I had the opportunity to talk with Martin Venezky about his new book, It is Beautiful…Then Gone. We met for the first time at the Schools of Thought 2 conference in LA. It was right after a very controversial (and fascinating) roundtable called “Reconsidering the Discipline” that was artfully chaired by Sean Donahue of Research Centered Design.
Strangely enough all of the panelists were former or current students of Martin’s. They were getting a lot of critical fire from members of the audience for their quite provocative (and stimulating) views on both the practice and instruction of graphic design. Martin came to their defense in such an eloquent and moving way I had to go up and talk to him.
Though I have followed his work for some time I didn’t realize how rich his thinking on the matter was. Experiencing his book parallels my own encounter with Martin. You will first be drawn in by the beauty of his work, but as you read the text you begin to see the deep care and thought he brings to his work. He is constantly grappling with the design process and his personal voice in each project he undertakes.
It is Beautiful…Then Gone is a superb collection of Martin’s best pieces, but its real treasure lies in the written and visual assemblage of the designer, the teacher, and the man behind a tremendous body of work.
Speak Up: For those unfamiliar with you or your current doings a monograph of your work, It is Beautiful… Then Gone, was recently released. How did you go about developing this book and why produce it now? Kenneth Fitzgerald and some other design critics feel monographs are… well, over. Would you even define your book as a conventional monograph?
Martin Venezky: I had originally approached Clare Jacobsen at Princeton Architectural Press with the hopes of developing a book about the Form class I had been teaching in San Francisco. In the process, I presented my portfolio hoping that, if the Form book didn’t pan out I might at least get a design project from them. In the midst of that interview, Clare surprised me with the suggestion of a monograph of my work. It took me a while to put a serious proposal together, and then a couple of years to actually produce the book.I was familiar with the critical exhaustion over the monograph deluge, so I felt a lot of pressure to make the book worth the public’s time and money. That’s why I tried to treat the book as a laboratory rather than a gallery – showing studies, sketches, works in progress alongside finished pieces. How does one’s life infiltrate one’s work and how does one’s work shape one’s life? This was a question the book attempts to answer.
When a monograph is published it usually announces the completion of a body of work and the start of a new phase. My move from San Francisco to Providence coincided with the book’s writing and production. And its publication coincides with my arrival in Los Angeles. I can’t help but think that my work will also be shifting, but I can’t yet tell in what direction.
SU: I find it interesting that you refer to the book as a Laboratory. Could you expand on that a bit?
MV: The book presents work in a messy, unfinished and rejected state as well as finished product. The quantity of material is akin to opening drawers and dumping them out rather than hanging pictures on a wall. A laboratory is a place built around process.
SU: Many would call your approach “experimental.” Do you believe this is a fair appraisal?
MV: The term “experimental” is often used as a code for unusable, weird, “crazy” or “going wild”. But I think that is a big misunderstanding, and something I try hard to correct in the classroom. When I teach an experimental class, I am quick to explain that experimentation is a methodology.
SU: What do you think is being implied by that?
MV: It suggests a circular set of steps: setting up an experiment, running the process, analyzing the results and then letting the results guide the next experiment. There is no external aesthetic to experimental work. It is as much about setting criteria and using them to analyze results as it is about the producing of the material. Far from “going wild”, it is a very rigorous exercise that allows a designer to confidently engage in work whose results are unpredictable. So, yes, I think that a lot of my work is experimental, but not in the ways that most define it.
SU: Are you familiar with Denise Gonzales Crisp’s piece of writing called “Toward a Definition of the Decorational”?
MV: Yes of course. Together, Denise and I put the original terms together. I had been considering a group of designers as “decorationists” and she refined the term to the more astute “decorationalists.”
SU: Any thoughts on decoration?
MV: I think that decoration, for its pure visual stimulation and wonder, is a fantastic thing. Our response to it is part of being human. Pattern, variation, texture, color, qualities of light and shadow, figure and ground – all of these things produce sensations in us that are based more on biology than rationality. The elevating of engineering to an aesthetic ideal is based on the purity of rational and mathematical thought. The merging of the two – or perhaps the resonance between the two – can create a deep engagement. Architects and composers have known this for ages. Designers seem to be forever struggling with the notion. The two worlds clash throughout culture and history. It is a classic contest between the (emotional) warrior and the (rational) lawyer.
SU: One of my favorite quotes: “I am alone in my laboratory, examining what I know, holding it up to existing knowledge. I am working on my experiments, a bit mad in this way, insulated. Not unlike Le Corbusier who in 1925 asserted that ‘we have now identified decorative art as commensurate with the art of the engineer’”.The name of your firm is Appetite Engineers. And in It is beautiful… Karen A. Levine’s essay about you is entitled, “Martin Venezky, Engineer”. Does Ms. Crisp quoting Le Corbusier in her lab resonate with you? Are you a mad scientist in your studio, or simply an engineer?
MV: Well, first I don’t think that Le Corbusier would have put the term “simply” in front of engineer. I think he was suggesting that the pinnacle of decoration (in his age) was the perfectly engineered product.
SU: You mentioned composers, but at one point in It is Beautiful… you recall your time as a club DJ and you liken the designer’s role to that of a musical DJ.
MV: The DJ anecdote highlighted the importance of transition and juxtaposition in how we understand and react to the world. That kind of attention is always rotating heavily in my mind! The physical discipline to work slowly, by hand, with acute attention is also big on my playlist.
SU: It seems you are drawn to slow processes. In your book you mention that you “use a lot of primitive technologies to make things more difficult for myself” and that your “favorite process are gradual and meticulous.” Why is slower better?
MV: Well, I can only say that it’s better for me. I’m always amused at the training of designers to be efficient in arriving at their “solutions.” To my mind there is absolutely nothing intrinsically efficient about design. That is based on a business model, which is fine as far as it goes, but it is a mistake to pretend otherwise.There are times when I wonder why design departments bother to attach themselves to art schools, when, at least for some of them, it would make more sense to be housed within a business school.
Yes, it is wise for designers to be efficient when having to produce work for a client who has a deadline or budget. But by doing so, several worlds of possibilities are sliced away. What is the solution? Well, perhaps the solution is to either stay poor or stay busy. That is, to put the hours into the work until it is realized regardless of any monetary exchange. That may mean avoiding deadlines or working all through the night or never getting paid for the hours you pour into your work. But what’s fundamentally wrong with that?
For me, I am efficient when I have to be, and inefficient when I am afforded the chance. Slowing down the process allows me to discover the meandering qualities within the work and pursue them for a while. When I work on a collage piece, I force myself to make a decision about the placement of each and every element, one at a time. Yes it is a luxury, but there is so much pleasure in the attempt to control and the relinquishing of that very control to the demands of the piece.
SU: If it’s not just about the gestational speed of your working methods, it’s often about the physicality of them. Why is materiality so important to you?
MV: Because I’m a human being and human beings seem to like to hold real things in their real hands.
SU: And like to learn from other human beings. You’ve devoted an entire section to teaching in your book. Here is a bit of a Chicken and Egg riddle: What is the relationship of your practice to your teaching methodology? Does your unique way of working inspire lessons and pedagogy, or does working with students influence your own projects?
MV: The way I make things is a result of the way I interact with the world, in all its eccentricity. And the way I teach is a result of the way I make things, in all of its stubborn (though not ineffective) abnormality. The classroom forces me to articulate my point of view, my opinions, my process. I must develop a persuasive argument in my own defense. But that very articulation changes me by nudging me towards self reflection and criticism. And that then changes my interaction with the world and its reflection in my work.
SU: Early in your book you say that you, “search for an internal logic within the work. That logic may become more complex or turn in on itself. But it is no more random than a twisting vine.” I have seen the term “internal logic” used to talk about postmodern sculpture by Rosalind Krauss, Andrew Blauvelt suggests it in his Emigre rant on critical autonomy, and in the follow up Emigre issue Experimental Jet Set says: “In our view, design should have a certain autonomy, an inner logic that exists independently of the tastes and trends of so-called target audiences.” What do you mean by internal logic?
MV: It is the same internal logic that feeds the other arts – film, writing, music, drama, painting. In each case it seems that the role of the creator is an attempt to create a piece that seems to have created itself. It’s like developing a machinery that generates the entire work. A writer or dramatist may craft a series of characters and a basic premise and then set them loose. The characters and the premise might be absurd when compared to an external logic. But within the world that has been created, it all makes sense.This is not an easy thing. That’s why there is an awful lot of bad music and bad film. Contrivance has a way of creeping out of the seams of an imperfect work. Effortlessness takes an enormous amount of effort. This is the part that is so often missed, especially when discussing “intuitive” work. The best intuitive work seems to be a result of immense preparation and development, and comes from a source of confidence, not simply “anything goes.”
SU: You said that the Classroom forces you to develop a persuasive argument in your own defense. What is your defense for those that say your work is simply expressionistic, or that your work is empty form grafted on to content? And is there anything wrong with that anyways?
MV: One could say that abut the Dwiggins’ book covers, or Mueller-Brockmann’s music posters. Anywhere that abstraction is involved is territory for that sort of argument. Decoration is often empty form that surrounds content.But is form ever really empty? Even the most abstract pattern involves sensation that causes a reaction (see earlier answer). The meaning may not be specific, but that seems to be a weak reason to discard it. What is the meaning in the pattern and color and material of the clothes we wear or the bedding and drapes we buy? Isn’t that empty form, too? But it is all design and causes very definite reactions in us. We just seem to be unwilling to readily accept those reactions in graphic design.
(The book, and the extensive writing in it is an attempt to answer some of those arguments. )
SU: In “Thoughts on the Classroom” you seem to be saying that your teaching and practice, and process, it all seems to come back to a certain kind of physicality. Is this the thread that ties together, thinking, making, teaching for you? What is the importance of tangibility?
MV: Yes, tangibility is a result of my experimenting with materials and their reproduction.
SU: Are their other threads I, or others might miss?
MV: Other threads, which I discuss in the book involve the emotions of melancholy and sentimentality, which affect me very much. They don’t always come through in the subject matter, but often in the fragility and decay of the materials and construction.
SU: What about your own educaiton? In the brief section on your work at Cranbrook you mention that you were actually admitted ten years before you decided to reapply and attend. What did you learn in that decade between admissions? And how did you know you were ready for graduate work?
MV: When I first applied I was very young — just out of my undergraduate work. Kathy McCoy thought I might be too young and unread to get the most out of my time. So, although I was accepted, it was with expectation that I would need to catch up before I arrived in Michigan. At the time, I felt that my energies would be better spent in the working world. For years hence I considered that the worst decision of my career, and regretted it with every dopey “20 cents off” coupon I had to design.A few years after moving to San Francisco in 1985, I began seeing a developing new world of graphic design: Rudy Vanderlans, David Carson, and young San Francisco designers like Steve Tolleson, Jennifer Morla and Lucille Tenazas were all rising stars. Try as I might, I could not bridge the chasm between what I was doing (at the time I was working in the design department of a marketing firm) and what I was witnessing.
On one especially despondent night, it suddenly hit me. Perhaps it wasn’t too late for me to apply. Even though I was thirty-three, maybe my career wasn’t beyond repair. Rarely have I had a moment of such lucid revelation. I was literally jolted awake. It’s hard to believe that I hadn’t thought of this earlier, but I suppose it was simply the right time. The next morning I called Cranbrook and meekly asked if they accept older students. I was reassured and began the process.
But it wasn’t easy. My portfolio had deteriorated into a series of glossy sales kits for food merchandisers, and that was not enough to gain entrance the second time I applied. But by then I was absolutely determined. I took night classes in typography and weekend workshops in design. (I had actually never taken a design class before this – my schooling was in fine art). I worked during the day in Oakland and then drove down to Santa Clara for the classes. I met Lucille Tenazas when I attended one of her weekend workshops. She was generous with her time and encouraging with her advice and recommendations. By the skin of my teeth I got into Cranbrook on my third try.
SU: How can any designer know they’re ready?
MV: If you are ready and open, the right graduate program can change your life. You begin to see design in terms beyond a profession, but as a way of examining the world. Once you develop the tools of investigation, everything becomes so much more curious, and you can see your own work as a response to that curiosity.
SU: In an essay Katherine McCoy wrote in Steven Heller’s The Education of a Graphic Designer (1998) she closes with this paragraph: “Emotion, subjective interpretation, and hand gestures are what humans can contribute and computer’s expert systems can not. Highly technological societies will likely put a premium on subjective human values. This suggests the possibility of a renewed appreciation and new applications of our earlier, intuitive, image-oriented, and generated design approaches. Design as a cultural activity, including aesthetic and personal expression, may be the essential source of values, emotions, and play that we all need in the digital domain.”The Mcoy’s were the designers in residence when you where at Cranbrook, and left shortly after you did, three years before this was written. Does this sound like something Kathy would have said to you while you were her student? If so it is easy to see how this way of thinking has influenced your process and your way of thinking about physicality and materiality that you mentioned earlier.
MV: In 1991, the computer was not yet seen as a limitation. It was a transitional period and the computer was still an awkward instrument (or at least we students were awkward operators). No world wide web, no emails, just the very beginnings of color printouts (and expensive beginnings at that)… So technology’s chipping away at subjective human values was not yet apparent. We were just trying to keep our damn Syquest disks from crashing!I turned back to handwork because that was how I had been working for years. My formative years were based on wax, rubber cement, and parallel rules. So it was less a response to the coldness of the computer and more a safety zone where I felt I could control and express things more efficiently.
Kathy was (and still is) an influence on me, but not in the obvious ways this statement might suggest. During my time at Cranbrook, she never preached one kind of design, or one methodology over any other. Her skill was more personal. For me it was seeing a direction I was too comfortable with (using vernacular imagery in a smart-alecky cold way) and challenging me to tackle its direct opposite (replacing it with something painfully personal). Those kinds of engagements are far more powerful than manifestos.
SU: Thank you Martin.