Renowned graphic designer Art Chantry is synonymous with Seattle’s subculture poster and album cover design that many have come to admire – and often imitate. Remaining as one of the few lo-tech designers in an industry that relies heavily on computers and software, Art looks to tangible materials and improvisation to inject that Chantry magic to his well-thought-out work.
Chantry is an American icon that has had great impact on the history of graphic design.
Speak Up: As a designer that has started his career before the mainstream use of computers, do you see the computer as a tool, crutch, or hindrance?
Art Chantry: I view computers with huge ambivalence. It is both a blessing (in that it extends the dialog of graphic design back into the hands of the amateur – the primary source of innovation) and away from the hands of the knowledgeable professional (often the source of control and self-interest). I love the Internet and the computer communication world. I don’t love the computer as a one-stop all-solution design tool. It’s a remarkably flawed production tool as well. The history of the language of design is one of collaboration and interactivity. The computer takes away most of that group process and puts it into the hands of one single person. I used to rely upon a score of craftsmen and artists to complete my tasks – typesetters, copywriters, illustrators, proofreaders, editors, photographers, darkroom strippers, pre-production, press operators, paper experts, salesmen, etc. etc. One by one all of this expertise has been eliminated (500+ years of skill) and suddenly dropped into MY lap. Subsequently, quality has to go down. On top of that, since I’m suddenly competing with people (and clients) who literally bought software a week ago and are now perfectly competent in graphic design to a very high level. What I can ask for my ‘art’ is devalued dramatically. Be honest, who really needs to hire me when they can spend much less money and do it themselves? Currently, I am getting rates below what I was charging when I started out almost 30 years ago. In addition, I now have to support $20,000 worth of equipment and upgrades. All for the clients in the design market to get a uniform c-level quality of execution.As you can see, computers are a truly mixed bag. It’s thrown the ‘industry’ into a buyer’s market. The client has never had more total control over graphic design. How often does the client take your disk and personally re-work it? That NEVER happened before the computer. Graphic design was respected as a sort of magic that helped people (usually to make money). Now it’s a troublesome decoration process that must be applied to stay even. Sad.We are almost at a point where we need to redefine the term ‘graphic designer’ in order to differentiate between what is going on in the industry of design versus the language of design. What I do can just barely be considered ‘graphic design’ anymore. But I haven’t changed, the industry has changed. Strange.
SU: Working with such raw and tangible materials, do you feel this gives you more opportunity to experiment than if you worked digitally?
AC: Yes. The versatility of the eye combined with the hand has carried human creative endeavor through a quarter-million years of history. There is no more direct path to ideas than hardwired mind-to-fingers. The more variety of raw materials you place into that creative mosh, the more solutions and ideas are presented. Computers are just one very small aspect of that material available for use.
SU: How often do you incorporate happy accidents into your design?
AC: Constantly. That is where ideas come from. New ways, unexpected ways, surprising ways things interact are a constant source of wonder for all of us. We can’t control everything we touch, so we need to take delight in what is possible, even by accident.
SU: When your work goes into production, what methods do printers use to reproduce your work (i.e.; do they scan, photograph, photocopy, silk screen etc.)?
AC: I still prefer darkroom film-stripping (as do most printers. Contrary to popular belief, printers absolutely hate what computers have done to the art of printing). When ‘middlemen’ attempt to digitize my work, it seldom seems to work out, because the mindset and knowledge base of that middleman (AKA digital prepress) is so very different from mine. My work is designed to go on a printing press, not a computer screen. These are titanically different things. A digital prepress person needs to be able to convert the way they think into the way I think and how that pertains to printing. Usually the opposite happens, and they attempt to ‘adapt’ or ‘correct’ my work to fit their perception of ‘digital’ printing process (which is so different from ‘physical’ printing process). But the paradigm has dramatically shifted in just a few short years. You would be amazed how often they totally redesign my work and destroy it. I would much rather rely on a printer. A good relationship with a service-oriented printer with a respect for quality is worth a thousand clients. I protect my craftsmen. I want them to protect me. We need each other. They make me look brilliant, I do the same for
them. Everybody wins.My ‘art’, such as it is, involves the simple task of laying a layer of ink down on a piece of paper one at a time. Just how I lay that ink down is where the magic happens.
SU: Does the integrity of your work supersede monetary gain? In other words have you ever found yourself giving into client demands, which could weaken a concept, or do you tell them where to go?
AC: 1) Usually, but that decision happens in the beginning, primarily based on my interest in the human aspects of the project (the thought, the personality, the passion, etc.) Once you take on the project, you’re committed to helping that client to achieve their goal. You need to asses that goal at the beginning or you have no more choice in the matter. This is supposed to be a ‘service’ industry. Who do you ‘serve’?2) The PROCESS and DIALOGUE of graphic design is a collaboration with a client. When it works well, there is nothing sweeter – some of my clients have become lifelong close friends. On the other hand, there have been cases where the collaboration is not working and I have suggested ending the process because the work that comes out of it will not be up to even mediocre standards. Once or twice, clients have turned out to be utterly reprehensible people who become too rude and unbearable to suffer any longer and I’ve been forced to abruptly end the relationship. I instinctively treat people as they treat me. I give respect to those who give me respect. What could be more fair?
SU: Being at a status where companies such as Nike, Microsoft, and Coca-Cola have pursued your creative talent, what is your take on working with corporate clientele?
AC: I really have no problem with corporate clients – if they treat me well and pay fairly. However, my experience with corporate clients is that of dealing with a bureaucracy where no one person ever seems to be authorized with making a decision. They may say they do, but they always have to ‘run it by’ someone who invariably damages the process anonymously. It makes the middleman (your contact) an automatic liar. The fear of decision-making in the corporate ‘culture’ is what leads to ‘legal’ being the final say-so in every silly aspect of the process. It’s counterproductive to quality. Corporate clients also will do everything in their power to not pay their bills. They have entire staffs of accountants, bookkeepers and LAWYERS who do nothing other than try to minimize money going out. I, on the other hand, don’t. Every single time, without fail, I end up losing money on corporate projects.On the other hand, going direct with small businesses has resulted in a level of integrity that truly inspired me. The bottom line is that if a
small business doesn’t work on an honest playing field, they lose their credit and the their ‘good name’ and they go out of business because nobody will work (AKA ‘collaborate’) with them. The result is a much more satisfying process all around.
SU: A lot of your work seems to have a dark counter-culture, and sometimes warped sense of wit. How deep do you expect the observer to read into your work?
AC: My work with subcultural groups stems from several aspects of my interest in anthropology (I originally wanted to be an archaeologist). I’m fascinated by the visual language forms developed by subculture groups to speak privately among themselves – it’s a way of self definition. These visual language forms are invariably eventually absorbed into mainstream culture, sometimes with the ideas intact, sometimes altered. This is a primary source of fascination in the language I love. I constantly discover whole new worlds to explore and keep learning. I’m never bored with what I do.Since these subcultural languages are originally a private language (example – psychedelic posters were difficult to read and shockingly strange to behold in order to scare away the mainstream and attract like-minded people to those music events), it only follows that, as the subcultural language is absorbed into mainstream, that those ideas presented will at first be foreign to the mainstream. In time, those ideas become cultural clichés that everyone understands, thus destroying that secretiveness. You will see this in my work as it ages over a period of time (the ‘darkness’ and ‘warped wit’ will dissipate). It’s part of my learning process to constantly absorb these different visual language ‘accents’ and ‘slangs’ into my vocabulary. It’s how culture progresses. It’s total involvement in graphic design as a cultural language.
SU: What was your most memorable project / client? Why?
AC: Dave Crider at Estrus Records. It’s been a dozen years and we’ve become very best friends. The work we’ve done together for his record company was the result of a terrific collaboration process of similar minds (he even wanted to be an archaeologist at one point, a synchronicity that is obvious in our collaborations) that has benefited both of us and has influenced a generation of musicians, designers and scenesters. It has been an influential piece of design history that was created by this collaboration. It doesn’t get better than that.
SU: How much of your life experiences find it’s way into your work?
AC: I truly believe that in the very best design the hand and mind of the designer is utterly invisible. By this very standard, the extreme stylism of my work is a contradiction to ‘quality’ design. However, I chose this path very consciously back in the early 1980’s, when I first saw what computers were capable of. I quickly realized that if I continued on a true design path, I would be put out of work by a computer program. I figured that in ten to twenty years there would be only, say, 10% of what I was trained to think of as ‘graphic designers’ left still practicing. These would be the idea people that everybody else would ’emulate’. This is where I wanted to be positioned. The rest of the pack would be ‘graphic technicians’ or ‘graphic decorators’ whose job it would be to make things look nice for businessmen. I was right. It worked.
SU: It has been said that Art Chantry has a reputation of being cranky – a complete a**hole. How much of it is true?
AC: I think of myself as a person of frank and open ideas and opinions delivered in a straightforward manner. In America in 2002, this is considered ‘cranky’ and an ‘a**hole.’ I never get considered a good ‘team player’ because I want the ‘coach’ to listen to me and consider my input. A ‘team’ is not a good ‘process’ – it’s a good ARMY. A friend of mine pointed out that there is no ‘I’ in ‘team’, but there is a ‘me’.I think I’m honest and funny (in a dark way). Privately people think I’m a very nice and generous person. People who treat me badly, however, get treated badly in return. I think this is fair.
SU: You made a great remark in a recent post on gigposters.com; “Lester Beall is one of my design heroes… if he could do that shit back in 1938, I could do it in 1980.” Are there any other designer / artists / people that have inspired you as much?
AC: That’s a huge question. The creative work by people I admire, the careers and contributions would fill to many hours and hours of work and space to list here. I’m currently working on a book with a working title (it will change): ‘A Secret History of Graphic Design”. It attempts to compile the contributions of all of these people and subcultures into a seamless and unrecognized (at least by academia) history of visual culture. Look for it in a couple of years. It’s a lotta work, dude!
SU: Thanks Art for your insight.