Winter 2003

A Lexicon of Lust: Sex on the Coffee Table

XXX: The Power of Sex in Contemporary Design

Written and designed by Plazm
Writing: Sarah Douglas. Design: Joshua Berger. Photography: Jeremy Bittermann. With a foreword by Dan Savage. Rockport, £34.99

This coffee-table book, produced by Portland-based design consultancy and magazine publishers Plazm, wears its subject matter on its sleeve. A book about erotic design, it presents itself as a desirable object: it has a black, rubberised cover, overlaid with the title in block capital letter type in red and silver. The rubber gives the book a distinctively cloying, claustrophobic smell, which makes flipping through its pages a multi-sensory experience. The industrial smell somehow heightens the images, making them appear even more constructed than they undoubtedly are: the whole publication tries very hard to present itself as a sophisticated reflection of its subject matter, rather than attempting to be shocking. For, as Sarah Douglas points out in her text, audiences quickly assimilate what was once controversial or confrontational, challenging designers to find new ways to startle or surprise the viewer.

The book’s design is clean and unobtrusive, with Jeremy Bittermann’s abstracted colour photography separating the chapters. Plazm’s selection of erotic graphic design aims to be both international (predominantly American and European) and multi-disciplinary: there are examples of print advertising, magazine spreads, record sleeves, book design and flyer illustration, with nods to typography and exhibition design. The biggest omission, considering the preponderance of porn and sex-related imagery on the Internet, is website design.

Undoubtedly professionally put together, XXX still raises the question: what is a coffee table book about graphic design and sex for? Who is it aimed at, and why? In his foreword, Dan Savage suggests the book’s purpose is to educate and enlighten, to show some of the ways in which designers have used sex and sexuality to sell. This will make the (non-professional) reader less gullible to the sophisticated techniques used by designers to promote products by associating them with the pleasures of sex. But how many readers of a book like this – indeed, how many people in our visually literate society – will be unaware that advertising is about provoking desire, and that one of the easiest ways to do this is to associate a product with a desirable body or an arousing scenario?

So perhaps the more interesting question is not how advertising works by appealing to our sexual instincts, but why we continue to remain complicit in the pact we have made with advertisers. They will titillate us, we will respond by buying the goods they peddle, and then be disappointed that the product doesn’t fulfil us in the way the ad promised. It’s a big tease, with no payoff.

This may explain why advertising rarely uses imagery of what XXX calls ‘the sex act’. The chapter of the book dedicated to representations of the

sex act is full of AIDS educational materials and condom ads, many of which are funny or clever, but very few of which are erotic.

As one would expect from a book put together by a design consultancy, the book is image-led: it looks like the sort of project that arose out of amassing lots of examples of design with sexual themes, with the concept and structure bolted on after the fact. So although Sarah Douglas’s text makes a valiant effort to categorise the examples, this only succeeds sporadically.

Some images easily straddle more than one of the chapter headings. Markus Kiersztan’s fashion spread for The Face, while illustrating androgyny in the chapter on gender, could easily illustrate the section on power dynamics, except that the book chooses to define power dynamics only in terms of how age and race are portrayed. Mirko Ili´c’s slick, stylised illustrations, full of airbrushed abstractions of sex organs, are arguably better suited to the section on fantasy than the section on gender. In this case the content rather than the style of his work has determined its categorisation.

The majority of the work in the book was chosen, Douglas says, because it ‘challenges the standard representative visual lexicon’. Exactly what the standard representative visual lexicon is is unclear, but the challenge often seems to involve nudity and imagery

of couples in pre-coital embraces or close-ups of individuals in full orgasmic bliss. Images of men or women with their heads thrown back in erotic abandon recur throughout the book: fashion spreads in Surface and Big magazines, the cover of Lou Reed’s Ecstasy, print ads for the sex shop Coco de Mer.

There are also examples of dull graphic design that are included because they ‘contain messages that may test the boundaries of the conventional’. This is the reasoning behind the inclusion of a pair of unerotic tyre ads featuring bland same sex couples: Bridgestone acknowledging its gay market in a way designed not to offend a more reactionary tyre-buying public. However, it doesn’t explain the inclusion of an ad for tequila showing a woman balancing a dripping slice of lime between her bare breasts with the strapline ‘Take your best shot’, unless Plazm’s intent is to present old school sexism as a test to the boundaries of politically correct convention.

This illustrates the book’s lack of focus. Trying to make XXX all things at once, Plazm dilute their intended message. It is unclear whether they are more interested in the visual elements of the work they’ve selected or in the socio-political and theoretical messages the work conveys. Simply presenting works without providing a more rigorous context in which to read them leaves the viewer at a bit of a loss. No doubt the book has an audience – and, if nothing else, it will provide a useful sourcebook for historians of the future interested in how designers of the past decade approached the erotic. But readers interested in asking more searching questions about what these images tell us about our culture are left to draw their own conclusions.

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