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Recognized for the passion and intelligence of his
influential work, inspiration to his colleagues and mentorship to a
generation of students.
In January 2000 at a New York AIGA event, Rick Valicenti
presented a work called “Just My Type,” in which an internet porn
actress is guided online to make letterforms with her body. Many
people walked out, and the piece became buried under a furor of
controversy. It has been resurrected in the monograph of Rick and
his company Thirst's work, Emotion As Promotion, and while, on the
surface, it could be interpreted as a commentary on sexual
politics, commodification and subversion, it bears (as with all his
work) further scrutiny.
This piece, more than any other, shows the role that
relationships play in his work. In the beginning of the narrative,
the designer and the actress meet from very different perspectives,
each with their own expectations. The interaction begins as almost
frustrating, with each struggling to find common ground. Rick wants
letterforms; the actress wants to play a scripted sexual role. By
the letter “F,” however, they begin to understand each other, and
as the actress starts to appreciate and enjoy making letter shapes
with her body, Rick begins to engage in their mutual seduction.
Viewpoints are exchanged and the result is the connection of both
parties, not necessarily controlled by either. To me, this is the
key to all of Rick's work.
Rick Valicenti formed Thirst
in 1989 as the evolution of a career already eight years under way.
And while employees and contributors have changed over the years
(Emotion As Promotion lists 82 collaborators), there
exists a consistency of personality throughout. I can think of no
other body of work by any designer that has the amount of strength
that Rick's does, while simultaneously plundering the depths of
style and defying uniformity.
Personality, and indeed Rick's own personal history appear so
often in his work, that to view it as a whole is like taking a walk
through his life. But to those who say there is no room in design
for the ego of the designer, it should be noted that his work is
ultimately collaborative, and that he forms long-term relationships
with his clients based on the very things that some criticize him
His work with Gary Fisher Mountain Bikes challenged the very
concept of how to display, sell and promote something as tangible
as a bicycle. Often otherworldy, and sometimes dripping in
political or social commentary, Valicenti and Fisher rode in tandem
to fame partly on these electric, visceral pieces. And it is worth
noting that bike enthusiasts—not just designers—remember these
pieces from a time when personality in product as well as promotion
was both appreciated and desired.
What Rick forms with his clients is a relationship, what they
give him is trust, and what results is a personal conversation
which draws on all of their experiences and fuses the boundaries
between expression and promotion. While each individual piece may
at times seem bizarre, slick, cold or inscrutable, the work as a
whole has continuity, love, passion and depth. While Rick's style
has been emulated, the essence of his work has rarely been
Since 1988, The Lyric Opera of Chicago has been a client of
Thirst. In an arena where most operas are promoted by art kitsch
and cliché, The Lyric Opera benefits from Rick's emotional force to
evoke the drama and human controversy inherent in operatic works.
In a way, this is a perfect fit, as in a sense, Rick Valicenti is
an opera of design—though I think perhaps more “Bluebeard's Ghost”
than “The Magic Flute.”
Another long-term client relationship is with Gilbert Paper,
which has resulted, to date, in 16 years' worth of paper promotions
and the brilliantly witty identity of Gilbert's paperclip “G.” A
transcribed conversation between three successive client contacts,
as printed in Emotion As
Promotion, shows the strength of the personal bond between
client and designer. In addition to illustrating the level to which
Rick was able to push the design outside of their comfort zone, the
conversation is extraordinary in revealing the depth of affection
these business women felt for their design partner.
In Rick's personal work, all of his love, humor, angst and anger
come to the fore. Slyly political, visually sarcastic, aggressively
angry, sorrowful and lonely, the work both repels and attracts,
toying with our reactions to a bloody heart pinned, still pumping,
to his virtual sleeve. And while he is a master of wordplay, the
communication in Rick's work is ultimately visual. If graphics are
a language, Rick uses it to Shakespearean levels—with abundance,
exuberance and sheer delight in visual play.
Always known for his early adoption of technology, and never
afraid of special FX, Rick's interests have turned to technology's
use as visual production, as evidenced by his 2005 piece
“Intelligent Design.” Perhaps a commentary on the Religion of
Commerce or the Commerce of Religion, this piece employed the use
of programming to convert the Book of Genesis to binary code, and
then replace the 0s and 1s with an image of either Coke or Pepsi.
He has since used this program to collect and place large numbers
of images in other projects, and continues to scour the universe
for technologies he can bend to the designer's hand.
The man is not dead yet, and as designers and ordinary humans,
we can look forward to decades more of collaborations with Rick in
mutual seduction, as we learn to bend in ways not previously
imagined. When done, his life's work will be his life: his story as
played out on the retinas of countless human presences. One piece
of his reads, “I often wonder if I'll have anything profound to
say,” but to those who look, it's clear that he already has.
Rick Valicenti has a BFA from Bowling Green State University,
and an MA and MFA in Photography from the University of Iowa. He
has juried countless design awards, including the President's
Design Awards, National Endowment for the Arts. His work is
included in the permanent collection of The Cooper-Hewitt National
Design Museum; has been featured, critiqued and lauded in design
publications worldwide; and has garnered awards from AR100,
Graphis, CA, Print, Step, New
York Art Directors Club, ACD100, Tokyo Art Directors and ID
Magazine, among others. He has lectured extensively and
exhibited his work around the world. He is a member of the Alliance
Graphique Internationale (AGI), has served as President of the
Society of Typographic Art and was awarded the AIGA Chicago Fellows
Award in 2004 for his steadfast commitment to the education of
design's future generations.
The distinguished AIGA Medal is awarded to individuals in recognition of their exceptional achievements in the field of design.
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