Tuesday, 9:00am
24 December 2013

Autograph monograph

Pretty Pictures

By Marian Bantjes
Thames and Hudson, £42 / $75

A new book shows Marian Bantjes’ deep personal engagement with her work. Review of Pretty Pictures by Mark Porter.

Pretty Pictures covers the astonishing body of work Marian Bantjes produced over nine years after a radical mid-career reinvention. It is essentially a conventional monograph, but nothing about Bantjes is entirely conventional, writes Mark Porter.

A self-confessed control freak, she takes responsibility for editing, writing, design, production and indexing, and the result is comprehensive to the point of fanaticism. It includes almost everything she produced between 2003 and 2012, often with rigorous visual documentation of the development process from early sketches through rejected prototypes and multiple iterations, and detailed commentary from Bantjes herself.

Rick Valicenti (2004), Herrainco Christmas Project (2004), N (2004), Sterling Brands Pattern (2004) and Youme 3 AKA Alienhead (2005).

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Bantjes first came to prominence as a writer on the Speak Up blog, and words clearly matter as much to her as images. She originally trained as a typesetter, and her work is almost exclusively typographic and calligraphic. The projects documented here represent a series of experiments and explorations in turning words into pictures. So it is no surprise that the text is just as important to this monograph as the images.

GDC/BC Annual Report for The Society of Graphic Designers of Canada, 2004 (left), and Alien Plant Pattern, 2004 (right).

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The captions shed fascinating light on her motivation and working methods. The stories behind the evolution of many projects are engrossing and offer intriguing glimpses of her relationships with some of her favourite art directors / patrons (including Stefan Sagmeister, Michael Bierut and Rick Valicenti). Above all, the commentaries convey her deep personal engagement with the work – what she calls in the introduction ‘the investment of the self’. She emerges as passionate, honest, profane, emotional and funny, and the force of her personality gives the book a vitality that most designer monographs lack.

She can be endearingly self-critical. She includes pieces she appears to hate alongside those she loves, and her harsh judgements on them – ‘I can’t imagine why I did this’, ‘poorly executed’, ‘this is a terrible piece of shit’ – paint a refreshingly honest picture of the reality of the creative life. Equally, she does not hesitate to praise herself where she feels she deserves it.

Holiday Books for The New York Times Book Review, Wedding Lace for InStyle Weddings, There is a True and Sincere Friendship Between You Both and Caesars logo sketches for Pentagram, all 2006.

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Hemlock cake decorations, 2011.

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But in the end, most people buy designer monographs for the pictures, and the lavish visuals in this book will not disappoint. Bantjes’ free-form gridless design and the intricacy of the content mean that some layouts verge on the chaotic, but the page is big and the work is crisply reproduced. Some of the projects are familiar but many are not. As a casual admirer, I was surprised by the breadth and variety of Bantjes’ work, both in media – pencil, pen, computer, and 3D materials from flower petals to sugar – and in her thinking and solutions to briefs. There are moments of breathtaking beauty and occasional flirtations with kitsch. But most overwhelmingly there is the sheer intensity of her craft. It is often said that good design should look effortless, but Bantjes’ work never does. I’m a fan, but even for me the relentless complexity can be exhausting. This is a book for dipping into rather than reading from cover to cover.

To those who don’t ‘get’ Bantjes – and she admits there are many – Pretty Pictures will be no more than what it says on the cover. But for enthusiasts, it offers a genuine insight into the world of a unique talent.

‘Sustainability’, one of a series of posters for Stora Ensa paper company.

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Mark Porter is principal of Mark Porter Associates.

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.

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