BY Eugenia Bell in Culture Digest | 01 JAN 10
Featured in
Issue 128


Re-branding débâcles, online fonts, the closure of Gourmet magazine, the 90th anniversary of the Bauhaus and a new film

BY Eugenia Bell in Culture Digest | 01 JAN 10

Eugenia Bell

Last year was a bad year for branding. PepsiCo, the makers of the eponymous cola and of Tropicana orange juice, were forced to scrap a radical rethink of their juice packaging when a stripped-down sans-serif look designed by Peter Arnell drew millions of consumer complaints when it was introduced in January.

The corporation’s cola packaging also received yet another redesign, which could be seen as either an amateurish grab at the fabulously popular Obama presidential campaign logo or a reinterpretation of the disastrous Diet Pepsi rebranding of the 1990s. While derivative, bland and hard to read, it has yet to get the hatchet orange juice drinkers inflicted upon Tropicana’s new look. (A PepsiCo executive, responding to the backlash, said ‘people do not buy design’.) Failed rebrandings are nothing new and, in an era of blogs and Twitter, unsatisfied consumers can accomplish in moments what market research takes months to achieve. But what singled out the PepsiCo incident was a leaked Arnell Group document that revealed the astonishing mumbo-jumbo behind the agency’s campaign proposal: it invoked the golden mean and the Mona Lisa, and claimed that ‘the Breathtaking Color Palette [their capitalization] is derived using a scientific method of color assignment based on the product’s essence and primary features.’ Of course.

Similar dissatisfaction met Ikea’s release of its new catalogue. Unlike the Tropicana débâcle, this time it was mainly design professionals who unleashed their vitriol at the company; they had recognized that Ikea, which has utilized a customized iteration of Paul Renner’s classic Futura typeface, Ikea Sans, since 1951 – a key piece of the company’s identity – had abandoned it for Verdana, which was designed by Matthew Carter for Microsoft in 1996 in response to the specific needs of reading on a computer screen. Aside from rendering poorly in print and at large sizes, such an ill-advised change from a company long-admired for its design sensitivity came as a surprise and disappointment. ‘Verdanagate’, as the incident was dubbed by blogger Brand New, drew only mild reaction from Ikea, who claim the move facilitated the integration of their print, online and brick-and-mortar efforts, and assisted with the clarity of reading more than 25 languages online. An Ikea spokesperson called the change ‘simple and cost-effective’ – perhaps exemplifying the brand more than some would like to admit.

Even though Microsoft has made sure that every computer comes equipped with Verdana by default, Ikea’s wish to express a unified identity across many platforms raises the issue of how limited the dimensionality of type on the web can be. The developers of @font-face, a new Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) rule, are looking to change that ( Limited to those fonts installed on most operating systems – including Helvetica, Arial, Times New Roman and Verdana – a web designer’s typographical expression is necessarily restricted. Previously, there has been no standard protocol that allows designers to embed downloadable fonts to make web pages more dynamic. @font-face would allow distinct custom fonts to appear on screen just as they might in print by linking to TrueType and OpenType fonts in the same way that images do. However, those fonts need to be downloaded first, and the spectre hanging over this tool to liberate the way the web looks, is the illegal downloading of type from foundries. There are developers working on ways of making the dilemma easily navigable and legal. Most noteworthy among them is Typekit, which acts like an iTunes for fonts and was launched in May.

In an era of blogs and Twitter, unsatisfied consumers can accomplish in moments what market research takes months to achieve.

It was also a bad year for magazines. Publisher Condé Nast in particular disappointed many readers with the closing down of the aspirational shelter-cum-shopping magazine Domino. But it was their sudden closure of gastronomic bible Gourmet that shocked most. Aside from its influence in the food world, it was a well-designed, beautifully photographed and styled monthly. Former art director Kevin Demaria documented the office in its waning days on a website.

The blog Reference Library, written and curated by Philadelphia-based designer Andy Beach, is an underground favourite among designers, collectors and connoisseurs of timeless American design. In April at the Salone dei Mobile in Milan, Beach, along with Apartamento magazine, set up the Everyday Life Objects shop. At a fair brimming with products not for sale, and often only in the prototype phase, Beach’s shop not only exemplified his exquisite eye and taste, but included – for immediate gratification – vintage American pottery, ponchos by Slow and Steady Wins the Race, vintage blankets, Max Lamb stools, lunch made by Martino Gamper, and Bertjan Pot making hot air balloons inside the shop.

New York’s Museum of Modern Art had two striking, yet polar, design-related openings in 2009. The highlight of Ron Arad’s retrospective (‘No Discipline’) was a double helix Cage sans frontières (Cage without Borders, 2009), in which more than 25 years of outlandishness and design stardom were enclosed. The installation centered around Lolita, a spiral chandelier from 2004, fabricated with Swarovski crystals and 1,000 LEDs, which displayed text messages. (The motivation behind texting a chandelier, even an Arad chandelier, was not explained.) The show had many flaws, not least the miniscule video monitors that were hung too high and his infamous chairs placed at uncomfortable angles throughout the dimly lit space.

The museum’s architecture department, however, salvaged the year with just one of the many international exhibits mounted in 2009 to commemorate an important 90th anniversary: ‘Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity’. The MoMA exhibition was not, by far, the most inclusive collection of Bauhaus objects on display in 2009 (that distinction goes to Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau, where over 1,000 artefacts went on show, to MoMA’s approximately 400). Surprisingly delicate textiles by Gunta Stölzl shared space with teapots, steel-tubed chairs and Oskar Schlemmer paintings, and it all made wonderful sense. As with its ‘Mies in Berlin’ show of 2001, MoMA did a great job with context, so none of the drama of the period was lost in the beauty of the exhibition itself.

This is the third consecutive roundup to mention Gary Hustwit’s films, but it is no carelessly slavish attention. In 2009, the director released Objectified, his follow-up to Helvetica (2007). It is a frank and clear-headed look at the quotidian objects we take for granted, and the people who make them. Once again, Hustwit’s vérité style and knack for teasing out a good story, coupled with Luke Geissbuhler’s crystal-clear cinematography, has resulted in not just another beautiful film; Objectified illustrates what a master Hustwit is at milieu-making, and not only on camera: he casts prominent names in the role of poster design and builds soundtracks matched to our under-appreciated visual lives. Hustwit promises to reveal the basis of the final instalment in his design trilogy soon, almost guaranteeing an appearance here in 2010, but in the meantime go here and read Alice Twemlow on the beauty of the shuttlecock, Debbie Millman on hairbands, and other musings on everyday objects.

Eugenia Bell is design editor of frieze