Melanie Archer: “Work needs to be done convincing people of the value of design”

This month we take a trip back to Trinidad to interview our first female designer from the region. Like many of her contemporaries, her work is multi-disciplinary, encompassing graphic design, art direction, curation and writing. Each of which she does with a style and flair that is borne out by the fact that she is involved in many of the most exciting projects coming out of the Caribbean. A sharp shooter by nature, as well as by name, it is my pleasure to introduce Melanie Archer.

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Portrait by Nadia Huggins

Melanie Archer: graphic designer, art director, curator and writer

What’s your background?

I was born and raised in Port of Spain, Trinidad. It was a pretty traditional upbringing; my mother was an English teacher and my father was an investment banker and we lived in the outskirts of the city. I was two years behind my sister in the same kindergarten, primary and secondary Catholic schools. Great emphasis was placed on our academic achievement, but my parents made sure to balance that with sports and music. In primary school we got books as prizes for top marks in end of year exams – I remember falling in love with these objects, not only as symbols for hard work, but because they were special, beautiful things. I admired the frontispiece of one, the printed endpapers of another. One of these books, from 1984, sits on my bedside table today. I also have great memories of Sunday afternoon drives. My dad was very much into real estate, so we would pile in the car and go exploring neighbourhoods, to look at other people’s houses. After taking a gap year post A-Levels I went on to get my Bachelor of Architecture at Hampton University in Virginia. It was a pretty gruelling, rigourous five-year programme and I did well but, before I graduated, I was certain that I didn’t want to practice. Although I had connected with the field, I realised that I wanted to work on projects that yielded more immediate results, ones that were smaller in scale and afforded more creative freedom. I took a year off after my Bachelor’s – during that time I interned in the Art Library at Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale, California, and then moved on to get my MFA at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). 

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How did you get started in design?

At SAIC, I got involved in a project that came out of one of professor Maud Lavin’s classes on consumerism, where the question of whether Coca-Cola invented Santa Claus was raised. Out of this discussion, a group of students, led by Maud, embarked on a detailed and quite fun collaborative investigation of the big money behind holidays in the US, which eventually led to the publication of a book, The Business of Holidays. Initially, I wrote one chapter of this book but Maud encouraged me to write more, making me senior writer and, eventually, associate editor. This was also my first professional foray into graphic design – I worked with four other, much more experienced designers on the book, and learned a lot through doing. This was a major project for me – it opened me up both to editorial design and the world of art/illustrated book publishing, providing me with the experience I needed to then land a job as managing editor of Distributed Art Publishers (D.A.P.) in New York. After holding this position for a year, its responsibilities were diffused throughout the company, and I was out work. I eventually moved back to Trinidad at the end of 2006. I got a job as a graphic design consultant for an architecture firm, and also got more involved in writing – pitching and being commissioned to write on the things that interested me most: art, design, culture. In 2008 I started working with the trinidad+tobago film festival as a freelance graphic designer, and then was made art director in 2010, after the film festival’s 2009 rebrand by local design consultancy, Abovegroup. Based on my experience at D.A.P., I was also asked to join the miniscule team at Robert & Christopher Publishers – a small but ambitious imprint based in Trinidad, with a mission to produce books on contemporary Caribbean art and artists. I’ve been co-editor there since 2011. 

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What challenges did you face in getting into the industry and achieving your ambitions? 

I think I’ve been very fortunate in that the different stages of my education led me organically into the fields in which I currently practice, often without my fully understanding beforehand where the various paths would lead. That being said, now that I’m in these fields I feel pretty consistently challenged by a local government that has fallen short on several occasions on their promises to fund creative projects on which I’ve been involved. This is particularly true of book projects – I think that in T&T many are still struggling with the concept of philanthropy and sponsorship. The film festival has its challenges as well, but I often think that it’s an easier sell as film has a certain glamour and visibility that, say, books do not. Also, because of import duties on paper, the cost of printing books locally is nearly prohibitive (and conversely, so is the cost of printing them elsewhere and shipping them in), and I also miss the expertise of the more seasoned printers that I’ve had the fortune to work with in the past. I mean, here people can print just fine, but I miss that person who has been with the same printer for 30 years and has extensive stories to tell and really sound advice as to the things that I should and shouldn’t be doing. You know – someone who knows the meaning of colophon and can get really excited about a paper change or a gatefold or a tailband. Someone who will help expand my knowledge of the printing process. Anyway, this particular challenge I’m still trying to find ways to surmount. Other than that, there is always universal work to be done in convincing people, especially in this, a country still categorised as “developing”, that there is real value in investing in design. That clean is OK, that not every T&T identity has to be red, black and white, that not everything needs that patterned background and drop shadow. There are designers here in T&T, though, who are also working against this mentality by educating through doing, and also by talking about design and why it matters in an accessible manner.

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Who and/or what are your greatest inspirations and influences?

When I was still in secondary school and considering a career in architecture, my parents arranged for me to meet local architect, Colin Laird, whose work I knew through his incisive design of many of T&T’s public buildings. Visiting Colin’s studio was a lesson in workspaces, in book collecting, in music, and in design – a sort of way of living inside design that I hadn’t seen before then. In undergrad, my second-year professors Ron Sakal & Sallie A. Hood, a husband and wife team, were very encouraging and supportive of my work and, after they moved to New Mexico, they got me summer internships there and I completely absorbed Santa Fe and Taos with its beauty and craft at every turn. They also introduced me to the work of Charles and Ray Eames, which I in turn came to find greatly inspirational – this sense of a holistic approach to design and living through tremendous beauty. The Eameses have probably been the biggest influences in terms of people I’ll never meet, along with architects Eileen Gray, Luis Barragán, and Louis Kahn. And, of course, during my MFA at SAIC, Maud Lavin, who is now the department head of Visual and Critical Studies, was spectacular through her smarts and encouragement and warmth and intergenerational friendship. She is squarely at the point of origin for so much that I do today. 

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What is your best piece of work or the project you are most proud of?

Hmm, that is not a fair question – it is really difficult to choose just one, especially across a few disciplines! For me, there are several, all of which tend towards the collaborative. In terms of writing, I get a kick out of having contributed to Phaidon’s massive Archive of Graphic Design. My contribution there is small – I wrote literally five out of 500 entries (what is that, 1 per cent?!)– but I love being part of something so much larger than myself, and knowing that this project links me to so many people around the world. In terms of curatorial/design work, I’m very happy with the Colin Laird exhibition, Public Spaces, in part because he was so influential and encouraging during my studies, and also because I got to work with Mark Raymond and Sean Leonard – two Trinidadian architects I respect. With books, I’m very happy with work that I’ve been able to do with Robert & Christopher co-editor, Mariel Brown, in particular on Pictures from Paradise, which became a major exhibition at CONTACT – the largest photography festival in the world. I also really enjoyed working on the book Manikin: The Art and Architecture of Anthony C. Lewis. If I had to select just one project, that might be it. I feel as though it was the perfect balance of collaboration with the book’s editors, and creative freedom. It was also sufficiently challenging, and I learned a lot, as it was the first book that I designed completely on my own. But I look at it six years on and I’m still pretty happy with it, so that says something.

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What would be your dream job or project?

Designing or editing or producing an art book for which there’s complete creative freedom and a massive budget for printing (ha ha ha ha ha!). I also have a very special love of photography as a fine art form, and have been thinking about how the Caribbean can benefit from some sort of institute that supports this field. I am thinking through how something like that can be set up. And, I’m also thinking about a way to support small, local design/print projects while simultaneously looking for a letterpress, but that’s all I’ll say about that for now…

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Please name some people in your field that you believe deserve credit or recognition, and why.

In Trinidad & Tobago I admire the graphic design work of Richard Mark Rawlins who is so brave and bold in his output – Richard takes many risks and encourages me to do the same; Gareth Jenkins for his sensitivity in design, and Marlon Darbeau who is meticulous and has moved design beyond the page to create furniture and other objects of simplified beauty. Nadia Huggins did really lovely editorial design and branding for ARC – a Caribbean art magazine that she co-founded. Not to sound completely narcissistic, but all of these people deserve credit as well for supporting my work and that of others – I think it’s commendable and so important when people in your field can reach out to tell you “good job” on something you’ve executed, or who take the time to send you a link that you might find interesting. People who give you a sense that you’re all moving in tandem towards something. These are also all people who are constantly stepping outside of the safe and known. They are risk takers (but on a sliding scale as to how quickly they’d leap off the cliff!) – I really admire that. Outside of here, I can’t say enough about Gerhard Steidl’s books, and I’ve been quietly admiring the work of the NY-based firm Project Projects for some time now. 

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What’s your best piece of advice for those wanting to follow in your footsteps?

Find your mentor. I believe it’s crucial to set up a dialogue with someone you trust; that person has the potential to help you completely blow apart your relatively safe universe. And also to rethink what a mentor means – it need not be a rigid relationship, or that image of a stodgy person you might have in your head. Failing finding that person, in the words of the popular Anthony Burrill poster: Work Hard & Be Nice to People. 

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What’s next for you?

In September of this year, the trinidad+tobago film festival celebrates its tenth anniversary and I have a graphic design project I’m really excited about on the drawing board – it will involve my collaborating with other designers and I think it’s got real potential. I’ve got to keep trying to make it happen and lock it down so I can actually talk about it! I’m also working on designing a book of contemporary Caribbean architectural photography, to be released this October. At Robert & Christopher we’re due to produce another Caribbean art themed survey, to be published in 2016. Lastly, I’ve been working on a great little project with Nadia Huggins – we’re taking Port of Spain street by street and documenting the signage that we find interesting. We’re currently figuring out how these photographs are going to manifest in design form. Other than that, who knows – I’m remaining open as ever to unexpected directions.

For more information visit melaniearcher.com.

Network:

EUROPE:

JAMAICA HIDDEN HISTORIES is an educational project by Full Spectrum Productions, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It aims to unearth and communicate information to diverse communities to understand the history of Jamaica, its distinctive cultural identity and links with Britain. The project will explore how Jamaican culture has become a recognisable and global brand. Runs until 17 May at Gallery @oxo 
Oxo Tower Wharf 
Bargehouse Street 
South Bank 
London SE1 9PH. For more info visit the website.

THE CARIBBEAN:

INSIDES is an exhibition of contemporary drawing by four exciting artists who engage this medium as a significant part of their art practice. NLS, Jamaica is pleased to this exhibition of new work by Camille Chedda, Oneika Russell, Phillip Thomas and Prudence Lovell, who present new approaches to an age-old medium, positing drawing as a valid means of contemporary expression. ‘Insides’ will be on view from March 28 to April 28. This event is free and open to the public. Find out more about NLS here.

THE US:

DRAPETOMANIA: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba is a forgotten visual arts and cultural movement that thrived briefly between 1978 and 1983. Grupo Antillano articulated a vision of Cuban culture that priviledged the importance of Africa and Afro-Caribbean influences in the formation of the Cuban nation. The art of Grupo Antillano belongs to a long tradition of Caribbean resistance and cultural cimarronaje, a tradition that lives on in the work of the younger contemporary artists who also participate in this exhibition. Runs until 29 May 2015 at Ethelbert Cooper gallery of African & African American Art. For more info visit the exhibition website.

AFRICA:

NOT X CHRIS SAUNDERS opens at the Museum of African Design (MOAD) in Johannesburg’s Maboneng precinct on April 17th till 28 June, 2015. The exhibition is the culmination of the cross-cultural, interdisciplinary relationship between New York-based designer Jenny Lai, Johannesburg-based photographer Chris Saunders, and four local creatives from South Africa. This exhibition reflects the journey and dialogue between these seven, who step outside of familiar ground. It demonstrates how technology enabled creators living in different cities and countries, with very varying influences and processes to meet via the Internet, enter into an inter-disciplinary exchange and collaboratively produce garments, sculptures, still and moving images. From 17 April – 28 June 2015. For more info visit http://www.moadjhb.com/nxcs/.

If you have any forthcoming events that you would like to be considered for inclusion in this column, please do not hesitate to contact me by email at info at jon-daniel dot com.


Jon Daniel is a London-based Independent Creative Director, Designer and Curator. For more information visit his website at www.jon-daniel.com or his blog at www.visual-intellectual.com.

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