The Creative World’s Bullshit Industrial Complex

The Creative World’s Bullshit Industrial Complex

As editor of 99U, my inbox is (thankfully) filled with pitches of all kinds. Mainly, writers who’d like to contribute to this site and speakers who’d like to throw their hat in the ring for our yearly 99U Conference.

And most times, when we dig deeper into a specific person’s pitch, his or her purported authority is more of a facade to make them appear authoritative — and any ideas are actually a mosaic of people also trying to appear authoritative in a disconcerting house of cards.

They are what philosopher Harry Frankfurt would call “bullshitters.” Those that are giving advice for the sake of giving advice, without any regard as to how it is actually implemented, if it can even be implemented at all. “It’s not important to [the bullshitter] what the world really is like,” he says in a short video documentary about the phenomenon (below). “What is important is how he’d like to represent himself.”

BULLSHIT! (H/T Oliver Burkeman).

In these pitches there’s nothing to suggest the person has any original experience or research or insight to offer said advice. Instead they choose to quote other people who quote other people and the insights can often be traced back in a recursive loop. Their interest is not in making the reader’s life any better, it is in building their own profile as some kind of influencer or thought leader. Or, most frustratingly, they all reference the same company case studies (Hello, Apple and Pixar!), the same writers, or the same internet thinkers. I often encounter writers that share “success advice” learned from a blogger who was quoting a book that interviewed a notable prolific person.

The bullshit industrial complex is a pyramid of groups that goes something like this:

Group 1: People actually shipping ideas, launching businesses, doing creative work, taking risks and sharing first-hand learnings.

Group 2: People writing about group 1 in clear, concise, accessible language.

[And here rests the line of bullshit demarcation…]

Group 3: People aggregating the learnings of group 2, passing it off as first-hand wisdom.

Group 4: People aggregating the learnings of group 3, believing they are as worthy of praise as the people in group 1.

Groups 5+: And downward….

The Complex eventually becomes a full fledged self-sufficient ecosystem when people in group 4 are reviewing books by people in group 3 who are only tweeting people in group 2 who are appearing on the podcasts started by people in group 3.

This Bullshit Industrial Complex has always existed. But thanks to the precarious economics and job prospects of the creative person, it is often in a creative’s financial interest to climb the bullshit pyramid. In the short term, it’s creating a class of (often young) creatives deluded into thinking they are doing something meaningful by sharing “advice.” Long term, it’s robbing us of a creative talent.

startup-vitamins-quotes

Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game

Being quiet and slowly building mastery and expertise doesn’t pay off much at first. So many creatives must make a calculation: Do I want the short term, could-go-viral-at-any-second thrill of being a vocal expert in my field? Or am I more content playing the long game? More people are incentivized to choose the former — and it’s getting crowded in here.

It’s not our fault. We are set up to reward those proclaiming to have the answers. Sometimes the rewards are higher than those for actually doing the creating, as creatives are getting squeezed. Technology can rob you of your mastery. Automation can rob you of your value. Fickle clients can rob you of a paycheck. But once you’re perceived as an expert on the core premises of creativity? You’re in! Mostly.

There are TEDx events spreading from city to city, websites (like this one!) always seeking out voices to share their views and content to stock newsletters and make the social media rounds. Many sites like Medium are, yes, rich with intelligent essays, but also rich with people giving generic advice in the hopes of selling the next ebook containing aggregated advice from other advice givers. And as more of us are tasked with appearing as experts, we’re incentivized to look the other way. For all of the cynicism around something as innocent as a goddamn logo redesign, the creative world sure looks the other way when someone tells us that the key to creativity is just “shipping.”

As someone who edits a website, there are red flags. The person will claim that they’ve written for site x and site y and have z twitter followers. This is coded language for “take me seriously, because other people have!” Sites like ForbesHuffington Post, and Entrepreneur Magazine have “open contributor” policies where almost anyone can get published with little or no editorial oversight. And the reason they have those policies? Because more content equals more advertising dollars. The incentive structure for both sides makes this credibility hopscotch arrangement appealing. It’s the Complex at work.

Book publishers, the ultimate authority vehicle, are the capstone of the Complex but are just as victim to changing economics as any blog. Responses to book pitches often do not involve a thorough deconstruction of your idea and its substance. Instead, they will ask “How can you market this book?” Which really means “How big is your mailing list?” No one has the time or incentive to make sure their ideas advance the conversation. Or are even realistic. I know because every day a book arrives at the 99U offices with ideas as recursive as a rushed Medium blog post.

quote

Above: Advice in an actual published (and popular!) book.

Creative people often despise those that criticize work without having work of their own. Something Teddy Roosevelt referred to as “being in the arena.” We respect opinions from those that are in the trenches with us, doing the hard things that we try to do. But this creative expert class is worse than any critic, offering other people creative salvation in an attempt to find their own. We despise critics with no skin in the game but we’ve handed them the keys to our kingdom and the space on our library bookshelf.

Make Room at the Top

The cynic in you may wonder, “Who cares? The more bullshitters out there, the more the non-bullshitters like me will be valued.” But what is frightening is those among us who consider success as bullshitter as actual success.

Let’s be clear here: Those who write books, speak at conferences, or write essays are not all bullshitters. Many (if not most!) are offering advice that takes its audience into consideration. This is not bullshit. This is good.

What I’m referring to are those that believe being “industry famous” in the creative world is success in of itself. Especially those that start out with that goal in mind. This is where the Complex can poison talent. Being industry famous should be the result of some contribution to the world that the industry respects and wishes to learn from. Or insights unique and useful that it genuinely makes people’s lives better.

Increasingly “creative coaches” and people with “keynote speaker” in their Twitter bios are making their quest to earn authority a higher priority than the very reason they got into this in the first place. Fueling the Complex is alluring catnip that feels like you’re advancing your career the same way answering a bunch of emails just feels productive.

If someone cares more about what their industry peers think of them than the problems they are solving, they’re a bullshitter. If the idea of being “known” is barometer of their success above user (or reader) success stories, they’re a bullshitter. They are the internet’s equivalent of a reality TV star, taking advantage of the attention economy by catering to our worst instincts in lieu of substance.

The “first principle” of why people willingly join the Complex is a matter of external versus internal motivation. If you’re fueled primarily by external validation, the best way to get it is by surrounding yourself with people like you and writing as an “expert” for that group. Voila, here come a thundering stampede of people ready to tell you to follow your passion. And when you make choices based on what others will think about you, you lose yourself along the way, and the world loses another creative mind that would otherwise share something original. And then, we’re stuck with the same voices at the top of the Complex. We all deserve better.

from 99U99U http://bit.ly/2vNpkCb

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The Future of Design, Part II

The Future of Design, Part II

Design is always changing, and wider changes are often spearheaded by design itself. Now with tech and the creative industry increasingly aligning, we’re on the precipice of a truly momentous period in the history of design, something unprecedented that is difficult to predict and prepare for. The way we describe the future in stories is rarely accurate: the optimistic or pessimistic sci-fi narratives of the past saw hover-cars, holograms, and teleportation as everyday items in the 21st century, most significantly failing to predict the Internet and its manifold repercussions. Any predictions that we do make right now will be in vain because of technology’s rapid developments:the devices that will drive even control our lives in a decades time hasn’t been invented or envisioned yet.

With quickly evolving tools, tumultuous shifts in the economy, the relentless growth of the gig and freelance lifestyle, and global networks, the working landscape for young designers is a tremendously uncertain one. There’s no model to follow: The known and well-trodden career path of previous generations is overgrown. What will this mean for the bedroom illustrator creating 3-D characters after school, or for the young freelancer setting up camp in a new coffee shop every day as she travels the world looking for new solutions, or for the promising UX grad poised for a career at a global branding agency?

It’s an uncertain time for design, but in its difficulty and complexity, it is an inspiring and crucial one: Those with the skills will help decide the way that innovations in tech not only look but function, too, and influence our daily lives.

Although we can’t predict the future, we can speak to those with experience who think about what’s in store. We asked each participant to give us their advice: What does their future of design look like? What will it do to the very idea of design. And how can we prepare for it?

Aesthetics will fall by the wayside as humanitarian considerations become of upmost importance.

“We are designers, but we are citizens first, and so we should use our skills to promote and envisage the society that we, as citizens, most want to be a part of. The most relevant questions we’re facing right now have to do with sustainability and the promotion of global equality and fairness. Designers should think about how their skills can be used for social good. When working for a client, for example, they can encourage ‘redesigns’ of the organization of the business so that it’s more sustainable and aware of its social, ecological, and political responsibilities. To give a product an eye-catching, cool surface is of course important, but it’ll be only 10 percent of the job.”

— Erwin K. Bauer, Designer and Founder, Buero Bauer, Vienna

Design will be for ears and not eyes.

 “Voice-controlled tech will mean that there’s less of a need for interface design. Light and sound designers will find themselves with new roles, as will copywriters, and UX designers will need to define innovative user flows. Graphic designers and illustrators shouldn’t be scared, though: We’ll need character designs for digital assistants, first AR, then hopefully holographic ones. They’ll guide us through our calendars or do digital errands, like liking our boss’s Facebook posts.”

— Laszlito Kovacs, Creative Director, WeTransfer, Amsterdam

A broad skill set will be an imperative for getting noticed.

“There’s no longer such a thing as a typical design or branding job. Gone are the days when one simple or trademarked process could be used across multiple, similar client projects. Now, every single project that crosses our path brings new challenges with it. At the beginning of a job we’re often unable to fathom what the final deliverables will even look like as the landscape shifts around us throughout the design process. We’re always getting our heads around designing for the latest technology, methodology, application, media, or format. It’s a fascinating time to be a designer. There will always be space for experts, for those who specialize in the things they are really, really good at, but for others there is the need to diversify. With the democratization of design, ‘every man and his dog’ has a belief in their own design ability. To combat this, designers need to have an array of skills and talents they can draw upon, a range that makes them both fascinating individuals and truly impressive creatives.”

— Katie Taylor, Executive Creative, Director, Brand Union, Berlin

The rise of the independent practitioner will continue rejecting, countering, and perhaps even threatening the traditional agency model.

“Individual practitioners and independent studios have been building and emerging steadily for many years now. We practice within that space; one could define this as a ‘new design industry’ or a ‘counter-design industry.’ The way we work is becoming more sustainable on an economic level; the individual practitioner is becoming a larger part of the cultural landscape and is working on large-scale projects with a significant scope–through conversation and synergy rather than service-based structures. It changes something when you counter the preconceived notion of ‘design industry.’

From our perspective, this space will steadily continue to grow. Entrepreneurialism is key to this kind of independence, whether that’s through designing and selling tools, pieces of code, typefaces, or by forming publishing platforms. We have to train young designers to understand what they are about to emerge into: The independent space is often thought as ‘counterculture,’ but it’s not anymore and we should take advantage of that. Education will be important not just for clarifying this change, but helping students develop new skills that will be useful to exploit it.”

— Rory McGrath, Cofounder, OK-RM, London

Context will be key.

“Working as an illustrator paired with the fact I have a never-ending stream of visuals in front of me is both inspiring and mind-numbing. It’s important to understand the history of where images come from and how they came to be, rather than just mimicking superficial trends. It’s also important to give credit when it’s due. The most original and successful image makers will be the ones who acknowledge and appreciate the tools utilized to share work, but they will also look beyond what’s on the screen for inspiration.”

— Ping Zhu, Illustrator, New York City

Logo design of the future? There will be no such thing.

 “A logo is a clunky piece of communication, unable to adapt to changing environments. It’s absurd to teach logo design to future generations when the world is in constant motion and communication is utterly context-related. It’s like a market crier shouting the same message over and over again instead of listening to customers and adapting to what they say. Don’t get me wrong; we still need logos, but it’s nonsense to start the design process by drawing a static one. The logo is just one image generated by the entire visual system. If we learn how to develop flexible visual systems, the application of the visual identity will be most efficient and effective.”

— Martin Lorenz, Creative Director, Two Points, Hamburg, Germany

The most celebrated brands will use design as a tool to drive positive change.

“We have seen a huge shift in consumer expectations of brands in recent years: They are more skeptical of traditional powers like governments and politicians, and are looking at businesses to be the drivers of positive change. This means that it won’t matter if you can design the most beautiful logo or craft the most intricate typography; it will only matter if you can design to strategically unleash and express a brand’s core truth in a way that connects with consumers on a deeper level. You’ll need to showcase that a brand stands for something more than selling its product. One day designers and marketers will be one and the same–after all, they say the MFA is the new MBA.”

— Julie Peters, Strategy Director, Pearlfisher, New York City

We won’t tell stories; we’ll live them.

“Attention is our most valuable commodity in a fast-paced, digitally noisy world. This is where VR will come in. With 360-video storytelling, you get some level of immersion, but it’s limited, as a user can’t interact with the environment. Story-living, on the other hand, applies to a VRE where ‘presence’–the real magic of VR–is at its most powerful. Within a VRE, you’re fully immersed and the viewer is completely attentive. Unlike traditional film-making where the director has complete control over what the audience gets to see, VR allows viewers to make their own decisions about what they focus on in the scene.

This is a potential problem that no one quite has the answer to yet: How do you keep the level of freedom and interaction that VR allows the viewer while making sure they don’t miss any of the key elements of your piece? There are several options open to the director to ensure the audience’s attention can be focused when necessary: lighting and sound cues, changing the focal point of an object or character on-screen, Even verbal/action cues can be a powerful tool.”

— Sol Rogers, CEO and Founder, Rewind St. Albans, U.K.

Drop your pencils, scrap your notepads, and install your 3-D modeling tools: Innovation in illustration will exist in not two but three dimensions.

“3-D tools are cheap or free for now, and the technical skills of 3-D modeling are becoming a standard part of the designer/illustrator tool kit, not just a lucrative specialization. Traditionally, a lot of 3-D design has looked the same: sleek, realistic, and inspired by trends in industrial design. Given the fact that creatives are becoming more versed in the technical skills for 3-D work, we’ll start to see more and more artists using 3-D modeling not just for mock-up but for artistic expression. There still aren’t that many 3-D illustrators relative to the entire field of illustration, and so there are huge, wide-open areas of the landscape that any illustrator could claim as their own. 3-D illustration might be on the edge of a huge explosion in terms of the variety of styles and points of view that will be explored. It’s a good time to get in on it.”

 — Julian Glander, Illustrator, New York City

Whittle a brush, set up an inkwell, and then take a trip to the library: Those with a deep-rooted knowledge of a craft will be the ones whose work truly endures.

“The world of lettering has, once and for all, been struck by the importance of the hand. This is of course a response to the perfectionism of the computer; graphic design, and type design, achieved a digital sleekness and mathematical precision over the last two decades that a hand never could. ‘Handmade design’ (or that which noticeably was created by a hand-drawn process, or that evidently was made by hand before the piece was digitalized) was not the preferred option for most graphic designers at the end of the 20th century. Nowadays, though, the ‘handmade’ can be spotted everywhere, from printed media to an app interface, and in a world of increasing digitalization, that’s not going to go away anytime soon.

Type design is no exception to the newfound love of the handmade, and of course the ‘trendy’ handmade look of letters was quickly capitalized on by the market. “Responding to a renewed interest in the handmade, the industry created digital versions of hand-drawn processes. With an affordable price tag, this has of course drawn in a huge amount of independent designers and young studios: a turning point for “handmade design,” and one of the reasons that it could become commercially popular and widespread. But because of its popularity, the relevance of the quality of letterforms is being forgotten: In the pursuit of that shaky stroke or that messy baseline that imitates handwriting, the art of calligraphy falls by the wayside. Popularization–and increase in demand—in this case is to the detriment of quality. Only those who chase perfection in their designs and make technology serve their process will be the ones whose work humbly and effortlessly stand outs and is remembered.”

— Yani Arabena and Guille Vizzari, Calligraphers, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Adapt, adopt, experiment: A broad skill set will not only get you noticed, it’ll be imperative for success.

“We’ve noticed in recent years that brands need to keep churning out content in order to engage with their targeted audiences, and that they’re far more focused on digital campaigns as a result. This gives us, as designers, room to experiment with different kinds of execution techniques, to try things out, and to be more playful. The downside is that we churn out content so fast to the detriment of quality, and there’s often significant downscaling when it comes to budget. As a result, it’s unsurprising that we’re seeing more hybrid designers: If you have less of a budget, it’s perhaps better if you can illustrate instead of having to hire an additional hand. Gone are the days where a designer would just be doing one specific role. Our advice for the future is that an illustrator or designer should be able to adapt; they should be able to learn new tools and skills to survive the ever-changing landscape of the industry.”

Fizah Rahim and Rezaliando, Motion Designers, Machine East, Singapore

The most well-known illustrators will be the ones sketching from their beds.

“The resources to create digital artwork have become totally accessible by all, which has seen digital, online communities grow massively, especially 3-D, in the past five years that I’ve been working within the industry. In addition to this accessibility, the nature of sharing work online (namely Instagram) has become such a phenomenon that bedroom artists are being born, and it provides the opportunity and chance for just about anyone to be noticed. The downside to this is that an already saturated industry becomes even more saturated, and imagery becomes watered down. Emerging illustrators and designers are halfway between being in the best and the worst time to start out. Social media has become the ultimate platform to be seen and heard, but the true test is trying to shine out from the masses amongst the melting pot of digital imagery.”

— Rose Pilkington, 3-D illustrator, London

The sharpest web designs will be the ones bursting bubbles.

“We are the first generation to live with the iPhone, and the impact of that little machine on our lives is fundamental. It’s similar to how people were dealing with drugs in the ’60s or ’70s: It’s an exciting, chaotic time, and social conventions still need to be learned. Most people access the web and go straight to Facebook, Google, or another big tech company. The promise of global cultural exchange that the web first espoused has ended up a false one; instead it’s self-indulgent and blinding. Our favorite web designs in the future will be the ones revealing the dangerous patterns, bringing back the old optimism, and making people smile.”

— Luna Maurer and Roel Wouters, IxD Designers and Founders, Studio Moniker, Amsterdam

from 99U99U http://bit.ly/2gm724d

Luca Barcellona: Take Your Pleasure Seriously

Luca Barcellona: Take Your Pleasure Seriously

On a tiny screen in the palm of your hand, an ink-stained hand wielding a white paintbrush slips and darts across a bright red page. It leaves its trace like a figure skater on ice; the shapes look abstract – a thin curve here, a thick line there – but the hand moves with deliberate, authoritative grace. After four and a half hypnotic minutes of this dance, there’s the much anticipated reveal: “Take Your Pleasure Seriously” the strokes demand.

This is the ethos of Italian calligrapher and graphic designer Luca Barcellona, the craftsman to whom the hand in this video belongs. Barcellona, 39, is regularly hailed as one of the world’s greatest working calligraphers. Combining his monkish commitment to the craft with an inventive, youthful sensibility, Barcellona’s contemporary interpretation of hand lettering has coincided with a major resurgence of calligraphy in visual culture. Eager for a humanizing touch, the current proponents of the lettering craze are infatuated with process: Videos of artists in action permeate the web, and no design conference is complete without time marked by the slow production of a handmade typographic mural.

Barcellona recognized, and perhaps even helped inspire, this early on in his career, organizing live shows in clubs in Milan in the early 2000s, later going on to do similar events for galleries, museums, and globally renowned brands. In 2009, he faithfully reproduced a large-scale 1569 globe with quill and natural inks for the National Museum of Zurich, and in 2010, he produced his own T-shirt line, a brand he dubbed “Luca Barcellona Gold Series.” His script now adorns everything form Absolut Vodka bottles to Carhartt sweatshirts, and his signature, tightly packed compositions, often dense webs of Fraktur script, spell out phrases by the German poet Bertolt Brecht.

 

In the beginning, Barcellona began lettering by skipping class to tag subway trains and graffiti under bridges. After graduating from high school, where he’d taken classes in graphic design, Barcellona enrolled in night courses and took a job at a music store. Using his time off to patiently practice calligraphy, he soon started taking on small commissions from the hip-hop scene.

Demand for his work grew, as did his encyclopedic knowledge of classic scripts, until one day he swapped the quill for a spray can, rendering the age-old letters he’d mastered with the tool of his teenage years. This pivotal moment defined what would become his trademark: gothic and classic lettering that elegantly and energetically incorporates the influence of graffiti and street art. He didn’t so much slip into the past as find calligraphy a present form.

 

Your 2012 monograph has just been released in paperback, and, as with the first edition, it’s got this fiery front cover. You’ve written out the name of the title in a very elegant hand, but then the composition is punctuated by a black ink dot that almost looks like a bullet hole. What’s the significance of this?

To explain, I need to start with the story of why I decided to make the book in the first place. I had all this stuff in my drawers and on my hard drive, stuff that I’d amounted over 10 years of working. I myself had studied calligraphy by looking at books – I love books—so I knew that was the format that all the stuff I’d collected would take. It wasn’t just a marketing thing for me; it was about closing the circle. I realized, though, that I couldn’t choose the work myself. When a designer speaks about their old work, you’ll notice that they will always say, “But that’s an old piece. That’s old. Look at what I’m doing right now.”

You want to be growing, getting to another level, constantly developing, instead of being in stasis and getting comfortable doing the same thing over and over again.

LB Exactly. So I asked my friend, the graphic designer Massimo Pitis, to art direct and design the book for me – he and his team at WIRED Italia have just won Best Magazine of the Year at the 2017 Society of Publication Design awards. So I said, “Massimo, this is all my work. You have a different eye from mine, a different critical eye, so please choose what I should include.”

And the cover?

I created the initial hand lettering for the book jacket and he said, “If you leave it like that, it looks like a calligraphy book from 80 years ago. Add an ink drop.” That drop would represent my past in graffiti. It was about dirty hands and dirty clothes. Massimo said, “It’s the symbol of imperfection that we want.”

What about the slogan “Take Your Pleasure Seriously?” What does that mean to you?

At first I was thinking of calling the book Man of Letters, but it was too much of a pun. I had just read a book on Charles and Ray Eames and I’d seen the sentence there. I admire their work a lot. They were married, so living, playing, and working together, and in every picture they seemed happy, having fun while blurring work and life. To take your pleasure seriously means, okay, you have a passion, but it’s a serious one. Calligraphers have to have passion. But it’s also a job, and there are many elements that you won’t enjoy doing. You have clients. You have deadlines. You’re probably not inspired by the work every time, but you need jobs, work, income, as a craftsman. And you take that seriously.

How much of a blur is there between work and life for you?

I don’t have anything about calligraphy at home. I have comics, books on photography and architecture, a lot of vinyl. But nothing actually about calligraphy. Yet calligraphy is always on my mind. Every time I watch a movie, I see the titles. When I drink a bottle of wine, I see the packaging. I look at the letters.

So there’s a spatial divide between work (your income) and life, but no divide between your craft (you as calligrapher) and life?

Exactly. My studio is not in my house. I have to be able to say, “That’s the job, and this is life.” I don’t want to be a maniac either…You know what I mean.

There are typo maniacs, typo nerds, and that’s not who I want to be.

You just spoke about noticing the letters of everything around you. When did you first start noticing type?

When I was a kid, five or six years old. I used to play a game with my mother. We’d be in the car and she’d ask me to read the signs. I started to notice that every sign was different, and I began to ask, “Who did that?” My mother couldn’t give me the answer. I thought, “That’s what I want to do.”

Then when you got a bit older, you got into graffiti.

When I was 14. I started taking graphic design classes at high school. I started doing tags like so many others in the early 90’s. When you’re a teenager, you’re obsessed by shocking people, so I was creating letters to amaze others. Then I discovered calligraphy in graphic design class, and I said, “This is something serious. I have to go back to the beginning, study the ancient forms, Roman capitals, italic, etc.” I started doing serious calligraphy. Later, once I had the tools and had mastered the classics, I would start to mix it up a bit and combine what I’d learned with graffiti.

You were teaching yourself about calligraphy?

At the beginning, most people are self-taught. But that’s a huge mistake. I studied Italic with one teacher in a workshop and I realized this: Calligraphy is something that gets passed down by masters. It has to be handed down, from a master to a student, until that student becomes a master. It’s about sharing knowledge, not keeping your tricks and secrets to yourself. That’s the beauty of crafts, not just calligraphy. I know musicians and karate masters who say the same.

When you started studying, everything was analog, and by the time you finished, design schools were using computers. How did this affect you?

I knew that I wanted to draw. I wanted to take pencils, markers, and brushes. As a graphic designer, I worked with type and layout settings on the computer. But as a calligrapher, I wanted to get my hands dirty.

You started posting videos of your craft very early on. How did that start?

When I uploaded my first video, there was nothing to compare it with. I had only seen videos of calligraphers from the 60’s and there were very few of those. We now look at videos on our phones all the time, but in 2002, it wasn’t like that. I made a couple of videos that got a lot of views, and other people started doing the same; everyone was copying one another and getting inspired by one another.

Now there are so many calligraphy videos online. They’re hypnotizing to watch; some get thousands and thousands of views. What do you think about it?

There’s a problem when people only get their information from the internet. It’s like television in the 80’s and 90’s: What’s not on the web, for many, doesn’t exist. This means that people completely ignore the fact that there are older generations of calligraphers and a long, ancient history of the craft. They’re all focused on the young people on social networks that put their stuff online, but a lot of the quality is very, very low. The numbers are impressive, and it’s good from the perspective of allowing people who might not know anything about calligraphy to begin to appreciate it.

As a calligrapher, you have to know what you are doing, though. You have to know that you are a speck in the history of the craft. I am nobody in the history of calligraphy. Compare what I do to the work of the 15th century and you’ll see what I mean – that stuff is amazing; it’s incredible. What I can do is mix things up a bit, add to the history by using contemporary tools. I try to make calligraphy that has a bit of current reality. I’ve done it with live projections and used 3-D software.

It’s about using those new tools, but with the ancient gestures. You have to know it to be able to do it. The untrained eye can’t tell what’s authentic and what’s not. If you don’t know the history, then you might believe that the guy who puts up a video on Instagram is the best calligrapher in the world, just because someone in the comment section says so.

Whether the videos are amateur or not, why do you think people love seeing the act of calligraphy rather than just a piece of calligraphy in its finished form?

That’s simple. For the last 15 years, we’ve become accustomed to the idea that writing is just pushing buttons. Pushing keys. Yet handwriting has been one of the major inventions of human history. After 15 years of tech, we are losing it.

So the process of watching the process of calligraphy is an antidote?

Yes. I’m not saying we should write our emails in Gothic, with a nib and pot of ink. When I was trying to take calligraphy classes in the 90’s, design schools were trying to eliminate it. They were saying, Who needs lettering today? Now I’m teaching workshops on calligraphy all the time in Italy.

How does technology feature into your day-to-day practice, though? It’s not all quill and ink, and, as you say, you use old gestures and combine them with new tools.

Software can be great for simulating, like how you can put a drop of watercolor on the page and it’ll bleed in a beautiful way. But digital tools that simulate something analog only make sense if you can do the real thing. If you’ve never used real watercolor, how can you really understand its simulation? It’s like virtual sex. You can experiment with virtual sex, but if you don’t know the real thing, you’re missing out.

We’ve talked about your career path and sense of design, but not the words and messages you illustrate. You’ve quoted George Orwell. You’ve written out messages of support for things like the 2011 earthquake in Japan. What do you look for when you’re thinking about quotes or slogans to write out?

There are two options when you look for a message. The first is you can find nice, pretty sentences that people are going to like. The second is you can write something that you really feel and believe. Maybe a quote from a book, or a song you love. For me, it must be the second option; it must be something that has helped me in my life.

With the Orwell composition, the quote found me. I walked into an international bookstore and the spine of Why I Write, Orwell’s essay about political language, was sticking right out from the shelf. I didn’t search for it. I believe in serendipity.

For the Japan illustration, I saw the heartbreak after the earthquake; I had close friends there. I decided to design a T-shirt to raise money for relief. I wrote the slogan with a Japanese brush, very quickly, to denote emergency. There aren’t any classic decorations; it’s fast and urgent. You must find the right way to illustrate your message.

Because of its urgency, it’s very readable. That’s not your usual tact though, especially for personal work. Often you write out words not only in an archaic script that’s difficult for modern eyes to decipher, but you pack the letters very close together, making the composition even more tricky to unpick and read. For your political messages, this has interesting implications because the viewer has to focus and spends a lot of time with the message. And that time might mean that the message sinks in. What are the other benefits of illegibility?

Legibility can be your enemy because it means you have to add space, and you lose the beauty of a compact design. Density is one of my obsessions. Sometimes I just draw the alphabet or a series of capital letters because I don’t want people to read what’s written. I want them to enjoy the shapes, the gestures. Sometimes people ask me, “What did you write there?” and I answer “Nothing.” I always love that.

Creating a piece of calligraphy, especially these dense ones that take a lot of concentration, and mastering the craft as a whole, is of course exhausting. It takes a lot of patience. It can take three years of continual practice to perfect just one classic script. How do you deal with the everyday physical toll?

I should.

You don’t?

I try to. Like right now, my back is aching; there’s a lot of tension built up. It’s a very physical practice, and to do it, you have to know your body. If you want to write something with a small nib copperplate but you’re pissed off, stressed, or you drank too much coffee, you’ll shake and won’t be able to do it. It takes calm. You have to physically prepare.

When I hear this, it conjures the stereotypical image of the master calligrapher, hunched over scrolls with reams of paper and inky fingers, painstakingly illuminating characters. You do this of course, but you’re also a jack-of-all-trades in other ways. You’re an entrepreneur, because you help run a publishing company, Lazy Dog Press, that brought out your monograph. You organize exhibitions. You’ve run your T-shirt label. You’re not always bent over your desk.

Calligraphy is my discipline, but with this discipline I can do many things. I’ve done performances with piano players and karate masters. I’ve done restoration work, and I’ve worked in advertising, doing crazy hand lettering to sell a car. I’ve made clothing designs for Nike. Recently, I’ve been combining my love of record collecting with calligraphy. If you specialize in one field and there is an interest in it, then it’s great. When that interest slows down, it’s more of a problem. Yet I do believe that if you’re passionate about something, then people will be interested. That’s why I write “Take Your Pleasure Seriously.” People can tell whether what you do is true, whether you’re sincere.

 

from 99U99U http://bit.ly/2wBR78B

Hanako Nakazato: The Life and Career of a 14th-Generation Potter

Hanako Nakazato: The Life and Career of a 14th-Generation Potter

Few creatives are as naturally bicultural as Japanese potter Hanako Nakazato, the 14th generation of one of the country’s most revered families of potters. The founder of Monohanako, a studio in the town of Karatsu on Japan’s southwesternmost main island of Kyushu, Nakazato spends half of each year in the United States, is shape-shiftingly bilingual, and is as influenced by the colors of Maine’s landscape as she is by the humble mix of treasures – stoneware, lacquerware, and wood vessels, plates, and utensils – on a typical Japanese family’s dinner table.

After attending high school and college in the U.S., she traveled the world with her father, then undertook an apprenticeship under him and her brother at their studio upon their return. Her status as a woman in Japan meant she could never take over the reins of the family business – which traditionally goes to the oldest son – but it has also given her the uncommon freedom to follow her imagination, creating stunning collections of work that have garnered international acclaim; open her own business; and live the life she chooses on two faraway continents.

We spoke with Nakazato about her monumental midcareer retrospective, which had just opened in Karatsu; why her works are as eclectic as they are sensual; and what a Turkish dance and her process have in common.

After years in the States, did you return to Karatsu to study pottery? And was your father excited about it?

The first answer is no. I never wanted to be a potter, because that’s what my family did. Since I was a girl, I wasn’t expected to be a potter. And since it was what my family did, I wasn’t interested. It was too close to home. But I was interested in art and craft. I majored in fine art in college, but I felt a little incomplete. I respected the philosophy and visual art, but I wanted to express something different. I was thinking architecture or design. I knew I wanted to make something useful to daily life.

My father is a big traveler, and he asked me to travel with him, to basically work with him as an assistant. So I traveled with him to Denmark and Hawaii and the continental U.S. He didn’t push me to pursue pottery, but he was saying, “If you like it, you could learn.” He opened the door for me. Since I didn’t really have other options, I’m like, “Okay,” but I wasn’t fully convinced because I wasn’t passionate about pottery at the time.

Nakazato was photographed in and around her Kyushu, Japan studio.

What was that time like?

I enjoyed seeing the world with him through pottery because he was doing pottery but he also introduced me to the world outside of pottery. We hung out with designers and architects in different worlds from the studio scene I knew in Karatsu. But when I returned to Karatsu to apprentice with my father, it was a different story. There was not much free discussion of creative energy. It was militaristic. I didn’t have much freedom; I just had to do what needed to be done, cleaning the studio and doing all the prep.

So everything but throwing pots?

We had very limited time to practice on the wheel. There’s no freedom whatsoever. I just made his production pieces for two and a half years. I felt frustrated by that, but in retrospect, it really taught me discipline and motivated me to make my own.

And is that what you did?

After I apprenticed with my father, I moved back to the States and started working with Malcolm Wright, a potter who had studied with my grandfather back in the late ’60s, before I was born. I was there for five years. He gave me the freedom to develop my work, which was great. He gave me a studio and the environment to work with him, and he completely understood my training, because he did that in Karatsu too. I was able to make my own stuff, and fortunately I was able to sell that stuff. That gave me confidence.

How did you end up back in Karatsu to open your studio?

I had confidence that I had built enough clientele in Japan, but I had never operated my own space. I was always using somebody else’s studio, and I’d never had the responsibility of paying the bills for the whole thing. I had to build my studio. It was the biggest shopping I’d ever done – and the biggest loan. Everything was completely starting from zero. It made sense to build a studio in Japan because by then, 70 percent of my business was from Japan. And my parents were getting older and I wanted to be closer to them.

What was your biggest challenge starting out?

In the beginning, it was in my head. People would notice me because of my father, and I should have been grateful for that, but I was offended. “Oh, you buy my pottery because you’re interested in my last name.” Or people assume that, “Oh, your daddy built your studio. Lucky you.” It’s just not true. Maybe I could get a loan because of my father. If I were nobody, the bank wouldn’t lend me anything because I’m nobody. I’m the one who had to pay, but people didn’t really see it that way. And that was a big challenge. I’m lucky that I was given a show from the start. But I had to fight for the other part.

At that time or even now, has it ever felt like a burden to carry on a 300-year-old family tradition?

Not to me, because I’m a woman and was never expected to carry on that business, which was fortunate. In Japan, to carry the family lineage and the name, you have to be the oldest son. My father, Takashi, was not the oldest, so he had freedom to create his own world. And he had a son already, my brother, to take care of his business and somebody to follow his legacy. It’s a different mentality. As a woman, I never had that pressure. I was fortunate to be close to it but not really in the middle of it.

If rules were somehow to change and you could take over your father’s business, would you do that?

It’s a good question: Yes and no. I can relate to my father, a free spirit. He came from the environment, but he created his own style and did his own thing. And he did it really well. I can relate to that. Keeping the energy is the most important thing – more than keeping the same style. So even if I carried on at my father’s studio, I wouldn’t make the same thing he was making. But I would definitely keep that energy going.

Tell me about Karatsumono, the Karatsu style of pottery. Do you use that term to describe your own work?

Everybody has a different definition of Karatsu, like “For Karatsu, you have to have a local clay,” or “You have to fire in certain type of kiln.” The way I was trained, in terms of throwing, yes; definitely it’s Karatsu style. You have a special type of rib – a tool to stretch clay when you throw – and you put a chunk of clay on the kick wheel and you spin the wheel clockwise. Technically speaking, that’s Karatsu style, and it came from Korea. In the West, most pottery making is done by throwing pieces one by one. You throw a cup with one mound of clay. After you throw a cup, you put on another mound of clay and that’s how you do it.

But in Karatsu style, you put a huge chunk of clay and off of that you throw multiple cups or plates or bowls. That’s a technical explanation. But how I interpret Karatsu is the speed. You work with speed and immediacy, and you have to work with rhythm. You don’t make things through your head but through your body. It’s physical. You have to have a technique in order to do that, but by working with speed, you can free yourself. It’s not perfect – you’re not really striving for perfection – but it’s very free-spirited and it allows you to show your true self. There’s no room to think about how to control it technically – it’s beyond technique.

You once said you can’t really plan what you’re going to do or it will ruin the piece.

Right. You have to be able to work with your intuition – it’s both. You know what you’re going to make, but old Karatsu pottery was known because of the technique, and it was highly regarded in the tea world because it was not too egotistic. The form was pure and naïve. And that comes from the immediacy of working with speed. Those potters are not really making art pieces. They are too busy producing for mass production, because back then everything was made by hand. There was no machinery.

So a bunch of potters were like kidnapped from Korea, and back then they had better skills than Japanese potters. These people were brought to Japan and just throwing, throwing, throwing pots for daily use. That pottery was found by tea ceremony lovers, who were like, “Oh, this is great, because there’s no ego. It’s not perfect.” That spirit is Karatsu. They’re not intentionally trying to make art pieces, but they end up being totally artful because they’re so human. That’s my interpretation of Karatsu.

Do you find pottery making to be meditative?

I’m not religious, but yes. I used to be an athlete, and I take throwing from an athletic point of view. I love the physical part of it. When I throw best it’s like I’m not there. I’m here, but I’m not. The wheel spins, and I think it has something to do with the spinning. I often think about sama. It’s a traditional Turkish dance: a bunch of guys spinning themselves around. And they totally reach a trance by doing that. I can relate to that. Throwing pots is very close to that moment, although I haven’t experienced sama. I like deep house music because it doesn’t have many words and it’s just rhythm, beat, and melody and repetition. I throw with music and I lose myself. It’s my hands and clay and the spinning motion.

Your work is so eclectic. Tell me a little bit about your different series.

I use several different types of clay, because I would get bored making the same thing; I make functional pottery, but I don’t make just one kind because I’m inspired by the way Japanese table settings are a mixture of everything; it’s not just pottery. If you’re at a Japanese dinner table, you’ll see a variety of dinnerware: porcelain, stoneware, glass, wood, and lacquers. That’s what I wanted to create with my pottery.

My work is always meant to be functional, not for decoration. So I want to make some room for food or flowers or the space. The pottery is never complete unless you use it. That’s my philosophy. So I don’t want to put on too much decoration. But lately, I’ve been interested in introducing some color, and I think that’s influenced by living in Maine and seeing such dramatic seasonal change in the environment. You would think green is pretty colorful, but if you put something white or even different types of green vegetables on it, the pottery looks totally different. My pottery is not just that finished work; you finish it with use. There’s infinite possibility in finishing the piece.

You spend half the year in Kyushu and the other half in rural Maine with your partner, Prairie. It must be a big transition to go from one culture to another and back again.

It tears us up when we are about to leave one place because we are so settled there and you have to say goodbye to the environment and family and friends, and then you have to start all over. But it’s not like we like one place more than the other. We love both places, and the separation gives us a good perspective culturally and mentally. Prairie is American, and that’s part of the reason why we go back to the States, so we can keep our cultural connections. It keeps my work fresh.

How different are the two worlds?

Japan is humid, wet and crazy busy. The places are different, but Kyushu and Maine are countries surrounded by nature, which is important to us. Strangely enough, there are a lot of similarities in the vegetation. We forage a lot, and we find similar plants. So what’s the difference? Maine life is much quieter, and its air is so crisp. I really love that color. It’s so beautiful. Every moment, every season, the sky changes dramatically, and that’s what I love about it. The constant changes, the seasonal changes. There’s a lot of seasonal change in Japan, too. But in Maine, it’s much more dramatic.

I have more shows in Japan, and the workload is more demanding with deadlines and production. I feel like I’m constantly working. Even though I’m working in Maine, I get to have weekends off.

The show you just mounted celebrates your pottery studio’s 10-year mark. Congratulations. Tell me a little bit about it and what it means to you.

Thank you. The show is at a famous inn called Yoyokaku in Karatsu. And that’s where I started, actually. We’ve had a relationship with them for a long time, since I was very little, because they carried my father’s work. I had my first one-man show in Karatsu there when I established my own studio. So this is kind of celebrating its 10th anniversary. It’s a huge space, so it’s been a good chance for me to show all kinds of work, which is rare. For most shows I have to edit my work down to a few kinds or series or a theme. But this time, I wanted to show everything, and I’ve made pretty much all of it this year, within two months. The opening was amazing. I made nearly 1,400 pottery pieces and they’re almost sold out.

I didn’t realize that all the work is new and that you were revisiting past collections by making new iterations of them. What was that like?

These past 10 years, I was moving forward and forward without stopping. But this time, I revisited what I made. I didn’t have any actual pieces, so it was all done by memory. There are some styles that I don’t repeat anymore, so I brought a new technique to an old style. It was like looking back to an old photograph of myself. I borrowed the style of the old, but then who I am now is different.

Looking back, did you find you have a favorite body of work?

No, no. Some moments I was like, “I love this.” I don’t mean that in an egotistic sense. It was like, “I never really expected this to come out this way.” But like I said, you never know. You might think, Okay, this is a pretty boring-looking plate. But if you use it, then that becomes your favorite. It’s like a human being: Exciting people are not always your favorite people. Sometimes a quiet person can be the most comfortable to be with.

 

 

from 99U99U http://bit.ly/2wBl0VP

Louise Fili: Never Sit and Wait for the Phone to Ring

Louise Fili: Never Sit and Wait for the Phone to Ring

New York–based graphic artist Louise Fili is as passionate about letters, typefaces, and historic signage as she is about food, Italian culture, and savoring life’s simple pleasures.

The recipient of lifetime achievement awards from AIGA (2014) and the Type Directors Club (2015) – just the pinnacle of an awards mountain – Fili is the consummate designer’s designer. She has created unforgettable corporate signatures (the Tiffany & Co. monogram, the Paperless Post stamp), restaurant identities (Artisanal, Mermaid Inn, Pearl Oyster Bar), and food and wine packaging (Tate’s Bake Shop, Sarabeth’s); published a dozen prestigious design books, many with her husband, Steve Keller; and has so far been commissioned to design two USPS postage stamps, the most recent of which, an ode to skywriting, debuted in January.

The New Jersey–born Italian-American began her career as a senior designer for Herb Lubalin, spent 11 years at Pantheon Books quietly revolutionizing the art of book design, and then flew solo with the launch of her design studio, Louise Fili Ltd., in 1989.

Ninety Nine U joined Fili for lunch at Via Carota in the West Village, whose logo she created for its launch in 2015, to talk about why your studio’s name matters, the reason your client’s person in charge must be present at all meetings, and what happens when you serve gelato at your studio presentations.

The following photographs of Louise Fili were taken in her New York City studio.

Europe, and Italy in particular, seems to be an endless source of inspiration to you. When did you first realize you had such an affinity for Italian culture? Was it on a trip?

Yes. My parents were both born there, and they rarely spoke Italian at home except to tell secrets in front of us at the dinner table. My father was always talking about going back, and when I was 16 I went with my parents to my father’s hometown in Sicily. But we went all over the mainland, and I had an epiphany. That was the same summer that I sent away for a pen I saw advertised in the back of The New Yorker. It said, “You can learn to write in a beautiful italic hand.” So I sent away for that pen, and I taught myself calligraphy. The first thing I remember seeing when I arrived in Milan was this billboard for Baci Perugina, and that’s all it said on it. But the type and illustration were so beautiful and so simple, unlike any kind of advertising I’d ever seen before. And that was my three-way epiphany: when I fell in love with food, type, and Italy all at once.

Do you go back a lot?

I do; I’m always finding excuses to go. My husband and I teach in a master’s workshop program in Rome every summer. And I’m always working on some kind of book project that takes me there. I just finished revising a guidebook to artisan shops in Florence. This is actually the third time I’ve revised it, because all the shops keep changing. I never really thought of myself as a writer before, but whatever it took to get me over there and taste-test gelato and interview shopkeepers in Italian. It was really fun. And then I’ve also been doing these books on signage, because I’m really passionate about that, and have been forever, for as long as I’ve been interested in graphic design.

Tell me about the signage series.

It started out with 35mm slides, and point-and-shoot snapshots, and finally digital. All these images I was shooting were just for my own reference and enjoyment, and I had them in little binders in my office on a dedicated shelf, arranged by city. When the technology was finally good enough for me to consider using these for reproduction, that’s also when I realized all the signs were starting to disappear. Every summer I would take my students in the Rome program to see all my favorite signs, and there would be one or two missing. Every year it was more and more. So I really wanted to record all of the signage before it was gone forever.

It started with the book on Italian signage, and then I decided to do one on Paris signage, which I thought would be so much easier because it’s only one city, but it really wasn’t. Usually I’ll take two or three trips to do a whole book, so I have to make maps of the different neighborhoods with all the signs mapped out, and I spend a lot of time on Google Street View, making sure that the signs are still there and looking for others that I didn’t know about before. The next book will be Barcelona; that’s coming out in September. Barcelona has incredible modernista signage that is all starting to disappear too. I also did a whole chapter on monograms, because a lot of the buildings in one particular neighborhood were all built in the early 1900s, and every owner wanted to have his name on the building.

Even though the first two books did very well, for the Paris book they went back for a reprint, like, one week after it was published, which is pretty unusual. At that same time, I said “Let’s do Barcelona next.” Every publisher these days is very cautious, so they still hadn’t given me the okay by the time I was leaving on my trip, but I just decided I had to go, no matter what. I’m glad I did.

Nearly every logo of yours conveys to the customer that the restaurant or company or product is special and worthy of your attention. I remember the first time I saw the box for Late July crackers at Whole Foods, I was smitten even though I’d never tried one. And I experienced something similar the first time I went to Artisanal and saw that sign. How do you explain that power?

I’ve always told my students that a logo is a typographic portrait. You have to meet the person or the business and speak with them and really understand them, and then translate that into a typographic portrait. And that’s more than just setting the word in font and calling it a logo. With my logos, I spend a lot of time just sketching and developing the typography to represent the whole integrity of the brand. Ninety-nine percent of the time it requires hand-lettering, but that’s what I love to do. That is an important part of the process: to communicate all the nuances of what we’re trying to say. So I’m glad I ended up doing food packaging, because it’s something that always interested me.

The before-and-after page on your site is fascinating.

Yeah, it’s really good for potential clients, because when they come to me for a rebrand, they’re the first to say “My logo is terrible,” but then they are always very nervous about making a change. They’re afraid of losing their customer base or that it’s going to represent them incorrectly. So when I show them the before and after, they’re like, Oh. It’s like taking a magic wand and just making everything look better.

Depending on how articulate they are, I usually ask them about 15 or 20 questions about their business. I start with “Have you trademarked this name?” It’s a very important question, especially in restaurants. You’d be amazed. The only time I didn’t ask that question was when I was working with a very highly regarded restaurateur. I thought it would be insulting for me to ask, but sure enough, we did the logo and then they found out that they couldn’t get the name.

Some of the makeovers are really subtle.

Some of them need it more than others. But they’re all nervous about it, and that’s why I like working with smaller businesses; I like having a more personal relationship with my clients. Like with Sarabeth. I sat down with her and her husband. They had been making their jam for 25 years, and I can understand why she was nervous about it. What I always tell someone is, “You can change a lot, as long as you maintain one or two key elements.” In her case, we kept the same jar, because everybody knows her by her jar. But she was using a generic mason jar, so we changed the embossing on the top so instead of saying “Mason” it said “Sarabeth.”

And we kept the type, did the label in the same oval, and kept her name in upper and lowercase, which I felt was important. Then we just refined everything else, and it made a huge difference. Even the paper stock. The first time I looked at it I thought, This paper stock looks so dingy. So I found the brightest, most opaque white paper stock I could, and that alone made a huge difference. What ended up happening in her case is that people would still go and reach for the same jar in the supermarket, and they might not have even noticed there was a change in the design. But they suddenly had a higher regard for the product, and they didn’t mind paying $9.99 for it.

What happens if you get negative feedback from a client?

Well, the first question I ask, even before we discuss the trademark thing or even have a meeting is “Who are the decision makers?” They have to be at the meeting. If the big decision maker is too busy to have a meeting with me, then I’m too busy too, and I won’t do it. It cannot end well otherwise. There’s nothing worse than someone trying to second-guess their boss. I don’t want there to be any big surprises when I see them next time and present the logo. And there aren’t any as long as we’re all there at the first meeting. We all talk about everything that is important to us.

 

Are there interim stages where they say, “I like this, but is there any chance you could make this blue instead?”

Sometimes, and if they’re reasonable questions, that’s fine. Very often, they’re just nervous about something. And that’s when I ask the really important question. I would never ask it at the first meeting, but when things look like they’re starting to fall apart, I ask them, “What are you afraid of?” And you would be surprised. With a question like that you would expect people to say, “What are you talking about? How dare you?” Yet they never ask that. They always answer the question, which is so interesting.

That’s why I always recommend, whenever any students ask me what I recommend that they do to become a designer: Take a Psych 101 class. Because of course they’re nervous. I talk them off the ledge, and then it’s usually fine. It’s a designer’s chance to earn their trust, which is a big step. The other trick I’ve used only once is, “We’re not going to leave this room until we all make a decision.” But the thing I do on the other end of the spectrum is whenever I schedule a meeting to show a logo design, I always try to schedule it in the afternoon. I serve gelato first, and then I show the logo. It usually works very well.

Do you find it relaxes them?

It’s better than getting them a drink. It makes them happy.

What is your work process like, typically? You mentioned hand lettering but do you also work on computers?

I actually don’t. I’m in that other generation that still likes to work the old way. What I do is approach it the same way I did for book jackets, which I did for eleven years at Pantheon. What I would do is get the title of the book, sit down with a tracing pad, and draw a 5.5 x 8.5-inch rectangle, which I could do with my eyes closed, and then just write the title of the book over and over again, just letting it speak to me. Page after page, it would go from something really rough to some thing more defined. I was looking to see how the words would work on the page.

As I got to something more defined, by the last page I realized it was a typeface that didn’t exist, and I was going to have to figure out how to do it by hand. In those days, I had a few choices; I could hire a letterer or I could do it myself or I could take an existing face and distort it. Usually I either did it myself or hired a letterer. This was also pre-computer, and the people doing lettering were very specific craftsmen – that’s all they did. I would give them very tight sketches, and then go over it with them, and they would do the final artwork.

Now, I have a very small studio. I only have two designers working for me, but I can’t hire anyone unless they’re good at hand lettering. But I still do my very tight sketches. The way I used to work in book jackets had actually prepared me well, because it’s really the same process. When I do logos, as soon as I start sketching I’m automatically making certain decisions. Like if the name of the restaurant is very long, it’s obviously going to have to be in a condensed font, because you can’t hyphenate the word. Except for once, when I hyphenated Mermaid Inn. Or if it’s three words that are different lengths, I would automatically put that in a circle. It’s these things I just know, having done logos for so long.

One of my designers asked me very nicely once, “If you were going to start all over and you were going to school now, do you think you’d become a graphic designer?” I said, “No, I probably wouldn’t.” It’s not the same. I became a graphic designer because I loved the letterpress shop, where I could sit with type and print it out and sift through books and do the hand lettering and the clamps. We learned lettering by going into the marshes and picking reeds and making our own reed pens. That’s very different than learning lettering on Illustrator – nothing wrong with Illustrator.

What is it like for you to come across a design of yours? Your work is so memorable, but in most ways you are completely anonymous as the creative force behind it.

That’s true, but they’re only logos [Laughs]. I love walking, and actually this is a good neighborhood for a little logo tour, because we have Via Carota, and we have Pearl Oyster Bar, Mermaid Oyster Bar, and Oat Meals, which is an oatmeal-themed restaurant. We used to have L’Arte del Gelato when they were on Seventh Avenue, but now they’re at Chelsea Market. Nothing makes me happier than to just walk around seeing all my logos, as long as they’re looking good.

Was there a specific moment when you recognized your talent for graphic design?

Well, I went to school [Skidmore] and majored in art. If you couldn’t paint, they would tell you you’re “graphically oriented,” and fortunately the one graphic design teacher took me under his wing. And that’s when it all came together; that’s when I realized, Oh, that’s why I’ve always been interested in lettering and making quotes and collecting packages and labels. It’s all graphic design! Because when I was in high school, they called that commercial art, which was pretty unsexy. Why would anybody be interested in that?

Besides developing a process, what did you learn from designing book covers?

When I started out at Pantheon, there weren’t a lot of risks being taken. All the jackets looked the same; everybody seemed to think that type on jackets had to be big and bold. I was on a mission to prove that you didn’t have to shout to capture someone’s attention – that a cover could be quiet and beautiful and still make a difference. I think the best-known jacket I did when I was at Pantheon was The Lover.

Margarite Duras was a celebrity in France but was relatively unknown in the U.S. In spite of the very understated jacket I did, the book became a legendary best-seller. It was Pantheon’s first, in 1985, so I think I proved my point. Once I had that one under my belt, salespeople were a lot more likely to just leave me alone. I got the opportunity to experiment with a different period or design or type history on a daily basis. It’s really where I came to develop my style. And that experience of being on a mission to prove that you didn’t have to shout was kind of the same thing when I started doing food packaging. Why did food packaging have to shout? Why couldn’t it just be something really beautiful and sensual that you want to take and bring home to look at? And maybe it would even taste good.

How did you end up starting your own studio?

I thought I’d stay at Pantheon forever, and fortunately I did otherwise. But after I had been there for eleven years, my son was born. I took my three-month leave of absence with every intention of going back, but when I did, the next list of books had come in and none of them were that appealing. And I just thought, I don’t want to be here. I had always been doing freelance for other publishers, because in those days art directors were so brutally paid that they all had to freelance to make ends meet, and I had an extra room in my apartment that I was already using as a studio.

I thought, I could do this. I had a nanny, so I would work in my studio with an assistant from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and then at 6 o’clock I would close the door and resume my life. That lasted about three years, until I needed more space and my son needed more space. I’ve always kept my studio in the neighborhood, though. I learned two important lessons right away. One is that you should never depend on any one type of work or any one client, because that can all change very rapidly. Two is that you should never sit and wait for the phone to ring with the perfect job because there is no perfect job.

I feel very strongly that every designer has to have his or her own personal projects. Because it’s the only way that you really grow and find your design voice, and that was the case for me. I started with what was closest to my heart, which was Italian art deco, because I had been collecting this material for so many years. My husband, Steve Keller, and I launched this series of books. It started with Italian Art Deco for Chronicle Books, and then it led to many others: Dutch, French, American streamline deco type, British,  Spanish, German. They did very well, but eventually they drifted into remainder purgatory. And then we did Euro Deco, which was a selection of each of the books except American; that one’s still in hardcover, which is nice.

Why is it crucial not to rely on one kind of work?

Well, this was a time when everyone was moving over to the computer. Suddenly a lot more work was being done in-house. But the biggest difference was that I was used to being an art director [at Pantheon]; I would present the cover designs to the editors and I would get them approved. But now there was a middleman involved. Whenever I was working on any kind of publishing project it was always through an art director, and it didn’t work as well.

Everything was changing in publishing, and as much as I loved doing book covers I realized that there was life after publishing. When I started my studio, my idea was to focus on the only three things I’m interested in, which are food, type, and all things Italian. That was 28 years ago.

How did you get into restaurant identities?

Within the first year, I started finding my way into the curious world of restaurants. It couldn’t have been more diametrically opposed to book publishing. At the first restaurant I worked for, I had to explain to them why they had to pay both me and the printer. I realized I had to educate the client and make them understand why graphic design is important and how we had to work together, and so it was an interesting experience. But then I started working with one architecture firm in particular. They did really great work, and these architects were the first ones to hear about any new jobs, so they would recommend me early on. There was a lot more synergy.

Tell me about some of the challenges your business has faced.

Well, let’s talk about being a woman in the industry. When I started my business, it was the pre-Google era. You couldn’t be very creative about the name of your business because people had to find you in the phone book; it had to be some form of your name. I could have called myself Fili Associates or something like that, but that didn’t seem right. So I called it Louise Fili Ltd. I knew the name was going to be a liability, because it was very clear this was a woman-owned studio, but I decided I really wanted it. I wanted to send a clear message, and that was: If you have a problem with me being a woman, then I have a problem with you being my client. And I’m sure I’ve lost business that way, but it’s too bad. In those days there were very few studios run solely by women. I just decided to ignore it and do what I wanted to do.

Have there been any near disasters, in terms of crazy clients?

Oh yeah. When you have a small business, especially, you have to be very careful about what kind of clients you take on, because an abusive client can just bring down the whole studio. I wouldn’t do that to my employees. If I have any kind of inkling that this is not the right client for me, I’ll usually tell them, “It sounds like a great project, but I don’t think I’m the right designer for you.” And if it’s the wrong client, you know right away, because they don’t want to hear no; they’ll just hang on even tighter.

But as long as I can recommend someone else, they’re usually fine, and then they’re out the door. I also have to be very careful with the kind of people I hire. They have to understand the studio ethic. If they come from a big company, they’re much more likely not to. When you’re in a small studio, everyone just pitches in without even thinking about it, and that’s very important.

Do you have a favorite genre of client these days?

Women. I realized recently that the only restaurant clients I’ve had who have not bargained with me on my price have been women. And whenever I work with anyone from out of town, they don’t negotiate the price either. But in New York it’s to be expected. If I said $50, they would still want to bargain.

Are there reasons to be hopeful about the future of craftsmanship?

Definitely. I think there’s such a resurgence in hand lettering, for example. So many wonderful people who worked for me have gone off and made a name for themselves. Just like the resurgence in manual typewriters and turntables and everything like that, I think everyone is craving that tactility we lost. So I think craft is very important. I mean, there are people who appreciate it, and there are a lot of people who don’t know the difference.

What are some words of wisdom for someone contemplating their own solo business?

What I always tell people is that you have to follow your heart. You have to combine graphic design with something you’re passionate about. Design on its own – I don’t think it’s enough. I wouldn’t be the designer I am today if I hadn’t done my own projects. If you’re just doing work for other people, that’s what it looks like. But if you’re doing work that comes from your heart, it’s a really different story.

What is next for Louise Fili?

I think it’s designing fonts. For years people used to ask me, “Why don’t you do fonts?” I’m designing all this custom type for logos, and number one, I don’t want to just give it away. And number two, I’m only designing the letters that I need for the logo; I’m not doing the whole alphabet plus numbers, plus punctuation and everything. But I finally reached a point where I thought it might be interesting to try. We just started two months ago but I think it’s a natural progression.

And I still want to keep doing my own books. It’s an enormous amount of work and I lose money on all of them, but I don’t regret having done any of them. When I did the Barcelona book, I worked really hard and I had good weather, so I was able to do it in two trips, but it was an enormous amount of work. There was one sign in particular, for a photo studio, that was the most beautiful deco strip, and I couldn’t wait to see it in person. I checked ahead, right before I left, on Google Street View, to make sure it was still there and it was.

When I got to Barcelona, I wanted to go there on the first day but it wasn’t practical, so I went a couple days later. I literally ran to the spot to see the sign, and I got there and it was gone. All I could see were the traces of it on the facade. I was devastated. I felt like I had missed it by a matter of minutes. The photo studio obviously had closed but it really, really bothered me. The next day, I was interviewed by a journalist from El País, the Spanish newspaper, and two days later the article came out.

I didn’t even remember talking to him about this, but obviously I was still upset about it. He wrote about my not being able to find the sign, and he gave the name of the photo studio and the address. A week later, when I got back to New York, I got an email from the grandson of the original owner of Photos Lopez, and he said, “My family and I were very moved when we read the article, and I just want you to know that if you’re ever back in Barcelona, we’ll remount the sign for you so you can photograph it.” I went back as fast as I could. The whole family came out for the event – it was so wonderful. I’m so glad I went back, because I dedicated the book to them.

That’s a great story. Do you think it’s just too late for New York?

I have no interest in New York. Every now and then, I think, Well maybe I could do architectural signage and ornament, but it’s not same. When it’s in a different language it’s always much more interesting.

There’s something about seeing things more clearly when you’re somewhere else.

Yeah, when it’s new to you. That’s what happened when I did the Italian book. I was very surprised it got an enormous amount of press in Italy, which I wasn’t expecting at all. But they all said the same thing: “Gee, we walk past this signage every day, and we’ve never really appreciated it, and it took an American to come here to make us notice it.” And I’m sure I probably don’t notice things in New York. But I do. I always walk to work, and in the neighborhood we’re in now – it’s sort of the Flower District – I do find some things on the buildings that surprise me, like things carved into the buildings. But certainly not signage as we know it in Italy and France.

When you do see something extraordinary, it’s like another century speaking to you.

And it’s always such a miracle that it’s still there. Then suddenly, one day it’s gone.

 

 

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Departures: Copenhagen

Departures: Copenhagen

Bicycles are everywhere, meandering past bakeries and shops as easily as the summer sun lingers in the night sky far past children’s bedtimes. Visitors from afar are here to explore the town’s world-class architecture, museums, and hygge, the homespun Danish concept of coziness that’s gone viral just as the world finds itself on shifting geopolitical ground. Or they may just be here to find out why the city always tops perennial lists of the world’s happiest places. However dubious the distinction, it invites further study.

Our guide is designer Josephine Akvama Hoffmeyer, whose Zen sensibility could hold some answers to that question. The Danish native, who began her career as a singer, shifted focus after moving to Italy and being struck by the beauty of local handmade tiles. “I fell in love with them,” she says, “but I didn’t really like the patterns of grapes and olives.” So she did what any obsessive creative would and, in 2001, launched her own line using 120 muted, sensuous colors. “In Scandinavia, we have a simple, strict sense of patterns and a Japanese aesthetic of textiles. Mine are infinite in all four directions, across all tiles.” Made a Mano Italy was born, and four years later a Copenhagen offshoot followed. These days, Hoffmeyer is busy with a new venture, the studio File Under Pop, which launched in 2015 and added paints and “wallpaper” – handcrafted movable sheets that are typically hung a few inches in front of a wall – to complete her surface-focused arsenal. Hoffmeyer’s subtle interiors are deceptively complex, with swatches of tribal patterns appearing alongside Rothko-like resonances. Among her recent clients is Claus Meyer, a co-founder of the acclaimed Noma restaurant. Of her hometown, Hoffmeyer says, “Copenhagen has the vibe of a village. You can bike all over town; it’s easy and simple and a great place to grow up.” Here are some of her of favorite places.

Image of Josephine Akvama Hoffmeyer by Naomi Akvama.

Paper Island

Housing massive halls that once stored the paper for Copenhagen’s print media, this centrally located island in Inner Harbor is home to a panoply of temporary residents, including Experimentarium, a hands-on tech museum, and Copenhagen Street Food, a collection of international stands selling sustainable, from-scratch street food that can be eaten at waterside tables or inside the cavernous reclaimed buildings. You could be treated to a music or art event over lunch. “The sun is always out at Paper Island, in a way. The kids love it and the food is amazing,” Hoffmeyer says.

Image of Experimentarium by Adam Mork.

Finn Juhl’s House at Ordrupgaard

“Finn Juhl is one of my favorite Danish architects,” says Hoffmeyer of the eclectic 20th-century creative best known for his midcentury modern craftsmanship. “I love his private residence full of his furniture, crafted ceramics, and art pieces, decorated with oppositional colors, sometimes even four different colors in one room — and you hardly notice it,” she says. The house, though occupying its original site, became part of the Ordrupgaard Museum complex in 2008, thanks to an unexpected private donation.

Kratvænget 15, 2920 Charlottenlund

Images of Finn Juhl’s House at Ordrupgaard above and below, courtesy of Ordrupgaard.

Thiemers Magasin

“The hip area of Tullinsgade and Vaernedamsvej is absolutely amazing,” says the designer. “I feel like I am in Paris and an Aesop is around the corner, too. It brings me happiness. “One of her favorite shops there is Thiemers, a cozy bookshop with a diverse array of contemporary lit, children’s books, art books, and a cherry-picked selection of Nordic masterpieces translated into English for the sake of foreign visitors and residents.

Tullinsgade 24, 1618 Copenhagen V.

Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

“It’s is the most magnificent museum of modern art overlooking the coast and Sweden,” says Hoffmeyer of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, about 25 miles north of the city, featuring an exceptional collection of works by modern masters like Pablo Picasso, Louise Bourgeois, Alexander Calder, and Philip Guston. “You get it all: art, landscape, and archi tecture at the same time. I often like to stay there for half a day by myself. Everything is so subtle and silent up there, as you let beauty simply overwhelm you.”

Gl Strandvej 13, 3050 Humlebæk

Image of Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.

File Under Pop

Drop by Hoffmeyer’s showroom in Frederickstaaten to peruse her aesthetic via handcrafted tiles, wallpaper, lava stone works, and an exclusive line of paints. “I really use music a lot, because colors work together like notes,” says former singer Hoffmeyer. “One color doesn’t say anything. It’s only when you put the colors together that they happen to have a connection.” The wares can be purchased on-site, so consider taking home a few as an inspiration-packed gift for your abode.

Frederiksgade 1, 1st floor, 1265 Copenhagen K

Image of File Under Pop.

 

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Vitra – Germany

Vitra – Germany

The Fehlbaum’s first hire was London’s Nicholas Grimshaw, tasked with a comprehensive site redesign and Vitra’s first new factory buildings in decades. But thanks to a fortuitous birthday present to his father Willi, the Claes Oldenburg–Coosje van Bruggen sculpture Balancing Tools, which they commissioned in 1984, Rolf met the burgeoning visionary Frank Gehry (Oldenburg introduced him to the Canadian-American in his studio) and invited Gehry to build the Vitra Design Museum, a gateway to the Vitra Campus, and a factory building of his own. That was it for the Grimshaw plan.


Having set the precedent of diversifying its commissions, Rolf pursued the strategy with gusto, and in the process became the Cosimo de’ Medici of his time. In 1993 minimalist master Tadao Ando was hired to build an elegant, low-slung conference center amid a grove of cherry trees, his first work outside Japan. The same year Zaha Hadid was tapped to build the astonishing, angular, fully functional Fire Station, made of poured concrete on-site; it was the Lebanese-born architect’s first-ever building. A year later he turned to recent Pritzker Prize recipient Álvaro Siza for a massive brick factory building to meet Vitra’s growing production needs. And in 2010, Fehlbaum undertook the company’s most ambitious project to date, hiring Swiss architecture giants Herzog & de Meuron to build the flagship retail complex VitraHaus, an assemblage of 12 comically elongated gabled houses stacked on top of each other, crammed together, and hollowed out to create a single light-filled, exploration-inducing interior.


Inside, visitors can check out and buy every one of the products in the company’s home furniture line, from office-nook desks and chairs to living room sofas and lounge chairs, bookshelves and lighting fixtures, and the likes of pillows and throw blankets.

What lends the Campus its magic, though, aren’t the majestic edifices, most of which you’ll need to book an architectural tour to see, but the playful, genre-defying architectural sculptures and cultural relics that dot the campus, like Jean Prouvé’s adorable Petrol Station, a prefab gas station from 1953 whose geometric lines and red, green, and white color scheme are far more Mondrian than Mobiloil (the Campus installed three of them in 2003); Renzo Piano’s Diogene (2013), a mini, six-square-meter house inspired by a mythical figure said to live in a barrel; Jasper Morrison’s snazzy functional Bus Stops (2006), outfitted with wire chairs designed by the legendary Charles and Ray Eames; the aforementioned Balancing Tools; and the shiny-happy 1968 Airstream Kiosk, a refurbished 20-foot aluminum trailer found in Nevada that serves ice cream and other treats in the summer months. It’s hard to imagine a more enticing way for a company to say what it’s about and who its wares are for.

Vitra. Charles-Eames-Str. 2 D-79576 Weil am Rhein, Germany

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