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Issue 136


Peter Saville’s England football kit and avant-garde toys; a MacArthur Award for typographer Matthew Carter and a farewell to three design legends

BY Eugenia Bell in Critic's Guides | 01 JAN 11

Some might think that the apogee of a career would be founding a successful business. For others, it might be a profile in The New Yorker. But for those who can already claim these achievements, the acknowledgement of one’s talent, success and cultural influence in the form of a prestigious grant does the trick. In 2010 typographer (and one of the founders of the first digital type foundry, Bitstream) Matthew Carter at the age of 73, received a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Fellowship for his continued success in making our analogue and digital lives more legible. His Verdana design for Microsoft might just be the most viewed typeface ever; versions of Miller have graced the Guardian and The Boston Globe; and he developed the more readable face of countless telephone directories – when they were still read. His ‘snap-on’ serif character set (which can be embellished with a collection of horizontal ‘pieces’ that can under- or over-score words or build serif type) for the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, is revolutionary and not just in its look; Carter had the privilege of creating the proprietary typeface in collaboration with the museum’s legendary design department (at the time headed by Laurie Haycock Makela), during which the face was experimented with in situ until a solution was settled on. (Charles Bigelow, designer of the Lucida face, is the only other typographer-recipient of the Genius grant.)

Designer Hella Jongerius, who has also garnered accolades for her thoughtfulness and innovation, is being honoured with a retrospective exhibition, ‘Misfit’, at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam (until 13 February, 2011), curated by design critic Louise Schouwenberg. Even though her work has been marked by high-profile design collaborations with Vitra, Maharam and Camper, among others, what the show does best is highlight Jongerius’ belief that imperfection is the true maker’s mark of the well-crafted object. When she began to deliberately introduce perceived ‘flaws’ into the making process, she successfully (though not, at first, uncontroversially) reclaimed the designer’s role as artisan and craftsperson without giving in to the folksy/craftsy approach. As exacting as her standards remain, her work is never without humour or a light touch.

The British Museum, ever the great repository of our civilization, took it upon itself to distill the ‘History of the World in 100 Objects’ into a series for BBC Radio 4 (the objects themselves were also on display in the museum). It’s hardly a surprise that the Rosetta Stone made the cut, but Director Neil MacGregor’s shortlist of significant markers of our – and other – societies runs the gamut of objects easily described as art, artefact or tool, but to view many of them from a fresh design perspective is enlightening. From an elaborately etched 12th-century Syrian crystal glass to naturally dyed, 2,000-year-old Peruvian textiles so vibrant they could have been made in this decade, to a Chinese solar powered lamp (one of the few 20th-century examples included), we were constantly reminded of the astounding facility with technology and resources of the time that build our communal history as humans.

We don’t talk much about fashion in these pages, but sartorially a couple of items are worth noting. In an unprecedented display of poor judgment, the all-too-visible American clothing chain Gap introduced a new logo in October (designed by their longtime creative agency Laird and Partners). Switching out their now-signature serif for Helvetica and placing a gradient blue box over the ‘p’ in ‘Gap’ drew comments from critics, bloggers and tweeters alike that ranged from accusing Gap of imitating American Apparel (never a wise fashion or business move) to wondering whether unleashing the new marque was possibly a prank on the company’s part. Criticism came so fast and furious that a Gap executive told the press the day after the introduction of the logo that the company was ‘open to other ideas,’ and claimed that the wellspring of entries in response to a ‘design-your-own-Gap-logo’ website was, in fact, a successful experiment in crowd-sourcing. Within a week, the old logo had been reinstated.

One bright spot is the return of Olivier Theyskens from near-obscurity. Long recognized as an undeniable talent by (and darling of) the fashion cognoscenti, but virtually unknown by the hoi polloi, the designer fell from grace not once but three times: as lead designer at Rochas, from his eponymous line and most recently at Nina Ricci. Trying to find the sweet spot between couture and mass production, he never seemed to be able to produce a dress that cost less than US$20,000. His clothes are wonders of tailoring, but hopelessly out of reach to many who appreciate his sensitive elegance. So, it is with mixed reactions that he now takes the helm of artistic director of Theory, a mainstay of young professionals whose colour palette tends to range from grey to black. There is some worry about Theyskens’ reputation being dumbed-down to suit mall-goers, but it’s great to see his talent put to service at a more accessible price-point.

Although Peter Saville’s England football kit appeared too late to take the blame for a woeful World Cup performance, it was still overwhelmingly disliked by most fans. No stranger to the fashion world (Saville was art director for Kilgour and has been responsible for advertizing campaigns for Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen, among others) it was, despite the criticism, a pleasant surprise to see not only one of the most influential designers and cultural figures in England involved in such a project, but to see him reflect upon England in 2010. A subtle pattern of Saint George crosses across the shoulders of the jersey, not in the traditional red, but in an array of colours, spoke to a multicultural reality long denied by many who have exploited the symbol for nationalistic purposes. If not the most provocative approach, its restrained pattern is, in any regard, a potent, and hopeful, reminder of the current cultural climate of England today.

For those who fetishize kitchen appliances instead of clothes, New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s design department once again pulled together an impressive feat of curating from the collection. ‘Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen’ (until 14 March, 2011), is one of two exhibition highlights that bridged 2010–11. At MoMA, early ergonomic chairs, posters by Jan Tschichold, works by Martha Rosler and Daniel Spoerri, and anonymously made cookie-cutters and cleavers flank the show’s centrepiece: the iconic Frankfurt Kitchen (1926–7, Grete Schütte-Lihotzky) was produced by the thousands for housing estates in Germany and, for the first time, was brought out of the basement and into the visible realm it remains in today. Remarkably forward-thinking, this compact but ultra-efficient room could have stepped out of any interior design magazine from the last five years.

The colourful, fun and ultimately optimistic ‘Toys of the Avant Garde’ at Malaga’s Picasso Museum (until 30 January 2011), explores how various stylistic movements of the first quarter of the 20th century evolved along not only political but pedagogical lines too, making playthings for children that engaged art-making and self-propelled creativity. It features a Picasso toy horse, Paul Klee puppets, Alexander Calder’s mesmerizing circus and concluded with a recreation of a 1929 Paris exhibit of Russian children’s books, posters and games made during the early years of the Revolution. It should be a requirement for all contemporary toy-makers.

On a more sombre note, in 2010 the design world lost three legends. S. Neil Fujita, while not a household design name, was responsible for some of the most recognizable book jackets ever created: those for Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (1969) (the type and ‘puppet-master’ hand of which carried over to the film series) and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966), among others. As a designer at early bebop-era cbs Records, it wasn’t only Fujita’s fresh approach to album cover design that made an impact, but his own paintings, which graced the covers of Charles Mingus and Dave Brubeck releases. Lucienne and Robin Day (who died in January and November, respectively) were launched into design celebrity at the 1951 Festival of Britain, where Robin’s furniture featured at the Royal Festival Hall, his Homes and Gardens Pavilion won accolades, and Lucienne’s ‘Calyx’ print fabric was the first of her immensely popular home textiles to wind up in homes throughout Britain. Her Modernist abstractions of elements of the natural world garnered awards and were manufactured for two decades by the department store Heal’s. The Days, while oft-compared to their American contemporaries Charles and Ray Eames, were also atypical in that their parallel careers were entirely independent of one another; Lucienne was nothing less than a role model for female designers everywhere. Robin is perhaps best known as the creator of the endlessly imitated stackable polypropylene (or ‘polyprop’) chair, which featured as one in a series of first-class stamps issued in Britain that celebrated iconic British design. Unusual for someone of his stature, he never had employees in his studio and never designed on a computer; his stated aim was ‘poetry and pleasantness’.

Eugenia Bell is design editor of frieze