1. I also had to put this together at work - unfortunately.

     
  2. Recently I’ve been looking at putting together some book covers - I see it as a weakness of mine. Two of them I put together for Murakami’s two non-fiction books. The first front cover being “Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche” and the second his memoir “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”.

     

  3. Henry van de Velde: From Kelmscott to Weimar

    A sneak peek at a draft of my Henry van de Velde article.

    Looking out at the Brussels skyline, there is barely a modern building that doesn’t resonate with the echo of Modernism, grand twenty-plus storied Bauhaus monolithic symphonies of glass and girders. From the Charlemagne building to the Berlayment to the Brussels Events Building, you can see reflected the influence of one man. But you wouldn’t know it. One of the last great polymaths and a man that played a large part in changing the look of the world around us, and a man that can be – and has been – credited as the inventor of Modernism as we know it.

         It sounds a bold claim but it’s not without foundation. It would be debated, of course, we each have our own idea of where Modernism came from, and when. I wouldn’t even begin to argue that this one man was responsible for the whole thing. But there is certainty in one thing, he served as a vital cog in the unstoppable machine of pre-Bauhaus Modernism, functioning as a very real stepping stone between Ruskin and Morris’ Arts and Crafts, in which one can see the beginnings of Modernist typographic thinking, and Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus; two movements that are often seen as separated by some impassable gulf but are in fact two carriages on the same inexorable train: destination Modernism.

         But that gap needs filling, noticeable as it is. So, how does one get from a movement steeped in traditionalism that railed so heftily against the machine to the reactionary clean slate of post-war Bauhaus that tried to wipe away that bitter taste of conventionality? With one looking back and another looking to the future, how are these two schools reconciled? The answer lies in the figure of Henry van de Velde.

    Last year saw the 150th anniversary of van de Velde’s birth. To mark this a retrospective was opened in Brussels, welcoming home one of Belgium’s lost sons with an exhibition of his work from its beginnings to final work. It demonstrated his truly impressive range: he was a painter, an architect, a furniture designer; he worked with metal and glass, and as an illustrator. Henry van de Velde dipped toes in many pools, in many countries, and yet most of us scarcely know his name.

          In a demonstration of his dedication and his, sometimes startling, energy, after Van Gogh began exhibiting, van de Velde threw himself into adopting the Van Gogh style, to the point that some of his paintings could easily be mistaken for the real thing, others could be mistaken for Seurat. Had he not abandoned painting he could have made an excellent career as a forger.

          Yet abandon painting he did in favour of the applied arts, influenced by the utopian ideals set down by William Morris and his band of socialists. Like Morris, van de Velde wanted to make objects that were both beautiful and functional and, like Morris, most were only affordable to the upper class. But in those beginnings it was the ingenuity with which he approached his work that stood out. In the early 1890s he finished a design for a dining table for his first marital home (which he built himself in Brussels) which came complete with its own hotplate.

        Such was his work in Belgium, but it was once he moved to Germany that he began to make his name, and it is in Germany that the narrative that concerns us most – that of Morris, van de Velde, and Gropius – begins. Upon his move to Germany in 1900 van de Velde set about creating a new aesthetic, branching out into ceramics and textiles, even leatherwork and wickerwork.

         Yet, while he was associated with Art Nouveau he found an inspiration from the machine. Van de Velde recognised a potential in its social value and had a great respect for the idea that the machine, properly used, could bring about a revolution in design. Seeing that, by rejecting the machine, the English Arts and Crafts had produced work that only the rich elite could afford (and in following that accord that he was doing the same) he recognised that the machine was capable of producing work of a high quality that could be affordable for the working man. He said,: “Beauty is the result of clarity and system and not of optical illusion.” – advocating the system, now a cornerstone of Modernism ninety years later.

         In 1905 he established the Grand-Ducal School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar with the Grand Duke of Weimar, where students were encouraged to develop a new approach in order to create new forms, rather than relying on traditional solutions. It is here that van de Velde moved away from the traditional Arts and Crafts and began to set the stage for the Bauhaus to appear.

          His influence on Bauhaus should not be underestimated, for the debt to van de Velde was huge. First and foremost, it was van de Velde that recommended Gropius to the Grand Duke as his successor at the Grand-Ducal School of Arts and Crafts. After all, in the beginning, the Bauhaus was little more than a continuation of the school of van de Velde, trying to keep his ideas alive. More than this, he described his Arts & Crafts school as “a kind of laboratory where every craftsman or industrialist could be given free advice, have his products analysed and improved” – van de Velde had realised an idea of co-operation between artist, craftsman, and industrialists six years before the Werkbund, and a full twenty before the founding of the Bauhaus.

         Van de Velde’s ideas were notions that Morris may have dismissed, given his social and artistic hatred of the machine, yet he surely would have found some respect for Bauhaus’ founding ideals, laid down by van de Velde, as a social unification of creators. Morris sought to unite all facets of art and design, and while he may not have factored the machine into these ideals, it might have pleased him that van de Velde still sought to bring together the artist and craftsman, even if they did sit together at a machine-produced table.

         Henry van de Velde’s legacy is not simply a litany of influence, though. He was a fine designer in his own right, with a staggering range. His chairs and desks came with sweeping curves that flow like water, often elaborately supported with legs of several struts and curves, his ceramics are infused with swirling patterns as if he dropped ink and let it spin out its own natural texture. In his products, especially his many kettles, there is a significant touch of modernism, but in the handles and the shapes you see the artistic shades of art nouveau: flowering motifs and sumptuous curves . His buildings can range from the strictly modern, such as the Boekentoren in Ghent, all geometry and glass and edges, to the sublimely innovative, like the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo in the Netherlands, a glass and brick monument to open space and the outdoors that looks more like a beautiful landscape than a museum. Then there are those buildings that owe more than a little to the influence of William Morris’ Red House, even van de Velde’s own homes were designed with an artistic edge, wood panelling, gables rounding almost impossibly to a point. His energy, his diversity, and his artistic individuality make you giddy.

         It’s that individuality that set van de Velde apart as a designer of real functional products that didn’t lose anything in the way of ingenuity or identity. There is a balanced unity between construction and ornamentation in his work, in which structuring form takes precedence over decorative effect. Yet, van de Velde recognised that flair did not have to be sacrificed for the sake of functionality; individuality did not have to be sacrificed to the machine. So he reconciled the two.

         Legs and handles were van de Velde’s specialty; his signature. Beyond the functionality, as long as a leg was stable and a handle fundamentally retained its use as a handle, they were fair game for ornamentation. A kettle handle may feature a decorative motif that otherwise does not appear on the rest of the product. On a table you may see an unbroken, flat functional surface un-tampered and yet some decoration in the legs. Neither seems out of place.

         Maybe it was that style that was the problem. Once the Bauhaus had adopted the style, albeit without the flair or individuality of van de Velde, his work became lost amidst the sea of anonymity that was Modernism. Only little identifiers, a handle, a leg, the curve of a gable, remained for those who knew where to look.

         It was the idea of individuality, however, that would cause the first conflicts in early Modernism, and ultimately cost van de Velde his place in the Deutscher Werkbund. Van de Velde, despite his support for industrialisation, was intent on a commitment to preserve artistic individuality; somewhat echoing Morris’ idea of the satisfied craftsman, in saying that freedom of expression and artistic creativity were paramount in retaining aesthetic quality in manufacture. This view, however, was openly criticised by Muthesius, another Werkbund member heavily influenced by Morris, who supported standardisation instead, feeling artistic individuality would restrain the progress of German industry. This came to a head in an open debate at the 1914 Werkbund Congress. It was a conflict that would reappear many times in the Bauhaus, Morris’ artist clashing with the new industrial worker, and in the end, Muthesius won out.

         That was really the end of van de Velde’s active contribution to the Bauhaus, and to the timeline of Modernist development. After the outbreak of the First World War he moved to Switzerland and then took up a teaching post at Ghent University in 1920 – much to the umbrage of Horta, his founding rival of Art Nouveau. Then, in the Thirties he re-emerged, becoming Belgium’s pre-eminent architect, his creative mind remaining undimmed, and permanently made his mark upon the Brussels cityscape.

         However, after the outbreak of the Second World War, working in Nazi occupied Brussels, van de Velde was compelled – like many of his countrymen – to help the Germans which led some to brand him as a collaborator. It was a wounding accusation, and after the war he retired to Switzerland once more, before his death in 1957.

     

         Noting van de Velde’s influence, one can see that far from a reaction against the established Arts and Crafts, the Bauhaus was merely a continuation; an evolution on the inexorable march towards Modernism. During his time in Germany van de Velde left a huge mark, as a leading member of the Deutsche Werkbund which directly influenced the Bauhaus, the look and feel of which he played a large hand in creating. It was van de Velde that developed the unique style so adopted and copied by the Bauhaus after him, Gropius owed his very position to the man, and all of us owe him, at the very least, the courtesy of remembering his name. And not just as an important figure, but as a designer and an artist in his own right.

         But there is perhaps the rub. Whereas other designers and artists are remembered for their stylistic signatures that are easily recognisable, van de Velde somehow is so influential; his style so replicated that, in a sense, he has become invisible. His functional aesthetic is now part of the modern landscape, and that his sparse designs of the period are so familiar to the eye is a testament to his lasting influence. It is ironic that a man that regarded the individuality of the artist so highly, is so little known.

         And perhaps there needs to be a reconciliation, a forgiveness for what his alleged sins in the Second World War. For this is a man that has influenced anyone that has come into contact with Graphic Design, and anyone who reveres the Modernist style and implements it has been touched by him in one way or another. Perhaps without him Modernism still would have happened, it may have come later, and it may look a lot different, but it was inexorable. But without van de Velde this Modernist would look very very different.

     

  4. A specimen put together for a system of signs for the Cambridge Ghost Walk.

     

  5. A Bad Smell that’s Not Going Away

    A second or third draft - I forget which - of an article/essay I’ve been working on about how stupid graphic designers can be…

    “The fundamental cause of trouble in the world is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” – Bertrand Russell, Mortals and Others 1: American Essays 1931-1935

    Sitting in one of the computer rooms towards the end of my semester, putting together some of my submissions, I was engaged in a sort of conversation with a classmate of mine who had, without my knowledge or permission, taken one of the booklets I had put together. “Did you print this on silk paper,” he asked while violently flicking through it. I told him no. (Silk paper is a type of matt paper; it’s the type of matt paper idiots use just so they can say “silk” instead of “matt”). “Oh, you should’ve printed it on silk paper, it’s good, I printed my stuff on silk paper,” he continued. I am not a man of short patience, so I told him bluntly but politely how there was no need to print a booklet like that on silk paper, it is above its requirements. “It doesn’t matter,” he responded. “It’s good, you should have printed it on silk paper. I printed mine on silk paper. It’s good.”

         In case you hadn’t noticed, he thought silk paper was really a rather good thing. That was as far as the conversation went. It didn’t matter what I thought, this chap had a thing for this silk paper and he wasn’t about to stop admonishing me for not printing on it just because it wasn’t necessary – it was what he thought, and that’s what mattered.

         This is one of the many recent brushes with arrogance I’ve had in being a Design student. It’s a feature of the profession; a bad smell that refuses to go away. And, in a sense, it has its place, because I must immediately make a distinction. There is a difference between arrogance and backbone, between hubris and drive. Graphic Design is a ruthless profession and you can take an awful lot of shit from clients who don’t understand what it is you’re doing. And if you don’t have the backbone to stand up for and justify your own work, you’re not going to get very far at all.

         This comes from an ability to rationally examine your own work with a fair critical eye. You also have to be able to take risks and have enough confidence in yourself to believe you can pull it off. In sport – yes, I, the un-sportiest of all people, am using the phrase “in sport” – this is called “wanting the ball”, you have to have enough confidence in your ability to believe you can take that catch or hit that ball when the pressure’s really on. But there is a difference between confidence and arrogance. It is, perhaps, subtle, but it’s there. It is also important to recognise that not all that speak out are arrogant and that not all that are quiet and meek are humble.

    "A lot of people are afraid to tell the truth, to say no. That’s where toughness comes into play. Toughness is not being a bully. It’s having backbone." – Robert Kiyosaki 

    You see, there is a culture of arrogance in Graphic Design. Like most arrogance, it stems from insecurity and ineptitude. It is, really, I suppose, just being insecure to a fault. The arrogant are marked by their inability to understand this. They will endeavour to show off their work at every opportunity – not for critical feedback, but out of the expectation of cheers and possibly even applause, out of wanting some validation. But, they are quick to anger at someone disliking their work, dismissing it as ignorance or not understanding, they are quick to flippantly and aggressively defend their work without real thought or consideration. Too many times have I ventured an opinion on a piece of egotistical work only to receive a reply akin to “you think so? I don’t think so.” In short, these people are hard work.

         It isn’t that their work isn’t “good”. The principles are there, everything they have been taught has been, in one way or another, put into practice. It’s just that they lack scope, perception, and, above all, imagination. All creative processes require a certain amount of imagination. It sometimes feels like Graphic Design is the sell-out older brother of Art that’s gone and got a stable job while Art’s still playing punk gigs in its garage. Most designers will try and argue that Graphic Design is cooler than Art, but the truth that we must all start to accept, across all art courses, is that none of us are cool. But it seems that you can make it through design with all the knowledge and none of the imagination unlike other art-driven pursuits, and, apparently, this is what most students intend to do.

         The result, however, is boring work. There is much call for boring work, don’t get me wrong; boring work makes up the bulk of the design industry. But there has to be something else there in order to make good design. Now, these designers will make up the bulk of the Graphic Design Industry, the proletariat; the lab rats. At some point they may be put in charge of a small group of other lab rats, able to lord their lifeless ideas over others’ lifeless ideas. Given a swanky new title that has the word “consultant” in it. But this is an empty moniker, akin to calling a cashier a “retail consultant”, it’s a meaningless euphemism designed to make you feel more special than you actually are.

         But perhaps it is the fault also of the quieter, less brash students for empowering such attitudes and behaviour. Because for every egotistical, cocksure student there is there’s another unwilling to be honest or form an opinion of their own, instead they will just utter weakly “that’s nice, I like it” at everything they are shown. Critiques are frustrating in this way, they are awash with egos that rise higher and higher on every weak compliment. It is not a comment on their work, as far as they are concerned, these compliments – weak and meaningless though they may be – are compliments on their character and person. The hollow “that’s nice, that’s great, I like it” are heard as “you’re great” – and lo, “Yes,” the ego cries. “Feed me, feed me!”

          You see, that’s the thing with an ego, its hunger can never be slaked. It’s like a fat child eating an Indian takeaway, there’s always room for one more bite.

         That is the sad truth about the nature of open group critiques. You are not judging someone’s work. You are judging a person using their work as a convenient avenue. As a result, the egos get stronger, but the anti-egos just feel more exposed and helpless, even when, for the most part, their work is significantly better than that of the egos. This is wrong: it is unfair to look at someone’s clean and rational work and judge them as clean and rational; and it is unfair to look at someone’s “good”, rule-abiding work and presume they are good and follow the rules. You wouldn’t judge a tree by the idiot hugging it, so you shouldn’t judge a person by the work that is attached to them. There are exceptions, naturally, but these are just coincidence. I have among my esteemed peers a student who is cold, arrogant, and soulless and their work is thus – it is a complete and perfect representation of their personality. But I would never think to judge them as so because of their work, I took time to get to know them before I accepted that they are an idiot.

    "Arrogance diminishes wisdom" – Arabian Proverb

          Arrogance has led to a lack of ingenuity and an unwillingness to take risks in design students. People have been happy enough with their boring work, praised for it, and now they don’t see a point in deviating from that boring stance on their work out of fear of not being adequate. They don’t want the ball. They think they are good, but they don’t want to have to prove it by having to take a catch, they’re content to stand and tell everyone they could take it but someone else should instead.

        This is their prerogative, and fortunately it is, fundamentally, only themselves they are holding back. Or is it?

         There’s this thing about Graphic Designers. We’re really bad at stuff. On the whole, we can’t draw, we can’t make websites, we can’t Photoshop things particularly impressively (I’d say we can’t take photographs either, but everyone can take photographs). This means that, in the business, we have to bring people in to do this for us. And this gives us a sense that we’re in charge. So keen are designers to hide their inability, that they will hide their ineptitude behind a sense of “employing” others to do what we can’t. This, as it happens, has dripped through into education, with some of our designers declaring things like “illustrators don’t like us because they know they’ll be working for us one day”. Which is unfair to designers, but also the illustrators who do really cool, original things without a graphic designer telling them to.

         Some of us accept that sometimes we’re going to have to ask for help with these things, or we’re going to have to do things for ourselves that we’re not used to. For people like me, someone with other skills, this is okay – when there is copywriting needed, I can do this for myself. Otherwise, I’m just as lost as everyone else and will need to ask an illustrator or Photoshop monkey to help me out. However, the ego will tell you “someone should do this for me”.

         And this presents another concern: it’s a sense of entitlement some seem to feel towards their tools as well as the people around them. Only a few days ago I was stuck in an exchange with one of my course mates. She was insistent that InDesign should be able to set up a running head that changes on every other page, which it probably can, even though it would be simpler to just add the text manually on those pages if you don’t know how to otherwise. When I said this, she insisted it was unfair and stupid that she would have to do this herself. It is not, mind, it is normal.

         But this is all too prevalent, as our tools progress, our expectation increases. Whether it be simple functions, or functions that aren’t the program’s responsibility, the egos will find a way to complain. For instance, that InDesign doesn’t add a default bleed, when something like that should never be under anyone’s control but the user’s. Most people just get on with this, accept that we need to do these things, accept that technology is fundamentally flawed (and that this is probably a fortunate thing), and go about our business like adults. Egos do not, egos demand an immediate technological solution.

         It seems, that if these people had their way, all our decisions would be taken from us. That we would simply speak an idea and our programs would create it for us. This would be ideal for them as they lack any personal flair to their work, they produce robotic solutions, so why not have a robot do it for them? But, if you enter into that reality, where is the personality and the style? Perhaps most designers aren’t keen to reveal this, but some of the best parts of a design – those that add the flair and a unique slide – are accidents: a slip of a hand here, the wrong colour there, a point size off on the grid. Little anomalies that end up looking slightly better than the original concept. Human error. Accidents and mistakes are important in adding something else to a design that you couldn’t think of otherwise. If you make a machine do your work with algorithms that allow it to do everything precisely and without mischief, then how do you create anything that isn’t just dead and cold and boring?

    "Let’s face it; God has a big ego problem. Why do we always have to worship him?" – Bill Maher

         It is a difficult attitude to deal with, and even harder to get on board with. It’s not something I am capable of because I am fundamentally broken, but I have seen others try and ruin themselves in doing so. And it is sad. Moreover, it is a massive distraction. It doesn’t matter what you do, imagine you are hard at work and suddenly you are interrupted by someone trying to show you their work, and they won’t leave you alone, whether you lie and tell them it’s okay or not. It’s a nightmare. It is also the point where those with egos start holding everyone else back. Which is selfish, and wrong, and apparently unavoidable.

         Maher’s quote is a sentient one, why do these people need to be worshipped just to validate themselves? If they can’t validate themselves, then no amount of empty compliments on their bad work is going to change that, and in making themselves so narcissistic they have made themselves unapproachable. So why can’t we leave them to it, and they leave us alone?

         I am moved to wonder whether I am complaining about those with ego or just those without imagination – or whether these are generally the same thing. It doesn’t take an ego to lack an imagination, most of those meek characters who are lorded over by the egos lack it also. And worse, for everyone, it’s those people that allow the egos to prosper, they give their time to them and flatter them – I am guilty also, I must admit, to the former, as I do give too much of my time to other people – and as the ever erudite Gordon Ramsay said (that’s right, I’m going to quote Gordon Ramsay): “The minute you start compromising for the sake of massaging somebody’s ego, that’s it, game over.

         In this regard I must raise another example. Not of arrogance, but of imagination held back. There is a girl I know, one of my classmates, who is at the other end of the spectrum of insecurity. Instead of compensating with too much confidence, she allows herself none. This is, really, unfair of her to herself, she is beautiful and occasionally intelligent – if a bit volatile – but, more importantly, she has the most vivid of imaginations. She comes up with the sweetest and most original ideas, ideas that deserve consistent exploration. She is capable of thinking outside the box without just looking at the box and making a box. But despite this, she holds herself back and those ideas never reach fruition, out of a lack of confidence to see things through, but also through a consistent need to fit in. This leads to indulging egos, and this leads to her losing confidence in herself and her work because she believes it when they tell her they’re better than her. But they’re not. And I wish she would realise just how good she is and could be if she let herself and applied herself, but she doesn’t, she is affected by those around her. And that’s where the arrogance issue creeps in further, in that the egos don’t just hold themselves back and flood the industry with dead boring work, but that they inspire that work in those vulnerable to them.  

         So what’s to be done? Is it game over? Well, no. You see, for all the arrogance that pervades these people, as most Greek tragedies teach us, hubris only leads to a great fall. Those that prefer to be right than compassionate will suffer their fall and ultimately not get anywhere at all. Unless, that is, they manage to get out of the trap, to recognise, as Watts puts it, that “The ego is simply your symbol of yourself. Just as the word “water" is a noise that symbolizes a certain liquid without being it, so too the idea of ego symbolizes the role you play, who you are, but it is not the same as your living organism.” That’s the funny, pleasant way the world works, you see, the bad always get a comeuppance in some way, even if it is just a subtle cosmic one that none of us can notice. And until then, I guess those of us actually capable of free thought will just have to imagine a world without arrogance; without the smell.

     
  6. A selection of spreads from a specimen book for a set of icons for a new organ donation online interface.

     
  7. Donald and the… by Edward Gorey & Peter F. Neumeyer

     
  8. The first couple of pages for a children’s book I’m putting together called “The Slug and the Giraffe”

     

  9. gtbunburywrites:

    Using this link, you should be able to listen to me, GT Bunbury, embarrassing myself on British radio.

     
  10. Work in progress, page layouts for an anthology of lectures by Alan Watts.