designer of genius

Human perfectibility. It does exist….

Art Chantry ( )

This is one of my all-time favorite posters. it’s from 30 years ago, but I still look at it every once in a while when I need a re-charge in my creative juices. this thing is perfection itself. it’s cheap, it’s fast, it’s conceptually perfect and it was whipped up by an unheralded design genius. I still drag this thing into my classes and teach the lessons that it taught me.

This was designed by the late Wes Anderson. I first met Wes back in around 1983, when he and Helene Silverman came to visit my studio. they were both working at the Rocket Magazine (she was art director and he was the assistant AD). They were both leaving town for NYC and wanted to recruit me to take over the design job at the Rocket, which I soon did. Helene went on to work at Conde Nast magazines and then do the design of start-up Metropolis magazine. she went into her own design career operating her own studio, along the way meeting and marrying the legendary Gary Panter.

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Wes Anderson stayed around Seattle a bit longer, working on various freelance pieces (his brochure for one season of the arts group ‘on the boards’ is still mindblowingly masterful. It’s another piece I constantly steal ideas from). I think this little poster is from that period. when he arrived in NYC, he ended up landing the art director gig at the Village Voice in a notoriously stodgy design department that was utterly controlled by the writers, not the designers. Wes took it upon himself to do the first re-design in decades and (much to everybody’s surprise – it had been tried a dozen times prior) pulled it through and started the modern era of that magazine/newspaper. He was finally the right personality (a sweet quiet confident man) at the right time to accomplish the task. he ran that newsmagazine’s art direction for a number of years and then sadly died of stomach cancer much too young. He was always famous for a huge bottle of pepto on his desk. Everybody always thought it was there because of the stress.

One of Wes’s great contributions to American pop culture was some early graphic design he did in the Rocket Magazine. As the assistant, wes was given the more mundane (for the rocket) projects like designing specialty columns. one such column was record reviews written by the local college radio dj Bruce Pavitt based on his primitive ‘zine work called “subterranean pop”. Wes took the name and the subject and began a long series of amazing and crazy column designs. each one was unique and drew from what he was doing on the street with his poster work. the masthead of the column was set using presstype of a typeface called “microgamma” and, because the initial name ‘subterranean pop’ was so long, went with the nickname of the ‘zine bruce published “sub pop.” then, added “usa” (just to narrow down the subject matter to american underground music). Then he threw in a couple of chevrons to fill some dead space and ‘flip-flopped’ the colors (b&w). and that is where Sub Pop record’s logo started it’s long life. wes did that. Although many people worked on that logo over the years, it was primarily the genius of Wes Anderson that deserves the lion’s share of the credit.

This little b&w 11X17 quick print poster (quick print was still cheaper than xerox in the early 80′s) was thrown together at the last minute when wes’s friends at the 911 art center (this was long before the terrorist attack on manhattan. “911″ was the local emergency phone number) called him in a panic because their regular design guy took sick. so, he stayed late and slapped this together with the crap laying around the Rocket’s paste-up room. that space was decorated (more like wallpapered) with weird crap that people stuck on the walls over time. It was a treasure trove of water-damaged tape-stained wrinkled clip art (the roof leaked).

Among the items laying around was the famous box of ‘blueprints’ that was designed for the museum of modern art gift shop by some famous designer (charles & ray eames? i forget). these blueprints displayed the classical (printed in full life size blueprints) proportions of the ‘statistic average’ human beings – a lot like those plaques on the spacecraft voyager. In fact, I think that’s where Carl Sagan got the idea.) when Wes began to think about the concept of the panel discussion with the subject of “art and misogyny”, he came up with the idea of taking a rough xerox/photocopy of the box cover from those blueprints and roughly cutting out the female figure (a ‘classical’ generic female). then he “attacked” that image by tearing it up into little pieces (a symbolic misogyny – almost as a performance piece).

The real inspiration came when he then assumed the role of “art” and re-assembled and ‘repaired’ the female form by crudely stapling the torn apart pieces back together! I think that was a moment of brilliance. he then simply re-photocopied the stapled artwork and that became the illustration for this little poster. I think the serendipity and the instinct of that action borders on genius. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before and (to this day) have never found a precedent for that idea.

The rest of the poster is assembled with found items – some old ‘computer paper’ border sprocket tape (that tears off), some type copied out of a Dover book of wood type faces, a piece of vertically set type clipped off another poster laying around, some typewriter typography (the guy who typeset the magazine had gone home for the night and the IBM Selectric – with the little ball of courier type – wa

e only thing around.) basically, it’s a punk rock layout done in flash with rubbish. he probably spent more time stapling the thing together than he did designing it. he was running on “instant deadline” and sheer instinct and produced this wonderful piece. I imagine it cost less than nothing as well. how much does a staple cost?

This was the sort of thing that I so admired and so astonished me as the years went by. how a guy working with absolutely nothing – not even time – could whip out something so incredibly inventive and smart? well, working by the seat of my pants at the Rocket informed me where Wes learned that skill. the quick turnaround, low budget world of the underground magazine was a hotbed of invention. so many great design careers emerged from that scene at the Rocket that i’m still astonished, even all these years later. I think that must have been because, if you worked there, you HAD learn to trust your instincts – something the classical academic design process taught in higher education drills OUT of your skull in favor of a rote step-by-step processes that works “every time” (helvetica, anyone?). Working at a place like the Rocket was the best design education imaginable.

And there the fact that I suspect that Wes was a designer of genius. that may have had somthing to do with it, too.

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