Summer 2001

Poster boy for a lost Seattle

Some People Can't Surf: The Graphic Design of Art Chantry

Julie Lasky
Chronicle Books, £16.99

This book has a sad epilogue, though one that comes as no surprise after everything you learn about Art Chantry in the course of its pages. In March 2000, shortly after the book was completed, he left Seattle - the city he had put on the graphic design map - and moved to a big, beautiful Victorian house in St Louis.

He was disenchanted, writes Julie Lasky, with Seattle’s anaemic street life, with its gentrification and traffic chaos, and most of his friends had fled. The city\'s subcultures had lost and Internet prosperity was king.

It\'s a measure of Lasky\'s lively style, sensitively judged narrative and well tuned antenna that, even at a distance, you get a sense that an era has ended and feel genuine regret. I visited Chantry only once at his Seattle studio, but it was enough to leave an impression that he was one of a kind, a high-octane obsessive, a loving archeologist of bygone ephemera whose drawers and shelves overflowed with salvaged graphic treasure that he was able to re-animate, without ever patronising his sources, into his own brand of passionate, street-smart folk art.

There are those who continue to question the production of designer monographs exploring the work of individual designers. For me, though, the issue is not ‘should there be such books’ - a hope as pious as it is pointless, since publishers will go on churning them out regardless - but ‘how can we make them better’ The answer to that lies in the editing and writing, the conception of the book as a whole and most crucially, perhaps, the relationship of writer / editor to subject, since everything starts here.

Some People Can\'t Surf is a substantial step in the right direction and deserves close study. While the book is about Chantry and he is also its co-designer, Lasky is unambiguously the author. It has a long, properly researched text, divided into chronological chapters, and anyone acquiring it for the pictures alone would be missing half of its point. Lasky, a fine journalist and former managing editor of Print, avoids making embarrassing attempts to glorify her subject as a graphic messiah and takes a shrewd, detailed, always insightful look at both the man and the work. She is particularly good on Chantry\'s early years growing up poor in Tacoma with nothing to look forward to, it seemed, except the draft and Vietnam. We learn about the alcoholic rages and violence of his father, a lawyer from Seattle (he was eventually disbarred) who went his own way when Chantry was ten, and Chantry\'s alcoholism is honestly addressed.

This is vital background to understand who Chantry is, how he has chosen to position himself and why the roughed-up style is second nature. He identifies with outcasts, punks, no-hopers and members of every kind of subcultural sect, and numbers people such as Jim Rose (of ‘Circus Sideshow’ notoriety) among his friends. When he arrived in Seattle in 1978, he found a thriving punk scene, and his 1985 book of punk concert posters, Instant Litter, gives a compelling glimpse of the period\'s vigorous and threatening street life. Chantry worked for theatre companies and concert halls, and began his ten-year on/off association with The Rocket, a Seattle music paper and talent magnet. Early 1980s posters for the Bathhouse Theatre show his power as a collagist. His debt to Polish poster art\'s expressive visual attack is obvious in such intense and durable image-making as the Ready for War poster (1982), with the staring-dot eyes and screaming mouth, and the Tartuffe theatre poster (1983) in which he imagines Molière’s religious hypocrite as a TV-headed evangelist.

Chantry\'s infatuation with old advertising styles led, in 1991, to one of his most popular images, a poster for a performance art cabaret at Seattle\'s Center on Contemporary Art (reproduced in Eye no. 9 vol. 3). Instead of showing the performers, he lifted screwdrivers, spanners and a drill from a 1950s tool catalogue and dropped boxes with performance times on to the red, white and black image, like descriptions of the hardware. In the 1990s, always forswearing computers, Chantry produced many variations on this theme, which avoid the curse of retro cuteness while seeming oddly timeless, too. The style is now strongly identified with Seattle and has been much imitated - to the point where its originator is often forgotten. A colleague claims that, in one way or another, Chantry has trained most graphic designers in Seattle worth their salt.

Chantry\'s design for the book, with Jamie Sheehan, is restrained, allowing the work rather than its presentation to be savoured - let\'s hope others take note. Using old-fashioned figure numbers for the illustrations is a nice touch, though the text type is tiny, a perverse decision when the writing is this good. Chantry claims to have produced a phenomenal quantity of work - 3000 posters, 500 record or CD covers, 5000 logos (can that be possible?) - yet the emphasis is on the 1990s, with the last decade\'s projects spread out through the book. It\'s hard to get a sense from this of quite how he has developed, if indeed he has, or the degree to which this selection represents his output as a whole. One thing that does come across is an enormous zest for the possibilities of design. Chantry\'s body of work is so inventive, wonderfully fluid and free that it reminds you why you got interested in graphic communication in the first place.

In 1994, as Seattle increasingly identified itself with the booming new economy, posters were banned as an outdoor advertising medium by a city ordinance. The unruly but vital graphic mess that had for so long plastered telephone poles wasn\'t considered seemly for its go-getting streets. The alternative scene fought back, but couldn’t win. It was a move, notes Lasky, ‘that Chantry and others believe helped to throttle the life out of the underground’. So it was that a man described by a colleague as ‘the most moral and ethical designer I have ever met’, a ‘Manichaean’ who views experience as a continual struggle between extremes, a champion of the not-wanted and the dispossessed, seems to have decided that the situation was no longer viable or stimulating and that the smart move was to ship out and start afresh somewhere else.

First published in Eye no. 40 vol. 10, 2001

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