The Design Observer Group

Posted 03.08.07

Dan Nadel

This is Not My Design Life Now

Mat Brinkman, Melt Banana and Lightning Bolt at Ft. Thunder, 1998

In another life, I was a regular contributor to design magazines. But I grew less interested in that and more in simply writing and making books. So, interested in getting caught up with a field I once watched closely, I went to see Design Life Now: National Design Triennial 2006 at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum. In his review here last month, Thomas de Monchaux focused on the fashion, architecture and industrial design on view, so I won't comment on those parts of the exhibition. But I do want to address the graphic design I saw.

Imagine my surprise to find that 2006 looks a lot like 2000!

I'll say it straight out: Design Life Now's selections in graphics and pop culture are conservative and long out-of-date. Now, with any survey show like this, one can argue about who should and should not be included ad nauseam. This is a different issue — it's an overriding question of taste. Granted, taste, too, is a very particular thing. But here's the problem: the curators demonstrate absolutely no awareness of current trends in graphic visual culture.

For example, Chip Kidd is selected for his book covers. Now, I, like many others, love Chip's work, but as I'm sure he would agree, he should have been chosen in 2000 or long before, not now. COMA is, again, an excellent design company. But why now, why them? There's no particular explanation. Either way, I'm not sure either of the two represents Design Life Now. Where's Omnivore or Dexter Sinister? Both companies are doing exciting and successful new work. They should be in a show about design today.

Perhaps the most egregious breach was the inclusion of Kidrobot. It's a fine store, but for me it comes up short by even the most basic design criteria. The dunny, their blank bunny character, is a graffiti tag gone wrong: uninteresting in form, scale, and execution. It is as generic as "street art" based work comes. Kidrobot, as evidenced by its recent book, represents the worst of the "designer toy" explosion and, through its aggressive flooding of the field, will most likely be partly responsible for the market's imminent implosion. Their book lacks critical or historical context, and provides little more than toy pornography for collectors. There are numerous toy designers, such as Friends With You, that are vastly more interesting, and more difficult. Perhaps they're not easy, local, or generic enough.

And then there was Planet Propaganda, expert purveyors of design kitsch. They displayed a couple of blatant Chris Ware rip-offs and posters devoid of thought or graphic flair. One wonders how a curator can get away with hanging generic posters, in the era of the Providence, Rhode Island, poster boom that has given us seminal designers like Mat Brinkman. This movement has been completely undocumented in the design press, despite it being the most important development in American poster design since the late 1960s. Why? Again, perhaps it's too difficult and unruly.

The less said about Joshua Davis's fake Matthew Ritchie computer-generated drawings the better, and Rick Valicenti, like many designers before him, has fallen into the trap of making utterly bland "art" rather than interesting design. Nicholas Blechman, who I've written about in the past and admire tremendously, is, like Chip Kidd, acknowledged years too late for Nozone, which was last published in 2005 and was at its most frequent many years before that. Why not Kramers Ergot, a paradigm-shifting publication that represents what is happening in the now of 2006? Speak Up, a cute but mostly silly design forum is also in there, but given the mediocre and confusing nature of the site design itself, it's hard to understand why. This choice, like those of Valicenti, Davis, Kidd, Blechman and COMA speak to the insularity of the graphic design world. There is, in magazines, conferences, blogs, an a unwillingness to look beyond the NYC-approved choices (well, these venues will look beyond to "vernacular" design, but only in programmatic, dull ways), and by NYC-approved I mean the world of the design conference circuit, the AIGA, Print Magazine, and other old-guard bastions of graphic conservatism. This is a kind of provincialism of taste that not only impedes the present but, to my mind, continues to restrict our vision of the past. When are we going to look beyond the normative historical narrative? Where is Charles White III in the narrative, or Martin Sharp? 2000 A.D., or Semina? Where is Eye Yamatsuka or Keiichi Tanaami? The job of these exhibitions should be to advance our notion of design, not restrict.

I wish the curators had stretched out, looked beyond their horizons and embraced other points of view, other publications, anything, really, but the safe choices they settled on. Where are the designers who offer alternatives to normative impulses? Where are the questioning, searching image makers? Is this really Design Life Now? It's not my design life.