Reinventing the graphic Vernacular
Based in The Hague, the Netherlands, the international design firm Strange Attractors was founded five years ago by Ryan Pescatore Frisk and Catelijne van Middelkoop. Their work reflects a keen interest in the intertwining of culture, media, context, experience and history. While they take a highly experimental approach to each of their wide-ranging design projects, their custom designed type and typography are hallmarks of their work. Through lectures and workshops they encourage designers and design students to see, value, and reinvent the vernacular around them—rather than capitulating to a generic globalist design approach. Winners of numerous awards, Ryan Pescatore Frisk’s and Catelijne van Middelkoop’s work was recognized by I.D. Magazine’s ‘ID Forty 2006’. Their clients have included FSI Fontshop International, Wieden+Kennedy Tokyo Lab, Studio Dumbar, and Museum Boijmans. Catelijne is a third generation Dutch designer. Her grandfather was a designer and her parents run their own design studio outside of Amsterdam. She received a propaedeuse in Art History and Archeology from the University of Amsterdam, a degree in Graphic & Typographic Design from the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague and a MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art. Ryan earned a BFA in Graphic Design from Savannah College of Art and Design, an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art and a MA in Type Design and Typography from the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague. They met and began working together while attending Cranbrook.
Here, Ryan and Catelijne share thoughts about their work.
What types of design projects interest you most?
We both have come from traditional graphic design backgrounds and we find ourselves continuously returning to print. There’s something reassuring about the smell of fresh ink, good ol’; fashioned Graphic Design. We still see a lot of space between architecture, film, music, fashion, web, video games, etc. There is so much more possibility, all around. I wouldn’t say that there is any one specific kind of project which we are more interested in than others. We think that our understanding as designers, as well as our end products, gain value or richness from our experiences with various media/contexts (intertextuality). One common aspect that you will find in most of our work is custom type and typography. We try to work towards a one to one relationship with all the elements which comprise an end design. This can vary from record sleeves to videos, from books to installations. To give you an example: last spring, we worked on a large typographic installation* in Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. We combined monumental/architectural typography with the multi-cultural aspects of this diverse city. In this project, craftsmanship as well as technology are being represented side by side. So far we’ve had the rare luxury of almost complete control/freedom in the execution as well as the conceptualization of our projects. We use this opportunity to experiment with forms as well as materials. The latter being one of the most interesting current developments, which we would like to further explore perhaps in a collaboration with an architect.
Can you provide some information about your work on ‘Broadcasting Tongues’; which has been described as a study of graphic dialects?
Broadcasting Tongues initially began with our love of graphic vernacular and sub-cultural representations. We started to look at unique formal aspects found in certain specimen and explore personal and/or cultural relationships. We had always discussed the differences between American and Dutch (European) culture/design relationship, so expanding the discourse seemed like a logical progression. As our collection grew more diverse we started to note formal qualities for their relationship to geography, politics, culture, etc. At the 2004 ATypi Conference in Prague ‘Crossroads of Civilizations’ Jacek Mrowczyk, Editor, Polish Design Quarterly ‘2+3D’ introduced us to Marian Oslislo, a Polish printmaker/teacher, who invited us to give a workshop for his students at the Academy of Fine Arts in Katowice, Poland. What we saw there was striking. Most of the students (who were in their early twenties) were either overlooking or unaware of their cultural design history and local traditions/heritage because of a preoccupation with generic globalist styles. We used this opportunity to present some of our ideas and examples in a lecture about representation and choice. Students (designers) who are aware of their choices can extend their graphic vocabulary and create more meaningful messages. This workshop worked out well, the students actually brought in their own cultural vernacular to discuss. A similar lecture/workshop was given in Prague (where unfortunately, most of the attending students were foreign exchange students, not from Prague/the Czech Republic, and therefor just as unfamiliar with the local ‘graphic dialect’ as we were) and a related lecture in New York at TypeCon. Last November we revised the lecture and workshop again, this time specifically for the De’Art Festival of Graphic Design in Moscow, where we focused on ‘reinventing tradition’. We’re now at a point where our collection of local tongues is getting so large and some of the results of/rare finds in the workshops so interesting that it would be a shame not to share all this with more designers. Not so that everyone can carelessly sample, but to make people, designers as well as clients, aware of the choices that can be made, the existence of formal alternatives. Our website ‘Dialog Nouveau’, the ‘Broadcasting Tongues’ lectures and hopefully, in the near future, a publication, should help us do so.
Can you discuss some of the main ideas and examples you presented in your lecture to students about representation and choice?
This is the official text we wrote for the lecture: Broadcasting Tongues investigates type usage and development, in various subcultures and contexts. The focus is on ‘Local Tongues’ versus the ‘International Style’, an alternative which is readily available to designers and design consumers in burgeoning markets. Our search for local vernacular and historical content reveals the importance of distinct cultural and/or personal stance and expression. The result explores how cultural (or personal) significance, tradition, or ideology is manifested in graphic language and the effect this has on the message. Finally we ask how this work can help us reinstate and emphasize our own personal or cultural identities instead of capitulating to the generic globalist voice? We start by discussing mass customization, individualization, and pluralism as a theme in the contemporary global society/digital era. Contemporary life is enriched by the diversity of personal choices which communicate our beliefs and interests via clothing, hairstyle, music playlists, cellphones/ringtones, IM/iChat Icons/Avatars, etc. Contemporary technology/media offers the opportunity to craft distinct messages and voices, which are no longer restricted by concepts we associate with early 20th century industrial progression. Modularity, rigid formalism, linearity, and cohesion (among many) are related to specific industrial and cultural concepts were of the utmost importance in the industrial era, but need to be re-evaluated today. Examples depict unique graphic dialects and stylistic manifestations of graphic language, mainly by way of geographic, political, economic and cultural influences. Here are three examples we use:
1) We compare 2 types of interlocking blocks made for children during the same time period (late seventies, (early) 1980’s), Lego’s Fabuland(Danish) and Plaspi’s Grossblock East German. The Fabuland kits contain numerous building options, decorative elements and a variety of characters. The Grossblock kits are built one way, no options, decoration or people. We can see evidence of the ideological differences which separate the two products.
2) A few areas in downtown Detroit contain storefronts with extremely unique signage hand painted on the facade. The relationship which local business owners and amateur artists have with typography/design is much different than what professional designers are accustomed to and the result is an impressively engaging mix of authenticity, humanity and naïveté.
3) Every McDonald’s in world will sell a Big Mac, Cheeseburger, French Fries. But did you realize that this global menu also has some local flavor to it? The Mc Kroket, Crispy Chinese, Mc Alloo Tikki and the Paneer Salsa?
Can you discuss your ideas on ‘reinventing tradition’ from your Moscow lecture?
The Broadcasting Tongues lecture was followed by a workshop where we focused on ‘reinventing tradition’. Traditions contain powerful signifiers which define us as members of a community, culture, religion, government, family, etc. We specifically explored local traditions to highlight our personal/cultural relationship to forms which define distinct customs, messages and graphic voices. Designers are often attracted to the fashionable formal qualities (style) and ease of application associated with generic globalist voices. This capitulation to less descriptive, seemingly more objective communication can be seen as a force which mutes cultural and personal idiosyncrasies. We wanted the students to re-evaluate their position as designers/authors/communicators and viewers/receivers in relation to contemporary cultural/personal representations. We provoked them to stand out and attract attention, to create new forms and explore alternatives, speak in tongues and take visual risks. Tradition, as information developed from the past, constantly mutates and/or is reinvented to suit contemporary needs. This is no different.
Could you summarize what you would like people to learn from your design, your methodology, and your lectures?
We try not to advocate any single methodology, especially regarding production and formal outcomes. It’s certainly easy for students to get distracted by specific formal solutions (style), instead of developing a more intimate relationship with form/content, production and media. Ultimately we want people to be open to alternatives. We are lucky to have been able to work with a number of intelligent, visually progressive and trustworthy clients, but this is not always the case. Designers do have the power and responsibility to educate clients.
Are the any projects you can share?
‘The New Typographers’, a visual essay we made for ‘Visual Communication’ (Sage Publications, London) published last summer. We became (and still are) interested in the re-contextualization of Jan Tschichold’s ‘The New Typography’. The quotes from his book are juxtaposed with contemporary, quasi-surrealistic illustrations which we created specifically for this publication. We find that Tschichold’s words, in contemporary contexts, move towards formal solutions which contradict the forms associated with the original publication date. We also recently created an animation using over 300 typefaces from the FontShop library, commissioned for their 15th anniversary exhibition. And lastly, we took a little field trip to the video arcade at our the beach and brought back a couple portrait souvenirs.
*Note: The Strange Attractors’ typographic installation in Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, ‘BIG TYPE SAYS MORE’, opened at end the of April 2006 and ran through July 2006. It has been acquired by the museum, as part of their permanent collection.