Winter 2005

Denise Gonzales Crisp: The decorational

For Denise Gonzales Crisp, typography has the deepest tradition of the decorative within graphic design

Denise Gonzales Crisp was in Mexico City when she was asked to design a poster (the Artcity 2005 poster El Otro Lado) for a Canadian arts festival with the theme of ‘trans’. She turned to the decorative expressions that surrounded her and, in order to convey the idea of being transient, focused on the details that she thought wouldn’t matter to anyone in Mexico – ‘things that were not placed, like trash, a thing on the ground, raw materials.’

Close by her hotel in that city was a bridge that had been decorated with carvings by transients and locals. Gonzales Crisp used photographs of the span to make the frame that sits within the poster. Running along the inside of this frame you can see glimpses of what was in the background of her photographs – things such as cars passing by. In sequence they make up a miniature storyboard; a decorative sub-narrative.

Superimposed on the frame are drawn letters, created in Illustrator, which are rooted in Tuscan letterforms and inspired both by Art Nouveau wrought iron work and by the ‘fancy lettering’ and painted signs Gonzales Crisp encountered in Mexico. They spell out the words El Otro Lado, which means making it to the other side – a pressing issue for many in Mexico as well as being what the designer calls ‘a nice metaphor for the creative act’.

‘I come from an illustration background, so the idea of being able to make pictures is more allowable to me. I actually approach typography from that perspective,’ says Gonzales Crisp, who is the chair of Graphic Design at North Carolina State University. She continues: ‘It’s in typography that you find the deepest tradition of the decorative within graphic design: type designers made decorative borders and ornaments that were integrated conceptually with a type family.’

For the past few years Gonzales Crisp has been engaged in a self-initiated research project that she calls the Decorational. It involves research and writing as well as practice – for her these activities are closely linked. In this extended attempt to decriminalise the decorative, she goes head to head with entrenched modes of thought such as Modernism and functionalism and tries ‘to engage the discourse of ornament with that of rational design’, and to suggest that ‘function is completed by ornament.’

It was when Gonzales Crisp went to graduate school at Cal Arts in the early 1990s, that decoration, ornament and pattern as they relate to graphic design surfaced as an interest for her. ‘I’d been taught that graphic design was all about clarity and simplicity and directness, and craft – but the kind of craft where you’re able to draw a perfectly straight line with a ruling pen rather than the kind that involves intricate integrated systems,’ she says. She had a sense she didn’t fit with the dominant modes of graphic design practice and so started thinking about the alternatives for herself. ‘At this point I was interested in hand-drawn letterforms, clip art, the certificate templates you find in Quark, and ancient calligraphic lettering

From 1997 until 2002 Gonzales Crisp was senior designer at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, and it was here that she embarked on her exploration of the potential of decorative strategies for design discovering pattern-making using the computer as a crafting tool.

Gonzales Crisp points out that vector-based technology is key to contemporary pattern making. ‘Originally they probably intended step-and-repeat to be used for charts, a kind of work flow idea,’ she observes. ‘What makes it interesting for me is that you can do it with photographs. It reminds me of what it might have been like when they invented the Jacquard loom [a mechanised loom introduced in 1801 that through a system of punch cards allowed more than one repeat of a pattern.] Suddenly you could make images in cloth.’

Gonzales Crisp began to realise just how rich a seam of enquiry she had struck. What she was studying was tied up with issues of gender, craft, the under-represented, Euro-centricism – and was connected to a vast body of postmodern thinking. ‘The decorative is clearly undervalued,’ she says, ‘and not just canonically but culturally too.’ The term ‘decorator’ is often used in a pejorative way today. ‘William Morris and Louis Sullivan – big-time decorators – were not perceived in that way. Throughout history craftswomen – as well as craftsmen – have developed really interesting complex systems that have their own sets of logic and incredible form-making potential.’

So what makes something ‘decorational’ – rather than, say, merely decorative? According to Gonzales Crisp, ‘The rational aspect of the decorational is its capacity to tell, not only in a story-like way, but also in a metonymic way in the same way that icons do.’ If there’s a key or operative word to describe what’s exciting about the best decorational work, says the designer, then it’s ‘complexity’. She explains: ‘Life is very complex and much of graphic design’s time gets spent on refining and organising and making things clear. There are all kinds of ways to think about graphic design’s service, however. It can also be about establishing empathy or providing escape.’

Gonzales Crisp sees the computer as a key technology in the evolution of work that uses decoration in a meaningful way. ‘Amplification, complexity and detail are key to decoration,’ she says, ‘and the computer lets you do that. You can noodle the heck out of anything now if you are inclined. It feels like this powerful tool that allows complexity that only craftspeople value. It re-introduces that connection to the making that maybe we lost with the “über-designer”, who handed off stuff for production to a typesetter, lithographer, platemaker and so on. It’s like it’s come full circle.’