Detail, Appetite Engineers promotional booklet from It is Beautiful...then Gone, Martin Venezky, 1998
Since its publication earlier this year, Martin Venezky's It is beautiful...then gone has met with scant (any?) critical review. With few surveys of this kind being published, every release seems worthy of examination. Significant questions are still being asked about the monograph's role in design and differing approaches to the form.
That It is beautiful...then gone has kept below the radar is unfortunate but, in its own way, in keeping with Venezky's work. With its oblique origin (he proposed a book on his teaching), lack of hyperbole, and discreet scale, IIBTG seems to deliberately defray attention. In its non-intuitive way (for design), the book demonstrates why Venezky is a distinctive figure in the field. And it's not for the reasons you'd expect.
Venezky is recognized as a strikingly original formalist. He gained attention early, with a feature on his Cranbrook projects in Eye no. 10 (reproduced in IIBTG) and an image on its cover. For much of the 1990s, Venezky had a dream showcase: art directing the feature magazine Speak. He was also selected for the first National Design Triennial at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.
Popular and critical opinion focuses almost exclusively on the beauty of Venezky's work and his unique methods of generating it. Though not necessarily a Luddite, he eschews the digital for "design made difficult": time-consuming, handmade constructions in which found imagery plays a prominent role. Efficiency is subordinated to efficacy. Opinion on the quality of Venezky's work isn't unanimous, though not rising to the point of controversy. (Are there any more formal outrages left?) He has been criticized for incomprehensible layouts (Speak editor Dan Rolleri admits that Venezky's distinctive style limited their ad sales), and the limited practicability of his processes and products.
Venezky's accomplishment is not so much in the innovation of his form, but its ability to summon a particular, subtle mood that is unique in design. The designer declares it plainly in his writing; Venezky is a literary designer, both in his underappreciated talent as a writer, and in his design sensibility. The title of his conversational introductory essay states it clearly: "Design and Melancholy." Is there any other designer with this perspective on their activity? To link these two things is professionally risky, but for Venezky, essential.
Venezky expresses design in terms of decay, memory, and "...the shadowy world of before, the impending excitement of things on the verge, and the discarded world of after..." This is lousy copy for a capability brochure. The title of this book itself is a statement of impermanence, evanescence, and loss. Design famously boasts of timelessness, order, and celebration.
Typically a promotional vehicle, graphic design trades in the positive. It is rarely reflective or ambiguous. If form is called upon to send a message, to generate a mood, it is decidedly upbeat. (Except in the realm of information design, where the message is: what's love got to do with it?) Even if not flaunting smiley faces, the common graphic design presents a "Have a Nice Day!" air. What distinguishes the exemplary practitioners is their willingness and ability to break that cheery façade. They dig deeper, mix it up, have shadings, play minor chords.
In its purposeful and fragmentary nature, Venezky's work evokes more deliberative moods. But it is never dispirited. It is affirming by compulsively collectingeverything is of valuethen remaking life's debris. If the hallmark of art is making us rethink the commonplace, Venezky's work is made worthy by his transformations of the ordinary. It is a feat of observation, acquisition, and dedication. His results are dreamlike in the way dreams stage their dramas on cheap sets. Your everyday digs stand in for Paris, or outer space.
While IIBTG's contributing writers name-check prominent artists (Malevich, Léger, Calder) when discussing Venezky, they surprisingly overlook a more obvious relation: Joseph Cornell. This influential artist famously compiled and collaged. Cornellwho did commissioned magazine and self-initiated design workconstructed his own melancholy world from salvaged scraps. Where Cornell employed images of Medici princes or Lauren Bacall, Venezky uses antiquated found photographs. It lends both artists an out-of-time aspect to their work that is mysterious and evocative.
Venezky's products are the antithesis of what's considered the finest proof of formal design success: "inevitability." Inevitability is a sign of conformity: that a popular Platonic ideal exists of what design should look like. The "inevitable" design channels that ideal. This is often advisable. Design often needs to acknowledge and meet expectations to create effective meaning. But, as an artifact of culture, design should also beat least occasionallyexpanding culture. By adding melancholy to design's sensibility, Venezky brings a maturity to the field, the possibility of conveying something deeper than synthetic cheer or disinterest.
As mentioned before, Venezky is a very literary designer. His typography reveres words; his stuttering repetition of characters savors the experience of characters. Violence isn't being done to language; it is being exercised, indulged. A careful consideration of his layouts shows an ultimate concern for readability, with classic typefaces in somewhat quirky, but regular settings. Variations on norms are measured and rarely inaccessible.
IIBTG reminded me how unremarkable I usually found Speak's covers. (I was a rare subscriber.) And this book's cover is similarly restrained. Compared to Venezky's stunning poster work, they're puzzling letdowns. But this is further evidence of his appreciation of the specific task at hand. He engages the entire article, not merely the flashy opening spread. The covers are of a piece with the whole issue, setting a low-key and intriguing tone.
IIBTG still misses opportunities. Even if he considers his pre-Cranbrook work unrepresentative (or embarrassing), it would be enlightening to see Venezky's design before the apotheosis. Was there no precursora wholesale transformation? And to mention but be given such a tiny sample of his Spec magazine project is frustrating. Where design monographs are usually too graphic design-centric in their estimation, IIBTG gives no perspective on Venezky's place in the field. Two abstract essays from staffers at the same art museum is one too many (they also qualify as client testimonials).
The teaching material that initiated IIBTG here becomes an interesting but unrealized addendum. The student works are doodles without context. Unlike Venezky's explication of his studio collages, there's no explanation of whether or how the student imagery was used as more than abstract exercises. Form is never an end in itself for Venezky, but the school projects never go beyond form.
It is also unfortunate that Venezky didn't include his philosophy statement ("Design that wants what people want") from the website of this firm, Appetite Engineers. It is one of the most succinct, sensible, and inspiring statements on design that's been written. It would've been nice to have it on paper with the work.
But what is on the pages is welcome and enlightening. IIBTG isn't meant to be the definitive statement on Martin Venezky's design. Like the work it holds, the book's an attempt to convert the ephemeral to permanence, melancholy to delight. The possibilitythe promiseof making things into (and seeing things as) their opposites is the contrary intention of this book. It is beautiful...and here.
Kenneth FitzGerald is an Associate Professor of Art at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, teaching in the undergraduate Graphic Design and graduate Visual Studies programs.