Summer 1991

Franklin the myth-maker

The 37th Annual Type Directors Club Exhibition

ITC Center, New York, 13 September 1991

The 37th Annual Type Directors Club Exhibition, held in the gallery at the International Typeface Corporation’s New York headquarters, is not so very different from the 36th annual exhibition, or the 35th, or the 34th … The show is, as usual, characterised by a good-natured egalitarianism typical of American design competitions and the collections of work they generate.

The TDC judges choose from thousands of submissions by walking through a suite of hotel rooms crammed with graphic matter. When they see something they like – a poster, an annual report, a letterhead – they drop a poker chip in the paper cup adjacent to that piece. The voting process is quick and reflexive, like giving spare change to one of New York’s many pan-handlers. Why donate to this beggar and not that one? Why not?

This year’s competition was chaired by Alan Peckolick (once one of Herb Lubalin’s partners) and the judges were Ruth Ansel, Lloyd Ziff and Sam Antupit (who have, between the three of them, art directed half of the leading magazines in New York), Robert Defrin of Atlantic Records, Ben Bos of The Netherlands’ Total Design, Beverly Schrager of Corporate Annual Reports in New York, Arnold Schwartzman from LA and Madeline Bennett from London. But it doesn’t really matter who’s judging when selections are determined by popular vote. It’s only when the judges have time to argue over their choices that the individual sensibilities count. In design competitions, as in politics, democracy without discourse engenders mediocrity.

Like many exhibitions that are judged rather than curated, the TDC’s exhibition doesn’t really have an identifiable point of view. There is nothing one might characterise as an aesthetic. Instead it has idiosyncrasies.

Pieces of design that are self-consciously typographic (for instance, a collage of the word ‘communication’ set in many languages and typestyles) and those that advertise typography (posters or brochures for type houses or design exhibitions) are sure to be chosen. Pieces that involve any sort of hand-lettering – particularly calligraphy – are consistently popular. While the stated goal of the competition is to ferret out typographic excellence, the result is typographic obviousness. It’s what happens when nine people equipped with fists full of poker chips confront room after room of design.

Certain things are guaranteed to make it into the TDC exhibits, no matter who judges. The revival of 1930s vernacular style by Charles Spencer Anderson, formerly of Minneapolis’s Duffy Group (which was bought out by Michael Peters, who subsequently went bankrupt), is a fixture, as is the work of John Sayles, a designer and illustrator from Des Moines, Iowa. Sayles’s retro illustrations and lettering style have a great deal in common with Anderson’s. Rolling Stone art director Fred Woodward and his design staff are also well represented. They are perhaps the most ardent typographers working in mainstream American magazines. Their feature spreads are always dominated by careful, attractive arrangements of display type. The show also has its share of designs by those who violate typographic conventions in eye-catching ways such as Studio Dumbar or James Houff, a Cranbrook alumnus of Grosse Point, Michigan.

One recurrent theme in this year’s show is the emergence of Franklin Gothic as the typeface of choice when something expressive, fashionable and blunt is required. As Fabien Baron discovered at Italian Vogue a couple of years back, Franklin Gothic, when it’s big and bold, possesses a sort of mythic quality. This was not lost on Kent Hunter and Danny Abelson of Frankfurt Gips Balkind, the computer-oriented New York design firm-cum-ad agency. The firm art directed much of last year’s Quincy Jones multi-media blitz: film, record, video, poster, book and ephemera. The book, Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones (Warner Books), which made it into the TDC show, is a photographic tour of Jones’s career, accompanied by oversized Franklin Gothic captions.  Colour and point size are used to emphasise certain words and phrases (a big red ‘impossible’ jumps out of otherwise grey text). It’s the typographer as editor.

Another great moment in Franklin Gothic can be found in the corner of the ITC gallery that’s devoted to Advertising Typography from 1980-1990. The star of this infinitesimally tiny survey of the last decade was the Wieden and Kennedy print campaign for Nike. While many designers favour the non-linear CalArts style of typography used by Wieden Kennedy, the scatter-shot arrangements of words in the Nike ads are especially apt because they allude to the way basketball looks when it’s played.

One notable newcomer to the TDC exhibit is David Carson, art director of Beach Culture. This California magazine of surfer lore is to the early 1990s as Wet, the California magazine of ‘gourmet bathing’, was to the late 1970s. Wet provided a forum for new wave graphic artists (April Greiman for instance) and Beach Culture is a proving ground for a style that might best be described as post-Emigre. Carson’s arrangements of type are every bit as considered as that of Catherine Gilmore-Barnes (a Rolling Stone typographer featured in the show), but the end result is decidedly abstract and much, much nastier. Unlike a lot of what appears in TDC 37, Carson’s designs look fresh. In early issues of Beach Culture, Carson borrowed heavily from reliable sources such as Rick Valicenti and Neville Brody, but he now seems to be moving into less familiar territory. Judges see his work and even if they disapprove of breaking words into so many pieces, – you can’t locate them let alone read them — they toss a poker chip in his cup. After all, calligraphy isn’t always legible either.

Karrie Jacobs, design writer, New York

First published in Eye no. 4 vol. 1 1991

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