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The Walker Art Center has recently jumped headfirst into online
publishing, exploring how an art center can create media-agnostic content that may
be consumed through any number of platforms. The challenge of designing for
“formless content” is fascinating. But these explorations are all built on a
long tradition of print publishing, and when it comes down to it, we absolutely
love books. So naturally we take our exhibition publications very seriously.
The Walker’s publications program lives within our in-house design
department. We work in tandem with various departments, especially the
programming departments: visual arts, film/video, performing arts and
education. Part of what makes the in-house design department unique is that it
is also a programming department, putting on lectures and exhibitions. This
places us in an institutional sweet spot between the curatorial and service
departments, which often affords us a higher level of creative latitude than designers working within other organizations.
I am the design director
at the Walker, and we have two full-time designers and one yearly design fellow
who handle the 300 to 400
projects that come through the studio every year. These projects range from
marketing campaigns and exhibition catalogues to postcards and signage. In
addition to the designers, the department also includes our editorial team as
well as photographers and videographers. Ours is a very close-knit system that
allows for easy communication between the people responsible for framing the
Walker’s text and image.
We conceive the exhibition publications as parallel endeavors to the
exhibitions themselves. At the heart of our philosophy is the desire to create
an object that is as challenging and forward thinking as the artist it
represents. Instead of merely imitating an artist’s style, we translate
concepts, aesthetics and attitudes into the form of the book. A book will never
replicate the experience of seeing an artwork in real life and shouldn’t try
to. Instead, the book should present a new context through which to experience
the ideas. This act of translation is one of the most challenging but
satisfying aspects of being a designer at the Walker.
Recently, we worked on a book about Abraham Cruzvillegas, a Mexican
conceptual artist who has developed a body of work that investigates what
he calls autoconstrucción, or “self-construction.” This idea
originates from an organic, ad-hoc architectural mode evident in the artist’s
hometown and elsewhere—buildings and structures in a constant state of
transformation as additions are made when materials become available and
necessity dictates. This metaphor of being constantly under construction, of
additive and reactive structures, informs his assemblage and found-object
sculptures, his general methodology and even a broader understanding of how
identity is built and constantly rebuilt.
So how do you design a book that encapsulates this?
At the Walker, a book
project is first assigned to a
designer—in this case, our Senior Designer Dante Carlos—who meets with the
curator of the exhibition, the artist and the design director. Each book represents
an opportunity to form new working dynamics in the curator-artist-designer triangulation that defines so much
design done within the cultural sector. And each artist has a different
relationship to this process—from young artists who are hands-on with every
detail of a book, to more established artists who are content to let us manage
the process, to estates representing deceased artists.
Cruzvillegas was somewhere in the middle, deeply invested but not
controlling (also very much alive!). He was interested in this publication
looking outward—a reflection of his research and ideas. He and Senior Curator Clara Kim wanted
the publication to act as a question he is posing, an opportunity to learn
something himself. Through several conversations and rounds of emails, a
general set of principles began to emerge which informed the design.
The book would feature images of the exhibition artwork at its core,
with additional research and context: 176 pages of songs, photos, posters,
fliers, books, essays and an artist’s index of terms that would form a graphic and
textual lexicon of the artist’s practice. This section was conceived as a
direct translation of the artist’s “resource room”—a room in his exhibition made
up of different components. On a long table, there are coil-bound photocopied
books on subjects like architecture, poetry and Mexican culture; upside down
buckets and a converted wheelbarrow serve as seating. On a nearby wall,
several large maps are displayed, showing growth and population densities over
time in Mexico City; on a circular table, a plant sits on top of a collage of
photographs—images from his neighborhood that the artist had taken with a
simple camera. Another wall addressed
Mexican and Latin American socio-political issues. Because we were literally
looking to “wrap” this “resource room” around the plate section of the book, we
decided to saddle stitch the entire publication.
This ended up being more of a challenge than we anticipated. Saddle
stitching 240 pages is not really recommended, so we asked our most trusted
printer, Shapco Printing, to help us find the right bindery for the job (which
ended up being an industrial stitcher in Stillwater, Minnesota that sews
sailboat sails together). We consider our printers to be collaborators and we
look to them for ideas and innovation in materials. To many of our designers at
the Walker, Shapco feels like a second home, as they have spent late nights
there wandering the halls between press checks, napping on the couch and exploring the nooks and crannies of the shop.
Our main print rep, Joe Avery, constantly brings new techniques to our
attention, simultaneously indulging us in our most outlandish schemes and
pulling us back to reality when we stray too far. His commitment to excellence
and innovation in print makes him a valued collaborator at the Walker. During the mockup process, Shapco suggested that we use a thick, plastic
paper for the cover, which could handle the intense stitching without ripping
at the seams. At first, the plastic paper seemed at odds with our idea of the
artist’s work—we knew we wanted materials that reflected the autoconstrucción
concept and the artist suggested humble materials such as newsprint and
cardboard (ironically, what artists consider to be humble materials in
bookmaking often equate to incredibly expensive production costs). The more we played with it, the more it felt appropriate
to mash up disparate paper aesthetics in the catalogue. If the body stock
(French Duratone) was our brick and mortar, the cover stock was our vinyl
siding and PVC pipe. And the fact that the material made the most sense from a
construction durability standpoint is what most aligned it with the autoconstrucción concept.
One of Cruzvillegas’ most identifiable methods of creating sculptures involves
stacking objects one on top of the other. During the sketching process, Carlos hit upon this idea of “stacking,” and used it quite
literally to begin arranging the artwork plates and the texts in the catalogue. I think this strategy, which would typically feel quite awkward in another context, worked beautifully, and created a highly unique feeling for the book.
The design of the cover was the last piece of the puzzle. We knew we wanted
something memorable and singular that would illustrate the stacking concept and,
by extension, the idea of autoconstrucción.
So Carlos created the most archetypal, abstracted iteration of the stacking
concept possible, and we foil-stamped that on top of a beautiful image of
architecture that the artist had taken.
At this point in our design process, the designer hands over the images
to our in-house pre-press image specialist, who corrects
and enhances all of the imagery. From there, the designer press checks the
book, identifying and reacting to unexpected production issues (for example, a
foil stamp that threatens to melt the plastic cover). In the end, 2,400 copies
of the book were printed, and it will be archived in libraries and museums
around the world.
Having been a designer in our in-house studio and having designed my
fair share of Walker books, I can speak for the Walker designers when I say
that these books are almost overburdened with their potential, and living up to
this potential while keeping them under control is half the battle for everyone
involved. They can be overwhelming, inspiring, frustrating, deliriously painful
labors of love that inevitably result in esoteric back stories that only the designers
and curators are privy to. (Read more about the concepts that informed Carlos’ design process here.) I asked Carlos to sum up this feeling with one
word and his response was “stress dream.”
Emmet Byrne is the Design Director at the Walker Art Center. With Alex DeArmond and Jon Sueda he co-publishes the Task Newsletter.
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