Spring 1999

West coast latitudes

Los Angeles is the perfect environment for the literate, intelligent work of a loose cadre of graphic designers working in education, commerce and culture

Asphyxiated by polluted air, torn asunder by earthquakes, razed by wildfires and terrorised by the convulsions of race, LA provides a perfect backdrop for the graphic expression of postmodern, pre-millennial angst. Though this sprawling metropolis is normally associated with the bland global entertainment industry – movie blockbusters and mind-numbing television – in some senses it is a city under siege.

Within this vast, impersonal cultural wasteland, a handful of independent designers are working together to foster what has become a highly focused, technologically literate creative community in the sprawling enormity of the la basin. The cadre includes Anne Burdick, Denise Gonzales Crisp, Jens Gehlhaar, Geoff Kaplan, Geoff McFetridge, Louise Sandhaus and Gail Swanlund, along with Alexei Tylevich and Michael Worthington. They are a literate bunch, writing in academic or obscure design journals, working on their own in one- and two-person studios, teaming up to publish independent magazines and foster the debate that surrounds their practice.

This kind of provocative visual experimentation, which once flourished only within the protected confines of us postgraduate schools, is now beginning to find favour with corporate mega-nationals looking for more individualist modes of communication.

The intellectual tinge to the work of these nine designers is not accidental. Most of them are teachers, too, many of them instructors or faculty at the campus of the California Institute of the Arts in neighbouring Valencia. CalArts, as it is known, is one of the leading design schools in the region (along with Otis College of Art and Design, and Art Center College of Design in Pasadena). Founded in the early 1960s by Walt Disney with his brother Roy, it is the first degree-granting institute of higher learning in the us created specifically for students of both the visual and performing arts. The roots of CalArts are in commercial art – the animation department set up by Disney is a cash cow – but it is also a focus for advanced critical design thinking in the LA region. And when Ed Fella, Jeffery Keedy and Lorraine Wild joined the faculty in the late 1980s they soon laid the groundwork for the experimentation that has flowed from the campus in recent years. Veterans of the hallowed Cranbrook studies program, these iconoclastic and very different thinkers began attracting a diverse and talented group almost immediately. Their influence, both direct and oblique, can be detected in the nine LA-based mavericks discussed here.

Anne Burdick, 36, a designer and writer who has what she calls a ‘hybrid practice’ as The Offices of Anne Burdick, also teaches in the graphic design program at CalArts. Burdick works for clients such as the Getty Research Institute. She has written for Emigre magazine and initiated personal projects that include the online electronic book review (www.altx.com/ebr – ‘promoting print/screen transformations and weaving new modes of critical writing into the web’). ‘Each one of us has a practice,’ she explains. ‘But we’re also trying to do self-initiated projects we do for free, and teach as well. What we have in common is that we are interested in participating in the critical discourse that frames graphic design.’

For Burdick, collaboration with other members of the loosely-knit group is a strategy for coping: ‘You have to know that you’re not crazy, that you’re not the only one in the world thinking the way you do,’ she notes. ‘I think we help each other be weirder by supporting the work each of us does and pushing each other further.’ The results are frequently text-heavy, radically deconstructed posters and broadsides that can be intimidating to outsiders – the kind of ‘Cranbrook look’ that more conservative designers have been known to deplore as the sign of a dilettantish elite. Sensitive to the criticism, Burdick predicts what she sees as ‘a move away from the cacophony of typefaces’ towards a ‘cleaner aesthetic’, adding: ‘We kind of hit the Baroque phase of that a while back at CalArts.’

Jens Gehlhaar, another CalArts instructor, trained in Germany and ran his own design firm for five years before defecting to the Valencia campus to do graduate work. Gehlhaar, 32, remembers feeling stifled by the atmosphere of his own shop, where there wasn’t much he felt he could learn from the people he hired: ‘I needed to unlearn what I was doing wrong. All of the people who came to teach at CalArts arrived at a relatively late age,’ says the relatively young Gehlhaar. ‘You get more out of it if you already have some work experience.’ His MFA thesis would seem to bear that out: The CIA Compendium, as he calls it, presents a sort of über-alphabet, an encyclopedic sans-serif type system that celebrates the richness of letter shapes in Roman-based type design.

Gehlhaar’s ‘un-learning’ process seems to be paying off, because he has since worked on several attention-getting projects, including a Nike campaign for Wieden & Kennedy. Portland, Oregon-based W&K (see Eye no. 26 vol. 7) is the sort of client that has proved to be a godsend for next-generation designers, encouraging the kind of street-smart design they make their speciality. As Gehlhaar observes, ‘We’ve shown that people from places like CalArts can go into places like Wieden & Kennedy without any problem.’

Yet the indie design scene in LA is not exclusively focused on CalArts. Several members of the group teach at other local institutions. Denise Gonzales Crisp, in her role as design director at Art Center College of Design, inherits the formidable design precedent set by former director Rebeca Mèndez with her work on the school’s publications. In her brief tenure, Gonzales Crisp, 43, has produced a spate of publications – notably, the college’s current catalogue. With its witty take on the conventions of print structure (the book lies flat; readers can approach it from both ends, front and back) and its up-to-the-minute type program, the catalogue, she says: ‘reflects Art Center’s roots in commercial art, as much as in utopian ideals.’

Geoff Kaplan, 35, who teaches at both CalArts and Art Center, and is probably best known for his hard-to-miss Deconstructivist typefaces, is a Cranbrook grad who faithfully followed his mentors to CalArts. ‘What does it mean to be a graphic designer?’ Kaplan asks rhetorically. ‘Pre-Cranbrook I had no vehicle, no strategy to digest and interpret what the significance of this activity is.’ So what does it mean to be a graphic designer? ‘We’re participants in reflecting and directing culture,’ Kaplan states. ‘The designer mediates media.’ That, he believes, is the significance of design for a post-modern society. ‘We’re part of an economy that doesn’t make objects anymore.’ Rather than manufacture products, ‘we barter in information. That’s what you move around on a daily basis as designers. You sample, rip off, steal and plagiarise, and you don’t hide the fact that you do it.’ Geoff Kaplan summarises: ‘Everything’s up for grabs.’

Kaplan is literally moving things around in his broadcast graphics for Channel One, where he followed Alexei Tylevich and with other motion-graphics projects for clients as diverse as the American Center for Design and the movie industry. ‘I still do a lot of work that is grant-based, that isn’t client based,’ insists Kaplan, who is proud of the fact he has ‘never gone out to get a client’.

True to the LA mould, the designers are a geographically diverse lot, although Kaplan, with Burdick, McFetridge and Worthington, has formed an enclave of sorts in a cluster of storefront studios in Atwater Village, a rundown neighbourhood between East LA’s Silverlake and Glendale districts that is far removed from the glamour of the entertainment capital. ‘It’s part of our weird voyeuristic approach,’ says Kaplan, ‘placing ourselves next to something, but staying outside of it.’

Another fish out of water, Geoff McFetridge, 27 and the youngest of the group, is a Canadian transplant; he shares space with British expatriate Michael Worthington and designed the opening title sequence for the recent feature film Zero Effect. McFetridge’s teasing graphics often reflect his dual Asian/Western heritage. A recurring motif is the panda bear, an ambiguous icon which, in his self-produced posters, engages in a variety of anti-social, marginally illegal behaviours. ‘It’s sinister and goofy at the same time,’ the designer observes. ‘I’m always drawn to that kind of stuff.’ Unlike the others, McFetridge does not teach. ‘I hate teaching,’ he says.

Louise Sandhaus, 43, co-directs the CalArts graphic design program and maintains a design consultancy specialising in interface and information design, apart from being a writer (for Emigre and Errant Bodies) and conference organiser. Sandhaus, who collaborates extensively (she counts five such current commissions), excels at the kind of challenging projects that place graphic design in the context of new technologies. In fact, Sandhaus believes: ‘I can’t imagine anything I do as a designer that isn’t collaborative. I’m always collaborating, even if it’s with a client. That doesn’t make it easy. It’s exhilarating, maddening and terrifying all at once.’

Recently, Sandhaus worked in partnership with architect Tim Durfee to produce ‘Made in California,’ the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s ambitious millennial exhibition scheduled for the fall of 2000. For the huge show, which revolves around prevailing notions of California and the way art has engaged those perceptions, Sandhaus wanted to use technology, but not in the way it would normally be used. So, instead of deploying banks of monitors, for example, she hit on the idea of using computer algorithms and hi-tech materials to create a constantly shifting environment of light and sound. ‘The space will never be the same twice,’ Sandhaus predicts. ‘There will always be an unsteadiness about what the image and tone will be.’

At CalArts as a teacher, her focus is ‘not just problem-solving, but possibility-making’. In other words, she is stimulating designers ‘to bring considered personal perspectives to the material they are working with, and to translate or interpret this material through inventive strategies of formal and visual expression’.

Gail Swanlund, 33, is the group’s ‘riot girrl’. Her work on Snowflake, an unlikely collage of skier’s ’zine and literary journal, presents a feisty post-feminist take on the subculture. Swanlund’s latest publishing plans are for a literary ’zine focused on urine. ‘We’re venturing into areas where we can’t be sure what we’re doing is even attractive,’ Swanlund says, referring to aesthetics, presumably, not subject matter. What originally attracted her to la and, subsequently, CalArts, she recalls, was Jeffery Keedy’s print work in the late 1980s for L.A.C.E., a local arts organisation. ‘They were the ugliest things I’ve ever seen,’ Swanlund says of Keedy’s broadsides, but that was exactly why she was intrigued. ‘Can you make something ugly that’s still useful? That, ultimately, has become what I’m most interested in now.’ Now a teacher herself, Swanlund finds that, contrary to her expectations, ‘My students are extraordinarily conservative. I think maybe it’s a reaction to all the technology.’ She has felt the impact of technological innovation in her own work as well, adding that in her constantly shifting network of friends and colleagues, ‘we all rely more on more on each other because the learning curve is so steep’.

Because Swanlund is creating work for readers like herself, she is sensitive to what she calls ‘the strategies of activated type and connotative meaning, a layer of significance through form that is added by the designer’. Like the rest, Swanlund clings to the idea of a collaborative atmosphere. ‘LA is so isolating and industry-driven that keeping these contacts open is what keeps us going. In this business you need to have that community. Typically it is a community of service-oriented designers, but for us the philosophical side is more important. None of us would say we are in a service industry, but that is what we do.’

For Denise Gonzales Crisp, the tension between service and artistic expression reflected by her peers has a firm grounding in reality. Though she maintains that she and her LA peers are ‘hopelessly devoted’ to what they do, she notes that the group often suffers from the perception that they are ‘trying to break all the rules’.

‘Actually,’ says Crisp, ‘we’re trying to make things functional, entertaining and intelligent at the same time. Design can be serviceable, and still be incredible.’

First published in Eye no. 31 vol. 8 1999

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.