Jarrett Fuller


On Monographs

Hannah Ellis has an excellent piece on studio monographs and celebrity culture in the design industry in Creative Review:

A point that seems so obvious that it ought to go without saying is that it’s not really the work but the name that’s important here, because, just like any celebrity autobiography, these memoir-ographs are as much about the designer as they are by the designer. It’s a codex that cements the ‘who’s who’ at that moment in time, telling their story in their words. And – with a captive audience of thousands of avid followers – they’re stories that everyone apparently wants to hear. So whilst the likes of Anthony Burrill or Aaron Draplin or whoever else rattles their way through 200+ pages of their own work, entertaining the already-a-fan reader with anecdotes about how they got to be so brilliant, there’s never really a need to question the whole nature of auto-monography. Because there’s something inescapably weird about writing a book about yourself and your work, isn’t there?

For the last year or so, I’ve been keeping some notes on a piece I’ve wanted to write about designer monographs. I’d been thinking about how different designers tackle their monographs differently and I am especially interested in when and why some monographs are solely the voice of the designers and when others bring in other voices. (The two extremes that got me thinking about this were Rem Koolhaas’s SMLXL and Michael Bierut’s How To — two “monographs” that couldn’t be more different.) Ellis covers some of this in her piece, coining the term “memoir-graph” — a monograph authored solely by the designer that also incorporates career advice and personal stories amplifying the designer’s own personality.

The monographs that are much more interesting to me, however, are not just a nicely printed portfolio of work I’ve usually already seen with additional commentary from the designer but the books that start to experiment with or subvert the form and include commentary, essays, and voices from others: clients, colleagues, bosses. Ellis mentions the now-out-of-print Tibor Kalman monograph, which is one of my favorites in that it was edited and produced by Peter Hall and Michael Bierut, not Kalman himself. (The new Paula Scher monograph from Unit Editions — which I don’t own yet — seems to follow this model. It was designed and edited by Tony Brook from Spin and feels much more a book about Paula than from Paula.)

Ellis adds the need to add criticality to the genre, turning monographs into more than self-aggrandizing tomes and wonders if they can be used to ask the hard questions about our work:

Since the content of these books is more or less parroted by the students and early-career designers they target, do memoir-ographs perhaps need to work a bit harder to justify themselves? And, if the premise that makes them more than just a ‘self-aggrandising monograph’ is some kind of vague educational offering, do they need to go beyond ‘how-to’ career-advice and into the kind of questioning that might be challenging for the audience but beneficial nonetheless?

So much of brilliant critical thinking is often tied up in abstruse academic language and/or produced by smaller publishers – maybe the real opportunity here is as a mainstream stepping-stone into criticality, using the authority that a popular name carries. Humour and affability makes these books appealing to their disproportionately dyslexic audience, so perhaps this is a chance to make asking complex questions palatable, or at the very least, digestible.

Scanning my shelf of monographs: The Experimental Jetset book, Statement and Counterstatement is another exciting edition to the genre (I reviewed it last year) in that all the text is written by the studio’s friends and all the work is reproduced at one-to-one scale making for a collaged or indexed archive. In many ways, Experimental Jetset’s echoes the disorientation of SMLXL, though at a much smaller scale. 2x4, a studio that’s worked a lot with Koolhaas, produced it is what it is in 2010 and subtitled it “a portrait of a studio.” The book includes no writing aside from a short introduction by Michael Rock at the beginning and doesn’t simply include finished work but rather process images (email transcripts, mockups, photographs) illuminating all parts of the design process. Rock’s second book, Multiple Signatures, is can be seen as it is what it is’s cousin: mostly text and interested more in theories and ideas than finished design work. And Abbott Miller’s 2014 Design and Content seems to fall in the middle: a classic monograph that includes work and writing from his entire career but also an essay from his wife, Ellen Lupton, and a great roundtable conversation with his Pentagram partners. While some of these don’t go as far as Ellis (or I) would like in regards to criticality, many of them do start to head in this direction.

I’m reminded of Peter Mendelsund announced the publishing of his 2013 monograph, Cover:

A design monograph is a peculiar kind of book. Most books of this sort will state that they are “by” the designer in question—though often this attribution is misleading. The work shown in a design monograph will be (hopefully, exclusively) “by” that designer, but this doesn’t mean that the book is “by” the designer; at least not in the same sense that, say, a novel is “by” a novelist. There are exceptions, but most design books of this sort are really just compilations; collections; showcases. Often these design books seem no different than design portfolio— Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with a design portfolio in book format, it’s just: the “by” part of the equation has always felt a little off to me. For this, and other reasons, mostly mysterious to me, the whole idea of making a design book felt vaguely distasteful. And I certainly wasn’t interested in publishing one of my own.

He’s right. And his book, admittedly, does start to fight some of this — the essays he included are some of the best in a monograph (I return to those much more than I do to look at his work — which I also love.)

While there can be a lot of variety in the genre, it often falls, as Ellis notes, to the simple portfolio reproduction. I’d like to see more experimentation — both in form and content — and I’d love to see monographs become a carrier of not just finished, beautiful work, but also ideas, theories, and new ways of thinking about their work and ours.