Design from above meets design from below (full text)
The Book Corner – New British Publication Design18 June – 26 July 2002
13 Mason’s Yard, London
Sponsored by the British Council
Since April 2001, a group of four giant vitrines at the Design Museum have been devoted to a series of shows offering glimpses of ‘the most exciting developments in contemporary design.’ Design Now – Graphics, jointly curated by graphic designer Christian Küsters and design historian Emily King, uses as its point of departure the curators’ book ReStart (Thames & Hudson), which proposes a movement wherein contemporary designers take on ‘philosophical and practical tasks which would have been well beyond the remit of traditional graphics’. These designers, the curators claim, in reaction to the free-for-all of postmodernism, are now employing systems – ‘from the purposeful to the apparently arbitrary’ – as constraints on the negotiation of subject matter. Yet, as the authors suggest, these systems still offer plenty of room for subjective takes on content.
Given the display parameters of the vitrines, the exhibition does its best to flag this design trend through four of its most interesting, thoughtful specimens: the print work of Andrew Blauvelt, as Design Director for the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; M/M, the Paris-based group of Michael Amzalag and Mathias Augustyniak; Zurich designers, Beat Müller and Wendlin Hess, of Müller + Hess (see Eye no. 32 vol. 8); and the Amsterdam-based Mevis & Van Deursen, founded by Armand Mevis and Linda van Deursen. Each design group’s work was intended to represent a different approach, although the systems themselves were not named or described.
The ambitions of the exhibition series ‘Design Now’, of which this show was part, could have been made more explicit through at least an explanatory wall text. This inclusion would have helped direct the expectations of the visitor, thus giving the show more room to function as what it was – a visual appetiser rather than a full meal. And since the exhibition highlights design as a conceptual practice, it could have conveyed a greater diversity within such approaches. For one, the inclusion of more of the playful and visually extravagant work being done by M/M would have served to communicate system-based design’s potential to be visually delicious as well as smart.
The show’s ambitions to provide visitors with a compelling glimpse of a particular aspect of graphic design is worthy of appreciation, and can be seen as part of Küsters’ and King’s own vision of bringing to the fore design’s role as a complex practice.
‘The Book Corner’, a touring exhibition, in London last summer, was also curated by Emily King, and realised through a collaboration with furniture designer Martino Gamper and graphic designers Åbäke. This show offered a body of work quite different from that of the Design Now exhibition, and had a contrasting approach to display.
Sponsored by the British Council, this exhibition of more than 250 books and other publications designed and / or published by British designers / publishers, was originally launched in April 2002 at the Milan International Furniture Fair. The exhibition was intended to acknowledge ‘the vitality, diversity and technical ingenuity of Britain’s print industry’.
The works on display were testimony to the blossoming of print in the age of screen technology. Ranging from telephone books to magazines, and from traditional design to more radical approaches, these works offered evidence of the inspiring output of small to medium publishers, independent art and design publishers, and the self-published work of art and design institutions.
The display allows access to a wide range of works, granting the opportunity for scholars of design, designers, and the public in general to understand printed material beyond its content. William Morris’s mid-nineteenth century revival of book design and fine printing was a reaction to the deprecation of books through mass production. By contrast, ‘The Book Corner’ demonstrates that mass production need not exclude fine design.
The exhibition design addresses publications as time-based, intimate objects informed by considered relationships between form and content. To experience them – to understand how they function – requires leisure and closer engagement, and it is this that ‘The Book Corner’ most successfully allowed. The presentation, in its off-beat playfulness, is a design hybrid between Memphis, functionalism and the vernacular of bookshops and libraries. It makes a space in which design from above meets design from below – the everyday and the extraordinary as reflected in a confusion of materials.
Among the most significant features of the design were the shelving unit that allows the books to face outward, the exploitation of corners as a design feature and the furnishings, rugs and lighting, all of which created intimacy and made it natural and easy to hunker down with a good book.
Two computers included in the exhibition allowed for another means of engaging with the works. The databases include the standard biographical information, but in a witty acknowledgement of contemporary ‘reading’, provide mnemonic categories such as ‘Cover Color’ and ‘Picture on Cover’. Extended entries on 84 of the publications were also included.
Although not part of the London show (for space reasons), the original Milan display included a photocopier that allowed visitors to document works that were personally significant, in order to create one’s own catalogue. Envelopes printed with a short essay by King provided a container to store the ‘catalogue’. Unfortunately there is no other documentation of the show, but one hopes that the British Council or some enterprising publisher will be inspired to produce one. Although the DIY catalogue is a lovely idea and particularly suited to the ‘me, me, me’ generation of the electronic age, a body of information thoughtfully gathered by an experienced editor / curator, intended to provoke meaningful conversation, is still worthwhile – and perhaps another reason why books continue to flourish.
‘The Book Corner’ was shown at the Tallinna Linna Galerii, Tallinn, Estonia, from 6-17 November 2002, and will tour India during 2003.