Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

Macho brick v. the taste-making monograph

Frost* (sorry trees)

By Frost Design and Lakshmi Bhaskaran<br>Frost Design / Thames &amp; Hudson] &pound;29.95


136 Points of Reference

By Browns

Edited by Jonathan Ellery

Browns Design Associates, £25

Frost* (sorry trees)

By Frost Design and Lakshmi Bhaskaran

Frost Design / Thames & Hudson] £29.95

Two richly produced, self-published books about two very different design firms more or less chart the poles from which design monographs originate these days.

136 Points of Reference is what might be termed a sensibility monograph. It imagines the designer as collector / curator / visual sensualist. Like Alan Fletcher’s masterful The Art of Looking Sideways, it more or less turns the design studio upside down, shakes it by its ankles, and then delicately arranges its loose change. Put another way, it is the book as repository, and the repository as collective portrait. Connect the dots between all these things, then colour them in with the tone of the book and – the authors seem to say – you might have a portrait of our sensibility.

Frost* (sorry trees) by Frost Design is an older model: the massive, macho, brick of a portfolio, so recently reviled and revised into, one might argue, the slightly twee ‘thinking person’s’ model of the Browns variety. Frost smartly defines his work by his work, and his sensibility by what he has been able to produce. His is a literal portrait: ‘You want to know about my design studio? Here’s my work. There. Done.’ Frost’s 500-page tome begins with a mildly fawning article about the man himself, his influences and career path through Pentagram and out on his own. But it quickly moves into spread after spread of his work, clearly photographed as objects and simply presented against different backgrounds. And that’s the book. Printed on a super-absorbent, lightweight paper, it has the feel of a workbook: flexible, easy, fun. Frost’s work is strong: enamoured of big type and concept-driven layouts, the sum of Frost’s output is impressive. And, despite the ‘big book’ trappings of the thing, in some ways it seems modest. It’s just the work – no blowhard theories or self-effacing bullshit, no manifestos or inspiration images. Thank heavens.

Which brings me to Browns’ elegant, loving 136 Points of Reference. In about 2001 it would have been my favourite book. And even now, when I heard about it, I had a definite twinge of anticipation. Any book of visual stuff / books is intriguing to me: there are few greater cultural pleasures for me than rifling through someone’s collection and library. And Browns has done a fine job of replicating that visual process. The objects were nicely photographed and arranged in various scales on the pages. Some of Browns principal Jonathan Ellery’s favourite visual culture aficionados and makers, like Alan Fletcher and Lawrence Weiner, are given sections; Adrian Shaughnessy has written the introduction. It is all quite nice and very tasteful. But now, amid the piles of books of other people’s collections (photos, postcards, posters, charts, menus, porn cards, on and on – a pile I myself have contributed to) I do wonder – what’s the point? What are we to take from this? Browns has good taste – not eccentric or terribly fascinating, but good and fun. And the book is very nicely produced. But how many more times are we going to juxtapose, say, a ‘vernacular’ business card with an artist’s monograph? Or a map with a children’s magazine? There is an unlimited pool of ephemera to draw from on this earth. Why do I keep seeing the same stuff in these books? And, frankly, Lawrence Weiner (whose work I also love) is getting to be for designers what Chip Kidd (ditto) is for writers: the personage they routinely name-check to feel engaged with an exotic medium. Kind of like how DJ Spooky always shows up at design conferences. Why does he keep showing up? All of these people are immensely talented, and all of the aforementioned objects are pretty great, but continually referencing them represents a failure of imagination; and that, to me, is what 136 Points of Reference is: a pleasant, somewhat diverting, but ultimately dull affair. It acts as an antidote to the ‘big book’ wave, but says just as little as those tomes did. The only thing I’ve learned is that Jonathan Ellery has pretty much the same taste as most other designers I know. Hmm. Frost, though big and maybe even obnoxious, at least is honest about his intentions: for him, it’s the work. Taste, and all the status it entails (and I do wonder how much of the recent spate of ‘taste’ books / blogs are really about attaining a perceived literary status) can come later. Maybe it’s time to rethink the rethinking of the design monograph and look at work-as-work yet again. More than taste, isn’t it the work that counts?

Dan Nadel