Thursday, 9:00am
13 February 2014

Book of revelations

Multiple Signatures: On Designers, Authors, Readers and Users

By Michael Rock / 2x4
Designed by Michael Rock and Yoonjai Choi
Rizzoli, £22.95 / $35

Michael Rock delivers more words about buildings and fnord

The uncontroversial premise of Multiple Signatures is that design is a collaborative act, writes David Crowley.

So it is appropriate that a book marking the successful career of Michael Rock and his 2x4 design partnership should also be a collaboration. Delivered largely in words (safe, perhaps, in the assumption that readers will already know 2x4’s designs or, if they don’t, an image-rich website with the practice’s work [for Prada, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Kanye West’s design consortium Donda, and many other clients] is just a few clicks away), Multiple Signatures gathers a number of different voices, including those of Rock in conversation with his partners Susan Sellers and Georgie Stout, as well as prominent designers, thinkers and architects. The glittering cast includes Koolhaas, Poynor, van Toorn, Lyotard (from beyond the grave), and [the appropriately named] Michael Speaks, editor of ANY, the architectural magazine which 2x4 designed in the 1990s.

Spread from ‘It is what it is (or are we done yet?)’. Photograph by Luke Steiner.
Top: spread from the wordless visual essay ‘1:4’ featuring work by 2x4.

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Multiple Signatures also features the text from a number of talks given by Rock over the years. Sometimes the slides from these talks appear as images set into the columns on the page; otherwise they appear as terse descriptions of the slides used: ‘News photograph of a smug President George W. Bush’. Yes, words will do.

Spread from the chapter on clichés including anti-ambivalent, neo-cacophonic, duodimensional, repetivistic, fuzzinessence, fractality, baroquish and montessoristic (pictured).

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Unexpected texts appear too: Elizabeth Rock and Michael Rock produce a pastiche of an email exchange between the studio and a client looking to market fashion to ‘brainy’ [and therefore ‘dowdy’] feminists: ‘This girl is turning off the TV. This girl is hitting the books. AND reading them. ALL the way through. Real books, not Audio or podcasts’. It goes wrong, perhaps [a little] predictably, and the studio finds a ‘Dear John letter’ in the in-box.

Rock includes a few briefs that he has set his students: instructions to read Borges and to investigate the sestina structure of a John Ashbery poem. A number of the studio’s projects feature, selected because they are engaged with words, too. One – resulting from a brief to strategise the future for techno magazine Wired – involved writing a program to chart the rise and fall of buzzwords in the magazine over its first decade, a smarter way of measuring newness than most. This is no surprise: Rock is good with words. And he reads books. Yes. All the way through.

Spread from chapter ‘Pradapedia’.

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But what is Multiple Signatures about? Of course it is about graphic design but what that is has changed considerably in the past two decades since 2x4 was founded. In conversation with Rick Poynor, Rock says: ‘If the product of design becomes increasingly invisible, the critical project is less one of unmasking than of revealing.’ For Rock, revealing means drawing graphic design into ‘bigger socioeconomic and historical arcs. The design object must be seen as an index of something bigger.’

Sometimes, Rock struggles to bring his [present-day] interlocutors back to the subject in hand. A conversation with Paul Elliman, the London-based designer (see profile in Eye 25), entitled ‘Voice as Brand’, has Rock repeatedly asking about the branded voice in pop, on the subway, the branded voice in the city and as the spokesperson of the corporation, whilst Elliman keeps freewheeling away – brilliantly – into the sounds of Tourette’s Syndrome, glossolalia, the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald and other often esoteric themes. But that surely reinforces the logic of the format: conversations don’t need to have a point. For me, the most engaging piece in this heteroglossial anthology is Rock’s equally freewheeling and metaphorical essay refuting the conspiracy theories that attach themselves to words and images, with a title that Douglas Adams could have written, ‘If You Don’t See The Fnord It Can’t Eat You’.

Spread from chapter ‘Notes for a lecture titled: Empire of Screens’ featuring an array of images including Herbert Bayer’s Diagram of the Field of Vision, 1930; Second World War military radar operators, 1947; film still, Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times, 1936, film still; and H. G. Wells’ Things to Come, 1936.

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If one theme emerges most strongly in Multiple Signatures it is 2x4’s relationship with architecture and Rock’s particular interest in digital skins and screens, blow-ups and the other supergraphic surfaces that increasingly form our environment. The latter represents a new scale of task for graphic designers, one which means working closely with architects. And 2x4 are regular collaborators with architectural practice OMA, working on the Prada Store in New York, among others.

Spread from chapter ‘Generation Praktikum’.

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Rock’s enthusiasm for the task of rescaling graphic design for architecture is clear. In one of the two essays in the book that put the practice’s work under the spotlight, former 2x4 associate Lucia Allais gives the same task an ambitious imperative: ‘… the goal is to make you think about images, their origins, their intentions, their material presence … What is at work here is not so much the education of your eye as the rediscovery of your image memory. 2x4 would like to call forth every image you have ever perceived and make it strange again by asking you to look at it rather than through it.’ This is the Modernist challenge of ostranenie (‘making strange’ or defamiliarisation), scaled up for the 21st century. Yet, at the same time, she introduces a note of criticism: increasingly, she says, 2x4’s supergraphics operate as temporary ‘cinematic’ walls in ‘non-spaces’, such as the deserts in Doha, to deflect attention from what is being done behind them. Reserved in tone and circumspect in her argument, Allais provides an unexpected illustration of Rock’s call for design critics to reveal their subjects.

Multiple Signatures (Rizzoli, £22.95 / $35), edited by Michael Rock with Jeanne Heifetz and Lisa Brennan-Jobs. Design by Michael Rock and Yoonjai Choi. Layout by Donnie Luu with Liliana Palau, David Yun, Sung Joong Kim, Terri Chiao and Jeffery Ludlow.

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David Crowley, head of Critical Writing in Art & Design programme at the Royal College of Art, London

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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