From Travelogue to Typologue: The Identity of Carnegie Int’l, 57th ed., 2018
Heads up, savvy scanners, here are three words to track: Truss, Fuss, and Catenary. This triumvirate of terms, coined by curator Ingrid Schaffner and derived from engineering structures, is shaping the identity and communications of the Carnegie Int’l, 57th ed., 2018(external link). As you may know, Pittsburgh is a city of bridges and impressive infrastructures that range in appearance from industrial to ornamental, which explains the Truss and the Fuss. Add to that a quadrasyllabic twister like Catenary—the natural gravitational curve between two distant points, like a rope bridge or the sagging string of a late Jasper Johns work—and you get three quirky terms to demarcate particular epochs in the Int’l’s nearly three-year span. As you are observing, these wacky words are even twisting our cadences away from their typical terseness—right here, right now.
Very early on, Ingrid unfurled these frames to the so-called Creative Team(external link), of which Wkshps(external link) (née Project Projects) is part. Comprised of editors Karen Kelly and Barbara Schröder from Dancing Foxes(external link), and myself with designer Eric Price from Wkshps, joined by other collaborators for specific projects, our mandate is to develop design and editorial throughlines for the exhibition and its publications as a whole. Collectively, we are guiding the exhibition’s naming and identity; how to approach publications and interpretive materials; as well as the show’s visual and verbal voice, graphic look, and later archiving. In other words, how the entire project will be communicated now and how it will be mediated in the future after the show closes—just a minor task.
Since our first convening in January 2015, the Creative Team has functioned like a Dream Collective huffing and puffing in semi-isolation on a Big Project through a series of Intense Workshops. Called “Charettes” after the architectural tradition of compressed, often late-night studio jam sessions, Charette(external link) was also, coincidentally, a magazine published by the Pittsburgh Architectural Club during the 1930s. Within our hallowed Creative Team context, there’s no set hierarchy nor strict division of labor: everybody gets to have an opinion about everything. Sitting around Ingrid’s dining room table, we hash out our best thoughts and continue these chaotic and sprawling conversations over dinner and drinks. The next day, we develop this mess of ideas into a presentation to the Carnegie museum’s team for their feedback and approval. After the Charette, order prevails (for a little bit) as Wkshps, Dancing Foxes, and the Int’l team each return home to develop a particular aspect of the work further.
In my experience, this setup is a nearly utopian—albeit rare—way to work. In the rest of the world, neatly delimited job titles like “curator,” “editor,” or “designer” claim to describe how the proverbial sausage is made. The curator curates, the editors edit, the graphic designers graphic design, right? (Just in case you were wondering, that was a joke. You can’t really use “graphic design” as a verb unless you want to sound slightly naive or hiply neological. “Graphicdesigning,” anyone?)
Sadly, as a graphic designer, you are often invited into a project once the basic parameters are already fixed. You’re expected to focus on only one aspect of the whole: to give it all a neat and tidy form. Even though this never ends up being quite the case — visual structures can’t be separated so lightly from the ideas they’re communicating—it’s a limiting way to approach such assignments.
In contrast, Wkshps maintains that design can and should be more fully integrated into the flow of curatorial and editorial processes—and that, moreover, process is just as important as the final product. Over the past 15 years, I’ve tested this holistic approach through a multi-hatted practice that includes designing and directing here at the studio; curating in various venues including P!(external link), K,(external link), and other institutional spaces; teaching at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard, and at Barnard College; editing at Paper Monument(external link); and writing for various magazines and catalogues, with occasional stints as an art dealer, talk-show host(external link), panel moderator, party planner, guest lecturer, conceptual auctioneer, non-profit board member, wedding officiant, business consultant, professional husband, and amateur karaoke junkie thrown in for good measure. So I’m of the persuasion that the creative life is a messy endeavor—rarely breaking down into neat categories.
While being part of the Carnegie Int’l, 57th Ed, 2018 Creative Team is an opportunity to test long-held theories about multidisciplinary work and collaborative authorship, it’s also a chance to experiment in public with graphic design. In modern design mythology, an “identity system”—professional shorthand for the logo, typography, formats, and standards used for the complete visual communication of an organization—springs fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’s skull. Audiences and critics seem to think such a graphic identity appears all at once, rendered perfectly through the singular genius of a designer-creator. Raymond Loewy’s Shell logo, Paul Rand’s Westinghouse mark, Chermayeff & Geismar’s Mobil identity, the subliminal arrow of Landor’s FedEx logotype—these historic heroic visual identities seemed ready-to-roll even before they were launched and remain static in our minds while they vanish from use. Of course, this myth is not even close to the truth—such brands were developed by their designers and commissioners over months and years of effort, and took even longer to settle. Yet these messy aspects of the process disappear once the “final” piece is in place.
For an exhibition of contemporary art and ideas, three years are a small lifetime. Furthermore, such exhibitions offer a specific laboratory in which to question certain conventions. So we asked ourselves: Why not pursue an approach to graphic identity in which the iterative processes of research, reorganization, and redesign happen out in the open, carrying the identity’s developmental history with it as it travels?
Enter the Truss Phase
The visual identity that Wkshps is creating for the Carnegie Int’l, 57th Ed., 2018 takes its cue from Ingrid’s original three-phase concept by performing a set of related graphic operations and transformations over time. Starting with Truss, continuing with Fuss, and ending with Catenary, the identity (and more) will change at each step.
This is not the first time I’ve advocated for the idea of visual identities that change in distinct ways. For Vasif Kortun’s experimental institution SALT in Istanbul, we created an ongoing identity-system-as-curatorial-program that changes as SALT invites outside designers to re-imagine the house typeface. In the case of the Int’l, however, the design we are developing is less about periodic renewal and more about accrual: can we build a design system that registers the kind of slow seepage between past, present, and future that inevitably happens in life and work? In tandem with the very curatorial premise of this Int’l, we are interested in charting a continuum of ongoing change.
For example: we designed the first letterhead to be printed on top of existing stationery left over from past editions of the Carnegie International. This is a nod to economy as well as to concept. There are reams of this stuff lying around in the Carnegie Museum’s storage, so why not recycle it, as Ingrid herself did in her first typed brief to the Creative Team? In terms of design, we see it as a graphic move towards sustainability and continuity with past ideas and forms. Our approach was inspired in part by the work of my dear friend and colleague Karel Martens, who has overprinted found shapes and forms onto castaway printed materials since the 1950s. In 2013, he developed this principle further within a commissioned project. Invited to develop a “temporary” graphic identity for Rotterdam’s Het Niewe Instituut—which was formed by joining together several older institutions—Martens printed a black rectangle with three peepholes over the individual organizations’ previous designs, as a bold sign of the new institution to come.
Wkshps’ design sits on top of past Carnegie International identities with a lighter touch. A set of thin, mono-linear letters and numerals float over stationery and envelopes that are themselves an incomplete itinerary through twenty years of graphics for contemporary art. For CI99:00, New York-based 2×4 created a no-nonsense, all-business identity, with a bold block of marigold yellow on each sheet of stationery. (As a sidenote, the German abbreviation for the English-language “corporate identity” is “CI”—which makes me wonder if this was part of the intention?) For the 2004 Carnegie International, London-based Graphic Thought Facility took a more playful approach, transforming the exhibition’s moniker into exuberant ribbons of text. Amsterdam and New York-based studio COMA designed the all-lowercase, retrofuturistic serifs and decorative grids of the 2008 International, Life on Mars. Apparently, the letterheads from the last International, designed by Chad Kloepfer and Jeff Ramsey with outlined geometric shapes and Swiss-style typography in a nod to the Modernisms of yesteryear, were hand-stamped onto paper by the curators—though I have yet to encounter the stationery in the CMOA archive.
To build so directly on our colleagues’ past designs is inevitably self-reflexive. Is Wkshps’ recycling a gesture of homage, redistribution, or overwriting? Perhaps all three. There is also an aspect of preservation in it. As ephemeral as stationery is, it (as other graphic design artifacts) should be collected—as in the avant-garde letterheads amassed by 20th century polymath Elaine Lustig Cohen, which landed in the vaults of the Museum of Modern Art. Simple sheets of printed paper, preserved, can equal a partial history of design. Here, however, we’ve chosen to activate the remaindered stationery by allowing it continue to do what it was original designed for: to be the carrier of a message. Just for the record, pristine sets of all past International stationery are kept in the Carnegie Museum of Art archive, in case you or your institution are in the market.
The identity system and its typography will continue to evolve in phases that reflect the Int’l’s development over the next year-and-half: typography recapitulates ontogeny. Lauched as the project itself was taking shape, the first version of the identity, Truss, is stripped down, simple, and self-consciously data-ey. It deploys a custom, monospace, typeface by Christian Schwarz called Produkt Mono that has been created specifically for Carnegie Int’l, 57th ed., 2018. Christian is a partner at Commercial Type, a leading voice in contemporary type design; between him and his business partner Paul Barnes, they have created house typefaces for publications as varied as The Guardian, The New York Times T Magazine, Bloomberg Business Week, and the 2nd Istanbul Design Biennial. He also happens to be a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. With such an immediate sense of context, Christian will design new typefaces for each phase of the this Int’l identity.
Over spicy hand-pulled noodles at the restaurant that is partway between our two studios, Christian and I love to talk typography. What got us started for the Int’l was the base typeface’s historic reference to industrial type. Produkt speaks squarely, as a typographic voice, of function and information. When it came to customizing the type, I asked Christian: could he turn what was a geometric slab-serif font into a fixed-width typeface? In other words, could he make it even more typewriter-like (remember those things?). Monospaced typefaces, used at the right size, look eminently serviceable, and that’s relevant here. But on a personal note, Produkt Mono invokes some of the design that was most influential upon me during my first years of practice. I’m thinking here of the conceptually-driven and brutally beautiful work of David Reinfurt’s fluid studio O-R-G from the early 2000s, which often took on the look of “information” even when its purpose was anything but. In our case, Produkt Mono, on its own and in usage, serves as a not-quite-crystal-goblet for this initial design phase of the project that focuses on the website.
Launched early this year, the Int’l website was designed to open up the process that has been building up to the 2018 exhibition. The design is simple-looking and primarily textual. List-driven, it is an intentional throwback to web design 1.0 with ADA accessibility carefully baked in by the CMOA web team. Slowly animating the screen is the exhibition title in its most simplified form: C-I-5-7. The landing page offers a very short menu that map out starting concerns and future trajectories. Readings collects past museum publications on the International for reference and reflection; Travelogue features a series of commissioned essays based on Ingrid’s travel and research; Programs documents the many-hatted Tam O’Shanter Drawing Sessions (you will have to go to the site to appreciate the full meaning of “hats” and learn more). Participants presents an ambitious initiative of the Int’l team, who worked closely with colleagues across the museum to create the first search engine for all past individuals involved with the exhibition. Hats off to Allison Miller, who entered the names of every International artist, curator, and juror since 1896.
The website too, like the letterhead, sits on top of past designs. The archived landing pages of the 2008 and 2014 Int’l’s, the first to have dedicated micro-sites, frame the screen. Given the digital platforms of the day, these sites are now largely obsolete. In contrast, our guiding principle together with the CMOA team is to build a website that lasts, or even simply folds into the museum’s existing digital architecture once its over. When the 2018 Int’l is all said and done, its digital trace can evaporate with the ephemerality of water.
Fuss, the next phase of the International design and identity, launches in a couple of months. Following Ingrid’s structural plan, Fuss will mark a move from stripped down pseudo-functionality and become more elaborate. Christian Schwartz and I will continue to talk in hushed voices about typo-obscurantist topics. Having me last summer for a final charrette, The Creative Team will collaborate closely to develop and publish printed materials (a guide, a map, a catalogue) and to specify the collateral (wall labels, museum signage, ads). To reflect back upon the whole project, there will be a final “Dispatch” as a retrospective, self-archiving publication. Our conversations will continue to move through different moments of design, referencing currents and practitioners who have striated the surface of typographic history, and inspiring us to see new possibilities. For all my gallant talk of abandoning heroics, it’s hard not to desire to outdo oneself.
Which reminds me: watch that name! “Carnegie Int’l, 57th ed., 2018.” It will transform. It will get fussier. And ultimately, it will snap into something as lean and economical as a catenary line. As the exhibition picks up steam, language itself is subject to change. Let’s just say, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
The Carnegie Int’l, 57th ed., 2018 opens on October 13, 2018 and runs through March 25, 2019. To learn more, visit the exhibition website(external link).