Frontier Life
Emigre: The Book

Getting a new Emigre magazine can be an exhausting experience. It may be the closest thing we have to a graphic design fashion magazine and it operates with the same brutal combination of cheerful fantasy and the dissatisfaction of perpetual change. So when a review copy of the Emigre retrospective book landed on my doorstep it was jarring to realize the champion of the new just turned 10 years old.

Who could have guessed back in 1984 that two young Berkeley grads would parlay an obscure, art and culture tabloid — obsessed with the unlikely theme of “What is Legibility” — into an international presence and in turn, lend a name to a whole genre of typography? While circulation hovers around seven thousand, the magazine‘s modest readership belies a far-reaching influence; the echoes of Emigre style are everywhere. Zuzana Licko is the most imaginative and knocked-off type designer of her generation and her husband Rudy VanderLans is one of the most (in)famous art directors working today. In addition, exactly how you feel about that last statement has become a benchmark of sorts, the line in the sand in a whole range of arguments.

But controversy aside, successfully churning out 28 consecutive issues of anything — especially with limited staff, money or wide distribution — is ample excuse for a little celebration. In that spirit, VanderLans, Licko and Company have published Emigre: Graphic Design into the Visual Realm (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, $24.95) a 96 page retrospective covering a decade of publication. The title page image of a brimming slide carousel foreshadows the portfolio show that follows; sample spreads from every issue, font specimens, professional projects, and a color section featuring posters, promos and a complete set of magazine covers. The pictures are cut with short quotes from VanderLans and Licko explicating the Emigre philosophy together with a running text outlining the magazine’s brief history — self-authored but cast in the third-person plural, giving it a somewhat unsettling, authoritative tone.

While it may be hard to imagine someone writing something like

“…the strength of their work lies not in the graphic design alone, but in the way that they have combined type design, writing, graphic design, and publishing into one, much like it was done before the days when moveable type was first invented by Johann Gutenberg in 1476.”

about themselves, it’s easy to overlook the superlatives, sit back and admire the pictures; the work speaks for itself. But Emigre has drawn so much vitriolic criticism and hyperbolic praise over its short life that it is impossible to not re-read this retrospective in search of the values underlying the couple’s “experiments, ideologies, designs and their commercial implementation” and, in turn, reexamine the romantic notion of the emigre.


Emigre was born amidst the typographic implosion of the early ’80s — sparked by Punk and New Wave and fanned by the introduction of desktop publishing — that fractured the unified front of rational functionalism. (It is not coincidental that Emigreand Macintosh were introduced the same year.) In time Emigre has come to symbolize the entire, diverse movement of new typographies. While supporters denounce this over-simplification — all labels are stereotypes, after all — that hasn’t diminished the usefulness of the symbol in design discourse. And although the work published inEmigre cannot be reduced to a single style, it does share some common quality, attitude, or aura; if it didn’t the magazine would have no identity and therefore, no consistent audience.

In fact, Emigre has not only developed a consistent audience but is constructing a whole new generation of devotees weaned on their editorial ideology. In the introduction to issue #28, guest editor Gail Swanlund breathlessly disclaimed “This is a magazine I’ve followed, read, studied, and copied shamelessly, and now I’m writing for it…” The Emigre ideology is open but structured on a few basic principles: 1.) Legibility is a function of reading not typography; 2.) New forms should be infused with the spirit of the day and their means of production; 3.) New technology should be embraced and expanded, not forced to replicate antique forms; 4.) Idiosyncratic and iconoclastic goals are superior to objective and universal ones (which in themselves are fantasies.)

While this ideology has drawn mean-spirited criticism from typographic conservatives and professionals predicting some cataclysmic dissolution of good taste, no one has attacked more virulently than Massimo (we only need five good typefaces) Vignelli. “It’s the difference between the culture of obsolescence and the culture of refinement,” Vignelli asserted in the LA Times. “In the cult of refinement, you don’t need to come up with the junky typefaces they’re coming up with today. They’re junky because they have no style, no background, no depth, no elegance, no history.” For his stand, Vignelli has been both lionized as a protector of high culture and pilloried as the model of intolerance. But while I disagree with both the content and spirit of his totalitarian grumbling, there may be a kernel of insight buried within them.


In the constant search for the edge of acceptable design practice Emigre does, perhaps inadvertently, promote a kind of “culture of obsolescence.” In an earnest introductory essay entitled “Graphic designers probably won’t read this but…” Jeffery Keedy posits designers as “the ‘scouts’ of visual culture, looking ahead of the pack,” sending dispatches back from the creative wilderness for the stuffy metropolitans to do with what they may. The design activity, in Keedy’s vision, is one of discovery, not implementation. It is only after the vigors of that cultural plundering have exhausted them that designers “collapse into a ‘timeless’ stasis or retreat into nostalgia.”

This commitment to a kind of visual colonization fits neatly into traditional capitalist themes involving the expansion and development of the frontier. After all, conquering new territory always ends up profiting somebody. Keedy’s metaphor of the unbridled Californian working outside of the conservative strictures of New York establishment, relies on the figure of the Westerner as cultural maverick and libertarian escaping from the suffocating history of the East. (It is reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright spending his final years in the liberatory exile of Taliesan West on the border of civilization and the desert.) All of which in turn reinforces the myth of the modern emigre artist, severed from the oppression of bourgeois society, seeking fortune in a new world.

Those libertarian tropes of uncharted territory courageously cultivated by the loner willingly to work outside of conventional cultural boundaries, promote ideals that equate value with novelty. (Remember, Emigre is “The magazine that ignores boundaries.”) Those ideals fit perfectly into a business set up to manufacture and market a product ruled by the dictates of changing taste, i.e. typefaces. A sense of currency based in experimentation — or visual exploration — becomes a highly effective force; it’s a form of planned obsolescence, like tail-fins or designer colors. Emigre has been able to coalesce all aspects of product development and marketing: a.) the construction of an anti-establishment ideology promoted through the magazine’s content; b.) a manifestation of that ideology in a recognizable visual identity, i.e. “the signature Emigre style”; and finally c.) the commodification of that message in a saleable product, a post-script format typeface — or even a collection of Ed Fella’s doodles…list price $59.00.

This endless cosmetic variation as an engine of commerce was exactly what the socialist, proto-modernist designers and critics, like William Morris, envisioned overcoming. Now vilified as elitist fantasies, ideas of timelessness had their origins in early attempts to break the burgeoning cycle of Victorian consumerism. The early modernists naïvely imagined so-called well-designed objects existing outside the frenetic cycle of fashion, obliterating the need for constant re-invention and acquisition. In design, post-modernism may actually be a victory of market economy over socialist utopianism.

In that light it is difficult to say whether Emigre and the ideology of the new is radical or conventional. What is fascinating is the way that the avant-garde impulse parallels deeper patterns of mainstream consumer culture. In both systems, the wild will always be captured, surveyed, developed, and cultivated. In order to keep it all running, new territory must continuously be claimed, new markets tapped.


It would be unfair to categorize Emigre as merely a glorified mail-order type catalogue. The magazine has played perfectly to its audience and served as an alternative voice, at once serious and lighthearted, printing thoughtful articles and intriguing interviews. One of my only complaints about the retrospective is that, despite all of Mr Keedy’s introductory harping about designers that don’t read the magazine, not one of the original articles or interviews are republished; this is a book primarily about the formal evolution of page layouts and typefaces. This is especially disappointing as few libraries collect the magazine and back issues can be expensive or unavailable.

Perhaps the most inspiring aspects of Emigre is the drive, perseverance and generosity of spirit Licko and VanderLans have maintained over the course of their project. They have unapologetically pursued their work on their own terms and shaped the debate in the process. And in the end, their work has succeeded tremendously;Emigre has effectively infiltrated the host culture.

“When the visual trappings have reached the point of half-hour episodic TV,” observed cinematographer John Bailey “then a genre truly is a carcass.” Emigre may be quickly reaching that level of cultural penetration: Licko’s font Variax graces the Arrid Teen Image Deodorant ads and Barry Deck‘s now-ubiquitous Template Gothic, first introduced and licensed by Emigre, made it all the way to Wall Street via the financial pages of the Time Warner annual report. With neighbors like that, Emigre may have to light out anew in search of a virgin frontier.

© Michael Rock