February 28th, 2011 by Art Chantry
The label maker was a big cheapo solution for typography back in the early punk days. You saw it everywhere: on record covers, posters, zines. You could literally buy a label maker gun (especially the gutbucket brand called ‘Dymo’) for two bits in a thrift store and then get the tapes out of the free bin. A few clicks, some bad spelling and VOILA! Professional lettering. Sorta.
I first used label maker in my graphic design work in the mid 70′s, when I was still a student. I used it on a poster for a student art exhibit. That poster was a great lesson for me, because everything I used on it was found in the garbage. It was my very first “garbage” poster. Even my label maker gun and tape were found in a trash can. You see, I used to be a garbage man before those college days and I found cool stuff I’m still using to this day. In fact, my very first business card I ever made for myself was label maker type. Man, it looked awful. It was perfect. perfectly awful. Delicious.
Then the punk thing hit like a sledge hammer and label maker was one of the “solutions of choice” (alongside ransom note type, scribbled handwriting, crudely drawn hand work, and typewriters). Basically anything that was cheap was perfectly acceptable in punk graphics. And label maker type was used so much that it became a cliche.
In hipster circles, when something becomes used to death, it’s over and gone. The label maker disappeared from graphic design almost completely after that. It was poison, a pathetic joke. From about 1978 until the end of the 80′s, it was totally forgotten as an interesting design solution for anything in type or design. This business is extremely faddish, you may note.
In the late 80′s, I was hired by Larry Reid at CoCA (the Center of Contemporary Art) to do up a poster promoting their next big show, “Low Technology.” It was an exhibit of machines made by mad scientist artists.
CoCA had just been the target (unfairly, of course) of Jesse Helm’s campaign to defund the NEA. CoCA was one of the organizations caught in the middle, so the poster I designed dealt with not only the mad scientist machine artists, but the political situation of CoCA. It turned out great, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about.
I needed a type solution for the poster. It was machines made by artists and we all know what that’s gonna look like – total DIY. Then, I remembered the good ol’ label maker. I dug around and found my old gun and cranked it some label type. Then I photocopied it a couple of generations, so it would be flat on the paste-up (and look properly amateurishly shitty, like lettering artists would make – artists can make great images, but they don’t know shit about typography, at least until computers started to do it for them). I thought it was a great joke – the perfect type metaphor for the gig and a great graphic design retro reference. It looked great, then it won typography awards from professional design organizations. We all laughed a lot at that. Label maker? Awards? Ha!
As far as I know, nobody had done that trick in over a decade. It worked so well, I used it a couple of more times here and there. It looked fresh and new again, probably because it had been long forgotten.
The most prominent place I used it was in the Rocket as section headers throughout the magazine. It looked great (again) and was exactly the right nuance for a trashy music mag. To top it off, in every issue, I went back to the previous issue and photocopied off the label maker headers from the previous issue. Then I pasted the deteriorated image into the new paste-up. The result was that readers got to watch as the section headers slowly rotted away into illegibility over the next 9 months. When they got so messed up that you couldn’t read them any more (that became utterly non-functional), I switched to a new header design. I played the game out to a logical conclusion.
The Rocket was dropped in small bundles around the country. We also had a subscription list that included every ex-Rocket staffer we had an address for. Many of these old Rocket people had moved to New York City and made a big impact in the publishing biz there. They had worked so hard with nothing just to survive for so long that they hit the ground running in NYC. Before long they were art directing a dozen major league publications (Vanity Fair, Village Voice, Metropolis, Newsweek, Vibe, etc…). In New York circles, these ex-Rocket people were nicknamed the “Seattle Mafia.” These folks got the Rocket at those publications every month and it got passed around.
When some of those folks saw the label maker, they laughed at the joke, too. Old punks, they totally got it. After a while, Bob Newman sent me a copy of the Village Voice with the label maker used on the cover design and scribbled a note on it saying, “HA! ripped you off!” Then I got a copy of guitar world from Jesse Reyes with a note saying, “I stole your idea. Hope you don’t mind!”
After a few more of these I began to realize this was a great example of how graphic design language works. It spreads like a virus (thanks Bill). A design image can catch the popular consciousness and spread like disease, infecting people who come into visual contact. We’ve all seen it happen over and over, but here it was happening on this small scale so that it could be witnessed and commented on.
My co-worker, Grant Alden (he was editor at the Rocket), noticed it too. His take was total fascination. He said he finally could see verification of all the BS I’d been spewing and he was officially convinced. He wanted to actually document the process as it worked its way across the pop culture. Thus began the process of looking and following everywhere the label maker font appeared in pop graphics.
Before long, art directors and designers who friends of those ex-Rocket art directors in NYC saw the joke and copped it, too. It popped up in Rolling Stone and a few other hipster magazines. Then it started to transfer media into record covers (a logical jump from music magazines). It was used on a Duran Duran record cover and then the label maker showed up on a Joan Baez LP cover (!) It began to show up on bestselling fiction dust jackets, as well.
David Carson saw it and began to use it mercilessly in his early phase. When he did a CD of typefaces (everybody was doing that back then – you could make huge money fast if it clicked) and it included “label maker” as a typeface. So, here you could buy a $3000 computer, $1000 software, and a $200 CD rom to do what a janky old label maker could. It cost ME 25¢. We thought that was particularly funny.
Then it went corporate (due to its availability as a computer typeface). The Label Maker started to show up in annual reports. Most notably it was on a Warner Brothers annual report that won dozens of prestigious industry awards. It even showed up in logos and corporate identities. Grant and I were awestruck by how far it had ricocheted.
And the crowning glory was still to come. That summer, the new season baseball cards hit the markets. The wrappers for one brand actually used the label maker on the wrapper design! That old label maker joke we pulled on the Rocket actually bounced around graphic design culture and made it on the American staple of baseball cards! Does it get any better? (Actually, a designer who worked there at the company was an old Rocket dude, so we have direct documentation of that).
So, what started off as an old punk cliche used to illustrate the machines of artists, was then folded into the Rocket, stuck in the NYC design grinder, then took off all over the world.
February 24th, 2011 by Art Chantry
One of the things we’ve forgotten about is just how cool Los Angeles was in the mid-sixties. Maybe our forgetting was intentional, actually. After them hippies went all “real” and “authentic” on us in the Haight/Ashbury, LA was forever denounced as “plastic” and all things Southern California were dismissed out of hand as “the man.” The only “real” and “cool” stuff came from the hippie-dippie minds of those in touch with their “inner selves” and “doing their own thing;” not going “plastic-showbiz-phony” and pursuing the “establishment dollar.”
I beg to differ.
If you examine what was happening in Los Angeles in the mid-sixties, it was the coolest scene of all time. Hollywood, TV, teen dances, garage rock, surfing, hot rods, kustoms, rat fink, folk/psych, hip fashion, beach culture, bikers, and sun sun sun. It was teenage heaven. When we think about everything that we think is cool about retro teen culture and American “outsider” artwork, we’re thinking pure Los Angeles, 1965.
Take, for instance, this photo I’ve posted today. It’s a little later than 1965 (I think), and I don’t even think it was shot in LA (that house looks really San Franciscan to me, but I’m just guessing), but just look at it. The fake psychedelic (“hallmark psychedelic”) graffiti, the girlie-girl mini-dress fashion, the long straight hair, the hot rod culture, the exuberant jump in the air, the pretty smiling sunny face, the pink “L’eggs,” and, of yes, that car!
This is the Voxmobile – at the time, an extremely famous celebrity kustom kar, commissioned by the Vox guitar company. Mid-Sixties LA was the apex of rock ‘n’ roll culture of the era. Sure, there was the British Invasion and later there was the San Francisco scene, but the music that came out of the Los Angeles music scene was the real deal, the best and hottest rock scene maybe ever. All the more famous scenes paled in comparison. The Byrds, the Seeds, the Mothers, the Beach Boys, the Mamas & the Papas, the Chocolate Watchband, the Buckinghams, the Grass Roots, Captain Beefheart, Love, the Standells, Jan & Dean, the Doors, all those surf and hot rod records by Gary Usher and Davie Allen and Terry Melcher. Shindig, Hullabaloo, the Munsters, the Monterray Festival, even the rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” was recorded there. It goes on and on and on. LA was the hub of everything from the Banana Splits to the Manson Family.
And, of course, there was the wonderful Los Angeles heartbeat of the American kustom kar kulture. Starting with Von Dutch, Ed Roth, Dean Cushenberry, Daryl Starbird and the bull-goose looney of the lot, George Barris. Los Angeles supplied us with our mightiest custom-built dream cars. When it came to those peculiar cars that were exhibit cars, or entertainment tie-in cars, the territory crossed over into pure American advertising at its best.
There have always been advertising automobiles. If you look into the history of the car, you’ll always find enterprising people who turn their delivery trucks into rolling billboards for their business. Crazy showmen would turn their cars into giant rolling pickles or even rockets or vacuum cleaners or giant animals to advertise their wares.
However, when grand master car customizers like George Barris got into the game, there was no looking back. He’d already made a big name for himself with beautiful customs like the Ala Kart and Golden Sahara. He had built a small business empire around his various personally endorsed paint products and how-to customize books. He was practically a household name.
Then along came telelvison and Hollywood. He was asked to build the Batmobile. After that it was a steady stream of commissions to create one crazy car after another like the Munster Coach and the Dragula for the Munsters on TV. Before long, he was the crazy custom car guy to the stars. Soon no self-respecting rock star could be seen cruising the strip unless they had thier very own George Barris-designed kustom. Sonny & Cher had matching Mustangs (and matching Honda 90 cycles!).
Soon every kustom car designer in town was doing them. Paul Revere & the Raiders had the Raiders Coach the Monkees had the Monkeemobile. The Addams family had the Druid Princess (designed by Ed Roth, no less). The cars showed up at publicity events and grocery store opening, to teen spectaculars and the beach parties – everywhere the stars didn’t want to go. At one point there were even something like four or five Batmobiles making their rounds. The car shows listed the krazy kustoms with star billing as if the Monkees were actually making an appearance and not their car. It was really kool and krazy.
It was an easy step for the marketing industry to move in and start making their own krazy advertising kustoms as well. Vox musical equipment had become the guitars and amps of choice for most of the coolest LA bands (they had the coolest shapes!), so they decided to jump into the krazy kustom battle and have a Voxmobile built by Barris. This photo shows how kool it was. It’s shaped just like a Vox guitar!! Amazing, huh?
Bands all over town had their publicity photos taken draped over it as if it were their own car-about-town. In fact, the car was probably a bigger star than 90% of the bands that had their photo taken with it. For several years, this car was a star, but where is it now? Nobody knows. In a museum? In a private collection? Was it pieced out to build other cars? Did it burn in the infamous “Barris Custom Shops” fire? It seems to have gone the way of the Vox guitar – all show, no go.
There was a big fad among kustomizers to build cars out of everyday objects (so the giant Vox guitar idea was no isolated concept). There were cars built out of telephone booths, WW2 german helmets, bathtubs, even the Munsters’ Dragula was built out of a gold plated burial casket.
The whole krazy kustom kompetiton as it emerged in the media kept on going. For almost another half decade, the kustomizers kept bulding more and more extreme cars. I remember as a kid actually going to a car show (to see the Batmobile) and crawling inside of a car with pink shag carpeting covering the entire interior. It had six wheels and was shaped like an alien space craft. It was by Cushenberry, and called the “Pink Panther.” It had amazing chrome engine work and sticks shift steering. You couldn’t drive it legally on the road (I don’t even seem to remember windows). So, was it still a car? I think it had actually crossed the line into sculpture.
In fact, in that same show I saw a car called the “Moon-Rover” or something like that. It looked like a big black spider and had extended extra set of double wheels on a long retractible arm about 20 feet in from of the six wheels on the chassis itself. I couldn’t even see a place for the driver to sit. Definitely sculpture, not automobile.
I think it’s a big shame that these amazing objects have somehow managed to be completely missed by the modern art establishment. why aren’t the extreme creations of Ed Roth, Von Dutch, George Barris, Starbird, or Cushenberry in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC? They have shows about car art made by “real” artists who have no real connection to cars, but they don’t seem to include these extraordinary sculptural objects (that happen to look sorta like cars) as any form of “real” art. Why the hell not?
You might claim that these aren’t “artworks” but rather, real cars. Never mind that most of them are completely undriveable and many don’t even have engines. They simply sit there and look cool. Isn’t that the only real definition of “art” that survives the ages?
February 18th, 2011 by Art Chantry
One of the things I’ve always liked about Art Deco is the early classic DIY aspect of it. The origins of the style began in the Art Nouveau/Arts & Crafts movement of handwork, a style that was a back-to-nature revolt against the mighty mechanized industrial revolution and the high style of that devouring beast: Victorian.
Victorian style was the very first industrial style. All that decorative metal trim work and intricate architectural details and ornamental printed patterning and even the lace and heavy brocade cloth would not have possible if not for the new machines revolutionizing production of all that stuff. The fact that this same industrial mechanization was bourne on the back of a virtual slave labor class meant nothing to the still monarchical social structure, but Russia would change all that in time.
The Arts & Crafts style was the visual record of a return to the human control of production. The idea that the natural world should be celebrated and the proper humanistic approach of hand made was a direct middle finger at the Victorian style. It’s no wonder that the psychedelic movement in the 1960′s, flipping its finger at the modern industrial world of the early post-war period, would find inspiration in the Art Nouveau style. It was like attracting like.
Human history, however, intervened in the Arts & Crafts style. A series of archeological discoveries (especially of note were the unearthing of tutanhkamen’s tomb and the excavation of the mayan civilization in the new world) that revealed an early fascination with geometric style and visual language that became a new exotica and a “primitive” revivalism fad.
Combine that with the horrors of WW1 (the first mechanized war) in Europe and the derisive anti-machine machine style (a virtual critical parody of mechanization) of the radical politicalized Dadaists and the even more radical socially politicized constructivists and the dreamworld of the early surrealists and you get, well.. a snarky celebratory “rebirth” of the machine in the craft world. Strange but true. Art Deco was sorta snarky – especially at first.
But true to form, as the capitalist exploitation machine of the popular manufacturers of style and fashion always do, they erased meaning from the inspiration and went strictly for shallow taste and even more shallow decoration. Within ten years Art Deco was THE industrial style of America and (especially) Europe. A complete breakdown of inspiration and intent. It became a hipster pop style. And it was easy to fake. Cheap, too.
Even with that sort of explosive backdrop (and Art Deco went from high style to crappy cheezy pop real fast), like I said, it was easy to fake. The result was a huge turf of signpainter and commercial artists catering to the taste of the times by trying their hand at doing art deco, too.
This cover above is for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair (“A Century of Progress”). I think it’s a great example of what I’m talking about. It’s entirely hand drawn (in the Arts & Crafts tradition), which would on the surface seem to contradict the “machine inspired” nature of Art Deco, but it’s undeniably classical Art Deco – the anti-nature machined style so popular at the time. What could be a better style for “The Century of Progress” exhibition showing off our wonderful new machine world?
The movie Metropolis had already bombed at the box office and disappeared from memory and the industrial world was gearing up to crank out a million bad bakelite pieces of jewelty for sale in Woolworth’s and the every commercial artist in America was pulling out their straight edges and compasses for the onslaught of machine style to come, but this little captured moment of handmade machine fake style is still my favorite Art Deco of all.
Anybody out there have a clue as to who might have done this artwork? It was all completely anonymous, it seems. Even though we designers were the cutting edge of so much of this popular style, we seldom got credit or authorship for the work. The “industrialized” system of laws at that existed back then even went so far as to deny authorship of our own artwork – a system still reinforced by copyright laws today (specifically the “work for hire” clause). Basically America seems to a monstrous love/hate relationship with graphic design. We all want it and wear it and copy it, but we hate to give proper dues to the folks who actually dream it up.
January 27th, 2011 by Art Chantry
Have you ever wondered what something would look like – something really common, like, say, writing – if it developed entirely independently from other writing? Imagine a place that developed its own writing and language in the total absence of any other examples to copy. Welcome to Easter Island where such an anomaly exists.
The Easter Islanders actually had their own language and writing system. The writing is called “Rongorongo,” a hieroglyphic totemistic (it’s assumed) pictorial writing that currently defies translation. Everything written by the Easter Islanders of the past is total mystery – like the rest of their history. We can figure out bits and pieces and guess at a whole, but these are only educated guesses at best.
Some say that western missionaries ordered the pagan tablets burned. Others say they were (and still are are) hidden in vast caches squirreled away in the labyrinth of volcanic cave tunnels that riddle the island. The surviving writing is exclusively on hand-sized boards of unknown wood. Since the island was completely denuded of all wood centuries ago (one of the many problems that insured the complete its complete societal collapse) it’s a wonder that any survived burning at all.
There are conflicting reports as to how many have survived. Some accounts say only 21 exist, while others claim as many as 38 Rongrongo boards. Either way, considering there were ancient reports of thousands of them at one time, that’s a puny survival rate.
So, there aren’t enough left to figure out what they say. Besides, the writing artifacts are so arcane and specific to the island culture (long gone), that it’s a mind-boggling riddle to attempt to tackle. Indeed, it’s become something of a parlor game for linguists over the years. Often the biggest strides in decipherment comes from school kids trying to figure it out. Such is the mystery of Rongorongo.
One of the really marvelous things about this peculiar Easter Island graphic design is its unique approach. Yes, all written words are actually graphic design. We make little squiggles and then agree collectively upon what these squiggles mean. Then we put them together to make larger concepts and relay ideas. That’s about as good a definition of graphic design as I could conjure.
Rongorongo is one of those rare written forms executed in the reverse boustrophedon style. To understand what this means, imagine holding a Rongorongo board in your hands (all existing boards are small, hand-held sizes, often with a slight arc to them). You start reading at the bottom left handcorner. you read the line across the board from left to right. When you reach the end of the line, you literally ROTATE THE BOARD 180 DEGREES, then continue reading the next line, again, left to right.
You basically keep turning the board, rotating over and over as you work your way across the composition (you must look like you’re driving a car) until you reach the upper right hand corner. then you turn the board over and continue the sentence afrom left to right on the back side of the board. in this way, you find that the entire board has just one page of information. Most peculiar to us, eh?
So, like I said, this is visual language created by men in isolation, but once it’s agreed upon, it becomes accepted as the normal way of seeing the world. This is the essential bottom line, key to all visual language. You can’t get more basic than this.
We all know what yellow means. We all know what circle means (especially as opposed to square). We all agreeed upon these common definitions and worked with them through the eons. We alter them and embellish them and add our own peculiar little twists and accents. Sometimes, if we’re good enough, our little take on that word enters the larger culture and becomes part of our shared language.
Rongorongo is a great example of what creativity in isolation becomes. Western graphic design is a great example of what creativity in a mosh pit becomes. Whenever I hear about people furiously protecting their precious little creative work, I think of Rongorongo. Man, I MUCH prefer to mosh.
January 24th, 2011 by Art Chantry
I was deeply involved with the new garage rock revival during the late 1980′s and early 1990′s. Largely through my friendship with Dave Crider and his label Estrus records (yes, “ESTRUS” shameful, eh?). I was able to toss my hat into that particular visual dialogue.
To begin with, there is no real distinction between Punk and Garage rock. The main point of departure seems to be reverence. Basically, the Punks use the spirit and populist politics of that musical genre to create their dialogue. While the often maligned Garage Rock, seems to be more interested in the apolitical and resplendent aesthetic aspects of American trash culture.
Beyond that, there’s almost no difference, but it’s enough to create cliques and enmity. Frankly, the distance between goth and punk is far greater – yet there is a closer unity between the elites of each of those groups. Most punk rockers HATED the garage rock scene, particularly during the grunge years. You can still hear old grungers snarl, “That garage shit wasn’t grunge!” Pretty funny.
Working on Estrus records during the grunge years in Seattle created some interesting political dynamics for me. The strange part was that all the same people bought and listened and even recorded with each other. You’d find garage bands on Sub Pop and grunge bands on Estrus and Popllama bands crossing over all over the place. Yet the lines were still drawn – especially when money entered the picture. So it goes.
The aesthetics of the garage music scene were rooted in American trash culture. Think: The Cramps. Bands like the MC5, Question Mark and the Mysterians, the Seeds, the Sonics, the Monks and the Who were all godheads. But so were Dick Dale, the Stones, the Chocolate Watchband and KISS. Basically, if it was home grown and rough and ready, it was steady to go.
Mod, Rocker, Metal, Surf, Hot Rod, Rat Fink, Bettie Page, Tattoo Flash, Psychedelia, beer, bikers, Gary Usher, Famous Monsters, Vincent Price, strippers, Hootchie Coo, Rockabilly anything, wallet chains, gas station chic, sideburns, circus freaks, Black Panthers, R & B, Ike Turner (not Tina), Funkadelic, skate culture, pro wrasslers, Mexican wrasslers, Mexican rock and roll, Japanese anything, Brazillian anything, tikis galore, cheeseburger royale, flame jobs, pinstripping, t-shirts, stickers, bowling, really-really bad horror movies, vinyl records, etc. etc. It was the ultimate American aesthetic. I suppose you could throw punk in there, too.
Like I mentioned earlier, this was an taste/style turf that can be easily traced back through rock music. Perhaps the easiest starting point for this crap culture was the intense madness of the Cramps. Lux Interior and Ivy Rorshach were the epitome of all that is trash. They WALLOWED in trash. They were often referred to as Psychobilly, but that ain’t Garage, really, is it?
Others start back with the northwest bands like the Sonics, the Kingsmen, and the Wailers, but they more heavily drew off earlier R&B roots of the black tradition of rock and roll. While the rest of the country had gone surfing with Frankie and Annette, the northwest kids were trying to dance like James Brown, rock and wail like Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels and scream their lungs out like Little Richard.
So I think we really must look to lovely Detroit (a.k.a. “de-toilet”) for the real thing here. Obviously the Stooges, the MC5 and the Detroit Wheels were a a huge source of gasoline for the fire, but I really think that the unheralded source point, the primo-generator of the whole trash rock phenomenon was an almost utterly ignored art rock combo from Detroit called “Destroy All Monsters.” I really do.
“Art rock” was what it was called. Utter American trash were what they were. Frankly, there were no terms to describe the music and the creation they made. At that point in our cultural development, the word “punk” still referred to homosexual prison slaves. “Punk” wasn’t linked solidly to music for another half dozen years.
When bands like DAM and the New York Dolls and the Modern Lovers, and the Nerves first started popping up in the early 70′s, we had no words to describe them. So, the critics called them “art rock” or “glitter rock” (which the Brits later taught us was better called “glam”). Those words didn’t really work, either. It was like trying to call the the street hardened heroin chic of the Velvet Underground “psychedelic.” PLOP! We just didn’t have the vocabulary to do it.
DAM made trashy sleazy loud hard rock music. They were barely able to play any instruments. In reality, they were four rather accompished (especially later in life) artists named Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Carey Loren and (vocalist) Niagra Detroit. The music they made was more about the visual mess of trash than anything else. While art rock referred to icky dull-witted bands like Rick Wakeman and Kansas, Destroy All Monsters were making REAL art statements that resonated inside the fine art world. That art culture caught on to DAM long before the music world or even the underground noticed them.
This cover is from a little self-published book by Carey Loren that compiles a lot of the graphic and visual work done by DAM – largely from a little fan zine they made from the years 1976-78. The band went through phases. Originally an “anti-rock” band, they made noise and performed with an insane, over-decorated, and committed style. Then they started the zine and their music became somewhat secondary in importance to them.
Finally, they “traded art for volume” when Kelley and Shaw departed for life in the larger art world and ex-members of Detroit godheads MC5 and the Stooges (no less than Ron Asheton himself) joined up. This fertile music period is probably their most accessible and influential, helping to form the trash/punk aesthetic better than any of their other efforts. At least people took notice and actually listened.
This essay barely taps the surface of the iceberg that is Destroy All Monsters. As far as I know, there are no definitive collections of their music around. There are no definitive collections of their visuals around. You can gather a book here, a book there. Pick a a vinyl repressing or perhaps a private compilation tape. There are websites about each member as well as the band. All are amazing widely collected artists – famous, even. If there are decent comprehensive presentations of DAM’s work out there, I sure don’t know about it.
When you start talkin’ trash, that’s the way it should be. It stays special that way. Start digging…
January 20th, 2011 by Art Chantry
We’ve all come to be so familiar with the Maurice Sendak classic, Where the Wild Things Are that most people fail to appreciate the larger career of Sendak. His efforts at children’s illustration span a long period of time prior to the publication of that milestone book, and he also continued to work on things after, as well.
One of the things I love about researching American detritus is finding early or obscure work by famous folks. It’s always so small and clumsy and human to see the early efforts of later grand masters.
These two little books pictured above are children’s classics and they are illustrated by a young Maurice Sendak. You can plainly see the basic style of his drawn characters in these pieces, but they are so crude, simple, and primitive in comparison to his cross-hatched masterpiece that it’s hard to imagine them being drawn by the same hand.
I always find it comforting to learn that the mighty, famous, and powerful all have humble stumbling beginnings as well. They seem to be just like us – sorta feeling their way in the dark, trying to find a path.
When artists like Sendak finally see that path and make a quantum stylistic leap like he seemed to have in Wild Things, you can identify much easier what you (as a fellow traveler) also need to do. Seeing early Sendak and comparing it to his later masterwork helped me realize exactly what I needed to do to finally fully realize my own style. We should all find a Sendak to learn from – not by copying, but by example.
I have a funny unrelated Maurice Sendak story to tell.
In Seattle, years ago, Maurice Sendak was hired to create the sets and design for the Seattle Ballet’s annual rendition of “The Nutcracker” (that creaky old moneymaker). His interpretation of the story and design of the sets stays very true to the classic version we’ve all seen for generations.
The simple impact of his drawing style transfered over to the stage and costumes is so powerful, so perfect, that it does everything one would ever need to freshen and inspire the performance. For a couple of decades, now, his “Nutcracker” has been a popular favorite staged every Christmas season and supports the other efforts by the Seattle Ballet. It just plain WORKS.
One of the problems with using the same staging for a production like that for many years is that things simply wear out. Periodically, costumes and sets need to be replaced and reconstructed. It’s a fact of life.
So, what does one DO with an old Sendak stage prop? Well, s/he is required by written contract to destroy the old materials. That way, Sendak doesn’t have to compete in the art market with himself (like all us poster artists) and see the prices for his life’s work get hammered by competition selling his work cheap. It’s simple logic. He gets to control his own market. (It’s something I wish I could have controlled in my career – my stuff sells for crap on e-bay and I can’t do a thing to control it). So, whenever the Seattle Ballet needs new costumes, they toss out the old ones.
I used to live next door to a costume shop in Belltown (a neighborhood in downtown Seattle). The woman who ran the rental store was connected to the costume producing community in Seattle. Many of the people she employed to make her costumes also worked on major stage productions, making costumes for things like Sendak’s Nutcracker.
Whenever they needed to replace old costumes, these connections simply tossed out the old costumes into a dumpster. The woman who ran the costume rental store arranged to have those old costumes tossed out into HER dumpster behind her shop. There would be a late night phone call and everybody was happy. She dumpster-dived her own dumpster for the costumes. A perfect arrangement.
This was in what was then a really rasty nasty part of town. There has a always been a very large homeless population in Seattle (the term “skid row” was coined there). Seattle is very expensive and crowded. Entire families with working parents often are found living in alleys and sleeping under bridges because, even with the two incomes, they can’t afford a home. It’s a tough town.
The costume shop was in a gentrifying neighborhood of Seattle. Lotsa yuppie twits driving Volvos and Beamers living in upscale condos – who could afford to do things like rent costumes, but also lots of skid row alley drunks and junkies who slept in the doorways. It was an interesting juxtaposition back then. Very grunge.
So, the costume lady gets the phone call that some of the costuming (specifically the “mouse” costumes from Sendak’s Nutcracker) was dumped in her alley dumpster. The next morning she goes out to retrieve the allegedly destroyed costumes and finds a small gang of alley drunks dancing around with bottles in the their hands and laughing and hooting and hollering – ALL WEARING MAURICE SENDAK MOUSE MASKS!!
I would have given my left arm to have a video of that.
January 17th, 2011 by Art Chantry
In the mid to late 1960′s, the psychedelic underground revolution had already started to wane. It was a literal flash-in-the-pan. All of the original pioneers had morphed into varying sorts of hacks and quacks, pushing new agendas as far-fetched as Buddhism, meditation, world domination, the internet and flying saucers. Basically, the acid world was as unstable as the drug itself. Old doses of blotter acid have short half-lives and lose their potency fast. Vintage blotter acid collectors (yes, there is a huge market for old acid collectors) probably couldn’t get high if they ate their entire collections. So goes the culture as well.
Whenever an underground counterculture (a rebellion against some established norm) erupts, there is usually a pushback from the mainstream. The first is, “Attack!” (“Them dirty stnkin’ hippies should all be shot!”) and then there is the “Assimilation” (“Gee, that paisley looks so cool on you!”).
Back in the Romantic rebellion of the 1800′s there emerged a back-to-nature movement that resulted in the arts and crafts revival and a rejection of the established artistic norms. This rejection of the status quo happens with such periodic intensity, you could probably set a clock by it. During this phase, the reaction was heavily against the Industrial Revolution.
In fact, the entire “Victorian Style” was the mass-produced manufactured style. It was a highly decorative and shallow pretty look that was cranked out by industry to sell status to the mainstream. Good tatse that is affordable. Homogeny. The response from the avant-garde then was almost identical to today – total rejection.
The initial process of rejection was simply returning to the handmade. This included an embrace of nature forms that was intellectually and emotionally antithetical to the Victorian style. Instead of an iron deer in the front yard, you had real deer. Simple, eh? The immediate result was a rebirth of organic design and the arts and crafts movement. People literally returned to the woods to live like wildmen (at least “wild” from their stilted persepctive).
Of course, industry – powered by the fast buck – saw opportunity and attempted to copycat the new romantic look. The result was “Art Nouveau” – a homespun manufactured style applied as decoration (just like Victorian motifs). The big difference was the curve. The Art Nouveau manufactured style almost appeared to have been grown on a machine like some iron planting.
Soon, new discoveries in Egypt and Meso-America resulted in another semi-rejection. The ancient “primitive man” geometric stylings as seen in King Tut’s tomb and the newly “discovered” cultures of the Mayans and Aztecs resulted in a quick adaptation to the new Art Nouveau style (and so much easier to make with a machine). The result was Art Deco.
Soon, Art Nouveau looked old fashioned and Art Deco became the new rage of the machine society. Walden Pond gave way to Metropolis. The resulting mechanized World Wars did more to end that dream than any artistic rejection ever could.
Flash forward to the early post WW2 period in Amercia. Displaced vets can’t fit into the new peace time America. Uniformity is valued and loose cannons are depicted in popular media as communist threats to the social order. The beats, bikers, surfers, hotrodders, truckers, abstract expressionist painters, poets and bop musicians were the new bohemia and they were derided as decadent trash, but the seeds of rejection they sowed took fruit in the early-mid 60′s, just as the international modern stylings of the new space age and the “big idea” advertsing culture combined with industrial ingenuity to create a new golden era of conformity and high style. “OO7, meet Helvetica Bold…”
But the outsider subcultures were still there, developing their own aesthetic systems, not too different from the romantics of the previous century. A new “back to nature” dream and a rebirth of the “community of man” emerged, albeit in scattered pockets. When the psychedelic culture emerged, a “real” alternative to the existing dominant culture became a reality. It’s been said that with the hippies, “many puddles became a pond” and soon many many ponds became a lake, then an ocean. Then a tidal wave…
The high art style of this new psychedelic look was so heavily borrowed from early Art Nouveau masterworks that it was almost an embarrassment. Wes Wilson found typography by a famous arts and crafts typographer (whose name escapes me at the moment) and placed it on a waving baseline – and invented “PsYcHeDeLiC LeTTeRiNg!” Stanley Mouse began to ape Beardsley. Another artist copy-catted Alphonse Mucha posters to a T. Rick Griffin followed the hand drawn line work of scores of Blake imitators and shoved it through surfing and acid to arrive at his incredibly “organic” style.
So, the psychedelic style was an LSD-washed version of Art Nouveau. Even the communal movement owed its origins to Walden dreams. It was history repeating itself all over again, but this time in mindblowing colors.
Of course, industry was still there, cranking out their version of what they think they can sell. Whenever a new culture emerges and finds popular appeal to the young, the marketing monsters are right there, ready to go with their mass-produced version of the same thing, but they never get it quite right. The very industrial design process removes the natural content and replaces it with uniform mediocrity. So the fake psych look literally replaced the larger mainstream culture’s very idea of what psychedelia is and was.
Along came “Industrial Psychedelia,” or (as I prefer) “Hallmark Psychedelia” (becasue Hallmark greeting cards tried so hard for so long to co-opt the style). It was bright colors, swirling everything, cartoon characters, goofy humor and totally innocent fun. Basically, the exact opposite of the seriousness of the hippie moevment and its goals.
This new Hallmark Psych look became so prevealent that it eventually replaced REAL psychedleia in the popular consciousness. When the average person thinks “psychedelic” they are actually bringing to mind the fake look, not the real style. It’s like Peter Max on one end of the “authentic” spectrum and Rick Griffin on the other end. One was totally faked and the other beyond heartfelt.
One of the foremost promoters of the “hip new young look” of psychedelia was the short lived, but extraordinarily popular comedy television show called “Laugh-In” (actually hosted by two old school borscht belt comics named Dan Rowan and Dick Martin). It was only on the air for maybe three seasons, but its mark was revolutionary. Its impact changed our popular sensibility as much as Saturday Night Live did throughout its many incarnations.
This little magazine cover (terribly beat-up) is one of my favorite examples of “Hallmark Psychedelia.” It’s totally contrived by mainstream thinking. Professionally trained graphic designers created this homage to the psychedelia they saw the young folks sporting in the streets. It is a completely false remake: a bootleg of the popular underground psych stylings. It’s as perect in its new interpretation as the Peter Max poster or those Hallmark greeting cards – beautiful glorious krap kulture. The heart blood of American style.
However, it (like all art styles) is defined by its lack of permanence. Even though this worked – and worked in spades. When we think of the hippie era, we think of this look, but, on the inside of the magazine, you can see it already starting to change. The cartoon work feels like MAD magazine (because that’s what they knew). It still attempts to ape the first retro-monster stylings of Push Pin studios and its illustrators like Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, and John Alcorn (especially), but the artist buried in every graphic designers keeps trying to push the envelope.
The above color center spread is a shock. When I first saw it, I stopped dead in my tracks. This was “Hallmark Psychedelia?” It was so out of place in this magazine that it stood out like a giant sore thumb. Some designer/cartoonist/art director or whatever was having some fun here. They were screwing around and pushing a few envelopes.
The high contrast photos (thanks to stat cameras and early xerox) are peppered throughout, but the strips of typography plastered in fans (containing dumb jokes) is meant to echo the spastic delivery style of the TV show itself. Even the clip art is Victorian in style – a direct contrast to everything Hippie, but it winds up echoing typographers like Robert Massin and other European Modernists. This person also knew about Surrealism and Dadaism as well.
This is early early punk. A real nasty “FU” to the reader and the art inspiration and the management and mainstream style. It’s a rejection of the rejection. It’s an attempt to crank aginst the tide and go somewhere new. It uses bold, ugly, harsh and offensive color and appearance as a big in-your-face joke. It distills the essence of what made Laugh-In and even the hippie culture appealing in the first place. First you must tear it down before you can build. Charming, eh?
The rebellion of art is still lurking, waiting, stewing. It’s ready to strike anywhere, anytime. We may all be laughing in our discontent, but you’d better watch out. I think it’s coming again….
January 13th, 2011 by Art Chantry
I know it sounds crazy, but when you ask 99.9% of Americans, “Who made the animation in the movie, Yellow submarine?” they say, “Peter Max.” Crazy huh? That’s the power of hustle and brand.
The guy who actually created the look and style (basically “drew it”) was a German fella named Heinz Edelmann. He had already been working in that style for a very long time before being asked to do the movie animation. In fact, Edelmann had been literally pioneering new cool design and illustration styles in Europe for over a decade prior to that movie.
In fact, he developed styles and then abandoned them to others time and time again.
I wonder how many individual illustration styles he worked in during his lifetime. It must be dozens. A truly great, inventive, restless design mind.
Regardless of his wide-ranging styles, the one he’s historically been locked to is the style of Yellow Submarine. If people remember him at all, it’s that fool film that they remember. But dang, ain’t it grand? I wish I could be remembered for a project like that. Heavenly.
Now, a lot of you will bark out in a knee-jerk fashion – “But Peter Max did it first! Edelmann RIPPED HIM OFF!!!” These days of self-righteous and ignorant artists’ brand control has spawned a childish over-protection of copyrights. Every Tom, Dick and Harry assumes his own scribblings are so precious that they must be protected against – whom? I dunno, but we all seem to fight until blood is drawn over the most minute and silly infringment imaginable. It’s like we’re in some amateur professional wrestlin’ match of GIMMEE! So boring.
The truth is that we exist in a Post-Modern era. Creativity has become hopelessly derivative and exploitive. We don’t come up with original thoughts any more, we come up with new adaptations of older ideas – appropriation. That is the hallmark thought process of the Modern world we have. there are NO original ideas in (especially) graphic design any more. Show me the piece and I can show you precedent upon predcedent – and done better. The very idea that we have original ideas to copyright is laughable.
So, whenever I hear the “Who came first?” argument, I laugh. Especially when it comes to the most famous and popular “ideas” – like Yellow submarine.
Yes, Peter Max ripped off Heinz Edelmann – not the other way around. But Peter Max (more importantly) – was directly ripping off push-pin studio work of Seymour Chwast and John Alcorn and Milton Glaser (ESPECIALLY Milton Glaser). Max went so far as to rip off Milton Glaser’s “signature” stroke. It was embarrassing.
Peter Max didn’t have an original bone in his body. He was a professional copy-cat, but the one thing he DID have that put him ahead of the rest of the pack was a supreme salesman personality. He was a world-class hustler. In fact, he’s still at it today. He sells his crappy work through “art galleries” in shopping malls and on home shopping networks for a hefty 5 and 6 figures. He still promotes himself as a guru. He’s hilarious, but very, very wealthy.
To his credit, Peter Max was also a really experienced and truly gifted design production artist. He had the process down cold. If you carefully examine his old posters, you can see that it’s absolutely exquisite hand work along with a mastery of the printing process bordering on genius. One poster I looked at was only a three color printing job – three passes through a single color press. Nothing really that special at first glance.
But it was all split fountains. Sometimes the color splits were three and four carefully selected hues of the same basic color. Then he would overlap ths colors ruthlessly to build new colors . The results are his secret weapon. It’s what we are really admiring when we look at his crappy designs. It’s his printing skills that we see and gawk at.
His earlier work (he was just another hack low-level freelance illsutrator working the ad agency circuit) was nothing special – crosshatch and watercolor/guache washes. Very solid average for the period.
When he discovered Pushpin Studios (and who didn’t back in that same period? They hit like a thunderbolt), he jumped on the bandwagon and never looked back. Then he promoted himself as the official “New York City Hippie Godhead” and cashed in. He’s been uber-famous ever since. If you’re uber-famous in NYC, you’re uber-famous forever. They have a very powerful and lazy media empire centered there. He knew this and exploited it mercilessly.
However, that begs the question: did Pishpin invent that style? Well, no. Not really. There is evidence that Edelmann was working in that style even before Pushpin, but Pushpin didn’t rip off Edelmann, either. They were all borrowing from Japanese graphics. The heavy cartoon stylings of Japanese painting (it derived from brush stroke, so it tended away from sculpting and into flat line work) was coming on strong in the post-war exploitation period.
Japanese illustrators worked in a cartoon outline tradition and the western “sculpted” painting stylist world freaked when they discovered it back in the late 1800′s. Those cheapo pop Japanese prints that are so highly valued today were like baseball cards to the Japanese. They used them to wrap the porcelain they exported. The French painting avant garde discovered them in the trash and immediately saw something new in them. The result was an important step toward impressionism and the whole modern art dialog of the last 150 years.
Pushpin Studios – the young lions of the New York marketing design world back in the late 50′s/early 60′s, also paid attention to the Japanese art world, particularly the illustration and design work that was re-entering the popular eye back then.
One of the marvelous little ideas that inspired the Pushpin kids was the simple idea that the line-art drawing (before you add the color areas like a coloring book) didn’t HAVE to be printed in black ink. You could use red, or blue, or green. Then you fill int the regions (again, like a coloring book – or even stained glass, if you must) and the results looked – well, … Japanese. So modern, So cool.
Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast and John Alcorn and others in their circle dabbled in many technical styles in their earlier days, but when they devloped this new “Japanese” look, they took off like a rocket. And when a million dumb kids copied them, you had the “Peter Max” fake psychedlia style that we all know and so deeply love today the orignal hippies didn’t work in style remotely like this. It was a product of professional illustrators working in the New York City business world pretending to be psychedelic. Salesmen hustling their version of what the kids were up to. Fake kulture.
So, when Heinz Edelmann did Yellow submarine, it was in his style (developed along the same lines as the Pushpin boys). The fact that it was an extremely popular professional hipster fake psych look was pure gravy. That was why he got the gig. He looked right. That’s how this stuff works. It’s what cements our thinking together.
So, next time you get asked the question, “Who did the animation on Yellow Submarine,” think before you answer. The answer is not a single name, but rather, a vast complex movement of popular design thought. Clumsy, but true.
January 10th, 2011 by Art Chantry
About 20 years ago, I worked on my first swizzle stick project. My client/pal Dave Crider at Estrus Records decided he wanted a swizzle stick to go with his boxed 45 collection called “The Cocktail Companion.” Dave loved swag and always came up with some silly thing to toss into a release package. (He also included coasters, I think). So, suddenly I was introduced into the world of the swizzle.
For those who don’t know, a “swizzle stick” refers to one of those little plastic sticks they stab into your cocktail. It usually has advertising on it. These days it ‘s mostly liquor brand advertising, but back in them days of old, they were really elaborate beautiful designs promoting the club where you were drinking. They could be any color of the rainbow. Sometimes they were opaque and sometimes transparent, sometimes metal or wood. It was one of those strange little niches of American advertising that flourished with cheap production and then vanished as plastic and labor became expensive (sort of like matchbook art/advertising). However, with all that slave labor we gobble up in places like China, the swizzle stick may make a comeback soon, who knows?
When Dave and I were researching how to get a swizzle stick made, we found that most of the manufacturers had moved on and stopped making them. However, many still had the original stock molds for them on their premises. We wanted to make a “nudie” swizzle (an extremely popular motif back in them bachelorhood days of the post war era). Sadly, at the one company that did most of the nudie stuff, a religiously-inclined owner had decided they were immoral and sinful and had all the nudie molds destroyed. That sort of thing happens a lot in the United States. A lot of amazing pop culture has been lost to religiosity. You’d be amazed by the decisions these people make on YOUR behalf!
Anyway, we ended up with a rather boring swizzle with a simple logo printed on a disc at the end. Seems that is what the wonders of the swizz has boiled down to.
This here is one of my favorite swizzle sticks that I’ve saved over the years. It’s from Trader Vic’s (of course) – an outfit that spared no expense when it came to KLASS! This thing is longer, heavier and more elaborately designed than any other swizzle in my collection. It weighs a ton! And it’s embossed on all sides! It’s literally a Tiki outrigger paddle to STIR YOUR COCKTAIL! Really now, you have to admit that’s a genius concept! It’s almost as good as those McDonald’s coffee swizzle sticks with tiny little spoons at the end that were so popular among the low rent cocaine crowd in the 70′s!
January 6th, 2011 by Art Chantry
To be totally fair, even though Jamie Reid’s situationist appropriation (DIRECT appropriation – with intent still intact) may have been the LOUDEST voice out in the wilderness, it wasn’t alone. One of the things that has always impressed me was how this new style of anarchy-as-design seemed to erupt all over the world within a few months of the media first noticing it. It was like a plague of great intensity. The hipster underground seemed to suddenly do a violent shift on its axis. It was a firestorm.
In reality, this new baseline culture rebellion, as if mocking the situationist credo, had already been going on for a long time. in a way, people like Debord were only (in retrospect) seemingly documenting what was already long in progress. In cities all over the world, this sort of new way of “speaking” visually had been going on for a long time. It was as if teen angst and snotty brat behavior had become the new high hip standard of Western Civilization.
The accepted narrative states that this new “punk” style emerged in New York City and then exploded out of London onto the world stage, but the truth is far more complicated. I’ve found obvious and direct examples spreading in places as far flung (and ignored) as Detroit (obviously), Seattle, Austin, LA, Georgia, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington DC, Vancouver, Mexico City, Tokyo, and so on, over a full decade before the big worldwide spectacle of the Sex Pistols and the onslaught of Jamie Reid. Even in England, the visual scold and primal scream of Jamie Reid’s graphics were not all that new. It was just media- splattered in a HUGE way, thanks to the genius of those assholes in that little band.
The first punk poster in Seattle (the first classic full-on DIY cruddy pasted-up trashy punky style street poster I’ve ever found, actually) was produced by Tomata Du Plenty a full year or more before the Sex Pistols’ first show anywhere. It gets extremely hard to credit Jamie Reid for that influence, since it wasn’t even there, yet…
For instance, the work of Genesis P. Orridge had already established a new visual culture style with his “industrial” stylings. The philosophical position in a nutshell was the machine of culture dehumanizes the individual to the point where we are really soulless cogs in a larger devouring contraption. And this is a GOOD thing. The graphic language of the culture was an embrace of cold, sterile corporate graphics depicting the worst horrors that modern man can create – genocide, death factories, serial murder. It was a celebration. His musical noise combo was called “Throbbing Gristle.”
Also, out bouncing playfully around the edges of the mainstream graphic world was the trickster godhead of Barney Bubbles. His “irreverent to the point of ridicule” design work utilized errors, confusion, inappropriate retro appropriation, and a desire to constantly push a stick into the eye of the larger mainstream market. He worked for record labels like Stuff and F-Beat (and acts like Elvis Costello, Devo, and the Damned).
The “Art School” misfit student intelligentsia were about the only people out there disenfranchised enough to actually pay attention to what was going on in British design, though. Being fashion hungry and bored out of their skulls with “no future,” they very quickly embraced the thinking of these three individuals (along with scores of other on shot and more obscure designers and artists). Because the three major voices seemed so similar in message (try to spot the defining difference between industrial and situationist – it’s not very clear to the average viewer) the young avant-guard hipsters automatically absorbed and fused it all together.
The earliest new voices that emerged from this new underground graphic design dialogue seemed to come from up in Northern England. For instance, designers like Peter Saville saw Genesis and Reid and reduced his DIY graphic design language down to a bare minimum statement, but an extremely bold and cold and emotive statement. His work for bands like Joy Division echoed fatigue and depression that immediately struck a cold note in the British youth market.
But the most important inital conduit for the radical ideas of Jamie Reid’s culture annihilation and Genesis’s celebration of this annihilation and Bubble’s playfully nasty monkeywrenching was a young student named Malcolm Garrett.
He started work on his friends’ pop/rock punk band, the Buzzcocks (so sharp and nasty). His approach was identical to the band’s and the uncommercial thinking of the moment: he immdiately designed a corporate logo, a coprorate color scheme and approached thie product design from a severely stilted position.
Garrett seemed to embrace the idea that selling product was the single most important thing (typically trained mainstream advertsing thinking, right?), but what was different was that he totally embraced the band’s (and Reid’s) idea that if they all managed to sell a lot of product, it would spread the new culture style and hasten the end of Britain. Basically, “Buy this product and you can help destroy the world.”
They went to so far as to produce carrying bags and shrink wrap for the record that only sported the new logo and a huge catalog number (bigger than the brand logo) – “Order even more and help destroy even more.” The perversity of such a concept was so sharply contrasted to the standard order of things that it virtually became a new demographic position. “Chaos from cash,” as it were.
Even though Malcolm Garrett’s early thinking was the first real purely evocative pop cultural resonance of the situationist destruction of culture, the rest of the new British punk scene erupted with such a fury that it became impossible to ignore. Everything that this youth market desired was suddenly ugly, vicious and pushing an exclusive love of itself that bordered on pathological.
Within what seemed like weeks, this new voice echoed across the planet. The idea that you didn’t need the larger world – you could simply do it yourself, took in a stranglehold. Self-produced zines erupted across the planet in the smallest possible markets. Thousands of new punk bands toured across the world focusing on the new small markets revealed by the existence of these zines.
Since the mainstream corproate world saw no profit in this new “fad” (due to the commercial failure of the New York punk bands) new local and otherwise ignored bands had as much exposure in these zines as the more renowned touring bands. The result was the DIY stitching together of an alternative world economy culture. In fact, a very large international community saw the popular culture in a new way and decided to abide by it, as well. The mainstream media began to refer to it as the “Alternative Nation.” Alternative to what? What ya got?
This new culture had a huge economic and societal reach. They were the children of the hopelessly self-absorbed corrupt Baby Boomer generation – the second wave. And the explosive growth of this new culture was dizzying. Yet, the Boomer generation still hasn’t quite been able to understand that it even exists.
Dozens of new voices emerged from a second wave of British graphic designers doing posters and record covers and publications (Neville Brody, Vaughan Oliver, Terry Jones, etc. etc.). They took the laughable idea of “New Wave” graphics as promoted by the business world and shoved it back into the dark alternative culture of their reality. We saw them because we looked and liked what we saw. What we didn’t see was the thousands of other less spotlighted graphic designers popping up everywhere at the same time. The firestorm had become truly international.
In America, a hurricane of new snide voices exploded onto the scene – Gary Panter, James Stark, Shawn Kerri, Frank Kozik, Tomata Du Plenty, Steve Albini, Winston Smith, Gibby Haynes, even myself. So many new people, way too many to continue listing. Let’s just say that the new design voice became legion. The majority of those voices were anonymous one-off DIY designers just doing what came naturally. Take a graphic mainstream advertising promo and shove it back in your face as a weapon.
This became a noticeable problem for the mainstream. As these new radical thinkers used their graphics as weapons of ridicule, the effort was made by the corporate interests to cash in and usurp what was making money (usually their only focus). So, they absorbed the new music and design and art and re-named it something less violent and ugly – “New Wave” (coined by record executive Howie Klein). The nomenclature was an echo of a past hip period of rebellion in french cinema. It also sounded so ”fresh” and “new” (and safely familiar). Perfect for exploitation.
So, they dressed up these new creative voices in bright cheerful colors and made everything sound and look so darn cute and peppy. Even talented designers like Paula Scher and Tibor Kalman stumbled into the trap, thinking they were doing a new safe and intelligent and hip graphic style, never realizing they had invited plaque into the kingdom. The prestigious conservative design firm of Pentagram went so far as to hire Peter Saville, since his work looked so conservative and clean and tidy – at least to the uninitiated – but the underlying theme of culture destruction came along and kept chipping away at everything it touched. Saville didn’t last very long at Pentagram, who afterward seemed old and tired and exhausted.
At the same time this bizarre culture war was unfolding, a new technology came onto the graphic design market: the computer, a solid gold hammer. Eventually it allowed literally anybody to become a functional graphic designer. Any level of competence was acceptable. You no longer really needed to hire a graphic designer to do your graphic design – you could learn the software and just do it yourself.
Does any of this sound familiar?
The blind and fearfully knee-jerk embrace by the design industry of this new technology sowed the seeds for its own decimation. And it played directly into the hands of these snotty anti-mainstream DIY punk kids. Before too long, the old school was erased and replaced by an army of untrained, unskilled labor all doing adequate versions of graphic design – all working in the latest hip new looks, no depth, no understanding, but they really understood “Cool.”
David Carson was a surfer. At one point he was ranked 6th in the world. He also taught grade school. He was still a bored outsider, but he was also a hip hustler. Through skateboarding, he landed a job as the designer/art director of one of the premier skateboard zines on the west coast – Transworld Skateboarding. His work there was a mess; it was all over the place, but the guy had an eye and INSTINCT that served him incredibly well. Some people are just born this way. Carson definitely was. I guess you could ay the guy had “TASTE!”
Everything he did was drawn from every strange dented subcultural world he encountered: surf, punk, skate, thrash, psych, hot rod, new wave, and even mainstream graphic design. His style became a huge polyglot of application and appropriation. Best of all he understood the attitude – the style of the big three – Reid, Genesis, and Bubbles. I assume he knew their work and ideas, but I really have no idea.
What Carson started to do was throw everything into the bath water WITH the baby. It didn’t quite go down the drain, he kept using it, sometimes even if it DID go down the drain, he’d use it. He took errors and mistakes and used them. Then he began to replicate the fuck-up as a tool. Upside down, grainy, crooked, illegible, chaos: it’s all good. Classic polyglot.
He and I had a short correspondence when he started his next primal magazine, “Beach Culture” (it lasted only 6 issues, but changed the design world). At one point, I was looking at a particularly disasterous two-page spread featuring an interview with David Lynch. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The style he used appeared to be “classical editorial design layout,” but closer inspection revealed that everything was way, way wrong. The biggest type on the page was the page number, which as in the middle of the page. The photo was blurry and a rusty staircase covered Lynch’s face. If there was a headline anywhere, I couldn’t find it.
Most of the two pages was empty, except about three randomly placed columns of small type. Worst of all, one column of text type literally jumped the gutter. Now, this was saddle stitched magazine. You CAN’T DO THAT! They can’t hold the registration in the bindery process of folding and stapling. It DOESN’T work! It’ll be all off-register and illegible. Yet, there it was. It was so fucked up.
In a letter, I challenged him on that. He giggled (or so it read) and he said, “Yeah, I know. That’s why I did it.” He then went on to tell me about a list he had from from some design class somewhere. It was titled “The Rules of Graphic Design.” In it, there were listed a couple of dozen concrete rules of graphics that are never violated – rules like, “never mix typefaces on a single page,” and “never obscure your message,” and, “never jump the gutter.” He then said he hung that on his studio wall and tried deliberately to break as many of those rules as he could on every single piece he did. He was doing anti-graphics!
Beach Culture was David Carson’s primal work. The above sample of a simple editorial page layout from Beach Culture magazine points to what I’m talking about. It’s a right mess and every rule I can think of is busted wide open and put on display. You can’t even read the damned thing. And it’s beautiful! (It’s also all done by hand. For years, hipsters assumed he was using computers to create this look, but he was using garbage and fuck-ups. It just happened to look the same as the fucked up stuff that amateurs were producing on their new computers). After Beach Culture collapsed, he jumped around a bit and then ended up directing a new hip rock magazine called “Ray Gun.” Then everything exploded.
You see, all of these hip new designers who had just begun to master the computer design programs were now entering the job market. They had never taken a graphic design class in their young lives. They knew almost nothing about design theory or history or practice, but they knew computers and they knew what looked cool – all they had to do was look at the magazines, records, and posters, etc., around them. Then they copy-catted – that grand old design language staple. And there was that really cool looking “fresh” stuff by David Carson! Utter Anti-Design became, almost by accident, the “new cool hip fresh style of today’s youth.” Crazy…
Even though (for my money) Carson never again achieved the levels of greatness he managed in Beach Culture, his own copycatting in Ray Gun of his own thinking made an enormous impact. The whole graphic design world turned into an amateur version of David Carson – for ten whole years or more. You can still see people working to look as much like David Carson as they can. For a brief moment, David Carson was the “most famous graphic designer in the world.” A house-hold name. The first rock star designer.
It was a perfect storm moment. A vast culture of DIY combined with powerful new technology alongside an invisible pop culture acceptance of culture destruction built right into the style. In 1991, punk broke into mainstream acceptance when Nirvana hit the top of the charts. The culture went ravenous and a million new ships took up the battle – unknowingly. Anti-Culture came of age when DIY became the dominant style. The Situationist revolution seems to have been achieved, and it was achieved in classic situationist style – BLINDLY.
The entire graphic design world collapsed (for all intents and purposes). Design schools lost students as computers and their programs became better and cheaper. Two weeks versus minimum two years to become a graphic designer. Which would you choose? Most art and design courses emphasize technology and ignore actual design theory and history. In fact, the history of design is only now being written, but the old school narrative – no longer appropriate – is still being sliced and diced and re-packaged.
Literally every powerful new graphic design voice of the last 30 years has the punk culture to thank for their world view. The top of the design industry mavens like Chip Kidd and Stefan Sagmeister and Shepard Fairey are enormously derivative of punk culture and all the baggage that comes with it. The “fine design culture” is so ignorant of the source of their ideas, of this new culture in general, that they’ve hailed them as the new geniuses. The truth is, I can point out to you where virtually every idea they have done originally came from. They are just accepted as heroes, but they are not the true defining warriors.
The reality is that the world of graphic design changed forever (and very very dramatically) back in the mid 70′s. It happened quickly and subtly and it took a couple of decades to finally achieve the full changeover, but the old world is gone. The old thoughts fade to black, the good old boy network feeble and confused. And we, the enemy, are now in command.
And the newbies? Well, they just do what looks cool, do what they want. Just do it themselves. Who needs a designer? Or a copywriter? Or an illustrator? Or a photographer? Or a printer? Or a client? The new crowd goes for the cool and they can do it fast and easy and change it whenever they want, no big deal. Everybody that’s important already understands. They don’t need you any more. Everybody knows that Charlie don’t surf.
Rummaging through the piles of print with a man who made lots of it.
Luminous, brilliant and fun graphics history $20.00
Ed Nukey Nukes and Jocko Levent Brainiac
Filth masterpiece from 1986 $12.00
Enquiring Minds $50.00
Bloom County for Peace Punks $6.00