Paul Elliman tells his students that “everything you know is wrong”, embracing error to find ideas where others see junk
Professional recognition came early to Paul Elliman and he has been trying to elude its clutches ever since. As art director of the British jazz magazine Wire – his first big project – he won plaudits and in 1988 narrowly missed a BBD Design Award for a page layout whose Garamound-based, degree-zero minimalism reversed every assumption of 1980s designerism. The fax magazine Box Space, which he went on to develop while travelling the world at the turn of the decade, flummoxed envious colleagues by snatching a rarely bestowed Gold in the 1991 Design & Art Direction awards (Elliman’s agent had taken it on himself to enter it). Only a designer of exceptional abstemiousness could sum up such remarkable good fortune thus: “It was a big problem because I was offered a lot of work through it.” When Marco Ascoli, creative director for Yohji Yamamoto, called him up one evening demanding a drop-everything-and-come-over consultation, Elliman was doing his laundry. “I couldn’t go to his hotel in an hour. It didn’t mean anything to me.”
Since then, Elliman has maintained an on-off profile. His output is as sparing as his few completed designs are restrained. “There isn’t a lot of work,” he acknowledges, “and I didn’t want to produce a lot of work. I’ve never felt the need to have a vast output.” In the 1990s, on the commercial front, his most visible project is a series of promotional leaflets, ads and brochures for The Cornflake Shop, a central London supplier of customised sound systems. On the speculative side, he has contributed two intriguing typefaces to Fuse: one, Alphabet, enacted by students in a photo booth, the other, Bits, a “found font” pieced together from cast-off chunks of plastic, Perspex, wire and die-cast metal. Elliman, meanwhile, has been increasingly drawn, without quite intending it, into education, which offered an outlet for exploratory projects that couldn’t have been realised commercially. By 1993, he was teaching two days a week at the University of East London, a day at Central Saint Martin’s and leading occasional workshops elsewhere. In 1994, he moved to the University of Texas at Austin for a year as a full-time faculty member.
These days, he occupies a position both inside and outside design. He is self-taught and his work shows none of the formal obsessions that have dominated graphic design’s experimental wing for the past ten years. Elliman isn’t indifferent to form and he doesn’t want it to let his ideas down, but it doesn’t drive him. He gives the impression that his being a designer is almost an accident and that he could take or leave the craft. As a teacher, he says, he has no wish to “make the industry better”. “I’d like to think that what I lack in professionalism I make up for in ambivalence to the profession,” he told the Chicago audience at the American Center for Design’s recent “(re)Making History” symposium. It is society, not design, he says, that interests him. References to writers pepper his conversation – Nietsche, Borges, Calvino, Perec, Benjamin – and it soon becomes evident that this is not mere name-dropping. Elliman’s wide reading informs his design thinking to an unusual degree, while design itself is for him a tool for thinking, a concrete manifestion of his thoughts and a form of orientation – a way of negotiating his own relation to the world.
Since he returned from Texas, Elliman has maintained a studio in a rundown workshop building shoe-horned between a park and a school in London’s East End. A crate of unfiled newspaper cuttings sits in the corner and a sweatshirt for his University of Nowhere Internet project (more on this later) dangles from a hanger. Irregular shapes – they could be by Elliman or one of his young kids – loop across a blackboard and schoolboyish tufts of hair sprout from the designer’s head. A small working library of books contains Georges Perec’s “e”-less tour de force, A Void, Jay David Boulter’s Writing Space, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language and Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Elliman looks serious, almost solemn until, once in a while, he cracks a 150-watt smile.
Elliman hasn’t been profiled in detail before and he isn’t sure at first that he wants to do it. He is dubious about design’s star system and speaks admiringly of designers like Karel Martens (Eye no. 11 vol. 3) who work at their own pace without seeking the limelight (they taught together at the Jan van Eyck Akademie in Maastricht). Accepting the argument that he is already a public presence on the design scene, Elliman is generous with his time but almost too co-operative. He makes pre-emptive lists of points he wants to cover and reads out prepared statements as though he can’t quite relax into the process of question and answer. When he does answer questions, his passionate sense of the complexity of what he wants to describe leads him into frequent digressions.
Elliman grew up in Liverpool. When he was sixteen his family moved to the US. He worked in a San Jose photographic lab before returning to Britain to study sociology at Portsmouth Polytechnic; after a year he switched to an art foundation course. Back in America a year later, he learned some basic production skills on the San Francisco magazine City Sports. In 1984, he talked his way into a layout job on the now defunct London listings magazine City Limits and this led, in 1986, to his appointment as art director of Wire.
Wire’s minimalism, he explains, was at that point less a matter of ideological preference than a case of making a virtue out of necessity. The magazine’s pre-Macintosh, out-of-town photosetter offered a line-up of just six faces. “I chose Garamond because it was nicest and the most appropriate. I wanted to give Wire that literary feel.” It took him a while to find his footing – “I’d be embarrassed now by a lot of the earlier issues” – but later issues in his eighteen-month tenure possess an understated elegance of detail (same size and weight section headings, for instance, sitting tight on the text below) that still looks audacious almost a decade after the event.
Elliman reacted against the formality and control of Wire’s pages by mounting his first essay in what he calls the “aesthetics of disruption”. Asked to create a series of book covers for the publisher Verso, he shortlisted 50 typefaces, specified them randomly line by line and asked the typesetter to set them to whatever size would fill the width.
“There was a big split at Verso,” he recalls. “Some people were just horrified. It’s a valuable lesson, which I often talk about with students. It was a shock to me to bring in a piece of work I was so excited about and to find people thinking I was having some kind of joke. But there’s no reason why you should expect someone who’s commissioning you to be involved in your agenda. It’s not fair. You really have to make it quite clear what you want to do and the reasons for it. If they are into it, they are into it. The worst thing is to force an agenda because you wouldn’t want that to happen to you.”
On this occasion Elliman won enough support for three of the covers to be given the go-ahead. But the lesson has clearly been learned the hard way. “I have this almost fluorescent trail of rejected work behind me,” he says. Such experiences make him suspicious of some of the bolder claims for graphic authorship emanating from the insulated vantage point of US design education. “I wasn’t quite prepared for American design academia,” he confides of his time in Texas. “My view of design was coloured by a much messier experience, where you had to somehow maintain some kind of dignity in the face of a lunatic client. I was seeing people who were talking about something completely different: not only was it design within the context of design, cut off from everything else, but it was being presented by people who hadn’t really experienced design first.” He will have a second chance to engage with the assumptions of American design education in September, when he begins a “Dean’s appointment” at Yale School of Art.
The precise ways in which Elliman’s teaching departs from familiar demands for designer empowerment are not always clear. His aims resist easy summary, perhaps because for Elliman himself they are not fully resolved (and perhaps can’t be). At their core is a desire to encourage students to recognise themselves in the work. “It sounds almost trite to say that it’s about the confidence to speak their own words and think their own thoughts,” he observes. “But a lot of design institutions, surprisingly, don’t encourage that.” This is not, however, a purely inward-looking process. Elliman’s concern is both the individual and society. In his Chicago lecture, he spoke of the huge network of connections and combinations embodied in the collaborative processes of design and the increasing emphasis, after post-modernism, on human relations and issues of identity. He was interested, he said, in a design education “premised on exploring the communication of the self, within an immediate community and environment”.
Elliman’s complaint about design as professionally practised is that it too often closes down these possibilities. He describes the quality he is looking for as a kind of breathing “A message can clarify or confound,” he writes, “In my opinion a design can happily have no apparent use, but it must carry the breath of life, as if something, a spirit, were passing through.” He cites a line from “Exactitude’” the third of Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, where the Italian novelist describes his use of the city in Invisible Cities as a symbol for “the tension between geometric rationality and the entanglements of human lives”. Like life itself, suggests Elliman, design must allow space for inconsistencies, mistakes, disruption and “uselessness”. A critical design practice will need to connect with other areas of cultural practice, especially writing, if it is to admit the “wildness” and sustained interference that gives it spirit. Design, no less than literature, he argues, can be a form of fiction. Design rhetoric exaggerates reality and speaks of things that are often more imaginary than actual.
In his work as teacher and designer, Elliman tries to find “other spaces”, away from the orthodox channels of promotion and selling, in which he can investigate these issues and realize these goals. He has collaborated with the British choreographer Rosemary Butcher on the dance piece Body as Site, performed most recently as part of a retrospective of her work at the Royal College of Art. In his first Fuse project, the body likewise became a gestural territory for alphabetic performance. Elliman encouraged 25 students to explore the written, spoken and associative qualities of language by each interpreting one of the letters. The “H’” a taut pair of handcuffs between two raised forearms, suggestively encapsulates his view, expressed in the accompanying poster notes, that “Language is a system and as such lays itself open to be smashed.” The theme is developed, less iconoclastically, in one of his regular student projects, “Language is a sensation”, where the aim is to make a piece of work – it might be a font, meal, object, improvisation, performance, or hypertext or even a three-course meal – that probes the tension between language and its alphabetical container. A recent collaboration with the architectural team East takes some of these concerns out into the high streets of Southwark. Elliman is drawing a sans serif typeface named Fount – his first more conventional offering – which is to be used in an urban renewal project for matter-of-fact pavement inscriptions: “Lloyds Bank”, “Southwark Police Station”, “Jenny’s Restaurant” and so on.
In his University of Nowhere Internet project – now renamed Other Schools – Elliman has found a medium that could in time become his most effective bridge yet between teaching and practice. Launched in November 1996 at the Jan van Eyck Akademie, and still under development, it is in many ways a natural technological progression from what he regards as his “failed” fax project, Box Space. There, Elliman and his collaborators (designers, journalists and academics) had attempted to create a “mobile workshop” that would bypass the constrained outlets of conventional magazine publishing. Readers of the four completed issues – “Technology and Calligraphy: Abstract Alphabets”, “Greymail: Sinister Bureaucratic Murmur” (about forms and generic packaging), “Political Graffiti” and “The Language of War” – signed up to receive gigantic spools of writing and imagery, which then had to be sliced into manageable lengths and assembled.
Elliman’s interest in the Internet began at the University of Texas. “The World Wide Web – an environment where, for better or worse, connection is everything – suggests, among other things, new possibilities for design and its education,” he explains. “This space allows both practice and reflexivity . . . For the ‘school’, both as extension to the old model and in the transition to a new one, the Internet will offer a more continuous dialogue with practising designers, and with other specialised areas, in ways that could counter some of the problems and complexities found in the institutional teaching of design.” Problems such as the institutionalisation of design thinking, the circularity of “design about design” and the lack of funds within education to sustain productive contact with other areas of education and culture.
At Elliman’s Wild School of communication design, everyone will be an auditeur libre, as the French put it, a “free listener” able to wander at will and determine his or her own educational needs. At the time of writing, the project was more proposal than fully functioning public reality, but sample screens indicated a school structure based on the institutional services of library, refectory, theatre, field trips and studios; these encompass departments of History, Society and Language, each of which will lead to themed workshops. The challenge for Elliman is to transform his proto-school from a list of sometimes eccentric links (a familiar enough Web concept) and recycled teaching briefs by himself and his colleagues into a richly imagined and responsive experience in self-education that lives up to the idealistic rhetoric – bulwarked by reference to thinkers such as Michel de Certeau, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari – with which it has been launched.
The point of his electronic school, suggests Elliman, is not that it should replace bricks and mortar, but that it should become a channel for the energy of the students flowing through it. “Everybody has a certain amount of passion,” he says, “but might feel it’s out of place in some situations. I don’t really believe that . . . It almost doesn’t matter that it’s graphic design I’m teaching. There must be equivalents in all academic areas of people who teach through a sense of passion. With the things that you pick up on, it’s always the passion and the sense of energy that inspires you.” A paradoxical sign that the Wild School is fulfilling its educational aims, Elliman suggests, will be when the students have reduced it to digital rubble and used their passion and spirit to build, layer by layer, a school of their own.
First published in Eye no. 25 vol. 7, 1997