Spring 2003

Editorial Eye 47

There is a certain kind of urban store which in addition to stocking magazines and books about art and design, sells products. Sometimes it can be difficult to discern a common purpose or aesthetic in these artefacts: screenprinted T-shirts; miniature Modernist chairs; three-dimensional realisations of cartoon characters; posters packed like toys in plastic bags; DVDs and CD-roms; plastic Japanese robots; comic books; skateboard accessories.

What these products have in common is usually the proprietor’s tastes – his or her sense of what their hip young customers might buy. One shop I encountered, selling techno vinyl, Fluxus texts, easy listening albums from the 1950s together with photographers’ and graphic designers’ monographs, calls itself an audio-visual epicerie, a word that implies the connoisseurship of a deli owner putting tempting morsels in front of a discerning clientele. And though it is heartening to see good work reaching a non-specialist audience outside the branded mainstream, there is plenty of stuff that just feels soft and escapist: ‘comfort graphics’, perhaps, for an uncertain time.

The artist-designer-illustrators featured in Dan Nadel’s article about ‘Cool stuff’ are plugging straight into a new market that they are also helping to create. From the creative person’s point of view this is a significant and welcome trend, since it is a new way of communicating (and selling) direct to the public, with neither brand-obsessed clients nor class-bound institutions.

The ‘Cool stuff’ phenomenon is by no means just a US trend, nor is it confined to one range of illustrative and graphic styles – or to one generation. We shall return in future to younger and older designers elsewhere in the world who use shops, websites or other means of direct selling to market their wares; to make a living.

Maira Kalman also likes making and selling things such as picture books and M&Co products, noting that she likes ‘finding odd things that go together to tell a story.’ And as far as this issue is concerned the things don’t get much odder than Hoofdletters, a scheme to save paper by superimposing texts that has become part of Dutch design history. The other subjects are more earthbound: printers’ type specimen books; plastic cartoon models; and overprinting in the 21st century, an approach to materials and process which can still rise to creative heights when the client is right.

Away from the physical concerns of print, paper and ink, we’re happy to present Alice Twemlow’s entertaining essay about lists, and the way that the process of list-making, assembling and classifying, has worked its way into contemporary visual culture. At one extreme, the heated self-expression of ‘Cool stuff’ at the other, the cool, unsentimentality of lists. And in between: ink and paper, pixels and screens. It’s all graphic design – and we can be perfectly comfortable with that. JLW