In Search of… Bristol Design in Perspective — Wednesday 23rd May — Outline: With an aim to explore a different city through the lense of a cultural institution…
In Search of… Bristol
Design in Perspective
Wednesday 23rd May
With an aim to explore a different city through the lense of a cultural institution and its history, MA GMD participants searched further afield to Bristol for the day to speak with James Langdon and Vanessa Boni. The session was facilitated in Spike Island’s studio spaces and galleries. James worked as a designer for Spike Island for five years and Boni is currently their curator.
Writers: Katherine Evans, Jaya Modi, Gabriela Matuszyk, Yue Zhang, Wei Dai, Jialei Hong / Photographer: Xi Ning. Editor: Aadhya Baranwal
James Langdon, armed with a box full of printed materials, greeted the group in one of the residency rooms, around a large table and generously navigated them through his practices, projects and collaborations.
The initial discussion was led by the different cities in which he had developed his practice (Birmingham, Liverpool, Birmingham again, and now Bristol). Birmingham seemed to be of significance to him, as he studied, got his first design job at Ikon Gallery, and co-founded Eastside Projects gallery space there.
Langdon spoke honestly about the precarious working conditions outside of London, and shifting focus when life’s responsibilities take priority. From recommending the Forest App to combating multiple-project procrastination and reassuring the group that people can find and build a community of collaborators when one doesn’t exist, he offered practical strategies to tackle some of the issues that designers face.
He also highlighted five key partners that he has continued to working with; Sofia Hultén, Celine Condorelli, Karl Nawrot, and as previously mentioned, Peter Nencini and Gavin Wade. Talks about his collaborations and his transition from Fine Arts to Design were followed by conversations about the dynamic role of a designer.
For Langdon, having largely worked as a designer in the arts and cultural sector, the experiences came from working with fellow designers, writers, artists and curators. He explained how the notion of the artist as an omnipotent figurehead whose ideas could not be questioned seemed alien to him. Instead, he challenges this top-down, one-sided dialogue approach by working extremely closely with his partners and clients. Through these negotiations and conversations he seems to gain an in depth perspective, which he then conceptualises through design decisions and production techniques.
This is exemplified in his work with the Eastside Projects. In some of the printed ephemeral shown, a ‘primitive grid’ that celebrates a philosophical quality of design has been used: organic blob-like shapes create a rhetorical landscape that forces an alternative meaning-making process. This is dictated by a systemic implementation of layering and overlapping that evolves to re-question and re-interpret existing frameworks with a much more immediate style – one that doesn’t offer clarifications but acts as a response to the arbitrations of the continuous iterative process. This layering ties into Gavin Wade’s curatorial vision of Eastside Projects; in which an artspace acts as a canvas, keeping a trace of what has happened there, purposefully overlaying on existing, in order to oppose a ‘white cube’ approach. By using his process as the message, Langdon places a critical comment on the role of designer in imposing a hierarchy to the information and authority of a designer as an interpreter.
One of Langdon’s distinctive approaches for designing publications is viewing the production process as well as the formal and structural aspects of a book, as a means for communication. In the publication Pugin’s Contrasts Rotated (see image below) we see etchings of Gothic and Neoclassical architecture that were first published by Augustus Pugin in his 1836 book Contrasts. Due to the production processes at the time, the two illustrations were printed on a single page, side-by-side, sideways. Langdon photocopied the illustrations and rotated them 90º, using facing pages and the binding as a contrasting device – as he explained, the publication was an ‘inquiry into active site of display’.
Moving to a close, Langdon spoke of his emerging research where he examines the practice of designer and educator Norman Potter and his ideas of ‘Isomorphisms’ in design. Isomorphism exists when two different sets of elements follow the same structure – an occurrence featured in Sofia Hultén’s book Here’s the Answer, What’s the Question? (designed by Langdon), as she explores quantum physics through ordinary sequences.
The session concluded with a ceremonial walk to James’s car, a box full of his books in hand, one last collective act before going back to the gallery to continue with the visit.
The group met Vanessa in the afternoon. As the curator of the ongoing exhibition by Alex Cecchetti and Zoë Paul she talked through her experience and responsibilities at Spike Island.
She spoke about how exhibiting works by different artists with their own themes and ideas together was challenging and required being tactful. As an organiser of an exhibition, one needs to study the artists and build an overall understanding of them before mapping a framework of the displays. Through efficient communication with the designer/artist, they are able to share empathy with the exhibits and find connections between them. In most cases, these are not an absolute theme or topic, but may be similar critical contexts, sentimental attachments, or even type of material.
Wandering around the exhibition hall, the connections between Alex’s and Zoë’s works could be easily felt. Alex Cecchetti is an artist, poet, choreographer and writer who has a unique narrative construction. His works are under the theme of a music palace, most of which begin with a poem and transform into an object, a performance or a situation, focusing on how the piece would be experienced physically and emotionally by the audience. That being said, the works exhibited by Zoë Paul primarily deal with sculpture, textiles and drawings and brought in a new discussion on our relationship with tradition, and the shifts in perception around the value of an object according to time and context.
Vanessa and her colleagues found that the two artists shared peaceful and joyful emotions in their works and offered a fully immersive experience to the audience.
The responsibilities to organise an exhibition is more complex than we thought. When it comes to various institutions, public commissions, communities and other organisations, the work to organise it well is exhausting enough. At the same time, the designers and artists have their own ideas of how to display their works, it’s hard for the critical discourse of a curator to find it’s own place. Vanessa explained the importance of researching the exhibits beforehand and communicating with the designer/artist. It’s what she spent the most time on.
Moving on and towards the end of the day, the group quickly shared studied and shared the findings of five books at the Castle Park (for the Forensic Design Club)
One of the most fascinating books out of the five was ‘An Envoy Reader’, by Ross Birrell, an artist, writer and lecturer. It is designed and published by Lemonmelon, which is a riso publishing studio founded by designer Marit Münzberg. This book contains two booklets in a bubble envelope, both of which are riso printed in two colour, black and blue. One of them is titled Envoy and the other is Reader. Envoy is a visual essay explores the artist’s role as a potential messenger of meaning and information.The Reader has images corresponding to Envoy, a collection of pictures in which people reading/giving/throwing a book. It’s a dynamic book that gives the reader an experience versus just a read.
A close second was ‘Pugin’s Contrasts Rotated’. James Langdon makes a corrective gesture, revisiting Pugin’s 1836 book Contrasts and creating a comparative analysis of what Pugin considered glorious architecture and ugly architecture here. James chose 15 pairings from Contrasts and rotated 90 degrees, used photocopy to reproduce them on facing pages. The borders of the original book and the traces of copying were kept as it is, making the book look like a book within a book.
James Langdon’s current research on Norman Potter:
Interview on a School for Design Fiction by James Langdon:
Podcast with James Langdon on the Intersection of Design Criticism and Practice:
East side Projects:
Spike Island Website:
Alex Cecchetti Videos: