MAS Context Spring Talks 2018

Couplings 2018

March 27, 2018 at 6PM

The second edition of the MAS Context Couplings series explored the influence of past projects, realized or unrealized, in shaping contemporary thinking in a design discipline. In this edition, each of the eight Chicago-based graphic designers participating in the event shared a project by another graphic designer that they consider relevant for their practice today. This framework established conceptual connections between projects while providing a snapshot of the opportunities and issues at stake in graphic design. Below is an edited transcription of their presentations.


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Pouya Ahmadi, Couplings, Chicago, 2018. © Iker Gil.

Pouya Ahmadi on Gregory Vines

The designer I chose to speak about today is Gregory Vines, one of my instructors at the Basel School of Design.

Gregory Vines was born in 1946 in the United States and studied at the Massachusetts College of Arts, Boston, graduating in 1968. After graduating, he worked for a publisher in Boston for some time. While working there, he accidentally came across an ad in Graphis journal, which would eventually change his career. This ad was for Kunstgewerbeschule Basel, which is known as the Basel School of Design in Switzerland, and he figured that this was the place that he wanted to go to. He applied for this school in 1972, and he moved there immediately after being accepted into the program to continue his education under people such as Armin Hoffman and Wolfgang Weingart. Upon graduating four years later, Gregory decided to visit his friend Weingart who was helping with the summer workshop that Armin Hoffman was leading in Brissago, which is located in Locarno, in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. Taking the train to Brissago, he had to change connections in a city called Bellinzona, also part of the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland. Instead of taking the next train, he decided to delay his connection to visit the three castles in Bellinzona: Castelgrande, Montebello, and Sasso Corbar.

While walking around Castelgrande, he came across a gate that he found quite fascinating because of its formal and functional details. He decided to document it in different ways, from photos to drawings, with no specific goal in mind. When he went back to Basel, he found some interesting connections between the drawings and images that he took of this gate and the typographic rules and tools that they used to do these lockups on the bedsheet of printing press in Type Shop. So he developed a typographic translation project where he could use these elements to come up with some kind of representation of the gate.

The following year, Wolfgang Weingart asked Gregory what he wanted to do next. Gregory showed him the photographs and the drawings of this gate and Weingart told him to go for it. He ended up working for two years on this project that he never even imagined working on. A year into the project, Weingart took Gregory’s sketches to a meeting with Rudolf Hostettler who was the editor of Typografische Monatsblätte (TM), the Swiss graphic design magazine. Hostettler fell in love with the designs and commissioned Gregory to design covers for the upcoming issues of the magazine. Every year, a designer would take over the design of TM covers, creating an entire series of six covers. Gregory agreed to do a series of six covers. But he had tons of sketches that he had produced for this project, so he decided that he could do something else with them. A selection of his design process was also published as an insert together with the same issues of TM magazine in 1978. Gregory taught at the Basel School of Design for thirty-three years until 2011 when he retired. I am honored to have been one of his students. Thank you.

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Amier Berbić, Couplings, Chicago, 2018. © Iker Gil.

Amir Berbić on Ismet Berbić

My presentation is about a designer from Sarajevo, Bosnia, in former Yugoslavia. His name is Ismet Berbić and he is my father. Ismet studied graphic design at the Academy of Fine Art in Sarajevo. The school occupies a nineteenth century building built during the Austro-Hungarian rule in Bosnia, which used to be an evangelical church. He actually first studied mechanical engineering until the Academy of Art was formed in 1972.

This is him in the center with his classmates in what was the first generation of graphic design students in Sarajevo. They were mature students, in their mid-20s, essentially waiting for the Academy to offer a design program while studying other things at the university. My father’s work at the time focused on images of pop rock culture icons. He was influenced by the experience he had at the Isle of Wight Music Festival in 1970 in the UK. It was the European version of Woodstock, I suppose, and one of the last times that Jimi Hendrix performed before he died. Among the posters he designed as part of his thesis project at the Academy was an obituary for Mick Jagger. He predicted that after the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger would be next. It is clearly an example of an unsuccessful speculative design project since the Rolling Stone is very much alive.

My father went on to have a career in designing visual identity programs, posters, catalogs, products, and packaging. In the 1980s, he led an in-house creative studio at Svjetlost, one of Yugoslavia’s large publishing companies. He took part in graphic design work for Sarajevo’s 1984 Winter Olympic Games, where he designed a commemorative certificate of appreciation to donors. This specific one was awarded to my uncle but essentially every household received one of these certificates. In Socialist Yugoslavia everyone was a donor. Decided by a referendum—2% of every salary went towards the Olympics—no one said no.

In the late 1980s, he designed this catalog for a large Yugoslavian electrical engineering company. They were promoting the company’s security system products used in places like power plants. I think the metaphor was that their security systems were as strong as the ancient pyramids in Egypt. And just remember this image because the pyramids come back later in this presentation. Ismet said that during the photo shoot for this page of the catalog, he thought that the arrangement of electrical parts looked like the city of Chicago. He had never been to Chicago at that point and had no clue that one day our family would end up living there.

Unfortunately, and this is one of the reasons I am presenting his work here, Ismet managed to save only a few examples of his design work. Most of it was destroyed or lost during the war in the 1990s. I am in the process of reconstructing some of his work based on his descriptions and my memories of it from childhood. It comes out of my desire to rebuild a collection of his work that was lost, but also from an interest to use design as a way to recall or understand historical context or family narratives. It is related to my own research into the notions of place identity, productions of history, and storytelling. Also, reconstruction brings up interesting issues of interpretation, meaning, accuracy, and relationship between memory and history.

Ismet won two logo design competitions for the Congress of the League of Communists of Bosnia, a rather large political convention during those times. I knew the stories, but I had never seen the logos until I reconstructed them. He won the contest for the 8th and 9th Congress. He said that the theme for the 8th Congress was “action” and that the reference in the symbol that he designed was to a clenched fist. I always thought that the gaps between the alternating lines stemming from the bold red star symbolized the party’s gradual acceptance of new ideas. He said that the 9th Congress was meant to be the congress of reform, of turnaround, of the Communist party becoming more open—hence the number 9 that suggests a turn in direction. Instead of reform, unfortunately, soon thereafter the country was swept up by nationalist movements and then ravaged by war.

Few people remember this work and generally there is neglect of the country’s Socialist history in terms of design, which is another reason why I am looking at it. I have begun reconstructing the visual identity for this coal mining company. Ismet explained to me how he resisted designing a logo that featured two intersecting hammers, a common symbol for miners at that time. Instead, he opted for abstraction, derived from circular forms to symbolize power.

With the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and during the war in Bosnia, my family left the besieged city of Sarajevo and we lived as refugees in Croatia, Denmark, and ultimately we settled in the United States. In Denmark, we lived in these UN field tents, each housing three families. In the corner of our tent, Ismet made a small makeshift design studio, where he designed the visual identity program for our refugee camp. He branded the camp “Sahara” in reference to the plot of sand on which our tents were erected. The pyramidal graphic forms in his logo denoted our tent dwellings. The fluctuating nature of sand formations echoed the refugees’ sense of baselessness. He designed a welcome billboard for the entrance to the camp and posters announcing events at the camp, like this open house poster where the refugees introduced themselves to the residents of the small town in Denmark. I reconstructed this poster recently based on my memory of it, or perhaps from my imagination of what it could have been like.

Ismet urged that the refugees should be identified by name, not by registration number assigned to them by the Danish Refugee Council. For each tent, he created a sign that listed the names of its residents and an icon that referenced a trade of the tent’s residents. The identity program also included a mock advertisement: on a grass field, with pyramids drawn in the background, a happy family walks and kills time. My parents organized a school for the children living in Sahara by enlisting parents to teach children elementary subjects. A doctor was assigned to teach biology, while an economist taught math. The local soccer club allowed us to use their office facilities as classrooms.

Sahara became the camp’s official designation in formal documents of the Danish Refugee Council, as well as the name of our self-organized school and soccer club. Through design work and his improvised studio, my father attempted to signal hope and opportunity for our family and our fellow refugees. His initial playful gesture further evolved into a collective action for improving conditions in the camp, such as organizing a school or a soccer club, and other activities. It was an effort to be identified as more than refugees and perhaps to shift the attention from the hard circumstances of war that brought them to Denmark toward some seeming normalcy.

In 2002, my parents visited Denmark. They went to see the site where our refugee camp was once located and found a medical facility for disabled children in its place. The facility retained the name “Sahara.” When I shared a version of this story in the form of a visual essay with a person that did not know my personal history, he wasn’t sure if it is real or fictional. And that prompted me to continue Sahara’s visual identity by reconstructing and expanding the original design to other applications—to imagine other things that could have been designed for it, such as event posters for the open house event I showed. I use the process of design to recall the experiences from that period.

For example, I remember that our school managed to receive single copies of Bosnian textbooks, which we then photocopied for use in our classes. So I started imagining the design of the cover pages for those textbooks. The cover for this sixth grade shop class, featuring an image of Marcel Duchamp’s bicycle wheel on a stool piece is designed in loving memory of Denmark where everyone rides a bicycle. The textbook for the seventh grade art class, literally translated as A Culture of Visual Form, makes a reference to Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream, which was stolen in early 1994 from the National Gallery in Oslo. Around the same time, a group of people in Sahara proposed to gather in front of the town square in Odense and collectively scream in public to protest the marketplace massacre which had taken place in Sarajevo.

Most recently, I have also attempted architectural reconstruction, with the help of Andreina Yepez, a graduate student of architecture at UIC. The process goes back-and-forth between my description of the place and making and adjusting architectural plans and digital models. I make lists of people that lived in the camp, try to remember the camp’s layout and who stayed in which tent, map the location of facilities like toilets, showers, cooking stations, and so on.

In 1994 my family arrived to Chicago. In his first job in the US, Ismet worked as a sculptor in a factory that produced moldings and other decorative elements for interior architecture. He would model them in clay to then be cast in polyurethane. The company was called UPA, Urethane Products of America. I still remember its corny tagline that said “we love USA, come to UPA!” We joked that he literally became a factory artist—and not the kind that produced heroic images or figures of workers to adorn the halls of the company. He was now part of the actual production line.

As I began to express interest in design, our family founded a small design studio and published Zambak, the magazine that supported the arriving refugees from the Balkans. Working for the magazine was my first experience as a designer while I was still in high school and later when I became a college student. It was also an experience working with the identity of Chicago, which is largely made up of immigrant communities that often operate in silos, where people live within their community and have a separate life outside of it. Thank you.

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Renata Graw, Couplings, Chicago, 2018. © Iker Gil.

Renata Graw on Cildo Meireles

I am going to talk about Cildo Meireles, who is a Brazilian-born artist. He was born in 1948 in Rio, and his project called “Insertions Into Ideological Circuits” was conceived in the spring of 1970. The story goes that he was coming back from the beach on a Sunday afternoon and decided to stop for lunch with friends. And noticing discarded Coke bottles, after a long weekend, his friend made a remark and said, “If you insert a pit, an olive pit, into one of these bottles, the industrial cleaning of the time is not good enough to take it out.” That same day, Meireles went home and wrote these principles:

Number one: In society there are certain mechanisms for circulation that he called circuits.
Number two: These circuits clearly embody the ideology of the producer, but at the same time, they are passive when they receive insertions into their circuits.
Number three: This occurs whenever people initiate the circuits.

It sounds kind of brainy, but to give it a little context, in 1970 when Meireles produced these “Insertions,” Brazil was undergoing the most oppressive period of its twenty-one years of a military dictatorship. Just a couple years prior, in 1968, the dictatorship had passed a law curbing civil rights, increasing censorship, and endorsing torture. So these “Insertions” constituted a form of guerrilla tactics to try to counter the military regime.

The “Insertions” took several forms, but the first one that I am going to present is the Coca-Cola Project. In 1970 in Brazil, the Coca-Cola bottle was a symbol of US imperialism, capitalism, and consumerism. For the Coca-Cola Project, Meireles stamped messages onto the Coke bottles, returning them into the circulation. The first bottle on the left has the phrase, “Yankees, go home.” The one in the middle offers instructions for making a Molotov cocktail. And the one on the right features the more philosophical question, “Which is the place of the work of art?”

Despite these dramatic provocations, the expression is very subtle, practically invisible. When the bottle is empty, you can barely see the message. The message only becomes legible when the bottles are full. Meireles inserted something that was physically the same, though ideologically different, into a pre-existing system in order to counteract an original circuit without disrupting it.

He used the same principles on the Banknote Project. For the Banknote Project, Meireles stamped subversive messages onto banknotes before returning them into normal circulation. He actually said that he tried silk-screening them and it became a little too much, so he just made a series of stamps. The messages appeared in both English and Portuguese, and included various political slogans. There were questions like, “Quem matou o Herzog?” (“Who killed Herzog?”), referring to the journalist Vladimir Herzog who was arrested and murdered by the military regime in 1975. In others we can see a call for democracy and political freedom, asking for direct elections. He would also go back to the “Yankees, go home” as an anti-imperialist message. He preferred to stamp on the lowest denomination possible because he thought it would get a bigger reach.

As part of the project Meireles included his instructions alongside the messages, encouraging the viewer to actively participate into ideological circuits. The insertions read: “Register information and critical opinions on banknotes and return them to circulation.” This kept going on after the 1970s, especially on the banknotes. The Coca-Cola Project was probably killed by the fact that we don’t have refundable Coca-Cola bottles anymore to return them into circulation. But he kept going and some other people do the same, not only in Brazil but in other countries.

I thought this was interesting because as graphic designers, we are constantly inserting ourselves into ideological circuits. So what is the place for graphic design? Thank you.

Loosely translated from the Cildo Meireles interview: “Cildo Meireles na exposição: Do Objeto para o Mundo – Coleção Inhotim”

With excerpts from Elizabeth Manchester text about the project:

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Jim Misener, Couplings, Chicago, 2018. © Iker Gil.

Jim Misener on metaphor

Today, I would like to talk about metaphor. One of my favorite writers of all time—a person who inspires me—is Gertrude Stein. I love Gertrude Stein.

Simple and prosaic, a little abstraction of hers is: “A rose is a rose is a rose.” Within it, she’s actually using the language of metaphor to question and possibly argue against metaphor. She is supposedly speaking to Lord Byron’s “A rose is a rose, who had likened a heroine’s lips to a rose.” She is, in effect, arguing against the objectification of language and in some ways is taking back the purity of language in an incredibly simple way. Her sentence is really interesting to me because it calls into question figurative and representational roles within language. It opens up the opportunity to question, to muse, and to debate, and it allows us to ask different questions and to find different answers—all from the simple sentence, and all by using the language of metaphor.

At 50,000feet, we often begin creative ideation with the exploration of language. From there, we explore visual language that helps to express, explore, and build on the possibilities presented through the narrative. In any creative process, it is always interesting to explore the tensions between ideas and elements; and in our work, we explore the tension and conversation that words and images carry forward.

When I began to think about this talk and the idea of couplings, I began to think about metaphor. Then, I began to see them everywhere. Metaphor influences our thinking and ideas and language in powerful and ubiquitous ways; they affect the way we think, feel, see, speak, learn, and live. Perhaps the point of this discussion is to consider how metaphor—and the language that we use—helps to shape our thinking and the possibilities of the ways that we create.

As I was studying up on metaphor this weekend, I came across this interesting fact in a book by James Geary: “We utter about one metaphor for every 10 to 25 words, or about six metaphors a minute.” It really has become a significant part of our language, and you can imagine why Stein and many others wanted to take back our language from the influence of metaphor. In the modernist duel between representation and abstraction, metaphor sits somewhere in the middle, helping to bridge the two while also heightening the divide.

For designers of all kinds, metaphor offers a way in and a way out. By its very nature, it involves coupling things that are different from one another to create new meaning or new ways of understanding and of seeing. How do we use metaphor as artists and designers? If anyone has ever seen my desk or my house you will know that I love this quotation: “A poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless and systematized disorganization of all the senses.” It stuck with me because I love to associate unlike things and to explore the friction and the tension between and among them. Metaphor gives us a way to explore relationships and then to create systems.

The following slides briefly explore ideas of metaphor and the powerful relationship between couplings—whether captured in a single idea or word or abstraction.

Magnetism: Here, an incredibly powerful physical force is created through the relationship between two opposing forces—two poles, two opposites, two things. With the nature of magnetism, the force resides among and in between the two poles, and therefore, in some ways, can become a metaphor for metaphor—finding power within the coupling of two forces and creating a powerful force in the relationship between the two things.

Doppelgänger: The idea of Doppelgänger also explores the idea of two like but separate and distinct things, or more specifically, two people. In this image, we tried to explore the relationship between two things, and we wanted to ask the question of how similar or different those two things can be when brought together in a coupling.

Ghost: The idea of Ghost rests on the mystery of some couplings—life and death, before and after, here and hereafter. Metaphor can be a handy tool to begin to think through and to describe concepts of which we are not familiar or ideas of which we are not comfortable.

Twins: Within the idea of Twins, there are actually two metaphors going. We can even find three. Is it one set of twins, or is it twins of twins? Or is it twins of twins of twins? Which in some ways is similar to “a rose is a rose is a rose.”

In summary, Wallace Stevens offers us this: “Reality is a cliché from which we escape by metaphor.” And then, “Metaphor creates a new reality from which the original appears to be untrue.” Metaphor is a way to move between time and space, concrete and concept, where you want to be or you don’t, where you want to be versus where you need to be. It’s art to play with. And it’s a tool.

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Ashley Ryann, Couplings, Chicago, 2018. © Iker Gil.

Ashley Ryann on George Maciunas

Today I want to talk about George Maciunas. He was a Lithuanian-born designer, architect, artist, you name it, creator in general. He leaves Lithuania with his family after World War II and lands in New York as many immigrants did. He gets wrapped up very quickly in the avant-garde movement of the early 1960s. He opens an art gallery and fails miserably, but he makes a lot of really cool friends along the way.

In an attempt to recoup his creative ego and capitalize on some of the friendships he had made in the last decade, he brings together a group of people that go by the collective name Fluxus. They start creating work under this singular name without much distinction between who was creating the work. In retrospect, however, it’s quite obvious Maciunas is very much the originator and designer responsible for organizing these Fluxus works. Fluxus initiatives included music, film, events, painting, sculpture, and more.

Maciunas sets out to document the scope of work being created by the Fluxus collective through a series of self-published books. He called for submissions from his fellow Fluxus members and in doing so, we start to see these documentation efforts take on a life of their own. One of the first compilations that he puts together is called Fluxus One. Some of the contributors to this project include Christo, George Brecht, and Yoko Ono. Although Fluxus One was created under a singular authorship, we start to see evidence of the various artists involved through a set of small type based cards, that we now know to be the contributor’s names. This is one of the few circumstances where you can see them recognizing individuality. Typographically the whole publication is very compelling. We see the use of Letraset, screen printing, risograph, and a number of other commodity-based print methods. It is estimated that only about one hundred copies of Fluxus One were originally produced.

The most compelling aspect of this project is how Maciunas pushes the boundaries of what documentation—specifically within the art world—look like. The book itself references an artist’s shipping crate. He uses removable bolts as the binding method allowing the reader to edit and reorganize the content as a way of interacting with it. He uses folders and instructional language to compel people to engage with the book in a way that was really unique for print publication and art practice at the time.

In the second iteration, he continues to push the publication format including numerous sculptural objects. This version also out-grows traditional binding methods and is housed within a custom folio of Maciunas’ design. It is a very physical, a very tactile experience. He is asking people to engage with the work in a very interesting way. Again, very little authorship is attributed to any of these individual pieces.

Although these publications were always intended to be art objects, there are a number of creative techniques employed throughout this project that are very inspiring to me as a designer. The first being commodity production does not necessarily mean that it has to be a commodity product. We are dealing with really lo-fi print techniques here, but ultimately, it ends up being a unique piece of art. He makes the art itself very pragmatic. The work is not elitist, it is very approachable. And at the time this was really unique. He is usurping the ego and authorship of art and allowing people to enjoy and engage with it. Maciunas is not interested in propping art up onto a pedestal. Last but not least, this is a really good example of documentation as art practice. Just the process of documenting becomes an artwork in and of itself.

I’ve included a couple examples of how this project has specifically influenced my work as a designer. Here is an exhibition catalog for Industry of the Ordinary: Sic Transit Gloria Mundi. In the back, we designed a little folder where artists from this exhibition could pull unique prints and it made each of these commercially produced books a unique edition.

Similarly, this is a publication that I work on continually called THE SEEN. It is a journal for contemporary art that is published here in Chicago. We print it on newsprint, so it is a very low-fidelity medium. It’s also free. You can get it at any Newcity box. We have the opportunity to work with some very talented artists on this publication. At least once per issue we try to collaborate with artists and come up with something new, something that people won’t be able to see anywhere else. Here is a good example. We did a collaboration with an artist collective called Art & Language, very conceptual and super old school language-based artists. We kept dancing around the idea of what their work was and how do explain it to people, and at some point, we just decided to show it. Let’s stop trying to tell the story of something that’s already happened and create something new our readers can be a part of.

In short, print doesn’t have to be stagnant. It doesn’t have to be a commodity just because it is mass-produced. Also, the process of documentation doesn’t purely have to be transcribing, we have an opportunity to create something unique. Thank you.

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Cheryl Towler Weese, Couplings, Chicago, 2018. © Iker Gil.

Cheryl Towler Weese on Mevis & Van Deursen’s environmental graphics for the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

This is an identity that everyone here probably knows, as it has been heavily publicized over the past six years, but I’d like to talk about one aspect in particular: its environmental applications. The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam’s signage, environmental graphics, exhibition graphics, and identity were designed by Armand Mevis and Linda Van Deursen (Mevis & Van Deursen) and extended by Janna and Hilde Meeus (Meeusontwerp), among others.

A little context: the Stedelijk’s new identity was the result of a competition. Although a designer (Pierre di Sciullo) was initially chosen, a new museum director began her tenure shortly after the competition. She didn’t like di Sciullo’s work, promptly fired him, and hired Mevis & Van Deursen instead, who had worked with the museum in the past. Mevis & Van Deursen’s proposal was based on the idea that art crosses boundaries, and that the identity should create a framework for art—which meshed with the director’s preference for conceptual and minimalist work (rather than di Sciullo’s formally complex letterforms).

In describing the Stedelijk’s identity, Frederike Huygen and Lex Reitsma write about the simplicity of a museum that is still “innocent”—absent of top-heavy management or marketing—and that this is a thing of the past. At the Stedelijk Mevis & Van Deursen appropriated this basic approach. The designers hoped to relate to work designed for the museum by Wim Crouwel in the 1950s and 1960s, which forms the basis of the museum’s celebrated image. By looking to history, Mevis & Van Deursen tried to resurrect an attitude.

The designers write: “We are type lovers and typography is a major recognizable element. We selected a font (Union, by Radim Pesko, which is a fusion of Helvetica and Arial, two fonts available on any Mac or PC), that is ordinary and neutral, but can serve as a message from the Stedelijk. . . . We believe a museum’s identity should have an open character, be diverse, and [be] something than can develop.”

When describing images from their sketchbooks about the identity, they explain: “We put art center stage, because the museum is the place where new and unfamiliar art is given room. This plays out within the institution’s walls, but also in the public space that is the museum.” A museum is a place for discourse around ideas, but is also a public space unto itself, perhaps similar to a mall. It is both an intellectual space for ideas—and a physical space for people—to gather.

Some of the images included here are sourced online, and others are my own; but each shows the ways in which the identity is used environmentally. Letterforms shape all of the exhibition and informational graphics within the museum, printed on large sheets of vinyl stuck to the walls. This ubiquitous treatment is arranged in as many ways and orientations as possible to reflect the content of a particular exhibition. The signage thus consists of these primary building blocks: large vinyl sheets affixed to the walls and text on plastic bars that are attached to the building in various ways for wayfinding. Here is a diecut version that is then backfilled with black. Meeusontwerp is shown prototyping them in the space, testing sizes and arrangements, even wrapping spaces. These signs are used both for permanent elements in the building and temporary exhibitions.

Mevis & Van Deursen aim to escape from uniformity and systems, and collaborate intensely with others. In this case, I believe that they’ve developed a loose set of constraints that allows in-house designers or others outside the Stedelijk to work in concert. It’s a pretty permeable enterprise.

The idea of a museum as a place for encounter and debate contributes to a less static view of these institutions. Signage and exhibition graphics can also engender discourse. What can you do with two sheets of vinyl? A lot. Still, the paradox remains that “to be a contemporary space the museum must continually deny that it is an institution, while on the other hand it depends on its reputation as an institute.”

Thank you.

Each of the texts quoted are from The Style of the Stedelijk by Frederik Huygen and Lex Reitsma.

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Enric Turull, Couplings, Chicago, 2018. © Iker Gil.

Enric Turull on the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games

It has been great exercise to look at my own city, which as you can see is Barcelona. A lot of you are familiar with that name and maybe you have also been there, but you probably don’t know that the name of Barcelona has design in it. Separating it in three syllables, we can find several features that define what Barcelona is all about. It starts with “Bar,” a social, loud, and vibrant place. Next is “cel” which in Catalan means “sky,” optimistic and open. And “ona” that means “wave,” so it is freedom and it is energy.

If we use clichés, Spain is bullfights and flamenco and Barcelona is beauty. But it hasn’t always been like that. Starting in 1936 we go from a Civil War to a dictatorship, which led to great suffering, devastation, and economical and cultural poverty. But we had a moment of transformation in the 1980s when all the economical, social, and cultural energy came together. In 1986, Barcelona was selected to host the 1992 Summer Olympic Games and that became a catalyst to bring international exposure, economic opportunities, and social and cultural activities. It was the sum of all parts. It was about creating a synergy of elements involving architects, urban planners, politicians, graphic designers, and citizens. All worked together to create a moment of transition. It was really important for everyone to put extra energy to foster change.

There were three key graphic designers involved: Josep Maria Trias for the pictograph; Javier Mariscal for the mascots, Cobi and Petra; and Enric Satué for the official poster. All of them were following the provided brief of capturing the idea of innovation and the Mediterranean. Looking at Olympic precedents, what we see is that all the previous logos have the same common denominator, which was a rational geometry. Josep Maria Trias broke with this rational approach and created something completely different that was vibrant, vital, energetic, and human. It is a gesture of a man/woman jumping or running, expressing a moment of freedom. As a personal interpretation, it is an expression of escaping from all the manipulation during the dictatorship and repression. The red and yellow colors combined implied the Spanish flag, and the blue represented the Mediterranean.

In terms of typography, they used Times Demi-Bold, which was related to the antique and the geographical situation where the Olympic Games were originated. That traditional approach gave the precise seriousness to balance it out with the fun, spontaneous, and almost childish figure of the mark. The five Olympic Games rings represent the five continents that were participating. In the logo for the Paralympic Games, the only aspect that changed was the addition of the circular shape, symbolizing the wheelchair, but all the other elements were applied exactly the same.

The pictograms were introduced in 1964, being used in all the Olympic Games since then. Trias breaks with all the rigidness of the previous geometry, introducing a sense of freedom, almost of escape. A cultural reference from Gaudí that inspired the signage was the trencadís, a type of mosaic found in early 20th century Catalan modernism.

The mascot Cobi, whose name derives from the Barcelona Olympic Organizing Committee, is personal and young. It has open arms that express the idea of receiving and open to everything. Cobi is a Catalan shepherd’s dog, and it is inspired by the interpretations of Picasso of the painting Las Meninas by Velázquez. So it is reinterpreting an interpretation, and it conveys Spanish and Catalan culture. His belly shows a touch of how good life is in Spain. As he represents the Olympic Games, he has to be sporty, agile, and dynamic. He is also representing the people, so he does the same activities that everyone does. But, most importantly, Cobi is human: he has emotions, he has feelings, and he cries. Petra is his young sister and she is the mascot for the Paralympic Games. She has no arms and conveys a sense of inclusion. She is a very energetic representation of what these games were all about. Both of them are global, they have friends all around the world, and they speak different languages. They represent the idea of openness and being connected to the world.

Enric Satué also introduced the idea of humanity by using arms in the poster. He connected them with the five colors of the rings, all interlaced creating an idea of unity, a multicultural event, and including the sign of victory. Many graphic designers from the city were invited to provide their perspective and vision. Some of them were more illustrative, some were more abstract, and others were photographic. It provided the idea that everyone had an opportunity to share a point of view, and everyone was invited.

After the Olympic Games, Barcelona turned into an international city. The interesting part is that I think the Olympics Games were not just a celebration of sports, but also a celebration of humanity. That was really what it was all about. It was bringing back humanity after the dictatorship and the repression. The Olympic Gamer were the ideal project as it was social, cultural, international, and human. Those are aspects that make design meaningful and purposeful. As a conclusion of all these facts, I would say that for me design is inclusive, global, growth, borderless, limitless, and personal. Thank you.

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Alisa Wolfson, Couplings, Chicago, 2018. © Iker Gil.

Alisa Wolfson on Irma Boom

I want to talk about a project by Irma Boom, a Dutch designer that I love. She was born in 1960 and to date she has designed over 300 books. I am kind of embarrassed right now that I we have people from the Graham Foundation here because they are going to make fun of me about my book fetish. But I do really love books, and it is an interesting thing as a designer to really love them because they are so accessible and personal. I think that you can find so much of yourself in them. It is also an interesting conundrum to be a designer at a large advertising agency because we rarely make them. So when I get a chance to make one, buy one, or even see one, I am very interested in it.

Irma Boom has inspired me as a designer in countless ways on projects. It was very difficult for me to find a particular project of hers that most inspires me, but there is one that sums up the relationship to design that has most affected my work. It is a combination of a lot of different things, so I’ll just quickly flip through some samples of her work that I think are quite lovely. She has this incredible sense of history, like the installation she did in Cuyperspassage, a long tunnel that runs under Amsterdam Central Station, where she used 46,000 hand painted wall tiles and 33,000 floor tiles to reinterpret an artwork by painter Cornelis Bouwmeester. She is also very adept at minimalism, which I very much appreciate as a designer, and she is very brave in her use of color and lack of color. The book she designed for artist Sheila Hicks is quite impactful. And she is not afraid of maximalism. The SHV book is over 2,000 pages and it celebrates the centenary of a coal company in Holland.

A couple of other examples that I very much appreciate about her work is her very brave use of color and very minimal use of type and layout that punctuates a lot of her work. This is an image that I used to keep on my desktop just to remind myself of all the things that I love. So when I am slugging through my day to day, I can kind of look at my own personal bookshelf. I don’t own a lot of her books because they are so collectible and expensive, but I do wish I did own all of them.

It is very hard to pick from the things that most inspire me about Irma Boom. But there is one in particular that I think best sums up everything that she does, and that is this book. It is called The Architecture of the Book and it is tiny. I think it is something she did for herself as a self-promotional piece. It is 800 pages and it features 515 images. It was birthed from something that she does for all of her projects. She makes a very tiny mockup of each of her books and I think that requires such an incredible discipline as a designer. It is way to try to see your work in miniature before you see it in large scale, either in thumbnail form to mark off your thoughts and look at something from over inside of you, or just to get a better sense of the impact of it before it actually becomes a final piece.

It is tiny and, when it was sold, it was actually embedded into a size of a normal book. You can also see it in relationship to a gigantic version of itself that was made by her. To me there is such an elegance, simplicity, and bravery in this. The thing that I really respond to is her requirement for simplicity in the medium and the ability to put a narrative toward something.

It is very interesting that a book designer at the point in her career that she is at, which I hope is midway through, decided to do a compendium of all her projects and decided to do it in miniature. To me, she has such a maximum overview of the design of a book that she could have been super egocentric and very brash about her delivery of all of her work. Instead, she had a lot of wit in the way she delivered the object to us. That is another thing that is important to me when I see something. I want to see a brave use of the medium because then it becomes an artifact that I might want to keep. If it is simple and uses the medium in a nice way, it doesn’t really matter if it is a physical object or a digital object, or something that you see when you pass by on a bus on your way to work. It doesn’t matter as long as that artifact sticks with you and it has a very simple signal to you that it actually cared about the medium that it was in and took a little bit of a risk to communicate to you an idea.

The other thing that she does is creating a connection between the format and the way she treats typography. Even though all these books aren’t related, they have a certain point of view and visual cohesiveness that I can immediately tell she designed it. Once I accidentally ordered a book of hers on Amazon. I was looking for something and, at one point, I punched in her name and bought a book. When she does do something that I can afford, I usually try to get it. And then one day, unbeknownst to me, I received a box in the mail and I opened it up and looked at it. I thought, “My God, this must be a mistake, I did not order a book.” It was the book for Sheila Hicks that I mentioned earlier and that had just come out and I had never seen it before. I looked at it for a very, very long time, inspected all the details, flipped it open, and I loved it. I thought, “Great, I guess I’ll keep this.” I looked at the back of the book and realized that it was by my favorite designer. Something must have happened there where it knew I wanted it, but then, I also knew I wanted it immediately after I seeing it. Irma Boom just has that stamp of a point of view that is so lovely, and I can just sense her DNA in all of her collections.

I am very inspired by the body of work that she has created, especially as a graphic designer living in a community where we specialize in artifacts and objects. Some of us do books, some of us do art or things for artists, some of us do things in agencies, but we all have our own DNA that we put to it. I love that she has really forged her own point of view in her landscape that already has such a preconceived notion of what it meant to be a Dutch designer. So that is Irma Boom. Thank you.

Thanks to Leo Burnett Chicago for hosting the event.

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Couplings, Chicago, 2018. © Iker Gil.

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Couplings, Chicago, 2018. © Iker Gil.

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Couplings, Chicago, 2018. © Iker Gil.

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Couplings, Chicago, 2018. © Iker Gil.

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Couplings, Chicago, 2018. © Iker Gil.

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Couplings, Chicago, 2018. © Iker Gil.

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Couplings, Chicago, 2018. © Iker Gil.

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Couplings, Chicago, 2018. © Iker Gil.