The Self-righteous vs the Self-serving

One of the most annoying aspects of the design profession is our capacity for self-delusion. Its as if we have become so convinced of the stories we tell, so sold on our own messages, we start taking to believe them ourselves.

The recent published debate between Joe Duffy and Tibor Kalman is case in point and it neatly encapsulated several of the key myths on which we base our profession. It’s apparent that Kalman and Duffy discover great chasms in marginal differences. But while their theoretical hair-splitting may not have prompted an inspiring debate, the combatants’ misrepresentation and/or misunderstanding of their own roles proved to be quite revealing.

There are key issues that are confounding contemporary graphic design: the nature of social responsibility; the distinctions between design, advertising and marketing; the role of the designer as artist, and many others. Designers split across these issues, coming down on the side of the artists or the suits, but the distinctions may not necessarily be useful ones. Whatever they are, it would be a stretch to call either of these two artists.

Both Kalman/M&Co and Joe Duffy/Duffy Group came to prominence in the boom of the 1980’s, profiting from the growing marketability of style. The decade was perhaps the apex of style over content – or perhaps style as content would be more accurate – and both studios were in the thick of things. Both trade in the wholesale production of style and the commodification of culture. Both make profits serving businesses other than their own, supplying them with increased visibility as well as the supposed cache of their own aura. The only discernable difference is the actual style that these men offer for sale.

Two case studies will demonstrate this point. First: the Duffy Group’s campaign for Ralph Lauren’s Chaps Division, involving the identity and collateral materials for a line of “work” clothes. The association with and comparison to Lauren is interesting. Ralph Lauren, another business that flowered in the Reagan era, had a period of huge growth based on the development and heavy marketing of nostalgic clothes associated with different American regions or historical periods: wild West, waspy/preppy, Victorian, etc. Lauren realizes that he was not selling clothes but image, a history, a complete representation of some idealized version of America.

It is impossible not to make the comparison with the 1980 Reagan campaign message (and Reaganism in general) and England’s Thatcherite movement, as developed by Saatchi & Saatchi. Reagan’s philosophy shunned typical political discourse, where issues are debated and compared, and presented a broad, primarily rhetorical representation of American images. The Reagan vision (or design) became a substitution for a real political platform. That creation of illusory, mock-historical, representation directly parallels Duffy’s design philosophy.

Lauren’s Chaps hired The Duffy Group to supply the visual aspects of this romantic American image. The resultant identity program employs a retro, wood-cut style, replete with a saluting boy scout (in the classic, old-fashioned “Smokey-The-Bear” hat) and a Victorianesque label promising “good-fit,” “class A,” “pure cotton,” a la Levi Strauss – all printed on homey kraft paper, silk screened on wooden cigar boxes, wrapped in exposed corrugated cardboard, etc. While the clothes are marketed to the upscale urbanite/suburbanite with disposable income (and apparently the white-collar job to afford the price for the clothes and the packaging,) the actual image evoked by both graphic and apparel design suggests the worker, the laborer, the farm hand, the cowboy. It is Duffy’s supplied illusion as much as the Lauren designed clothing that is the product here. A self-promotional piece designed jointly for French Papers and Duffy Group quotes the president of Chaps as stating that the design “may have created more demand than he can supply” and goes on to elaborate “Chaps believes that strong graphic design can sell product.”

It is only one step more to say graphic design is the product.

Duffy’s commodity is his ability to capture in graphic form an historical image equivalent to Lauren’s sappy nostalgia, sufficiently suffused with warmth and fond memories. It’s an excised image of “honest working man’s clothes” – one that forgets poverty, epidemic, exploitation, hardship and strife, while trading heavily on the Hollywood version: glazed with the golden light of endless lazy days filled with scouting, trout fishing, nature, and the purposefulness of the farming life. Lauren and Duffy supply images of “functional” clothing: i.e. clothes that look a certain way, not because they align with some shallow fashion trend – the inchoate fear lurking in the customers who will eventually buy them – but because they are the appropriate clothes for a specific kind of work, and so seem comfortable and natural. The designs use specific themes and materials – blue jean, firemen’s boots, uniforms, sporting gear, insignia – that seem to have a pragmatic justification or meaning other than that of pure social signifier to which the Duffy/Lauren product is reduced.

Meanwhile, in Manhattan, Kalman’s studio, M&Co, is also in the business of marketing style to businesses willing and lucrative enough to buy in. While the actual connotation of the M&Co sensibility is different from The Duffy Group, the activity is essentially the same. Kalman supplies his clients with what passes for avant-garde design; his activity is the codification and sale of the new. The idea of hip or rule-breaking design or “being bad” may take a variety of guises, but in each article, reference, public appearance, etc. M&Co assures us that it supplies the new and unexpected. M&Co products routinely fly in the face of any traditionally held design conventions. (See “Signs of Chaos” catalogue, 1989, The New Museum.) But as the process of the avant-garde’s absorption into the conventional culture was coming to a head, M&Co became the supplier of a just another hot product.

Kalman seems to be championing the concept of vernacular design. Vernacular design is not altogether different from what Duffy produces. There may be a difference in process: Duffy makes direct imitation of design languages that appear familiar or historical. Kalman appears to believe that local design in the past was quirky and individual, and thus unique and comfortable –and so apparently his strategy is to then produce designs that are quirky and individual. The flaw in this approach is that vernacular design is individual because it is naive, uninformed, or unselfconscious. Intentionally produced vernacular design negates itself; is a contradiction of terms. This is just another form of reference or imitation, sometimes more overt than others.

M&Co’s marketing brochure for the Red Square apartment complex on Houston Street in New York City is an example of Kalman’s packaging of downtown culture for the basically uptown business world. Like Duffy with Lauren’s Chaps, Red Square typifies the changing relationship between design and business in the 1980’s. Marketing departments are becoming aware of the cachet associated with avant-garde. Thus avant-garde is beginning to be used for advertising and marketing purposes. The Absolut Vodka campaign is a prime example of a marketing strategy that attempts to link a product with the downtown art movement, as a route to cash in on the highly aware and dying-to-spend crowd. Absolut spends millions to have the most contemporary (although acceptable and non-controversial) artists render their product image for the back of Spy, Egg, Metropolis, etc.

The 1980’s saw a huge influx of money into the real estate speculation market nationwide, and one of the many down-sides of this phenomenon was the meteoric rise of housing costs throughout the decade. This effect was extreme in New York City; and, as a result, middle-class white professionals began to push into and gentrify a variety of traditionally ethnic neighborhoods. The pressure brought on by this shift in housing patterns drove the rents and building costs in those neighborhoods well out of range of the groups who traditionally occupied them.

Red Square is situated on the border of the East Village and the Lower East Side – neighborhoods that have housed a variety of immigrant and ethnic communities, including predominantly Jewish, Black and Hispanic areas. These are neighborhoods that have suffered from severe economic displacement due to the relentless infiltration of development. The East Village is also an area that began to develop quite quickly at the end of the seventies. As Soho and TriBeCa became too commercial and expensive, artists and students moved east and began to gentrify the fringes of the neighborhood. These excursions led the way for the gradual but inexorable Disneyfication of the district – that is, the growing trend to occupy and partake in foreign cultures as pure entertainment.

Kalman states in the debate that at M&Co they are interested in the entire concept of the materials, and work with copywriters as well as designers. So we can hold M&Co responsible for the complete image as presented. And for the language of the copy, shaping, in no uncertain terms, a certain attitude toward culture, to be packaged and sold to the affluent customer. “This is New York: the restaurants don’t know they’re ethnic and the shops don’t care if they’re interesting… if everyone’s inside mixing martinis or counting their money the sidewalks can be simonized hourly. These streets are alive. And charm? Whatever the word is for an impossibly dense overlay of experiences and generations and languages… it isn’t ‘charming.’ Each generation is another layer, and the layers go deep. A seamstress and a presser, shy as villagers (which they are) falling in love to the accompaniment of whirring sewing machines and sweet tea…”.

Whether this is straight, or a tongue-in-cheek mockery of traditional real estate language – or a combination of the two – is irrelevant. It boils down to the unconcionable use of the very culture that will be destroyed as bait to lure the monied elite; and callously portaying the destruction as some kind of real estate thrill ride. (At last check, one bedroom units in Red Square were starting at $1,395 a month.) It is exactly the same as marketing Colonial Williamsburg, Busch Gardens Old Country or Epcot Center; only here, the culture being dangled is populated by real people, real lives. It is the ultimate theme-park mentality.

The brochure design uses elaborate and unconventional folding and die-cutting. There is a pastiche of found images from the fifties of coffee cups, furnished rooms, diners and deli’s. The back has a Frank O’Hara poem titled “Avenue A,” – apparently chosen purely for the title. (What would O’Hara think if he knew he was pressed into the service of renting apartments?) The aim of the brochure is to lure white-collar dwellers who would normally consider living on the upper east side (where “people are inside counting their money and mixing martinis”) to move to a “real” world. But this proposed real New York is just as much an illusory production as Duffy/Lauren’s American West. The culture is the product that is promised, and the M&Co design assures the buyer that moving into Red Square is a sufficiently fashionable thing to do (that’s what the real estate broker is paying for). While this all may be commonplace, it is endemic of the blurring distinction between culture and commodity, between graphic design and advertising pitch.

Which all comes back to the original issues that are contained in the debate. If the products of an artist (as Kalman ends the debate proclaiming himself to be) are used to hawk dubious products, to promote damaging causes or to lure the socially insecure, does it affect the nature of the art? Can it truly be Art? On the other hand, if design is pure business, what is the role of the designer beyond a set of hands for the ad pitchers, market surveyors, and demographic pollsters? Doesn’t design – and hasn’t it always – existed in the tension between the two forces?

© Michael Rock