Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City and founding director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. An author of numerous books and articles on design, she is a public-minded critic, frequent lecturer, and AIGA Gold Medalist. Read More

Eccentric to Whom?

“Eccentric to Whom?” Essay by J. Abbbott Miller, published in special issue of AIGA Journal of Graphic Design on eccentricity, edited by Steven Heller, 1992

Eccentricity is a relative term, depending for its life on convention, normality, and tradition. During the teens and twenties the European avant-gardes sought to dissolve the boundaries between art and design. In America, as the profession of graphic design matured and its commercial potential evolved, there was a self-consciousness about the differences and similarities between art and design. Schizophrenically, designers have invoked the the similarities to shore up the cultural stature of their profession, while using the differences to assert the field’s economic, social, and scientific legitimacy. Designers have historically claimed the good parts of “artistic expression” while also insisting on their unique professional ability to control such expressiveness in a rational, strategic way. The glib equation “art + business = design” sums up a whole genre of design journalism produced from the 1930s through the 70s, which portrayed art as the wild beast tamed by the civilizing interests of commerce.

Design and art have moved closer together since the advent of Pop. Especially since the early 1980s, one can observe the phenomenon of art-influenced design and design-influenced art. Indeed, much work going on in graduate programs in design is closer to a form of art production than to the professionally-defined concerns of design. Since graduate programs are sites of advanced research, it is appropriate that they should pioneer new areas of inquiry and new formal languages. As designers become more and more invested in formal explorations, and as we begin to set our own conceptual and ideological agendas, we move closer to painting, sculpture, installation art, etc.

There are two ways that contemporary designers cross into the territory of art. The first, and more familiar, is through treating design as an abstract medium comparable to painting, and exploring the surface of the page for its formal, expressive possibilities. Much of the “new typography” of the 1970s and 80s falls into this category. Indeed, Wolfgang Weingart once called his mode of syntactical research “typography as painting.” David Carson’s layout’s for Beach Culture and Ray Gun—created for self-proclaimed subcultures of eccentricity—embrace a different style but chart similar territory, revelling in the intuitive and abstract possibilities of typography.

Another way that designers attempt to enter the territory of art is through entering its institutional framework—the context of the gallery or the museum. This is far more difficult to achieve, as it requires the social savvy to transcend the class barriers between the art world and the realm of visual “services” represented by graphic designers. Whereas designers have generally welcomed the prestige and pleasure of art into their fold, the art world is less generous towards designers. Many graduate school thesis projects in recent years have borrowed formats from the realm of gallery-based installation art, rejecting the medium of the typographic book, the traditional format for thesis research. It remains to be seen, however, whether graphic designers will be able to continue working in this mode after graduate school. While I believe such explorations are good for design, there are few institutions (galleries, museums) that will recognize, cultivate, and advance the cause of such design. It is difficult enough for artists to find funding and venues for challenging work: designers will have to get in line behind them.

Someone who has successfully crossed between the institutions of art and design is Dan Friedman, who abandoned a career in the early 80s as a corporate graphic designer to produce experimental “art furniture.” Friedman, who calls himself “an artist whose subject is design and culture,” showed his work at the Fun Gallery in New York’s East Village and went on to build an international reputation for his narrative, brightly colored chairs, tables, and lamps. Friedman found a warmer reception in Europe than in the U. S., especially in Italy and France, cultures that recognize furniture as a form of social poetry. Friedman will soon return to his roots as a graphic design educator—in 1995 he will become director of the graphic design program at The Cooper Union, where he plans to mix a rigorous approach to typography with an openness to the eccentric edges of the discipline.

Class Action is a group of students and graduates of Yale University’s MFA program in graphic design. The group formed in 1992 out of a course taught by Marlene McCarty and Donald Moffett. (McCarty and Moffett, partners in the New York studio Bureau, live double lives as artists and designers; both have successful careers in the art world, but they keep the two activities rigorously separate.) Class Action is a free-form collective that assembles around projects initiated by the group. Class Action deals with social issues ranging from domestic violence and AIDS awareness to health insurance.

Their 1993 exhibition at the New Haven Artspace, called Aiding Awareness, consisted of chairs, recorded voices, and printed texts, relaying the experiences of New Haven women who are HIV+. The thoughtful, low-tech, yet highly emotive installation was cited as best in its category in ID magazine’s 1994 Design Review. The project represented an effective use of a gallery space by a group of graphic designers. As a model of practice, Aiding Awareness was not clearly marked as either art or design, but fell somewhere off-center from both.

Friedman’s description of himself as “an artist whose subject is design and culture” suggests ways that contemporary artists are exploring the territory of design. Such excursions are rarely defined in terms of the narrow formal and professional concerns identified with “graphic design,” but more often look at “media” or “mass culture” more generally. From Andy Warhol to Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince, such confrontations with the public landscape of printed matter have yielded compelling visual vocabularies which have, in turn, influenced graphic design. These artists uncovered a visual energy in the “vernacular” of mass communication which the refined, professionalized language of “graphic design” had left behind.

The collective Art Club 2000, a group of students and graduates from The Cooper Union’s BFA program, has had two exhibitions at the gallery American Fine Arts Co. The group describes their 1992 gallery installation, called Commingle, as a “generationally specific critique of the Gap.” It included an installation using stolen Gap garbage and point-of-purchase display materials, as well as an “Individuals of Style” portrait center where patrons could order their own Gap-like ads. A portfolio of Art Club’s photographs appeared in a 1993 issue of Artforum magazine, featuring the collective in various “Generation X” poses: in matching striped t-shirts at an East Village coffee bar, lounging nude in bed at the Paramount Hotel, absurdly defiant album-cover poses at an intersection of Times Square wearing coordinated grunge denim. You get the picture….

At a recent conference in New York, Art Club 2000 staged the following performance for an audience consisting primarily of designers: – Stage is empty except for large screen at rear of stage. – Extremely loud Nirvana blares over speakers. (Kurt Cobain had committed suicide just two days before.) – Enter stage right: seven twenty-something men and women carry large boxes emblazoned with IKEA logos. They are dressed in similar athletic attire: metallic-sheen running shorts, windbreakers, and blue-striped tube socks. – Simultaneously: the screen at stage rear projects a video showing the same group of seven piling out of a car and entering the IKEA store in Elizabeth, New Jersey. IKEA, the gigantic Swedish manufacturer of knock-down furniture, flaunts its design-consciousness as loudly as its low prices. Members of Art Club shop and pose in different domestic vignettes in the IKEA showroom, then eat Swedish meatballs and smoke cigarettes in the IKEA cafeteria. – Over the next 7 minutes: on stage, the boxes are opened and the furniture is built. The group assembles a new “living room,” complete with couch, tables, lamps, and houseplants, and gathers together for a group photo. – Over the next 7 minutes: the entire process is put in reverse as the furniture is disassembled, returned to boxes, and carried off-stage. – Video ends with IKEA logo on screen, loud music (blessedly) ends, lights fade.
The cycle is completed exactly within 15 minutes. Some booing and hissing can be heard in the audience.

In the discussion period that followed, several audience members questioned Art Club’s “objectives,” “purpose,” goals,” and “agenda.” The questions implied that the performance should have had a clearly defined point, a containable message or moral. Someone wanted to know how much Art Club had spent on the furniture, someone else wanted to know if they were going to return it, someone else wanted to know the difference between Art Club and a “regular” IKEA customer. Slowly but surely the audience was turning into what John Grisham might ominously call “The Client.” I think that many people in the audience wanted to fire the members of Art Club.

The only definitive response came when someone asked if the members of Art Club were designers. In unison, they quickly swung their heads in disapproval: “No, we’re artists.” Now the audience had their answer: the beast had been identified and now we could rest. They’re artists, not designers. Problem solved. The interaction produced, negatively, a working definition of designers as people who 1) have a point to make, an agenda; 2) work with pre-established communication goals; 3) have clients.

A different approach to the eccentric space between art and design has been pursued by Michael Lebron, who describes himself as neither an artist nor a designer but as a critical realist: “Critical realism starts from the premise that advertising is to corporate consumer culture what social realism was to the Communist cultures of eastern Europe.” With years of experience as an art director for pharmaceutical companies, Lebron knows how to make information ready for public consumption by giving it an appealing format. In his projects as a “critical realist,” Lebron is not especially interested in critiquing the formal language of mass media—as seen in the work of Kruger, Prince, and Art Club. Instead, he seeks to mobilize that language to serve to his own purposes. During the mid- and late-1980s, Lebron rented advertising space in subways and bus shelters in New York and Washington, D. C., where he posted clean, official-looking statements about U. S. intervention in Nicaragua and other issues. Lebron thus exploited both the formal vocabulary and the institutional channels of mass media to create and send political messages rarely found in the public spaces reserved for advertising.

Lebron’s recent attempt to rent the illuminated 103-foot billboard at Penn Station brought him notoreity when Amtrak refused to rent him the space. Lebron’s proposed billboard connects the Coors brewing family with the far-right causes they fund (the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation, the anti-gay publishing of the Free Congress Foundation, and counter-revolutionary groups in Nicaragua, Angola, and the Philippines). The case, Lebron’s third court battle for his work, is still pending. According to Lebron, a ruling in his favor would establish First Ammendment precedents, proving that Amtrak—as a quasi-governmental, Federally subsidized entity—does not have the right to reject political advertising the same way newspapers and magazines do.

Each of these figures has approached the forms and institutions of art and design from a point outside the center of either discipline. For Dan Friedman and Art Club 2000, design is a subject matter to be explored through the objects and institutions of art. The products and spectacles they produce have no clients to please nor any “problems” to “solve.” Class Action used a local art gallery as a forum for public education, generating an experience for viewers that was identifiable as neither art nor design—the intellectual obscurities familiar from art world installations were effaced by the stronger voices of the project’s subjects. Michael Lebron uses forms familiar to media professsionals but gains access to them in an unfamiliar way: not as the passive shaper of corporate messages but as the active buyer of advertising space. Each of these strategies suggests a way to move beyond the center of graphic design. Modern philosophy, linguistics, and literary theory have challenged the viability of “communication,” considered as a transparent delivery or relay system. Design can be used not only as a container for other people’s messages, but as a subject of inquiry and as a channel for initiating new exchanges.