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Women rocked the main stage at the "Next: AIGA Design
Conference" in Denver. The amazing babes who stood up to show
their stuff ranged from renowned biologist Janine Benyus, who talked
about how living forms can inspire new products, to Nichelle
Narcisi, a young designer from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who battled
against six other talented newcomers to win AIGA's Command X
"reality" design competition. The final assignment in Command X was
to design a campaign that would compel people ages 18-24 to vote.
Narcisi's feelings about this assignment were especially intense
because, she explained, "My boyfriend doesn't vote." Maybe he will
now that his pint-sized girlfriend has blown away some of the
biggest names in design with a dead-on message, full of insight and
so brilliantly executed.
Get. A. Life.
(From left) Janine Benyus, Nichelle Narcisi and Marian Bantjes
at "Next." All photos: Stu Alden.
Two of the women on stage moved me to tears with their fierce
pursuit of life. Marian Bantjes, who lives and works on an island near
Vancouver, talked about the seemingly random path that took her
from utter anonymity to speaking in front of over 2,000 people at
the AIGA national conference. Bantjes wandered into graphic design
when she saw a help-wanted ad for a typesetter in a coffee shop.
Learning typography as a book designer/typesetter for Hartely &
Marks, she ultimately started her own design business, producing
hundreds of brochures, posters and other stuff for diverse
"I Want It All," a personal project by
Marian Bantjes made from wilting peonies.
Then poof, she quit it all one day, selling her stake in the
business and becoming a "graphic artist" instead, stopping
everything to create the hand-lettered pieces for which she is
known today. That was just four years ago. At age 40, Marian had a
"midlife crisis" and decided to pursue her own interests. It was a
huge risk that paid off, delivering her a life in which she can
focus on projects that are personally satisfying and have an impact
in the design world.
Bantjes does not dwell on happy endings, however, because no one
knows how one's own life story will evolve. The graphic design
field chews up and spits out its self-made celebrities pretty fast.
Bantjes wonders what's next. Will the widespread fashion for
layered ornament ultimately detract from her own originality,
leaving her in the dull dust of spent trends? I hope not. Her work
clearly evolves from a real and authentic place. It hit the scene
fast, but it grew slowly out of decades of personal experimentation
with painting, printmaking and pattern design.
Maira Kalman at "Next." Photo: Stu Alden.
A different kind of experience is revealed in the life and work
Kalman, the Israeli-born, New-York-based artist, author and
illustrator, who addressed the conference the following morning.
Whereas Bantjes had inspired the crowd with her tale of abandoning
normal practice, risking it all and finding a new identity,
Kalman's tale is dark with melancholy. A mother of two with her own
career as an illustrator, she watched her charismatic husband,
Tibor Kalman, die of cancer in 1999 at age 49. After that harsh and
early end, Maira's own life continued on, as lives usually do. In
the eight years since Tibor's death, she has honed one of the most
highly acclaimed individual voices in the graphic arts. She is an
author, an auteur, an instigator, a figure whose influence goes far
beyond the professional borders of design and illustration. Her
books and visual essays speak to everyone, not just to designers.
They have entered the culture.
Illustration by Maira Kalman, from The Principles of
A sense of loss pervades Kalman's new book, The Principles of Uncertainty, a
visual memoir of a one-year period in her life. The book brings to mind
Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking, the best-selling
chronicle of Didion's first impossible year as a widow. Kalman's
book is not, however, about being a widow (although she touches on
that). The loss she conveys is huge and wide, encompassing the
extinction of the dodo, the death of her mother, the fragility of
Israel, the inheritance of the Holocaust and the inevitability, in
the end, of everyone's solitary death. Heavy shit.
And yet the book is full of life, stuffed with Kalman's fresh,
bright, but never over-sweetened paintings of all that she sees,
from portraits of dead philosophers to studies of old people
walking on the street. She pulls together an endless stream of
images—drawn from books, photographs, paintings, and
observation—and conveys them to us through her own sharp eyes,
tersely captioned with grim, funny prose.
Like Bantjes, Kalman has learned how to make a life. Bantjes's
story of buoyant optimism is edged with the fear that the bubble
could burst, sending her back to ordinary anonymity. Kalman, on the
other hand, has achieved fame and perhaps fortune; with little
doubt, the career she has crafted will live as long as she will.
And yet—it will always be colored with irrevocable sadness. Both of
these women are an inspiration to any creative person who is
thinking about life's trajectory and how to make the most of
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The 2007 AIGA Design Conference runaway hit had to be Command X—and especially its champion, Nichelle Narcisi. Heller gets the scoop from the “Next” great designer.
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Sheila Levrant de Bretteville is a graphic designer, artist and educator whose work reflects her belief in the importance of feminist principles, user participation in graphic design, and diverse local community issues. In 1990 she became the director of the Yale University Graduate Program in Graphic Design, one of the oldest and most important design programs in the country. In 2004 she awarded an AIGA Medal.
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