Autumn 1992

Techno cubists

Champions of the layered look, Nancy Skolos and Tom Wedell wed theory and technological wizardry

I have spent more time than I would care to admit to starting at posters created by Nancy Skolos and Tom Wedell and wondering how they were produced.

I was, of course, exercising the same kind of wrong thinking that makes a monkey watching television wonder how to get at the bananas on screen – but in reverse. I was pondering how the illusion of bananas was created in such a fine and convincing manner when, in fact, what I was looking at was fresh fruit. Thinking digitally when the answer was pure analogue.

What Skolos and Wedell do in their work is to blur the distinction between photography and design. To understand the nature of their achievement, one must frame it in the context of two separate and mutually exclusive sensibilities within the arena of design communications in the United States: academic theory and technological wizardry. “If we have one criticism of American design, it’s that most tends to be a little flat,” proclaims Wedell. “American communication materials are just … I don’t know how else to put it … monodimensional. It may be because most of it is so marketing driven. Companies believe consumers can only take in so much information, so the messages are kept very simple.”

“The belief that you can only handle one piece of information at any given moment is absurd,” continues Skolos. “Our feeling, and I know it’s Cranbrook’s too, is that there can be many meanings inside something. That’s where the joy of the work comes through.”

Defended by many and offensive to many more, Cranbrook Academy of Art, the multidisciplinary home to classic artspeak, is the fountainhead of “thought-provoking, textural communication” and most notably responsible for a wave of graduates who like to use lots of different typesizes on a single page, usually in separate sentences going in different directions – presumably as a guide to the size of each sentence’s idea rather than a form of visual and intellectual masturbation. Suffice to say that Cranbrook produces champions of the “layered look”, amply suffused with historic precedent.

Both Skolos and Wedell emerged from Cranbrook in the late 1970s and found themselves collaborating on more and more projects. Ultimately they married, moved to Boston and formed their own company. At that stage, Wedell was going to be a photographer and Skolos a designer, but as time passed, so did the boundary between their separate disciplines. Today the integration is virtually seamless, lending a bizarre credibility to the phrase “one brain, two bodies” used to describe their creative process.

“So what did Cranbrook give you – what tenets, if any, did you come away with that still serve you on a daily basis?” I ask. “Well, just trying to think beyond the obvious, I suppose,” Skolos says, “and trying to communicate on many levels. That’s what makes layering so important. You try to make things work on all levels.

“Tom and I have always tried to make our studio an extension of school, so we invest a lot of money in equipment and facilities – we’re anxious to know the best or new way to do things. But aesthetically, I think our work looks more European than American because our education was at schools that were Bauhaus-driven.”

“And very image-driven,” adds Wedell, warming to the subject. “if you look at a spectrum of European poster design, you’ll notice a lot of illustrative imagery incorporated. We tend to work in that style too, where illustration or images are the driving force, the main communicator of the poster. So in that way we have a direct link with Europeans. The techno surface is just the result of being here in America.”

Digital imaging changed the very nature of design in the United States, and in the 1980s computer-driven design, for better or worse, became the standard of the industry. A key component of the computer industry’s “vision” for everyman’s graphics and publishing was a massive amount of equipment, and, as most designers know, no one loves equipment more than a photographer. “So how do you feel about equipment?” I ask, knowing more or less what to expect. “Word on the street is that Tom is an equipment junkie.” Wedell acknowledges the truth of the rumour. “When we went to the Kodak Imaging Center to be trained on the Premier Imaging System to produce the Ferrington Guitars book, we noticed a lot of photographic studios set up to test equipment and film. On the way back, Nancy claimed I had more equipment than Eastman Kodak. She was right, of course.”

In fact, Skolos and Wedell’s work has only recently become totally digital, and even then only in the production stages. Of course they own a couple of Mac IIs, but Skolos still uses paper, scissors and a copy machine to create the primary layouts. The images are in turn photographed by Wedell and the component skills recomposed by both, then digitised on an off-site imaging system for final polishing and manipulation during production. The art is in how they use materials, lighting and design to create imagery that is decidedly modern as the bulk of it must be computer-generated.

What places Skolos and Wedell at the point of convergence of academia and technology is their knack for creating high-tech imagery with a classic balance of form and texture. Their work is intriguing in that it applies cubist theory to contemporary materials and surfaces. By using a camera instead of paint, they add a super-reality that has enabled their work to exceed its own precedent. Integrating typography as a fundamental element rather than as an artful addition furthers the scope of the aesthetic and results in work that can be described as neither art nor communication, but both.

“You seem to have developed a very enlightened client base,” I comment. “Do you find that your clients ever flinch?”

“Because we have to make a living,” Wedell explains, “we have a dichotomy where we have to make things very clear on the one hand, and on the other make it complex enough to be successful aesthetically and intellectually.”

“People are a lot more accepting of complex images than they are of challenging typography,” Skolos adds, with a note of pained disbelief. “We can do the strangest images for corporations and they won’t bat an eyelid, but if you letterspace a word they may freak. I’ve never been able to predict it.”

What makes the work academically significant in terms of its typography is that it provides a commercial foundation for type design theory that up to this point has been fashionable in the design schools, but ridiculous in practice. Cranbrook type theory works beautifully within the framework of a Skolos Wedell visual, primarily because it’s an integral component, just as psychedelic lettering was an integral part of that style, or, in a broader sense, Swiss type theory becomes totally appropriate to Swiss design.

The Ferrington Guitars book, published by Callaway Editions, is an exquisite example of Cranbrook type theory used well. The book is also a benchmark for Skolos and Wedell in that it uses typography that isn’t part of the imagery, though it is integral in terms of style. In that respect, the book represents a more mainstream application of the theory than much of the rest of their work. Another interesting aspect is that the book does a wonderful job of showing the guitars in a manner that is easily as compelling as the objects themselves. There are humans in it, too, something of a first for Skolos and Wedell, who usually ignore the human form in their work in favour of what could be described as a fetish for objects.

“Do you have any future plans for human images?” I ask, intrigued by this new set of possibilities. “That’s something we talk about a lot, but I don’t know,” says Skolos. “I believe real objects make design more accessible to the average person, and that makes you feel a little more powerful as a communicator. Our original intent was to communicate with primal elements and primordial things, but it didn’t exactly work unless you had an art history education. The guitar book is more mainstream than much of our work and I hope we can do more of it.”

“Are you afraid of your style being emulated to death?” I ask, wondering if that’s what’s at the root of this apparent change in direction. “To a degree some have tried it already,” Wedell points out, “but basically we figure we’re pretty safe. It takes so much work, not to mention equipment, that not many people are willing to attempt it. I mean, to finish the guitar book we drove 400 miles up to the Kodak Imaging Center in Maine for 15 weekends in a row and worked there around the clock for three days, then came back to our regular work. Only maniacs would do that. So when people want to copy our style, we say, ‘You’re welcome to it, please, go ahead.’ Almost always, we work seven days a week. On weekdays we come in at about 9.00 or 9.30 and leave at about 11.00 in the evenings. On weekends we get in around noon and work until… about 11.00 in the evening.”

Virtually every designer I know who has achieved anything in the way of recognition works brutal hours. “Do you think that’s a good idea?” I ask cautiously, knowing that the work ethic is about as close to a religious belief as most designers come. “It depends," replies Wedell in a confessional tone. “Part of our problem is that we are so hooked into the work, we can’t help it. We even save some of the really juicy projects especially for the weekend.” Skolos is more adamant. “We love working late at night. The days are so filled that it’s 4.00 before we’re ready to do any serious work.”

Suddenly, Skolos and Wedell are talking to each other, firing up for the next project. “Of course, it’s not really work, it’s more like recreation, and it’s totally uninterrupted. It’s great,” says one. “Exactly. We just keep working away until finally it’s finished. I mean, it’s not going to happen in minutes. It takes years really.”

First published in Eye no. 8 vol. 2, 1993.

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