Spring 2004

Gut instinct and self-scrutiny [EXTRACT]

Monographics

Chip Kidd
By Véronique Vienne
Kyle Cooper
By Andrea Codrington

Laurence King Monographics, series editor Rick Poynor, £16.95 each

Monographs on designers have always been a more problematic concept than those on artists. Design work is usually undertaken in response to an external brief – the designer’s personal development or oeuvre being, ideally, beside the point of the job in hand. Design is a social activity, a process between designer, client and intended audience. Few designers have clients who do not compromise their work – it is in any case questionable whether such compromise is necessarily a bad thing – and an audience with whom they feel empathy. The problem is further compounded by the distortions of reproduction, which flattens work and robs it of its context and intended function. Where the designer is personally involved, ‘monograph’ can become a euphemism for ‘portfolio’. The upshot is that the wealth of monographs now available wholly misrepresent the profession.

Laurence King’s new Monographics series sets out to counter at least part of the problem by providing ‘authoritative critical assessments’ from an ‘independent’ remove. The pattern is set by these first two titles, each 112 pages long, with full-colour examples of work after an introductory essay . . .

Véronique Vienne’s text on New York book designer Chip Kidd places him firmly within that city’s contemporary publishing world, but there is little sense of graphic history, and her assertions are at times near-sighted . . .

By contrast, Andrea Codrington’s essay on Kyle Cooper slots his oeuvre concisely and convincingly into the history of title sequence design, and the included details of Cooper’s life always shed light on his work. To be fair, Codrington has an easier task than Vienne, on two counts. Firstly, titles design has a much shorter history than that of the book jacket – Saul Bass’s 1955 animation for The Man with the Golden Arm is here marked as the turning point when titles became ‘repositories of the cultural Zeitgeist’. Secondly, the fact that we are shown only a few stills from each sequence leaves room to explain how they work in real time, adding anecdotal details where appropriate.

No such opportunity exists for Vienne – Kidd’s book jackets stand or fall on their own self-contained terms. Of one surrealist collage, he shrugs ‘don’t ask me why I did this. I don’t know. I just did it.’ Cooper’s self-scrutiny is the opposite of Kidd’s gut instinct . . .

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