T-Shirt Detail, 2006. Designer unknown.
On a recent trip to Los Angeles, we stayed with a friend whose remarkable art collection included work by Robert Mapplethorpe, Joel-Peter Witkin and the painter Squeak Carnwath, prompting more than a few questions from our children. Fortunately we are no strangers to such queries, having survived the Diane Arbus show at SFMoMA a few years back, when the smalls were even smaller. This time, however, our children seemed more curious about what made these pieces 'art,' resulting in lengthy conversations about interpretation, which quickly led to the question of how hard someone should have to work to 'get' something. Like most children, ours haven't been on the planet long enough to possess the references necessary to read, let alone appreciate, certain works of art. But increasingly, the effort to make viewers work harder to 'get' what's going on is on the rise.
And nowhere is this more prevalent than in design.
Several years ago, I watched a graduate student present her body of work to a posse of selected critics with the disclaimer, "I think I'm on the right track, but I'm not sure if it's subversive enough." Since then, I've seen subversive yearnings replaced by a widespread belief in complexity as the new Holy Grail. The result is work that, while often visually striking, is often layered, quixotic and dense beyond belief.
It is possible, even likely that the tools we use make for more polished products and cover their tracks so slickly that the once-exposed process is rendered obsolete. When I was a student, we showed "process books" along with our finished work, sometimes to apologize for the inadequacies of the final solution by showing how much work we'd done along the way. I have no doubt that process books are still employed, but beyond their occasional appearance in the classroom, their function (let alone their impact) appears to be minimal.
But tools aren't the only culprit here. In Eye's recent issue on ornament in design, Alice Twemlow speculated on some of the cultural reasons for the recent popularity and widespread prevalence of decorative excess. To many (most?) of us, it comes as a welcome visual language in the wake of so many years of modernist restraint. It's like design's been on a diet and finally gets to eat that giant cheesecake: shifting notches on the belt buckle, we're so happy for the sugar high that we don't realize we're slipping. And slipping we are.
Regarding ornament, we've come a long way from the didacticism of Owen Jones, whose nineteenth-century classic, The Grammar of Ornament, advised strict adherence to an underlying geometric rationale. Such a formulaic approach to making work might be said to have persisted through the early years of modernism, a time in which grid systems (and a liberal use of sans-serif fonts) were approached in a similar manner. Today's decorative leanings, however, appear to lean less to the geometrical than the overtly botanical. I've participated in judging several juried exhibitions this year in which I've seen a preponderance of twisted and winding viney things, which I've taken to referring to as "thornament." At the high end of "thornament" is the work of Canadian designer Marian Bantjes, whose whimsical use of line is balanced by her disciplined use of typographic form. (Bantjes recently collaborated with Stefan Sagmeister on a site-specific project in Berlin that, serendipitously, actually incorporates real vines.) Without skill and an underlying sense of what's being communicated, thornament, like ornament, is just a muddle. "It makes me nuts only in that it makes something that's very easy look very complicated for no particular reason," notes Bantjes. "There's a huge amount of what I'd call barfing on the page."
Barfing on the page, indeed. And where does it come from, this inability to stop, to hold back, to self-edit? I blame the culture of easy-access: Flickr, Photoshop plug-ins, skateboard culture, IM'ing, DJ mash-ups, and the failure of the slow food movement to gain any traction in the design press. Funny, yes, but I'm actually serious: many a cultural historian has tried, and will try to excavate the provenance of design work that is pictorially layered and comunicationally dense, and they should, because it's everywhere. It's on T-shirts at Old Navy and in classrooms at every design school I've visited in the last two years. It's on packaging and in posters and pushing its way through publications and the somberist of annual reports. Some of it is breathtakingly beautiful, compelling, even entertaining. But most of it is excessive, indulgent and impossible to parse. Of course, one might argue that such density makes you slow down and look harder, experiencing deeper meaning as a result. (In this case, maybe the slow food movement has gained some traction.) On the other hand, it's a can of worms, particularly because it's so easy to hide behind it and even harder, in many instances, to "get" what's really going on. Long term, that's going to present some serious obstacles for design.
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