Look book

A new compilation of graphic design is both a handsome compendium and a model of how to curate, organise and present graphic work in book form, says Jim Davies

I have a slight problem with compendiums of graphic design. First, there are too many of them. Competent, but unexceptional, they end up merging into one another, like so many tomes of bound wallpaper.

Presumably, they’re supposed to offer a snapshot of what’s happening in a particular era, a zeitgeistian whistle-stop tour. But by the time the exhaustive process of collating and printing all this good stuff is complete, they’re hopelessly out of date, and if we’re to believe they reflect the spirit of anything at all, it’s something that came and went five years ago.

And no matter how chunky they are, these collections can’t hope to be comprehensive. Instead, they end up as a glorified pick and mix, a mishmash of the editor’s personal predilections that often leave the reader visually shell-shocked and decidedly short on enlightenment.

Thankfully, there are some exceptions. It’s a fair assumption that the good folks at Phaidon wouldn’t have published Area 2 if its predecessor, Area, hadn’t pushed the right buttons. By opening its doors to a wider constituency of ‘art directors and artists, printmakers and performers’, the second instalment promises not only a ‘collection of the most cutting-edge graphic design, but… an extensive visual essay on the state of visual culture today’.

The trap of ‘editor’s pet picks’ has been neatly side-stepped by inviting ten international design luminaries to pin-point ten worthy movers and shakers, plus a classic piece of design each. And the choosers are all class acts – Holland’s queen bee Irma Bloom; US critic and educator Ellen Lupton; Julia Hasting, design director of Phaidon; and Zurich-based lecturer and designer Ruedi Baur. Between the ten of them, all five continents and a welcome diversity of tastes and influences are represented. The pundits also provide short, punchy essays on each designer, giving them context and critical appraisal.

As you might expect, Area 2 eschews the commercial mainstream. You won’t find many brand identities for accountancy firms or airline liveries here (although the New York Times Magazine manages to sneak in). There’s a fair smattering of self-initiated projects, but the bulk of the client list comprises musicians and art galleries, fashion labels and progressive publishers. In other words, the kind of small clients who aren’t afraid of sticking their necks out by cutting their designers some creative slack.

Consequently, the results are suitably edgy and aggressive, straddling that fine line between art and design. They’re more about image-making than selling, creating an instant visceral hit than a slow persuasive burn. If there are any themes running through such a disparate collection, you could point to illustrative typography, comic book influences, overprinting and expressive hand-drawn scribbles. There’s not much restraint – the overall impression is of exuberance and energy, some of it more controlled than others.

By contrast, Hasting’s design for the book itself is pretty laid back. She’s spurned the usual bright-white, grid-bound Modernist approach to this kind of material for a freer, scrap-booky feel. Set on a grey background, all the pieces of work have a white frame and drop shadow and occasionally overlap, almost as if they’ve been gently pasted in place. This technique has the effect of ‘lifting’ the featured graphics off the page, reminding us that they were once tangible objects in their own right, rather than reproductions submerged into their new setting.

In more ways than one, this is a substantial book, impressive in its scope and ambition. While I still have reservations about the genre as a whole, Area 2 is undoubtedly a cut above – a model in how to curate, organise and present graphic design in book form. Like a greatest hits compilation CD, you’ll grow to love it – but, ultimately, you’ll find the experience is less intense than listening to the full glory of the original. l

Area 2 is published by Phaidon, priced £45

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