ART FOR SALE BY MARC VALLI
28 June 2007 | interviews
They tell you many useless things at school. Among many others, I remember being told that the best way to learn about art was to study the work of the artists of the past. I was told to turn to them for guidance and inspiration. I am sure the advice was well intended. But every time I turned to look back at work from the past, even work that wasn’t produced so long ago, maybe just a few decades back, and at the biographies of those who had produced it, I found some inspiration, but very little guidance.
I attended film school in London and immersed myself in the Neo-Realism of Antonioni, Visconti, Rosselini and Fellini. I watched a lot of Bergman and Tarkovsky and fell in love with the creative outburst of the French New Wave. I dreamt about film, day and night, and wrote grandiose scripts in my mind. I was like someone who has fallen in love for the first time and it didn’t take long film before school started to feel like a prison, a barrier separating me from my promised muse. So, my head full of articles from Les Cahiers Du Cinema, I left film school to enter that legendary jungle: the film industry.
But what I found when I left film school was no wilderness. It was everything but that. It was a well-tilled, well-organized and relatively well-run and rather ordinary field. There were still a few un-explored patches, hidden corners of the film world like amateur porn, corporate videos, pop promos, infomercials. But that was not quite what I had dreamt of. Outside those pockets, film was now a solid, corporate business. And, being a business, everything in it was measured not in terms of artistic achievement, but in terms of profit and loss – which is hardly surprising, given the sums involved. In the vocabulary of this industry, terms like Neorealism didn’t exist. In the history of the film business, the Nouvelle Vague had never happened. The names of Bergman, Godard, Tarkovsky and Fellini would still occasionally be slurred out, late at night, in moments of drunkenness, like curses, or the names of pagan gods. Bloody Bergman, god damn Godard…
It was very hard to imagine that, not so long ago, these same filmmakers, these so-called ‘auteurs’ – to use the Cahiers Du Cinema term for directors whose films had a very individual style, from Michelangelo Antonioni and Luchino Visconti, all the way down to Arthur Penn, Stanley Kubrick, John Cassavettes, Michael Cimino, and Francis Ford Coppola, via Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray – had been handed sizeable budgets to produce what we would now call art-house movies. Note that most of these films had received widespread distribution and, even, at times, become box-office hits. This was now almost unimaginable in a world dominated by the executives of Sony, Newscorp, Disney, Dreamworks, Time Warner, the tv networks and the chains of multiplex cinemas and Blockbuster dvd rentals. In this world no sane filmmaker would dare to admit (in public anyway) that stylistic innovation and not box-office success was his or her most immediate concern.
So, disillusioned, like a bitter and disappointed lover, I gave up on film and started writing. Only to fall in love all over again. You didn’t need a budget in order to write, you didn’t need actors, or sets, or equipment, or permissions in order to explore characters and situations. You could be as high-minded and experimental and idealistic and unrealistic as you liked.
At least that’s what I thought. Until I tried to find a publisher. Try to approach a publisher with a novel without a strong, clear narrative line. Poems? Short stories? Hum… Not surprisingly, after a couple of years of complete creative freedom, I was unable to find one. I probably wouldn’t have minded this so much – burning away in complete obscurity, longing in isolation – if I had been able to find likeminded people with whom I could share my Modernist and Neo-Realist and Abstract-Expressionist and Nouvelle Vague and Nouveau Roman and numerous other views. But I didn’t. People seemed no longer interested in those or any other such ideas, or ideals, those grandiose aspirations. What had happened, I kept asking myself, to artistic and stylistic endeavour? What had happened?
Well, the eighties had happened. The decade of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, of Miami Vice and Mtv, of Michael Jackson and Wham!, of Giorgio Armani and Gianni Versace, of Steven Spielberg and Top Gun, of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer and the invention of the high concept blockbuster. Why worry about style and content, about feelings and passion, when you could make so much money?
And then the nineties I was living in were, in a sense, in an artistic sense, even more conservative. A time of no-nonsense, corporate consolidation, takeovers and monopolies. Art was something you put in a museum, or a library – not in a spreadsheet. Genres, formulas, distribution channels, press and publicity and, most importantly, the name of big film stars could all be budgeted and accounted for. Originality couldn’t. Therefore, more often than not, originality would just be left out.
This state of affairs, however, was not bad news for everyone. One art form fared particularly well in these slippery, market-driven, highly corporate and newly computerized conditions. It thrived in them. It embraced new technologies and moved quietly from the margins to suddenly take centre stage. I am referring, of course, to the graphic arts.
And if I had to pick one graphic design company to design an identity for those two decades, for the big-buck slickness of those decades, I think I could do worse than going to Pentagram.
Pentagram’s name has come to epitomize a certain refined and yet hard-nosed and market-driven approach to design. The company and its approach were so successful that, by the late eighties and early nineties, no designer in his right mind would have dreamt of turning down and invite to join the partners. Pentagram had become the Hollywood of design. Its list of partners read like a Who’s Who of the design world. And yet, by the early nineties, Alan Fletcher, the name we had all come to associate with the foundation of Pentagram, had decided to climb down from this shining pantheon and leave the company.
In his early years as a graphic artist, Alan Fletcher studied under Anthony Froshaug and travelled extensively and came into close contact with some of his modernist heroes: Paul Rand, Robert Brownjohn, Ivan Chermayeff, Saul Bass, among others. He then returned to London, via Venezuela, Italy and a number of more or less utopian projects. In London, Alan Fletcher teamed up with his old schoolmate Colin Forbes and formed Fletcher/Forbes. Please note that in those days designers were still, more often than not, employed by the companies they did work for. To start your own design company was quite a new thing, as well as a big step towards independence. Fletcher/Forbes were then joined by the exuberant Bob Gill and, on April Fool’s day 1962, formed Fletcher/ Forbes/Gill. London was not quite yet the swinging city of Blow-Up and Tonite Let’s All Make Love In London legend. Companies were still ran by men with bowler hats and rolled umbrellas. Somewhere, I remember Alan Fletcher describing it as a grey place lit by 40-watt bulbs. But the old London and the old class-system had already started to break down, allowing a whole new generation of artists and ideas and accents and fashions and life-styles to swagger their way in through the cracks. Fletcher/Forbes/Gill was one of those. Their approach was typical of that generation. Brash, bouncy, ambitious, playful and down-to-earth.
‘I could summarize it like this.’ Alan Fletcher would later say, ‘The first thing we did was to enjoy ourselves. Then we wanted to produce the best possible work. And finally, to make as much money as possible.’ This was business, yes, but business with a pinch of salt. When Bob Gill left, Fletcher/Forbes/Gill became Crosby/Fletcher/Forbes, which continued to grow until it became (you just couldn’t keep lining up surnames indefinitely) in 1971, Pentagram. The name was Fletcher’s idea, and I now think that the term’s other association – Pentagram being one of the most ancient symbols for witchcraft – was no accident. As we shall see, to keep doing what he did, he must have been quite a bit of a magician.
In many ways, Alan Fletcher is an unlikely hero for those years. His work is witty, good-humoured. It is nervy and clever. His referencing is vast and yet the result never fails to engage us with its directness, its freshness and spontaneity, its hold on the senses and the emotions. When one talks about the art of those decades, the word post-modern often comes up. Well, Alan Fletcher’s work doesn’t look very post-modern. In fact, it strikes you as rather the opposite of that. It seems naïve. Not faux-post-modern-naïve, but just naïve. It has a sense of pure child-like excitement. It can also veer dangerously close to nostalgia. Again, not our contemporary, sneering, revivalist, wink, wink kind of nostalgia.
On the other hand, his more corporate work has none of that seriousness and the sober, technological slickness, which we have come to associate with the advertising, the packaging and the corporate design of those decades. Neither does his work seem to have been affected by the advent of new technologies. Scratchy pen lettering, collage, coloured papers, stencils, sketches, found objects. He seems to have been more at ease with pencils and scissors than with a Mac. I scanned through a number of pictures of his studio without being able to locate a single computer. Amazing, when one thinks of what most professional design studios look like these days. Alan Fletcher insisted, despite the vast growth of Pentagram’s business, on keeping a small team (just two designers and two assistants). He was determined not to lose touch with the ‘craft’, the magic of making graphic images. He didn’t want to become a manager, a coordinator, another ‘visionary’ designer, whose great works have lost touch with human sentiment.
A good example of his creative thinking is a poster he designed for an open-air exhibition in Hampstead. It consists of a crudely drawn map. It is as if someone had taken a scrap of paper and tried to draw you a plan. The lines are shaky and convey a definite sense of urgency. The design makes you stop and frown at it. Hang on second. Something is wrong here. Actually, many things are wrong here. This thing should be in someone’s pocket, on a small piece of paper, and not on an A1 poster on the wall. The shaky pencil line should never have been reproduced on this scale. At first you feel like laughing at it, then you start warming up to it. There’s something nice and human about this terrible drawing. Finally, it makes you want to follow the instructions and actually go to the exhibition. Job done. Problem solved. And while getting there, the designer has managed to break just about every rule in the book.
Note that this kind of approach may have been a lot more often, especially in advertising, in the past few years. The poster I have just described, however, was designed in the sixties.
That brings me back to the image of Alan Fletcher as a magician, the Harry Potter of the design industry, a wizard armed with a pair of scissors, a sketchbook, a few pencils and a palette of coloured papers, which he uses to hold whole corporations in a trance. When you look at his work for corporate clients you get the feeling that he was in no way constrained by their bureaucracy, or their budgets, or their demands. Even more surprisingly, he seemed to be having fun solving the problems his clients were coming to him with.
It was pure magic.
But by the end of Margaret Thatcher’s eighties, as the profits and the big contracts and the corporate clients and the industry articles and the prizes accumulated, the magic seemed to be wearing out. In 1991, Alan Fletcher left Pentagram. He sold his shares and set up his own independent studio, in a mews house just across from his home in Notting Hill. These were no big swanky headquarters. This new space was clearly aimed at making design on a human scale. It was also at this period that he became the art director of publishing company Phaidon Press (where, one day, famously, he asked someone for a pencil, only to realise that no one in the building could supply him with one) and worked on a number of visual art books, some of which would become very personal projects.
So why was Alan Fletcher no longer having fun in the company he had helped to create and done so much for? Had he grown disillusioned with the routine of corporate design? Had that pinch-of-salt lost itself in the cash-flow? To be quite honest, I have no idea. He may just have fancied a change of air. But there are a number of reasons why I think someone with artistic ambitions (and Alan Fletcher clearly still nourished that, right up to the very end) may not always feel so cosy working in a place like Pentagram.
The accurate planning and budgeting of a company like Pentagram can make it difficult for their designers to work on smaller projects that are personally, but not always financially, rewarding. The overheads of such a large company will also have an impact on their fees, making them unaffordable for smaller, independent clients, which are often the ones coming up with the most interesting jobs. And then there is the obvious fact that work made for big-money clients like investment banks and government agencies and real estate brokers and multinational companies can, more often than not, end up being, for pretty obvious reasons, impersonal, conservative, stiff. In the long run, a designer’s work is likely to lose a lot of its freshness and lyricism and warmth. Let’s face it, how inspiring can an insurance company be? How inspiring can the result be to others? To return to my movie parallels, a big budget is not always a guarantee of a good movie. It is usually the other way round. Those who manage to follow in Alan Fletcher’s footsteps and recapture some of that magic are, unfortunately, in design just as in film, the exception, not the rule.
By the way, it is interesting to note that, more or less at the same time as Alan Fletcher was leaving Pentagram, another partner was joining: Peter Saville. But he too would soon leave the company. Peter Saville couldn’t adapt to its routine or meet its £600,000 minimum annual turnover. Of course he couldn’t adapt. He was an artist! With a bohemian life-style to match.
Imagine that. No, we can’t have that.
But don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to suggest that Pentagram, or the designers working within this structure, didn’t produce great artwork. No more than I am suggesting that novels shouldn’t have plots, or that artists shouldn’t catch up with dealers and collectors in international art-fairs, or that architects should choose to disregard health & safety regulations, or that designers should make a point of missing deadlines in order to prove their creative independence. I am just trying to show how, in the last few decades, the cultural and economical (and dare I say moral?) environment surrounding the creation of works of art has changed dramatically.
I might just as well have said: the market has changed dramatically.
Of course, I was never part of Pentagram’s glamorous world. As a matter of fact, at the time we are talking about, I was not part of any world. I was just an unpublished writer and a very badly paid bookseller. But my experience as a bookseller taught me one thing. It was such an important thing though. Working in a bookshop taught me that there was no shortage out there, out in the streets, of people like me, dreamers like me, people who were not so interested in making (or gaping at) big-bucks, or hit-parades, or box-office charts, but people looking for art that meant something to them, art that made them want to create more art. In other words, art that inspired them. It also taught me that this kind of art was not necessarily the art that was being hyped up in the media, shown in the best cinemas across the country, or marvelled at in the museums and the art galleries.
I realised that there was a great deal of enthusiasm surrounding certain, to me still totally unknown, creative fields. In the area of graphics, I remember the impact of books like David Carson’s End Of Print and 2nd Sight, or the first Tomato books, or Attik’s series of Noise books, or Rick Poynor’s Typography Now books, or even the first books on web-design (such as the first two Browser books by Liz Faber and Patrick Burgoyne). I also remember selling a lot of copies of Alan Fletcher’s own Beware Wet Paint.
But this enthusiasm was not confined to the area of design. In the field of photography, I remember the impact of Nick Knight’s work (with its digitally reworked photographs), or that of Nan Goldin’s various books, which reveal, and at times indulge in, another side of those decades, and which I believe have had a huge influence not just on the world of art and photography, but also that of fashion. And, despite the fact that people in the media and in publishing liked to say that graffiti was dead, a seventies and eighties quirk, I still remember the creative stir caused by street art compilations like the first Lodown and Scrawl Collective publications. Not to mention their impact on high-street fashion and trainer trends. I also remember the rush of people running into bookshops to buy Damien Hirst’s huge book, published by Booth-Clibborn Editions, though I can’t help feeling, now as I did then, that what made that book such an amazing and desirable object was the unmistakable graphic style of the book’s designer (I would really like to say co-author) Jonathan Barnbrook.
I remember how some books became the subject of widespread rumours. At the helpdesk of the bookshop where I worked we had to reply to an endless stream of enquiries on the subject of ‘The Designers Republic book’. Every day, someone walked into the bookshop and asked me, ‘Hi, mate, when is The Designers Republic book coming out?’ It was supposed to be the even bigger and more amazing even than the Damien Hirst book. I did, in fact, myself, later, as I was working for a publishing company, go after this legendary thing, this El Dorado of creative arts publishing. But, despite having developed a life of its own as a rumour, the book did never see the light of day or the dust of the shelves. And maybe it is just as well. No publication, no matter how timely, could have stood up to such expectation.
And as I witnessed all this, I couldn’t help comparing it with what I had learnt from the past. Every time I had tried to look back over my shoulders towards the past, I had seen something that, though beautiful and moving, bore very little relationship to the world I lived in. Antonioni, Fellini and Tarkovsky seemed to have lived in a different world, with different landscapes and colours and a completely different perception of time than my own (just try to compare the length of shots and scenes in films by Antonioni, Tarkovsky & Cassavettes with those on Mtv). Not to mention a very different currency. It was like looking at, or reading about, a different planet altogether. But now this, this new material I was coming across in such books and magazines, this was the world I was living in. This was its art. It was not some ideal and idealized past. It was not the printed legend, Dolce Dreams or Nostalghia’s remote country house. No, it was a living, thriving new thing.
Of course, these books and magazines weren’t free. Noise 3.5 came in metal plates and cost £65, which was quite a bit of money – is still quite a bit of money – while the Damien Hirst/Jonathan Barnbrook book wasn’t cheap either. Yet people, and not collectors, just normal people, people off the streets, artists some of them, queued to buy them. And they weren’t planning to resell them on eBay (eBay didn’t exist then). No, they just wanted to get their hands on fresh new visual ideas.
Beware Wet Paint. Marcel Duchamp had used the phrase to warn us about the fact that it takes time to judge the worth of a work of art. Clearly these people, these customers, didn’t mind getting their hands dirty. They were not there to stand back and nod at celebrated old masterpieces. On the contrary, they were there to dive nose first, with tantalizing downward looks, into the fresh ink smell of a new book or magazine. They were also the first ones surfing the web in search of new mediums, new ways of communicating.
You may think that this is going a bit too far, but I couldn’t help thinking that this was it: what I had found was, finally, our own New Wave. My future business partner (whom I had met while working in that bookshop) and I could feel it buzzing around us: energy, enthusiasm, discovery, money. In other words, a market.
We were so convinced about the existence and the importance of this market that we decided to set up our small art bookshop not where you would expect such an affair, in a small side-street where other small bookshops gathered and managed to scrape a living, but right in the trendy, commercial core of London, amid the fashion labels and the trainer shops. I remember the look of disbelief in the faces of reps from publishing houses when we told them about the fact that we intended to set up an art bookshop in Covent Garden. A lot of people just thought we were kidding. They thought we just couldn’t be for real. But that’s because they didn’t know about this new market.
So, with a lot of ideas and very little initial capital, we set up our small bookshop in February 2000. As we had suspected, there was a market out there for what we were offering. We could feel it pulling, sucking books off our shelves, day in, day out, pulling so hard our small bookshop soon started to feel a bit too small.
A market is a tricky and demanding mistress. Coy and grateful at first, it didn’t take long before it developed a voracious appetite. After a brief honeymoon, that market started to crave quantity and variety. Can one order online? Someone would ask. Not just yet, but it’s coming, it’s coming, we would reply, while trying to figure out how to get an internet connection. Why don’t you have more books on architecture and fashion and product design? Why don’t you have chairs one could sit on to look at the books? We could feel our market growing fidgety and impatient. Why is your children’s books section so small? Have you heard of such and such magazine? The market would never take no for answer. Why did you run out of that book? When is it coming back in stock? The market would not accept failure, or disappointment. That book not out yet? Why? Day in, day out, the demands kept coming. Why aren’t all the books on the website also in the shop? Why don’t you sell toys and t-shirts and stationery? Posters? Where is your changing room? Our small bookshop seemed to grow smaller by the hour. There were days when the market would get crazy ideas. Books and cheese, for instance. Or a coffee shop. Have you ever thought of a bar? Designer beers? Wouldn’t it just be lovely to be looking at these books while guzzling down a nice bottle of Chablis? Would red wine stain the books? Magma Warsaw may have been out of the question. But what about Budapest and Lisbon and Vancouver and Rio de Janeiro and Sidney and, yes, why not, Leeds?
In the end, we didn’t have much choice. In our shrinking shop in Covent Garden we simply didn’t have enough shelf or storage space to fulfil demand. Aside from other considerations, if we hadn’t made up our minds to grow we would have found ourselves surrounded by disappointed and ever more frustrated customers. So we tried to grow. We opened more shops, bigger shops, and realised that in order to run these properly we had to create management structures and turn ourselves into a proper company, a respectable business.
There we go again. Business, commerce, money. Dling, dling.
I remember how, now and then, I would get the odd, sarcastic remark about money and commerce. This was usually uttered by a very passionate though slightly disappointed acquaintance, friend, or customer, usually someone who had been frustrated by not being able to find enough material on the particular area they happened to be passionately engaged with at the time, or who had just been told that we had let go of a title he or she felt was, for one reason or another, particularly important.
It wasn’t selling fast enough then? No market for it? I see… Yes, of course, it’s all about money, isn’t it? The remark would suggest. What else would you doing this for, if not for the money?
But as I took the money and shrugged off the sarcasm (was I doing it for the money? But of course I was doing it for the money!) while handing them back the change and the receipt, I couldn’t help frowning and asking myself. Did they have a point? Had I become just another dirty capitalist? Was I selling out? Giving up on my high-minded dreams in order to exploit those of others? Had I sold out?
I don’t think so. We are a shop and as such we are happy to accept people’s money. But we do so for products we have decided ourselves, independently, regardless of pressure exerted by suppliers or publishers’ marketing strategies, to put on our shelves. These are items we thought were worth having a look at, things we thought may be of interest to someone and every time someone buys something it means we have succeeded in doing our job. Ideally, every purchase would be a healthy and stimulating exchange with our market, that cunning and devious and challenging and moody and mystifying mistress.
To cut a long story short, I believe that real creative power is the power to think independently and create your own reality. Independence is not something one is born with. Nothing is less independent than a child or, despite the now popular assumption, a teenager. To be strong-willed is not to be independent. To be independent is to do what Alan Fletcher did at the age of 60, when he left a very successful and lucrative position to embark on a completely new adventure.
PS. To come back to the subject of Pentagram’s business model and how design companies engage with big corporate clients in an attempt to turn themselves into a successful businesses, I feel I should also mention the fact that one could also argue quite the opposite point of view.
One example. In the latest issue of Graphic (Graphic 10), we published an extract of Stefan Sagmeister’s diary, ‘My Year of Graphic Design Without Clients’. As the name indicates, the diary records how the New York based designer chose, after 7 years running his own studio, to spend a whole year without taking on any client projects. At one point, Sagmeister records the excitement of hearing that some of his studio’s work had won a poster competition. But the excitement is short-lived. Let me quote him:
‘But then doubts came up,’ He writes in his diary, ‘There is an entire group of highly talented, mostly European designers who create posters for the tiny theater, the rock concert or worst of all, the environmental or peace poster. With few exceptions, these things are printed in small runs of a couple of hundred, I guess only a couple of dozen actually go up on the street, the rest is distributed to various design competitions, museums and collectors around the world. It’s just such a waste of talent that all this energy goes into the creation of something that nobody outside of the design community ever sees. We should be designing coke bottles, postal trucks and huge commercial web sites, instead of leaving those jobs (which really do have a cultural impact) to the marketing/branding idiots.’
This is a fair enough point. But I would also like to note that it is being raised (in a self-initiated and unpaid project) by a designer who chose to spend a whole year without doing work for clients.
And to return to my artistic beliefs, I don’t believe it would be healthy to have to choose between this or this other approach, between the pro-market, or the pro-independence view. In fact, I believe that this tension, this clash between independent and corporate work, between self-initiated and client-based work, between the need for creative freedom and the need for profitability, between the sweetness of one’s dreams and the harsh reality of the world, is a highly creative one. It has challenged artists and helped them move forward creatively from the ancient world, through the Renaissance, and all the way down to us. And in our own time, Stefan Sagmeister, just like Alan Fletcher, is a good example of someone who has managed to balance both without compromising the freshness, the originality, and the quality of his work.
This is a reedited and extended version of a lecture delivered on the 16th of January at the National Academy of the Arts in Oslo. Thanks to Maziar Raein and Dori Gislason and everyone who contributed to make it such a pleasant event.
Picturing and Poeting
The Art of Looking Sideways
Profile – Pentagram Design
The Pentagram Papers
Stefan Sagmeister: My Year Without Clients in Graphic 10