Summer 1997

Culture in a cold climate

In the ‘post-intellectual’ era, four Canadians use their talents in the service of creative discourse and the act of reading

In North America, as Lewis Lapham tells us, business has become our culture, while our culture has become a business. In the minds of most, “culture” and “the arts” are viewed as wholly divorced from the reality of day-to-day reality; rather, they are the perquisites that come with working puritanically hard at the “real” business of making a living. As with its ageing industrial skin, North American urban culture has relegated its artistic community to the outskirts of the imagination in favour of something called entertainment. So. in a post-intellectual world, it seems all the more miraculous that some people actually make their living in service of this increasingly marginalised realm.

Finding opportunities in the cultural sector here is tough work. The hours are long, the pay is low, and the obstacles are many. The Thatcherite economics of Canadian federal and provincial governments have starved arts organisations of funds. Of the few designers who toil in this unforgiving vineyard, many have found it necessary to pursue more commercial assignments to keep busy.

Three of the four designers considered here, Debbie Adams, Alison Hahn and Nigel Smith, continue to practice in Toronto while Lisa Naftolin now works in New York City. Toronto may be the largest city in Canada, but with a population of under three million, its cultural sector is almost molecular in size, which means it can support no more than a Petri dish-full of designers. (Even Bruce Mau, once the unassailable apple of culture’s eye, has gone to the world of fashion and retail for work.) Forward Through the Rearview Mirror: Reflections on and by Marshall McLuhan announces itself in the lurid tones of a supermarket tabloid. The book’s design is the work of Alison Hahn and Nigel Smith, a team dedicated to the power and sanctity of the book in an age when the onslaught of new media, in the words of McLuhan, disembodies us, turning us into software. There is in these two designers an almost anachronistic reverence for the act of reading. In their hands, the book is neither a coffee table confection bound for the ephemeral honour of some design annual, nor a prosaic vessel of colourless text, but a palpable hymn to the hardware of humanism.

Hahn and Smith are both alumni of Bruce Mau Design, players in the evolution of that studio’s reputation as an international force in the design of cultural literature. They left independently of each other, each seeking to cut an individual swath through the same field that has provided Mau with intellectual and creative sustenance. After a short time practising as individuals, they teamed up to form Hahn Smith Design in 1994 and now serve a roster of international clients.

Forward Through the Rearview Mirror is one of their most important and exciting pieces. A non-linear collection of verbal and visual material submitted by 15 writers and as many photographers, the book successfully emulates McLuhan’s way of communicating. As Philip Marchand points out in his excellent 1989 biography (Marshall McLuhan, the Medium and the Messenger), McLuhan preferred the role of the performer to that of the writer, and as a performer, he delivered his message through aphorism, wordplay and hyperbole. He had little patience for presenting ideas in a rational, linear manner, either written or spoken.

Most who have attempted to read McLuhan’s texts in a front-to-back, linear way are frustrated by the man’s repetition and circumlocution. Many find his provocative one-liners (“The future of the future is the present”, or “In the electric age we wear all mankind as our skin”) annoyingly opaque. Derrick de Kerckhove, director of McLuhan Studies at the University of Toronto has said that the best way to read him is to jump in, grab hold of one his ideas, jump out and run with it for a while, rather than trying to make sense of all of it at once.

That idea seems to have been the brief for the design for Forward Through the Rearview Mirror. The relationships between image, text and headlines run the gamut from literal to absurd, from reassuring allegory to shocking juxtaposition, in much the way McLuhan’s own utterances did. On one spread, McLuhan’s admitted horror of change is flanked by a blood red shot of Sid Vicious; on the following pages, the words “Violence and Identity” headline a photo of a gathering of the Ku Klux Klan. Photo-editing was done by tacking all of the images up on the wall and “seeking resonances between them and the text”, as Nigel Smith explains it. Just such a point of resonance is seen in another spread, where the concentric circles on the front of a box of Tide share the page with a view of the coffered ceiling of the Pantheon, opposite the headline “Patterns”.

The currency and density of the imagery in Hahn-Smith’s book injects a new sense of urgency into the text, and the addition of commentaries, reminiscences and publicity shots of McLuhan creates a much more layered effect than in earlier versions of his texts, such as The Medium is the Massage and War and Peace in the Global Village designed by Quentin Fiore and produced by Jerome Agel. In a sense, McLuhan’s work in the hands of both Fiore and now Hahn Smith is like hearing the same piece of music interpreted by equally skilled musicians of two different eras. Both are valid. But this book, characterised by both intimacy and detachment, views McLuhan through a post-modern lens and clearly illustrates why his ideas are so resonant with the times.

Although Hahn and Smith have expanded the scope of their interests to include work in multimedia and film title design, it is from their work as book designers that the spirit of their commitment seems to emanate. They have extended richly the vital role that the book still has to play as a repository of knowledge in a time when the force of popular culture seems bent on destroying it. As such, they have demonstrated that it is possible for designers to contribute meaningfully to intelligent discourse while so many of us have happily chosen to ignore it.

Tropos is the fruit of a collaboration among one artist and three designers. Ann Hamilton, the artist, originally engaged Lisa Naftolin (shortly after she emigrated to the US) to design the book as a companion piece for her installation of the same name at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York. Naftolin not only worked on the book, but also on the installation itself, thus gaining a degree of intimacy with her subject matter that is afforded to few graphic designers. But a year into the project, she became employed full time by the New York Times Magazine, and recommended that Alison Hahn take the project over. By the time the book was published two years later, the circle of collaboration also included Nigel Smith.

Tropos is a memorable contribution to the tradition of artists’ books that began in the 1960s as the conceptual art movement took hold. The ephemeral, site-specific nature of installation art demands documentation, but this text is more than just a record of the work. It stands as a parallel piece that extends the presence of the artistic product, furnishing those who have not experienced the installation first hand with the opportunity to participate in its themes and concepts.

The book opens quietly, without the usual preliminaries (publishing data, acknowledgements, quotations) but then gives way to an absorbing 42-page photo-documentation of the installation itself. The accompanying text, which immediately follows the opening photo sequence, is set in a classic roman font of generous size. Bereft of expression, the typography yields entirely to the sanctity of the words, fulfilling Beatrice Warde’s famous dictum that “printing should be invisible” in the service of the text it reproduces.

The filmic sequence of the book’s imagery allows the reader to “walk in” to the work, as Naftolin likes to put it. This imposition of cinematic structure on to the form of the book may have its source in Naftolin’s training as an architect and then a fine artist. She practised for a time as an artist, before she was approached by a Canadian arts journal called Borderlines to do an “artist’s project”. In the next issue, she helped with the paste-up, and before long she was designing it.

At that time, Naftolin shifted her interest from working in the gallery environment to that of publication and mass circulation. The experience of seeing her work exposed beyond the microcosm of the art world was invigorating. But what about the work itself? Was it different? “My work was always about the relationship between pictures and words,” she says, so the transition from art to design was not traumatic. She claims not to have been phased by what she calls “the arbitrary lines between these disciplines”.

Of course, it is the content of the pictures and words that accentuates the difference between art and design. In the commercial world, one quickly learns that the role of the artist as social critic contrasts rather sharply with the role of the art director as social myth-maker. There are clear visual differences between Naftolin’s design for artistic clients and her current editorial work. The former has the luxury of toning down the visual rhetoric in service of the art, while the latter employs the comparatively high-keyed language of editorial design in service of grabbing the reader’s attention. Despite the fact that the New York Times Magazine takes up “200 per cent of her time”, Naftolin has still managed to keep what she calls her “own practice” alive by teaching, researching coursework for a graphic design curriculum, and working as a visiting critic in the design department at Yale University.

Debbie Adams’ office is in a small compound of buildings situated in what was once the city’s industrial underbelly. A view from the window sweeps across an expanse of railway tracks and old factories to the north-east, eventually yielding to neighbourhoods that once housed the labourers who long ago worked here – it’s reminiscent of pre-reunification East Berlin. The German connection is not entirely out of place in her case. A cursory glance at the bookshelves of her boardroom reveals titles such as The Complete Works of Herbert Bayer, a biography of Jan Tschichold, Rudolf Arnheim’s “Art and Visual Perception”, and Emil Ruder’s seminal text on modern typography. A look at her work reveals a loving preoccupation with the principles of formal invention that emerged from the Modernist canon.

In order to pursue her interests, Adams has carefully nurtured relationships with clients whose involvement in the arts has been more sympathetic to her evolution as a designer. Certainly the most important of those clients has been Toronto’s Power Plant gallery. The Power Plant was set up ten years ago as Canada’s only publicly funded exhibitor of contemporary visual art, and the lion’s share of catalogues and exhibit publicity has fallen to Debbie Adams. The work that Adams has done for the Power Plant has played a significant role in elevating its profile, as its catalogues and publications have been well received by galleries and art institutes all over the world.

The result is that the Power Plant has integrated design into the strategic fabric of its culture, while elevating Debbie Adams’ profile at the same time. “For the most part,” says Adams, “art institutes and galleries have not regarded design as a strategic essential. The Power Plant is different, in that there is now a process in place for the planning and execution of their visual communications.”

Adams approaches imagery with a contemplative stance and a taste for restraint. But her restraint is not puritanical; rather it is evocative and seductive. It attracts by means of what it does not reveal, which suits the purpose of an art gallery that must draw its public in from the blunt cacophony of the street. Her poster for a show of digital art entitled “Press Enter” is all type, austere and sensuous at the same time. Along Toronto’s noisy thoroughfares, it stood out by virtue of its visual silence.

Her approach to typography is one of disciplined experimentation. She treats it as form while respecting its need to communicate clearly, a fine balance that eludes many of her contemporaries. Her settings for the design of an exhibit catalogue for the Design à la Maison du livre, de l’image et du son in Villeurbanne, France reveals a strong sense of the text as something seen as well as read, and as a structural component that can be shaped and sculpted without losing its narrative integrity.

Adams does this kind of work because she loves it and because it has kept her in touch with developments in contemporary art throughout her career. But the difficulty of sustaining even a small design practice on projects done for art institutes has taken its toll. Whereas her work for the Power Plant used to represent the whole of Adams’ output, it now only represents a quarter. To stay afloat, she has had to move into the corporate market, and now serves clients in commercial real estate, health care, book publishing and finance.

Her challenge is to apply the learning she has gained from doing art catalogues and posters to the design of cookery books, leasing brochures and mutual funds literature. It seems that the words of Lewis Lapham have come true for Debbie Adams, whose subtle passion for disciplined formal experimentation may need to adapt itself to the less sophisticated demands of a commercial market.

First published in Eye no. 25 vol. 7, 1997