October 10th, 2010 by Dan Nadel
The first time we met was in the lobby of a worn-out office building on Seattle’s waterfront back in the early 1980s. We both had studios there but had never run into each other. He complimented my work and shook my hand. I was headed out but as he was getting into the elevator he blurted out, “Name two designers that have most influenced your work.” I answered him and he said, “Leave it to you to name one guy I don’t know”. He was stroking his chin as the doors closed.
I knew then that we shared a thirst for uncovering information on talented people that were overlooked by the lame media of that time. I already knew that Art was a talented design technician. It was immediately obvious to anyone who saw his work. He was doing things differently than everyone else. He had his traditional skills down, but had obviously been woodshedding, working on reinvigorating old school repro techniques and proudly rejecting the soulless, yuppified styles that so thoroughly ruled that time.
Back then, Art seemed to be giving it a go at being a proper professional designer. His office was neat and modern, he entered all the right design competitions and was working for a wide variety of clients. His work was distinctive, but mostly for it’s vitality and technical confidence.
Happily for all of us that soon started to change. Bursts of sarcasm, wit, anger and a rejection of conventions began to take root. At that time Seattle was, more or less, still a hick town, and Art’s work stood out from all the warm grays, neo-calligraphy and wide letterspacing that was popular at the time. But the minute design underground that existed – The Rocket– and the tiny arts and cultural design scene slowly hightailed it out of town (including myself) to greener pastures..
During a visit back home, Art offered to buy me lunch so I met up with him at his new studio. It was apparent upon entering that Art had shitcanned any pretense of presenting himself as a button-down designer. He was collecting outmoded typesetting and repro equipment that only a “mother” could love. His space was a more relaxed shambles, now resembling a proper workshop. He quickly showed me a few pieces of work, including the Night Gallery poster, which still looks as magnificent now as it did that day. For me, that piece signified his complete rejection of attempting to pander to the client or audience. As opposed to his usual ironic or humorous takes on retro advertising, this time he completely omitted the joke or any of his usual eye candy. We are left with an abysmal advertising image of the type we are all too familiar with and have learned to ignore. There was absolutely no way to view this as appealing. Reading the text in an attempt to solve this state of confusion, we become even more thoroughly baffled. It is simply WRONG. The poster makes us question the ultimate effect of the the low-rent visual languages that have been surreptitiously fed to us over the years.
We lost touch with each other a bit after that visit. A few years afterwards I started to notice whenever anyone learned of my acquaintance with him, they would freeze and exclaim “You know Art Chantry ???” Obviously his reputation was growing. Later still, while in a bookshop on Charing Cross Road I ran across his book Some People Can’t Surf and marveled at the intimidating mountain of work he had produced. Page after page of subversive designs that contained a muscleman’s clean and jerk power, while simultaneously retaining a sense of fun and a celebration of the grotty underbelly of forgotten white trash design idioms.
Most people that turn away from more lucrative work and choose the difficult path, pay for it with a oneway economy ticket to obscurity. Nothing pleases me more to see Art lauded and embraced for being the true original that he is.
Editor’s demand: For more excellent writing like this I insist that you click over to Norman’s new site, Studio 55.
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