Untitled, Barbara Kruger, 1987
The other day I was interviewing a young designer, just nine months out of school. The best piece in her portfolio was a packaging program for an imaginary cd release: packaging, advertising, posters. All of it was Futura Bold Italic, knocked out in white in bright red bands, set on top of black and white halftones. Naturally, it looked great. Naturally, I asked, "So, why were you going for a Barbara Kruger kind of thing here?"
And she said: "Who's Barbara Kruger?"
Okay, let's begin. My first response: "Um, Barbara Kruger is an artist who is...um, pretty well known for doing work that...well, looks exactly like this."
"Really? I've never heard of her."
At first I was speechless. Then, I started working out the possibilities. One: My twenty-three year old interviewee had never actually seen any of Barbara Kruger's work and had simply, by coincidence, decided to use the same typeface, color palette and combinational strategy as the renowned artist. Two: One of her instructors, seeing the direction her work was taking, steered her, unknowingly or knowingly, in the direction of Kruger's work. Three: She was just plain lying. And, finally, four: Kruger's work, after have been so well established for so many years, has simply become part of the atmosphere, inhaled by legions of artists, typographers, and design students everywhere, and exhaled, occasionally, as a piece of work that looks something like something Barbara Kruger would do.
Let's be generous and take option four. My visitor isn't alone, of course. Kruger, who herself began as a graphic designer
, has created a body of work that has served as a subtle or not-so-subtle touchpoint for many designers over the past two decades. Occasionally the reference is purposeful, as in my own partner Paula Scher's cover
for From Suffragettes to She-Devils
, which uses Kruger's trademark typeface for a book that surveys a century of graphics in support of women's rights, although in this case the Futura is turned sideways and printed in shocking pink. Similiarly, the late Dan Friedman's square logo for Art Against Aids
deploys Futura (Extra Bold) and a red and white color scheme in a way that is both effective and evocative.
Farther afield, the brand identity for the Barbican Art Gallery
uses the same typeface and, controversially
, applies it (usually at an angle to render the italic strokes dead vertical) to every exhibition that appears there. Sometimes it seems appropriate: when the subject is the work of Daniel Libeskind, the onrushing italics seem to evoke his urgent, jagged forms. Other times, the connection is more remote, or downright nonexistant. But, of course, searching for any connection at all is purely a parlor game. The goal of the One Gallery, One Font philosophy is not to serve any particular exhibition, but to create a unified identity for the Barbican Art Gallery, which it certainly does. I wonder, however, what would happen if the Barbican ever mounted an exhibition on Barbara Kruger?
Would the collision of typographic matter and anti-matter create some kind of giant vortex as the snake ate its own graphic tail?
We've debated imitation, influence, plagiarism, homage and coincidence before
, and every time, the question eventually comes up: is it possible for someone to "own" a graphic style? Legally, the answer is (mostly) no. And as we sit squarely in a culture intoxicated by sampling and appropriation, can we expect no less from graphic design? I remember my disorientation several years ago, when I first saw the new American Apparel
store down in Greenwich Village. A banner bearing the store's resolutely hip logo hung out front: the name rendered (American Airlines
style) in cool Helvetica, paired with a stripey star symbol that effortlessly evoked the reverse hip of seventies American style. And no wonder: it was the very logo that Chermayeff and Geismar's Bruce Blackburn had designed for the American bicentennial
back in 1976.
Today, Blackburn's logo is gone from the American Apparel identity. A lawsuit? Or, more likely, the great zeitgeist
wheel has turned once again, rendering the 1976 logo too outre
to bother plagiarizing? No matter. We've arrived at a moment where all that has preceded us provides an enormous motherlode of graphic reference points, endlessly tempting, endlessly confusing. Does Barbara Kruger own Futura Bold Italic in white and red? Does Bruce Blackburn own stripey five-pointed stars? How much design history does one have to know before he or she dares put pencil to paper? Picture a frantic land-grab, as one design pioneer after another lunges out into the diminishing frontier, staking out ever-shrinking plots of graphic territory, erecting Keep Out!
signs at the borders: This is mine! This is mine!
I remember seeing an Esquire
cover about ten years ago: the subject was radio personality Howard Stern. What a ripoff, I thought, seeing the all-too-familiar Futura Italic.
To my surprise, it turned out to be a Barbara Kruger cover illustrating a Barbara Kruger article. Who would have thought: she's a Howard Stern fan. And the lesson? If anyone can rip you off, you may as well beat them to the punch.