series were clearly inspired by your work. Are you the originator of this style? What particular elements make this style yours?

I call it “Funky Nous Deco,” no doubt. It was my approach to eventually combine those elements—the stars, symmetry, circles, squares—in a particular fashion, even with things like silhouettes. That’s become somewhat of a staple and hip-hop trademark. I saw the Block Party poster in the street and thought that it was something of mine. It’s a style that is recognized as and definitely spells hip-hop. I’d say that the proof is right there. Then and even to this day, if you see a chronology of flyers in this type of style, you’d find that it’s pretty evident that I implemented it. Nike had someone run with it more or less, as well as Adidas. And surely VH1 Hip Hop Honors.

I spent years as a party flyer designer in NYC between 2006 and 2012. This is around the time that I first discovered your work on hip-hop blogs online, and it taught me how to work with photography in a new way, and arrange text in more compelling compositions. I feel like your work should be studied. 

I knew that people were without a doubt using the style that l used in hip-hop flyers to promote certain affairs and brands that appeal to youth and the hip-hop population, so to speak. So evidently they had to “study” it. But l would never have thought that it had an influence and effect to the degrees and levels that you speak on. It’s pretty crazy to know this.

PHASE 2, flyer. Image courtesy of David Schmidlapp.

How would you feel about your methods and aesthetics being taught in an academic setting?

I don’t know. When you use the word “studied,” it becomes questionable to me. Mainly because from what I’ve seen, people who don’t have a clue tend to stretch their imagination and theoretics far beyond what the actual factual reality is. Such is the case in almost everything written in hip-hop’s so-called “history.” I remember this collage that I did that was reproduced in a book. It was broken down, with the hows and whys explained, supposedly by me. I’d never said anything in respect to its construction.

With hip-hop, it’s some Tarzan-of-the-Jungle type nonsense, with a tinge of the butcher Christopher Columbus tossed in. We already know what came after that. The way I see it, it’s like time is repeating itself in a different way. As opposed to the hip-hop masses being wiped out, the integrity of its reality and past is being raped and massacred.

What wisdom can you bestow upon a young designer, like me, and anyone else reading this?

From an “artist’s standpoint,” I think just to be naturally original and flow with what you feel in the moment.

But for a “rule” of sorts? Have the mind to know and be recognized as dope! Know what you’re best at. Commercially, there’s too much cloning as opposed to being influenced and taking those influences to another level.

Is there anything else that you’d like to share?

Yes. When it comes to your wanting to know the history: You have to research way beyond the research, because for whatever array of factors throughout the ages, too much of what’s been presented, written, and supposedly documented as our origins from aerosol to hip-hop is far from our reality. It’s a mish-mosh of sorts. And it’s not that difficult to see if you look further.

Also, recognize that your passion and love can’t compensate for having the necessary knowledge. And when you don’t have the true knowledge, what you advocate for and relay in respect to the culture could actually be more of a detriment to its legacy and integrity. There are really no “experts” here. There’s only fact and fiction. Sad, but true. The question is: Who is keeping it real?

This article is excerpted from the fourth issue of Eye on Design magazine. Pick up a copy of Eye on Design #04, the “Worth” issue, for more stories that question the way we value design—measured in money, power, influence, and feelings.

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Plus, Journal Safar comes out with a fantastic new issue, themed Nostalgia, Studio Last redesigns the Monopol website, and dating app Feeld offers a free font inspired by the Stonewall Riots. For more along these lines (and so many others) you can follow along all day, every day on Instagram @AIGAeyeondesignFacebook, and Twitter @AIGAeyeondesign.

Journal Safar issue 4, “Nostalgia”

Journal Safar’s Nostalgia issue 

We’ve been keeping a close eye on the always brilliant Journal Safar, Beirut’s “bilingual and biannual independent visual and design culture magazine” rooted in issues and ideas from the Middle East. Published by the graphic design agency Studio Safar, the magazine is now on issue four, still keeping alive its original promise to train a critical and thoughtful lens on experimental design and cultural production in the region. Each issue also revolves around a theme, and this time around they’re going deep on Nostalgia.

The design of this issue looks great, with a bright yellow and red color palette and cinematic play on serialized still images throughout. And the content is really exciting as well: cultural critic Paul Holdengräber, former director of the New York Public Library and maestro of the stellar public programming there, leads talks with Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFares, Anya Kneez, and Haytham Nawar.

Stonewall 50 typeface by Feeld

Stonewall 50 by Feeld

The month of June was full of LGBTQI+ Pride, per usual, but unlike years past this Pride Month had something extra to celebrate: the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the demonstrations attributed with leading the modern fight for gay rights in the U.S. The energy was high this year, but we also saw a lot of corporate (and pop star) leveraging of Pride and the anniversary for the express purpose of selling stuff. Our favorite projects to coincide with the celebrations have been the ones that prioritize access and sharing, which is one reason we like this Stonewall 50 Typeface by the dating app Feeld.

The typeface is free to download (though users are encouraged to make a donation to their local LGBTQI+ organization). The other thing we like about this typeface is that the width and style varies per use, with the font generating a code to randomly select a variation of widths and styles, resulting in a hodgepodge of diverse characters. “The inspiration [for the font] came from the vernacular, handmade letterforms adorning the placards of the Stonewall protesters,” says Feeld. The result is a font that’s engaging in its variation, and legible enough to be used for all manner of materials for Pride and beyond. Keep it in mind for next year, or use it all year round.

Tweet History by Odd Publications 

Ever miss the incessant commentary and overwhelming time-suckiness of Twitter when you go offline? Ever wish you could bring the anxiety-inducing stupidity of @realDonaldTrump’s tweets with you when you’re in the calming envelopment of your reading chair, disconnected and finally, blissfully alone? Have we got a publication for you: Tweet History: @realDonaldTrump translates those tweets into hundreds and hundreds of (really nicely designed) pages, direct for your reading pleasure.

You can thank the intriguing Odd Publications for that, the brainchild of programmer Darien Brito and graphic designer Jaap Smit. The publishing house is dedicated to “projects driven by information and powered by code,” re-purposing internet data into printed form. All joking aside, the pair’s Tweet History project is an interesting one: they’ve developed software that scrapes content from Twitter accounts and automatically creates a book of the users’ tweets over a specific period of time. The books are print-on-demand, with a sparse but lovely layout, blowing up tweets at times like pull quotes on full spreads, or placing them on the page with just a time stamp. While it could be argued that there’s not really a need to print Tweets into an actual, physical book, with all that paper, it is interesting to see how context changes the perception of content—and a good reminder of how much design plays a role in that. Does the printed page lend an air of authority to Trump’s tweets, or does it play up the absurdity?

What Is Universal Everything? by Unit Editions 

Unit Editions’ latest release has just graced our office shelves, this time with “digital art and design collective” Universal Everything as its subject. This is a good combination if we’ve ever heard one, and it’s resulted in a beautiful book, complete with black foil-blocked type and a unique, randomly generated tipped-in image on the cover. To create that image, Universal Everything developed software to generate random combinations of colors and shapes, meaning that “everyone owns a one-off,” as the collective’s founder Mike Pyke notes. It’s also printed with a special “Salmon fluoro” spot color mixed especially for this book. As always, this Unit Editions volume is edited by Adrian Shaughnessy and Spin designer Tony Brook, and it also features essays by Adrian Shaughnessy and Antonia Lee. It’s a beaut.

Monopol website by Studio Last

And finally, Studio Last sent over some new work in the form of a redesigned website for German art publication Monopol. It’s looking very good, with a wordmark that stretches and shrinks when you first hit the homepage, and an automatic scroll down to the content. “With the newly developed functions, starting with the everlasting, morphing Monopol logo, the extending pictures, the moving newsletter, the news ticker etc. and a clear structuring, the page enriches the user interaction and equally enhances the user-friendliness,” explains the studio. As per usual, this website is best appreciated when experiencing it for yourself.

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Name: Flight Center Gothic
Designer: Michael Bierut and Nick Sherman
Organization/Foundry: Pentagram and Hex
Release date: May 2019

In 1962, Eero Saarinen designed a building that looked like flight itself. The shell roof of the Trans World Flight Center (TWA Center) swooped downward in angled pieces; its shape echoed the outline of a fighter jet seen from head-on.

Inside, Saarinen’s team had crafted a typographic system that looked like flight, too. The hand-drawn signs scattered throughout the building featured a bold sans serif that tilted forward in an exaggerated italic. It was designed to look fast, like a technological marvel. “Of course a bold italic would be perfect for the jet age, wouldn’t it?” says Michael Bierut.

The original typographic drawings Flight Center Gothic is based on.

After remaining closed for decades, Saarinen’s terminal recently reopened as the TWA Hotel, a sleek homage to the architect’s midcentury design. Bierut and his team worked with type designer Nick Sherman to craft Flight Center Gothic, a faithful, but modern version of the hand-lettered type that was found throughout Saarinen’s building.

Before drawing a letter, Bierut and Sherman visited the TWA terminal at JFK where many of the original signs were still hanging. “I immediately—and sort of incorrectly, as it turned out—identified the lettering style as a typeface called Derek,” Bierut says. Derek, a bold, italic typeface designed in the late 19th century, had echoes of the slanting letters found in Raymond Lowry’s TWA logo, but as Bierut hinted, he and Sherman soon learned that while Saarinen might have been influenced by Derek, it wasn’t the exact lettering that was used throughout the terminal.

Flight Center Gothic

While studying Saarinen’s papers at Yale’s archive, Bierut and team found photostats of the lettering that had been pulled from various books. Saarinen and his team of architects had made edits to the letters, indicating where they wanted things changed. “These images are annotated here and there—by whom, I don’t know—indicating modifications the architects wanted to do: extending the center crossbars in the ‘e’ and ‘f,’ for instance, or cutting back the base of the capital ‘L,’” Bierut explains. The slightly tweaked letterforms were then sent on to draftsmen who likely traced the edited letters from the photostats. From there, craftspeople lettered the terminal’s signs by hand. It was up to Sherman and his team to incorporate all of Saarinen’s typographic idiosyncrasies into an “authoritative” typeface that would be consistent but faithful to the letterforms’ quirks.

Why’s it called Flight Center Gothic?
Easy. The name is an homage to Saarinen’s original Flight Center building.

What are its distinguishing characteristics?
The sans serif typeface has thick strokes that lean forward as if someone suddenly slammed on the breaks. It’s declarative and geometric, yet shapely and warm. Bierut describes it as “bold, fast, and optimistic, just like Saarinen’s building.” Sherman created a bolded italic for the TWA hotel, but he also made a Roman and thin version, too.

What should I use it for?
“It’s a really great contemporary sans with those hints of imperfection that make it a good alternative to more ‘perfect’ typefaces like Helvetica and Universe,” says Bierut. 

What should I pair it with?
“I think it would work well with a Scotch Roman like Century, or even a modified slab serif like Clarendon,” Bierut says. “It really has a bit of a Mad Men feel, so all of those typefaces that were popular in early ’60s advertising would work well with it.”

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There’s a good chance you’ve admired Franco Grignani’s work, even if you couldn’t put a name to it. His lifetime mission, after all, was to capture the viewer’s eye on the image, rather than on his persona. The exhibition Franco Grignani (1908-1999) – Multi-sensoriality between art, graphics and photography, currently on view at m.a.x. museo in Chiasso, Switzerland, offers the occasion not only to re-discover his work and to learn his name, it also reveals a renewed relevance to his work in a contemporary design context.

Born in 1908 in Pieve Porto Morone, a small town not too far from Milan, Grignani came from a traditional and mannered family that instilled a sense of perfectionism in him from an early age. After a short stint studying math, Grignani moved to Turin to become an architecture student and joined the second wave of Futurism. As an artist, his figurative experimentations dedicated to speed and mechanics only lasted about six years (in typical Futurist fashion), with Grignani soon shifting to more abstract subjects, especially through photography.

This was Franco Grignani in a nutshell: a visionary with an outstanding sense of discipline that he managed to transfer onto his production.

Architecture turned him from “poet to constructor,” Grignani’s said, foreshadowing the importance that the methodical use of instruments and tools would play in his art. As abstract as Grignani’s work might appear, his starting point was always a tireless analysis of the real world that he transferred into countless notebooks, translating his obsession for the growing influence of technology on human life into complex mathematical formulas. The results were often designs that appeared kinetic the longer you looked at them, thanks to a meticulous arrangement of lines and shapes that altered the viewers perception. Grignani thought “being an artist was not a profession but an attitude of those who have deep interests associated with their sensibilities,” and his math capabilities and artistic drive were matched only by his exceptional manual skills.

“A good drawing starts with a well sharpened pencil,” he would repeat, years later, while giving drawing lessons to his daughter. This was Franco Grignani in a nutshell: a visionary with an outstanding sense of discipline that he managed to transfer onto his production.

Franco Grignani at work

Italian illustrator Olimpia Zagnoli is among those who were struck by Grignani’s work before even knowing his story. “His vision of shape and color perturbed me—there’s such courage and such a composed rebellion in his work,” she says. “I believe studying Grignani can help [artists] to analyze, break down, and start over those artworks that have become dull, maybe with a nice aesthetic quality, but lacking any content or intuition.”

In 1940, as Italy entered World War II, Franco Grignani was assigned as an officer in charge of an aircraft-sighting course. Teaching others how to quickly spot moving shapes in a short timeframe led him to what would become the definitive essence of his work as an artist and graphic designer: the interdependence between the eye and the mind.  

After the war, Grignani abandoned his architecture practice and, inspired by Milan’s lively new wave of designers, including his long time friend Antonio Boggeri (the forward-looking founder of Studio Boggeri)—became an ante litteram art director.

In 1942 he married Jeanne Michot, a French illustrator, who became a perfect partner in this new profession, even though Grignani never founded a studio. He approached graphic design as yet another experimental laboratory to observe and control optical phenomena that he then translated into numerous advertising campaigns for prestigious clients.

It was the late 1940s when Grignani redesigned the identity of Dompé Farmaceutici, a pharmaceutical company that ended up keeping him on for over 10 years to create advertising campaigns and graphics, as well as the company’s culture magazine Bellezza d’Italia. In his work for Dompé, Grignani applied his whole aesthetic and conceptual arsenal: movement, lateral vision, experimental photography, reiteration, and synthesis. In an ad for the vitamin Cardioritmon, for example, Grignani realizes a pulsing heart through different shades and colors, ironically ignited by a plug. Meanwhile, the ad for an arthritis drugs bears a futurist-like reiteration of jumping athletes over a dynamic brushstroke-like sign. These advertisements were seen as a true revolution compared to other 1950s ads of romanticized work and family life.

Franco Grignani, Pagina pubblicitaria Alfieri & Lacroix, 1959, offset print, 27.5 x 21 cm, AIAP archive

In 1952, Grignani started a 30 year-long partnership with Alfieri & Lacroix, a renowned printing company that allowed him full creative freedom. Grignani’s approach there was total, and he defined its corporate voice. The logo he designed is a monogrammatic synthesis of the letters “A”, “&”, and “L” that resembles the shape of a printing press, and his evocative copywriting for A & L harkens back to his Futurist days.

“What fascinated me with his work was the intimate relationship between graphic design, architecture, and fine art, all blended with consistency: the search itself is the art.”

Even looking back on his work as a whole, it’s impossible to confine Grignani to a specific movement, not least because he made a point to be different from everyone else. “What fascinated me with his work was the intimate relationship between graphic design, architecture, and fine art, all blended with consistency: the search itself is the art,” says French illustrator Malika Favre who first discovered Grignani’s work through an interest for Op Art. Despite certain aesthetic similarities to the movement—the use of black and white, altered surfaces, and contrasting colors–where Op Art artists looked to reach mind-numbing perceptual illusions, many of Grignani’s designs instead used tangible materials to create physical illusions. The resulting organic geometry of Grignani’s work is still of interest for artists today. Robert Beatty mentioned Grignani as an inspiration for his popular cover design for the Tame Impala album Currents. “I was looking at the way process based systems can be used in art and design to emulate the natural world—things such as Turing Patterns and cellular automata,” he says. “The same feeling those techniques give me is present in Grignani’s work and lends to its timelessness.”

Franco Grignani, Woolmark Logo Proposal (Winning proposal), 1963, photographic assembly on cardboard, Private archive, © Matteo Zarbo

A significant case of how Grignani’s work is rooted in tangible matters is probably his most famed work, the Woolmark logo. Many stories circulate around this iconic logo’s authorship, originally attributed to the mysterious Francesco Saroglia and only claimed by Grignani in 1975. The famed logo represents his obsession for finding the right solution, and a life in which work and life were seamlessly merged. “We were the harshest jury to our father’s work,” says Manuela Grignani, the artist’s daughter, recalling one family lunch in which his children critiqued an early drawing of the Woolmark logo.  Afterwards, Grignani started playing with a fork over the white tablecloth and the signs left by the fork’s tines on the fabric finally made his eyes sparkle. Hours later, Grignani had used the imprint to come up with the 3D intertwined rivlets that’s come to represent pure Italian wool. In 2001, 12 years after his death, British magazine Creative Review voted Woolmark’s the best logo of all time. Too late for Grignani to enjoy such achievement, but this is in his fashion after all.

“I have no problem of occult persuasion, I only have my work coming out of a long and deeply felt experimentation and very personal methodologies,” wrote Grignani in 1986. “I have never belonged to flocks of sheep; I have not shared ideas with others and I am behindhand with the projects accumulating in a big folder called “Works for the future.’” Refusing to ride the wave of creative agencies that became rampant in the ’80s , the tenacious visionary stayed true to his value and dedicated the rest of his career to his art.

Franco Grignani in his studio, 1940s
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Founded in 1995, Lodown magazine—the Berlin-based skateboard-culture-cum-contemporary-arts magazine—has long switched up its editorial design with each issue, bringing on guest designers and contributors like Mirko Borche, Matt Irving, Manuel Bürger, and Marc Brandenburg. Often flipping from landscape to portrait, the magazine has acted as a platform for different design styles from issue to issue, and often within the same one, with designers taking on individual articles.

Around 2012, one of those designers was David Benski, at the time a design student in Nuremberg. When he received another call, unexpectedly, a few months later, the Lodown editors were well into the 90th issue. “They were in a rush because the art director had left for maternity leave,” he says. “So I went to Berlin and I designed the magazine in about a week.”

This was both the start of a long-term client relationship with Lodown (in collaboration with Oliver Zuber, Benski has designed 13 issues) and a prescient career-starter. While Benski’s practice involves more than just magazines—his work also spans exhibition catalogs, branding, posters, motion graphics, and commercial art direction—they’ve been notable pillars of his practice. Yet despite their serial nature, magazine projects haven’t exactly given Benski the stability of a set structure. By his own account, he’s “never designed the same magazine twice.”

For Lodown, change is built into the publishing model. For Plasma, an art and science magazine that launched in 2015, the challenge was to match the success of one issue without replicating the design exactly. After meeting founder Diana Wehmeier through his work at Lodown, Benski came on as art director for Plasma’s fourth issue, together with Roger Lehner. His cover design featuring eight die-cuts of different sizes—which expose an image underneath, in three different versions—quickly became the new magazine’s most recognizable issue. A striking mix of scientific imagery, precision, and typographic cool; the cover was shortlisted for awards, made the design blog rounds, and still seems to pop up on Instagram fairly regularly, nearly a year later.

Along with Laurens Bauer, with whom he’s recently opened a studio with, Benski’s working on the fifth issue now. He says it will look different, but “have the same feeling.” After receiving so much recognition for the previous cover, the idea is to achieve the same visual impact without re-using the cut-out design (which came from a visual language loosely mimicking molecules seen throughout the equally striking interior design of the issue). With the fourth issue, he created a magazine special enough in its materiality, and stunning in its visual design and art direction, that people wanted to own it as a physical object. “Right now it’s so hard to run a magazine and [make a] profit,” he says. “You have to build up a brand based on a feeling you want it to have, and give people a reason to really want to have it, especially if you can read all of the content online.”

Poster artwork for droidcon Berlin, by Bitrise. David Benski and Laurens Bauer.

For Benski, translating a certain mood is not only essential for making a magazine that feels unique, it also gives visual consistency across issues. This is important especially for magazines that change their layout and cover design entirely from one issue to the next—in other words, the ones Benski is prone to work on. (Note: Benski is also the designer of the fourth issue of Eye on Design magazine, which also has a new designer, and design, each issue.)

“Right now it’s so hard to run a magazine and profit”

Conveying a feeling or mood that can act more or less as a magazine’s “brand” isn’t quite as straightforward as creating visual consistency with a layout and cover system that stays the same every issue. Benski’s approach is to start with set of tools that can be used consistently throughout the magazine—a grid or typography system, or guiding structure—so he can go wild with design elements and type while still having a solid underpinning.

This way of making expands beyond magazines, too—into other areas of Benski’s design work, which have recently included the branding for the Papiripar music festival in Hamburg (under Studio Laurens Bauer & David Benski), identity and logo design for eyeglasses brand Mykita, and visual direction for Nike. Together with Bauer, the two designers have set up the Studio Laurens Bauer & David Benski, where they’ll continue making the same vein of work, just jointly.

“With everything, you’re telling a story, setting a mood, and building a brand”

Across everything, the process and philosophy stays the same. “The medium really doesn’t matter to me,” Benski says. “I’ve been doing magazines a lot lately, but I don’t think it makes a difference whether you’re making a website or designing an exhibition catalog. With everything, you’re telling a story, setting a mood, and building a brand within each project.”

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Munich-based studio Milch + Honig has an interesting story behind its name (which translates as milk and honey, for non-German speakers). Projects are either “Milch” or “Honig”: the former are those in which they work to strengthen companies through new communication concepts and visual identities, while the latter are work involving “social and cultural engagement.”

“We try to add some honey to sweeten life, using our knowledge and skills to support individuals and organizations,” says co-founder Christina John. 

Milch + Honig was formed in 2009 by John and her colleague Rafael Bernardo Dietzel, who left in 2016. The studio has always been small, but three years ago the team of three slimmed down to just John when she had a baby (taking on freelancers when the projects demand them).

What’s so striking about Milch + Honig’s work is its breadth: its homepage alone offers an insight into its focus on the interplay of carefully constructed motion graphics, sharp typography, and innovative art design, on top of more traditional graphic design projects. “We are open to any kind of medium, even when we focus on type and print solutions,” says John. “That’s why we like to work with a huge network of talents and specialists, learning more about things like variable fonts, processing, and tracking.”

As such, the studio’s style is refreshingly hard to pin down. “Some people say playful, some powerful; some describe it as reduced and clear, some as colorful and funny. I always try to find aesthetic creations with a little twist.”

Milch+Honig, GW Magazine, issue 3

The process at the studio is described as “content-driven.” But what does that mean exactly? “Not designing for the design as an end in itself,” says John. She refers to the Bauhaus idea that form follows function, an idea she feels is more relevant today than ever. As such, most projects start with intense client discussions and workshops to drill down into what a brief actually needs—its strategic concerns, the various touch points the designs might work across, how they might reinterpret the boundaries of what the client thought they needed.

It comes as little surprise that this conceptually led way of thinking means that much of Milch + Honig’s work is for cultural clients. The downsizes of that are “less money,” says John, the upsides are “more creative liberty and good feelings, because you’re doing something good: culture means education, one of the most important things in the world.”

A standout piece in the studio’s portfolio is the Rosenthal anniversary book, a publication celebrating the Rosenthal porcelain company that’s been synonymous with high-class living and dining culture products since 1879. The studio created an oversize hard cover book in a gold paper sleeve with  three additional special colors, a vibrant Happy Birthday clacker, and shortened pages; and features a multi-page picture series shot by Berlin fashion photographer Joachim Baldauf. A limited special-edition was adorned with a titanium-gold porcelain plate that seems to magically stick to the cover.

“Even though they wanted us to make a colorful, lively, and surprising magazine, we had to take care around Rosenthal’s long tradition,” says John. “In the process of working with the client, we ended up with a big book with a Rosenthal anniversary plate fixed magnetically at the cover: as the content and strategy changed a little bit during the process, it was important to give every topic enough room and a design that fits to the content.”

She adds that the best clients are those who are “motivated to join the creative process,” offering up their own input as well as being open to new ideas. 

While the Rosenthal project was ostensibly for a brand, it was approached like an art book. Although Milch + Honig’s founder is keen to separate what it means to be an “artist” and “designer,” being an “artist at heart” is still integral to her commercial practice. “In the past I used to draw a lot, made collages or sculptures out of iron and had some exhibitions,” she explains.

“Being a designer is not the coolest, most artistic job ever.”

Later, when she opened the studio, she says she “wanted to keep a connection to the fields of art, no matter which one.” That’s why when she started out, most of the projects she worked on were for musicians and artists. “They  gave and give us a lot of freedom in the sense of creating unconventional, off-the wall-designs that are pushing boundaries and breaking habits in how we’re seeing. So there has always been those two poles—art and design—and our work is oscillating between them. 

“Being a designer is not the coolest, most artistic job ever. It’s a hard job: you have to fight for your ideas, your authority as designer and strategist, and at the end, often to get payed. But complaining is silly. Either act, or forget about it.”

Milch+Honig, GW Magazine, issue 1
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Nontsikelelo Mutiti is a Zimbabwe-born interdisciplinary artist and educator who works across fine art, design, and social practice. Mutiti co-founded Black Chalk & Co., where she produces cultural projects and events, and Reading Zimbabwe, a platform for archiving and publishing. She currently serves as an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) School of the Arts.

Navigating terrains of locality, culture, and history is central to Mutiti’s work, and she’s acutely observant of the layers that mitigate how we view both design and education. In our interview, Mutiti explores how her past has affected her viewpoints, considers the frameworks with which typography or color theory could be discussed, and points out the virtues of “asking better questions.”

African Hair Braiding Salon Reader, 2014; Spiral bound reader produced during Recess, Session residency.

What’s your personal history with education? How does that form the way you view it as a practice?

In colonial Zimbabwe, the British—the Rhodesians—used education as a civilizing mandate, so it took a very particular form. Engagement with the book, with reading, and with study was tied to unlearning—you were learning one culture to unlearn another.

It automatically placed a hierarchy among forms, ways, and language. So for me, growing up in post-independence Zimbabwe, we still dealt with all of those same issues because nothing actively has been done to address what education has historically been in our spaces.

For this reason, education is problematic because we learn the Western canon—the way that the Western eye has been looking at our geography, or our language, or history. There’s always a hierarchy among our way, our being, our language, and what’s been given to us.

You work a lot on the edges of typography, redefining what it is and what it could be. Could you talk about that?The cultures within the space now known as Zimbabwe do not have writing systems that are formally recognized. There were pictograms painted on rock faces or walls and also beaded adornment with codified meaning. I was not taught about any of these ways of articulating myself. Writing and reading has always come with this colonial layer even when we are reading local languages typeset using roman characters. And so my way of articulating myself has come with this colonial layer of using English, using written form, and reading texts that are set in global characters.

When I come into a space of teaching, I’m thinking about typography and letterform from that position. Thinking through publications like Saki Mafundikwa’s Afrikan Alphabets, which focuses on and privileges them as modes of  established and systematized meaning making and communication.

I’m curious to look at that publication, and just look at my own life in general, and think about what writing is. What are the modules for writing, or for visual meaning-building? And then looking to other kinds of forms to think about presenting meaning.

Figure 8, 2018; Letterpress print from CNC routed wood blocks based on braided motif. Ongoing research on braiding and technology.

What other ways can the current canon of graphic design be interrogated?

I think about what I learned about objects of material culture, and why I only see those things when I go to a museum. Why are we not looking at, say, Zulu beadwork and then talking about color theory in relationship to that? When we’re talking about color mixing, we’re talking about Pointillism, Impressionism. But what if we think about kente in relationship to that—in relationship to modernism and a rectilinear approach to design motifs?

I think about a book like Philip B. Meggs’ publication—it was produced by the Department of Education and is now a household name. It has one instance of an African work, by Africans, which is hieroglyphics. There’s nothing contemporary. And how many years of scholarship has gone into creating the foundation for him to be able to feel authoritative enough to write that narrative?

There’s now a substitution which attempts to start bringing in some work—such as from Mexican cultures—but I still wonder, what kind of work has to be done? It’s a quandary that I’m trying to grapple with now. I’m making those points using ideas on hair braiding, thinking through them, thinking about even that visual form as writing, as meaning making, and thinking about how that relates to typography, or pattern, all of those things.

How does this translate back into the classroom?

That’s where I am right now; I’m just trying to ask better questions about what has been institutionalized. I think that is the way to open up and bring other things in. Or to say, “Okay, this is over-presented. We don’t actually need to be teaching that, we don’t need to be passing that on. We need to be discovering and bringing other things forward.”

We have a very Euro-centric canon. It’s always been strange to me that even American scholars haven’t scripted a narrative for themselves and looked at materiality, some symbolism, typography, to the extent where it can stand on its own. The way we teach graphic design is we’ve tried to have this “global” arc of what has been happening in the discipline. This idea of the global has never been all encompassing, nor has it referenced how motifs, trends, and visual ideas have circulated since before colonialism and because of it. This allows us to miss out on how important spaces outside of Europe and North America have been to shaping our aesthetic world.

For instance, Jerome Harris’ exhibition, “As, Not For: Dethroning our Absolutes” presents the work of black American graphic designers. It’s not definitive, nor does it try to be. And I like that it names that up front.

Bringing that kind of work to VCU is part of the effort to present students with a case study of knowledge building. And thinking about: what is the sister project to Jerome’s exhibition? The cousin project? Is it your Vietnamese identity? Is it your Korean identity or Korean-American identity, related to your immigrant identity? Your white southern identity? Why aren’t we talking about what graphic language frames the idea of the confederacy? Why don’t we create those lines of scholarship?

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The 1960s was a culturally transformative time for the Netherlands, seeing the rise of a “new consumerism,” where the conservatism of 1950s Dutch society transitioned toward a more progressive, liberal outlook. Perhaps the most emblematic symbol of this shift is seen in the period’s graphic design, which turned away from the austerity of Modernism in favour of a more youthful, imaginative representation of Dutch public life. While this has often been traced in the emergence of cultural magazines such as Avenue and the cultural supplement of the NRC Handelsblad, the most visible change occurred in the field of advertising. And in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was the collaboration of two figures later known as the enfant terribles of Dutch graphic design that proved pivotal.

Swip Stolk, designs for Provo magazine, 1967

Born on the outskirts of Amsterdam in 1940 and 1944 respectively, Anthon Beeke and Swip Stolk grew up as members of the “protest generation” that came of age in the midst of the Dutch ’60s. At the height of Amsterdam’s countercultural movement, Swip Stolk had designed covers and lettering for the anarchist Provo magazine—co-founded by his brother Rob and written by founder Roel van Duijn—while Beeke had been involved in the design of Fluxus artist Willem de Ridder’s Hitweek magazine. But by the end of the decade, both had also shown an aptitude for more commercial projects. Beeke had designed packaging for the toy and boardgame manufacturer Jumbo (before his employers saw a photograph of him protesting with anarchist group Provo and he was fired), while Stolk had produced striking campaigns for De Bijenkorf department store and the Nederlands Zuivelbureau (Dutch Dairy Board) under the guidance of Paul Mertz at the Prad advertising agency.

Swip Stolk, designs for De Bijenkorf department stote, 1970

For advertising agencies such as Prad (a portmanteau of progressive advertising), the attraction to designers such as Beeke and Stolk, who had formed a loose alliance towards the end of the 1960s,was indicative of a larger turn in Dutch advertising strategy. The postwar increases in employment and the continual rise of real wages meant that by the late 1960s, for the first time, the Dutch youth were active participants in the country’s booming consumer culture and represented an important new audience.

Swip Stolk and Anthon Beeke, Intercity Dutch Railways poster

Prad, as well as other successful agencies like Franzen, Hey & Veltman, and Kirschner Vettewinkel Van Hees, recognized that teenagers and young adults required a more imaginative, visual approach. This new style, in stark contrast to the abstract Modernism of previous years, is reflected in Beeke and Stolk’s 1972 poster for the Intercity line of the Dutch Railways. The image combines vibrant color and idiosyncratic illustrations of characters that were  traced over photographs but include additional details, using faces that snake across the curves of white and green striped tracks. The composition is almost entirely visual: in a distinct shift from 1950s advertising, Beeke and Stolk’s image barely engages with particularity of the product, and instead focuses on a more romantic image of consumer experience.

This equalisation of text and image was part of a “reactive revolution” in 1960s advertising, led by the American ad man William Bernbach, co-founder of the Doyle Dane Bernbach advertising agency. Bernbach’s style focused on the “soft sell”, in which advertisers were to “appeal to a consumer’s intelligence and imagination”,  over the traditional “hard sell” which narrowed in on a product’s particular selling points. We see this conceptual transformation realized in Beeke and Stolk’s campaign for the French car manufacturer Citroën in 1974. Unlike the designs of Karel Suyling, whose advertising for Citroën throughout the 1950s and 1960s saw the car and its features dominate the image, Beeke and Stolk’s campaign relegated them to the periphery. Central instead are illustrations of the “new consumer”, for whom the product is no longer just an object, but a means to a new, liberating lifestyle. In each of the campaign’s posters, which visualize a number of differing scenarios, the car remains in the corner, only half of its body visible, while viewers are drawn to the silhouetted figures who climb out one by one, recreational tool in hand, as if the Citroën itself has transported them from the drudgery of the 1950s to the leisure society of the following decades.

Swip Stolk and Anthon Beeke, Citroën campaign, 1974

The Netherlands’ embrace of consumer culture, however, was not only a case of postwar introspection but also—as the influence of Bernbach’s ideas suggest—one of American influence. In the years following the Marshall Plan, through which the U.S. injected millions of dollars’ worth of American consumer goods into the Dutch economy, the vernacular of American pop-culture became an ever-present motif in the Dutch imagination. In Beeke and Stolk’s poster for De Bijenkorf’s ‘Gay Seventies’ campaign we see this connection, well-established in Dutch society, between modern consumerism and the American aesthetic. In a similar composition to Andy Warhol’s 1962 Marilyn Diptych, Beeke and Stolk render a grid of smiling faces welcoming the viewer into the “wonderbaarlijk wereldje” (wonderful little world) of De Bijenkorf. In the gleaming style of American Pop Art, Beeke and Stolk’s design reads less like an invitation into the Dutch department store, but more as a summons into the bewitching world of U.S.-style consumer culture.

Despite their successes, the relationship between Beeke and Stolk and the institutions of commercial culture was never short of difficulty. As early as 1970, the pair were invited to design the ‘Young People Today’ issue of Grafisch Nederland, an annual journal for the Dutch printing and graphic design industry, for which their use of an erotic comic strip was ultimately deemed inappropriate by the journal’s editorial board. Their inclusion in organisations such as the ADCN (Art Directors Club Netherland) also proved ineffective, with their work often misunderstood or marginalized by the group’s existing members. In a similar fashion to their New York-based inspiration, Push Pin Studios, Beeke and Stolk were operating in the apertures between subculture and mainstream.

But by the middle of the 1970s, Beeke and Stolk’s short-lived alliance with the field of commerce had begun to dissolve. And after a four-year stint as co-editors of Dutch architectural magazine Forum between 1971 and 1975, they too went their separate ways. Yet, in this brief collaboration between two of the most tendentious graphic designers of the 20th century, we see evidence of an aesthetic optimism that, in the 1960s and ’70s, established a new kind of dialogue between Dutch advertising and its new consumer.

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The Venice Biennale—for many, a watery pinnacle of the art world calendar—isn’t exactly a place for quiet contemplation. Full disclosure: I’ve never been, but boy oh boy have I seen the gondola-laden Instagram feeds. I have heard about the exorbitant water taxi fees at 4 a.m, about the guest-list jostling, of feet blistered from traipsing from pavilion to pavilion to private viewing. And that’s before we’ve even talked about the art.

For the uninitiated, the Venice Biennale (confusingly) takes place annually, alternating a focus on art and architecture each year. The 58th International Art Exhibition in 2019 sees the Italian city taken over by pavilions, each devoted to a single country’s artist (there are 89 in total this year). Obviously, this means a huge influx of people to the city’s narrow, winding, water-flanked paths. It also means a ton of artworks and artists (and by the nature of the event, countries) are vying for attention—sometimes as much through their PR machines and the branding of the pavilions as their work.

Such a scramble, you would think, might call for pavilion graphic identities that shout their wares like a bellowing Victorian newspaper seller. The branding, exhibition graphics, and printed materials aren’t just serving visitors inside the individual pavilions; they’re trying to get them into said pavilions in the first place, luring them with huge hoardings across the canal; posters; increasingly, carefully strategized social media; and most importantly, tote bags. But bellowing has never really been the MO of London-based studio A Practice for Everyday Life (APFEL), which this year created the identities for not one but two Venice pavilions: Eva Rothschild at the Irish Pavilion and Leonor Antunes at the Portuguese Pavilion.

This isn’t the studio’s first pavilion project (it designed the 2015 Turkish pavilion for conceptual artist Sarkis), but it’s the first year the small studio has worked on two concurrently, all the while navigating the new territories of making work in Europe, for European artists, as London-based creatives within the ongoing political shitstorm of Brexit.

Since APFEL’s founding 15 years ago by Kirsty Carter and Emma Thomas, straight out of their art school MA course, its portfolio has been characterized by work that’s thoughtful, often pared-back, and always striking, for clients including Tate, the Barbican, Studio Voltaire, Lisson Gallery, Kettle’s Yard, and The Whitechapel Gallery. Confident yet minimal, its work eschews ornament and illustrative sensibilities in favor of considered use of physical materials and heavily typographical approaches, with the team often designing bespoke typefaces when the project calls for it.

Leonor Antunes Portugal pavilion branding by APFEL Photo © APFEL

This smart yet subtle style works perfectly for applications such as exhibition graphics and artists’ books. But in the hubbub of something like the biennale, weren’t they tempted to put all that aside and go gung-ho for impact? “I think you get noticed more sometimes with a more minimal take, because Venice itself is quite a visual city,” Carter says.

Thomas adds: “The designs in Venice need to work clearly across multiple applications. You’ve got signage—a banner on a canal—and you need to be able to read the artist’s name at a distance, and you also need to have consistency so that people will recognize [the artist] in a simple way.” 

This, I suggest, must make working on pavilion projects slightly different to those for other cultural clients. Where an individual gallery show will promote certain exhibitions, these often bear the institution’s own branding as much as the individual designs for that temporal event. In Venice, though, pavilions have to think more like commercial branding campaigns: they have to catch the eyes of people who weren’t necessarily looking for them. They also have to work on vast billboards as much as they do on Instagram thumbnails. And like working with a big brand, there are a lot of stakeholders involved, and not just with the artists’ teams: the Venice Art Biennale institution also has to approve all the design work.

Another constraint is time, which again, hinges on varying levels of bureaucratic wrangling. “It can be just a matter of months [before the biennale] that the artist finds out [that they are chosen],” says APFEL. And even then it varies artist to artist. Rothschild, for example, heard the news before Antunes. This also explains something I’d been wondering: since each country’s pavilion is represented by an artist from said country, surely there’s some impetus to commission designers from there, too?

APFEL agrees, but notes that there’s only a short space of time to complete it. “It’s a very short space of time,” says APFEL. “I would think that’s part of what they’d like to do, but it doesn’t always fit. We’ve had a long collaboration with these artists, and on those timelines they need to work with someone they know well. We put together an entire body of work for Eva’s catalog, for instance, and that had to launch the day the biennale opened. If they don’t know the designer well, it won’t marry.”

For APFEL, the artists they’ve worked with this year are those with whom they have longstanding relationships. APFEL previously collaborated with Rothschild on the design of a monograph of her work published by Stuart Shave/Modern Art in 2010, and worked with Antunes on the design of two recent artist’s books. “When you’re working closely with artist, you can really push ideas—you know each other so much better, and each other’s interests, so you can have a much more in-depth conversation about design,” says Carter.

As the title for Leonor Antunes piece, a seam, a surface, a hinge, or a knot, is quite long, APFEL says “we needed to do something pared back and considered.” Thomas adds, “With Leonor, it’s not about an overtly strong, overpowering graphic approach.”

The designs for Antunes’ pavilion identity evolved from Recta, a mid-century Italian typeface, riffing off the fact that her work makes references to that period in Italy. “Her Venice work is about all these cultural reference points, and paying homage to certain artists or figures she feels were insufficiently recognized,” says Thomas. As Antunes told ArtReview, much of her process for the pavilion project involved researching post-war Italian artists, “including Franco Albini and Carlo Scarpa, and with a particular focus on women such as Franca Helg and Egle Trinacanato, both of whom have remained unstudied in the history of museums and exhibitions because they stand outside the processes of canonization.”

Eva Rothschild Irish Pavilion branding Photo © APFEL

For Eva Rothschild’s piece at the Irish Pavilion, titled The Shrinking Universe, APFEL says the designs had to clearly state that she’s representing Ireland (Ireland is not in the UK, and is therefore still part of the EU, unlike Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK with Wales, Scotland and England). APFEL’s graphics were very much intertwined with her broader practice, such as in the tote bag it created for her, which references the gaffer tape used in much of the artist’s work. “The bag was more a collaboration; an extension of a piece,” says Carter.

“It’s about simple but subtle ideas and use of materials.”

For the brochure and typography created for Rothschild, again, typography was pared-back but within clever conceptual twists. “The brochure folds down into a knot [another reference to the artist’s use of materials],” says Thomas. “With the sandy brown bag, though the text is left aligned on most applications, it’s not on the bag, alluding to a physical seam. It works well with the bag and her title; it’s about simple but subtle ideas and use of materials.”

Leonor Antunes Portugal pavilion branding by APFEL Photo © APFEL

As we’ve stated, working on Venice Biennale projects is a tricky balance: a simple approach would be big, bold PR-pleasing designs; a smart approach is, like APFEL’s, one that discreetly yet intrinsically understands that artist’s work and the potential for their designs to buttress that.

“It’s braver to do something simple and pared-back.”

“At the end of the day, it’s meant to be a presentation, not a fair; but in a way of course, it is a fair—everyone’s showing at the same time for the same duration, so there’s a requirement for graphic design much more so than in any other sort of show,” says Carter. Thomas adds: “You have to think about something specific to [the artist], and doing things that aren’t like what other pavilions are doing. It’s braver to do something simple and pared-back.”

So what’s the trick? “You have to laugh,” says Carter, “but Venice basically becomes a competition about who has the best tote bag.”

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