Summer 2000

Controlled passion: the art of Fernando Gutiérrez

In post-Franco Spain, a cool Catalan breeze blows through the often humid, overheated world of professional magazine design and art direction

In the stampede to embrace all that is technically possible, recent magazine design has draped an aesthetic veil over the marketplace, with work that thrives on ambiguity and graphic effects. Though the blurring of boundaries between designer and image-maker has been liberating, the quiet art of the graphic specialist has become increasingly difficult to practice. So it is refreshing to reconsider the power of the idea, with a practitioner who champions simplicity, understands the traditional beauty of typography and enjoys the classical elegance of white space on a page. The work of Fernando Gutiérrez could be described as a cool Catalan breeze blowing through the often humid, overheated, world of professional magazine art direction.

I first met Fernando at the LCP [London College of Printing] in 1983, a time when references to humanist typography and an awareness of Classical methodology formed the basis of our learning. In contrast to those laboured afternoons of hand-rendered type designs, our monthly diet of low-tech type experiments in magazines such as the The Face and i-D represented a raw and potent spirit of the age. The contradiction between the immediacy of the photocopier and the discipline of formal typography proposed myriad possibilities to many of us. At least, that was our excuse at the time for some particularly dubious layouts. Three years on, with a portfolio that comprised a healthy mix of old and new, one of Gutiérrez’s initial excursions into the commercial arena was with Carroll, Dempsey and Thirkell (CDT Design). At that fragile and malleable, ‘just out of college’ stage in his career, the opportunity to work in an environment in sympathy with his own way of working was to prove invaluable in the years to follow. Gutiérrez was regarded by Mike Dempsey as ‘charming, sweet and proud, a designer very much in the classic mould, working with quiet integrity’. Under Dempsey’s creative wing, he was given space and encouragement to pursue his ‘disarmingly simple approach’. One example of this relationship was their work for the English National Opera (ENO), which included a collection of memorable poster designs that combined a calm, mannered type style with some arresting, often unpredictable images.

In 1991, Gutiérrez was made an associate of CDT, yet his ongoing collaborative work with Summa Design Studio in Barcelona that year, was an indication that the cultural exuberance of his native Spain was becoming increasingly irresistible. Together with projects for the Catalan Cultural Department came the launch of the Mossos D’esquadra (Barcelona Police Car). This unusual project saw the conventional authority of capital letters and orthodox colour palettes being replaced by a dynamic fusion of lowercase Akzidenz Grotesk, fluorescent reds and Ferrari metallic blues. A public that is receptive to change on this scale is surprising, yet consistent with the cultural contradictions of Spanish culture. The audience for such design innovation are themselves descendants from a long line of visionaries. The avant-garde is a celebrated part of their cultural identity. A willingness to integrate contemporary design ideas into the mainstream serves as a modern-day reminder that Spain is more than a land with a rich sense of tradition, and Barcelona was soon to provide an ideal backdrop for Grafica, the design practice Gutiérrez and fellow Spanish designer Pablo Martin founded in 1993. ‘I always had an urge to discover Spanish culture on my own terms,’ says Gutiérrez. ‘It was an opportunity to discover and experience the pre-Olympic atmosphere, and the new Spain that was opening up to the rest of the world.’ Tentaciones, (the Friday supplement for El Pais) was one of the first commissions for the newly founded Grafica, and represented a departure for Gutiérrez from the more corporate design campaigns of previous years. El Pais was keen to encourage a new and youthful readership, and was open to ideas for a design that could do this. The decision for an editorial team of a national newspaper to employ someone from a ‘corporate’ background is an indication of the open-minded, relaxed attitudes toward the role of the graphic designer in Spain. This opportunity for Gutiérrez to address a broad and receptive audience with his editorial magic was the first of many exciting commissions. EP[s] (El Pais Sunday supplement) and Cinemania, the monthly movie magazine for the Spanish public, were soon to benefit from a similarly appropriate and cleverly considered aesthetic. ‘It was incredibly exciting to put my ideas on to paper and know that a lot of people are going to see and follow what you are doing, week by week.’ Tentaciones attempted to exploit the limitations of newspaper production, allowing white space to dominate the covers (making a virtue of the fact that bleeds were not technically possible). The logical, almost pragmatic approach to editorial design was an attempt to move away from the many busy forms of expression that other publications exploited. ‘My main concerns were to do something that had nothing to do with David Carson and Raygun. At that time, everybody in Spain was obsessed with that look. I was just into making it look easy to do. Just a couple of typefaces, no distracting superficial graphic tricks.’

In 1995 the established success of Tentaciones prompted another ‘beautiful experience’. Gutiérrez was commissioned as guest art director on the celebrated ‘wordless’ issue no. 13 of Colors, Tibor Kalman’s final issue as editor. Flirting with a contemporary visual narrative in the design yet retaining elements of a more classical framework was an area in which Gutiérrez was becoming increasingly confident. Widely regarded as the up-and-coming design company of Spain, Grafica then embarked upon a collaborative project with Alberto Arnaut, then managing editor of El Pais, as part of a shared ambition to create a large-format magazine that would attempt to represent all aspects of editorial excellence. Their intention was to produce a publication that would combine the flamboyance of flamenco with the controlled passion of the corrida de toros and to invent a symbol for a culture that celebrates humanity and thrives on con-tradiction: Matador magazine was born. Not wanting to be weighed down by the usual conventions and compromises of newspaper production, the yearly Matador was to set its own agenda, exuding confidence and authority from the outset.

The idea for this publication springs from the special relationship that exists between editor, designer and printer, a unique collaboration that speaks volumes about the way Gutiérrez works. The emotions and feeling he brings to his work do not allow him to see a distinction between colleagues and friends. Long-term clients are regarded as ‘family’, which is extended with each new commission. Matador exploits this working method: the undertaking of each issue represents a big commitment in the lives of the production team, so maintaining a close working relationship over the years is essential. Each annual issue is labelled with a letter of the Spanish alphabet (29 characters with the inclusion of ch, ll and ñ) so the project will take Gutiérrez, Arnaut and their colleagues well into the 2020s. The conspicuous size of Matador, a little smaller than A3, is a feature to which Gutiérrez often refers. Just as one becomes used to the calm sea of white space that so comfortably accommodates the conventions of a three-column grid, the design gives way to a procession of uncompromising full-bleed duotones that demand your undivided attention. The photography throughout issue B is essentially monochrome with a twist. Proudly hugging the edges of the page, many images benefit from carefully considered crops suggesting a life that exists far beyond the confines of the generous format. Then the pace will momentarily slow to the tranquillity of the text spreads, where there is another chance to enjoy the formal discipline of the typography, before we are once again indulged in the luxury of an image-led full-colour feature. Each issue uses just one typeface: Gill Sans for issue A, Caslon for issue B and so on. The overall feel and layout of Matador could be accused of straying into the language of book design rather than a magazine: solid columns of justified text, weighty stock and a deep understanding of the content indicate that this is a publication with intent: Matador discourages informal dipping and skipping. Its design invites the reader to spend several minutes savouring the depth of black in the lowlights of the cover image, slowly coming to terms with its uncompromising production values before reaching the first page. With each new Matador Gutiérrez pays homage to the masters of typography – deliberating between humanist and lineal forms: a passion that must surely stem from his days as a student at the LCP. One might assume that Gutiérrez’s evident enjoyment of print on paper began here as well: the allure of the beautifully printed page plays an important role in the work of his friends and colleagues such as Angus Hyland (Pentagram), Clifford Hiscock (Grey Matter / Williams and Phoa) and myself – all members of the class of 1986.

The eagerly awaited fifth Matador in the series, issue D, which was published in the Spring of 2000, is another example of homage. The relationship between the unforgiving mechanics of this issue’s classic typeface – Univers – and the deeply evocative photographic journals of Peter Beard is a suitably tense one. Throughout this issue the emphasis placed on colour, large expansive solids and regular appearances of a fluorescent special suggests a departure from the rational economy of previous issues, but the elegance and order in the layouts are faithful to the previous editions.

A comparable emphasis on a simple visual aesthetic was also Gutiérrez’s intention behind the redesign of the Madrid-based lifestyle magazine, Vanidad. In a similar way to Tentaciones, the publishers were keen to address a largely untapped audience and commissioned Gutiérrez in 1998 as art director. Unlike Matador the need to adhere to a more style-led editorial language was recognised. The design achieves a clever marriage of aggressive commercialism and a self-confident simplicity. Vanidad is an indication of how Gutiérrez operates within the exposed and unforgiving world of the fashion magazine. The flavour of the journalism is reflected in the layout of this publication, yet many of its ideas rely on a simple philosophy not far from that of Matador. Apart from the typographic hierarchy and juxtaposition of images, the level of expression given to the subject matter is familiar. Unlike many Spanish designers, Gutiérrez’s willingness to bridge the gap he believes exists between Barcelona and Madrid is perhaps the key to this familiarity. He continues to live and work in both cities and as a result is able to comment objectively on their cultural differences. Design in Spain is still a young profession and the unique position that Gutiérrez occupies enables him to contribute (via the magazine) to a contemporary identity that has yet to be defined.

In a busy professional world where it can be difficult to keep abreast of the latest events in the lives of our contemporaries, one looks to the examples of work that circulate the market place as a reminder of each other’s existence. Studying the recently printed pages of this latest Matador is confirmation that Gutiérrez enjoys living and working in an environment where culture is regarded as valuable currency and the medium of the magazine is seen as a powerful national voice.

Russell Warren-Fisher, Designer, North Wraxall

First published in Eye no. 36 vol. 4 1994

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