Markus Miessen in conversation with Zak Kyes
Zak, you are currently living in London. When and why did you decide to leave the United States?
I ended up in London almost by chance after dropping out of a double major in art-history and business at a small liberal arts school in New York and then attending CalArts just outside L.A. That this move to Europe, where much of my family still lives, coincided almost exactly with the second term of the Bush administration is probably no coincidence. What is interesting about London as a base to live and work from is its position as one of the critical cultural poles of the Western world: when the world seems to be moving East, or working remotely from economically more hospitable locales, my optimism of living in a metropolis like London is only renewed. And who knows: with the oncoming global financial meltdown and real-estate foreclosures maybe London will one day become the new Berlin, with plenty of vacant and cheap spaces for all. London is a profoundly international and multi-cultural city and a pretty remarkable place to be for its extreme diversity and its links to all kinds of cultural production. This is markedly different from Los Angeles – a sprawling multitude that is deeply transformed by the entertainment industry’s sphere of influence. In this climate design practices have become hijacked by an industry and marketplace with very narrow goals. I now operate a studio in East London, having recently been joined by the graphic designer Grégory Ambos, and frequently work in collaboration with fellow graphic designers, architects, writers, editors, curators, and artists. This practice more closely resembles an ongoing collaboration between a network of practitioners as opposed to a typical designer-client structure. The studio is located in a former 18th century workshop space adjacent to London’s first social housing project built by the Huguenots. The utopian ideals of an ecology of workshops encouraging intentionally small-scale and nimble operations is still, as a concept at least, integral to my vision of a studio practice.
You studied at California Institute of the Arts. How do culturally progressive pedagogical structures in the US differ from those in Europe?
My view of design education in Europe is invariably influenced by my time at CalArts, a school known for its experimental and critical approach, and by later experiences teaching in Europe. One of the striking differences in European academic institutions, besides the effects of their obvious but profound geographical differences, is the extent to which success and influence – due to the fact that there is a wider recognition and audience for design – shape the discipline as a whole. A time of quiet and reflective work is disappearing as the cycle of success and exposure happens faster, making it very difficult to develop and refine ideas. By the end of one’s studies, there seems an expectation to have a pre-defined path and packaged image – which might prove helpful in terms of being marketable in the short term, but dangerous in the long term. My reaction to CalArts was that the strands of the school’s independent and radical history, which I found much more inspired, were nearly absent from the contemporary aesthetic and pedagogical topics under discussion. This eventually formed the point of departure for a self-reflexive publication I co-initiated and which was published by CalArts, titled “The Institute for Words and Pictures”.
How do you think the recent changes in the US administration will effect cultural production?
It is impossible to predict what the change will be, but the election of a new US administration certainly signals a clear shift in social and cultural values.
We have just returned from New York. How does New York differ from London, right now and in general?
The two cities are fundamentally different. The chances are still much greater to meet a New Yorker in New York, than a Londoner in London. That says a lot.
Are both of these cities paradigms of the past?
I think it’s much more complex than that.
Do you think that in the long run, cultural producers will move back to New York or Los Angeles – say from places like Berlin or London – because of the recent political changes in the US?
After eight years of an administration which alienated so many, the idea of spending more time on projects or teaching in the US does seem very appealing. But there is an incredible amount of work which needs to be done and it has only just begun.
The financial crisis has only just started to hit production, values and employment statistics. This will probably change dramatically over the next twelve months. How do you predict the primary changes within cultural production?
There has recently been astounding and unprecedented support of the art world and cultural production as evidenced through public funding, private wealth and art auctions. It is hard to imagine that the troubles beginning with the subprime mortgage market, which quickly spread to other credit reliant business, would not also extend to a correction in the art market. There have been exceptions like the acceleration of the art market following the dot-com bubble in the late 90s, but unlike credit, which is all-pervasive, the nature of that downturn was more isolated. It is hard to imagine how exactly it will affect cultural production but it seems likely that it will in ways we cannot predict. Artists and designers have always dealt well with economic constraints, so maybe this will be the beginning of a new sobriety.
Apart from the work you are undergoing as Zak Group, you are also the Art Director of London’s Architectural Association. How does the cultural programme at the AA influence your outside practice?
My role as Art Director of the Architectural Association connects two distinct aspects of my practice, design and everything else: teaching, planning and editorial work. The result is a practice, which is in constant negotiation with the highly specialized role of a graphic designer. These negotiations question the graphic designer as a model in ways that amount to a practice which entails more than just design. My role as Art Director includes directing the design of publications, various projects produced through the Print Studio, and most recently the initiation of Bedford Press, a private press implemented to publish special projects at the AA. This work is carried out with a talented team and two excellent graphic designers, Wayne Daly and Claire McManus. The Print Studio was originally established in 71/72 by Denis Crompton of Archigram to shape the school’s architectural discourse through the production and distribution of publications. Books have been a key reason for the School’s success at a time when the speculative nature of architectural proposals found their most logical expression in un-built forms. The book became an ideal site for discourse and exchange. Recently we have re-focused our activities as an autonomous unit within the broader cultural programme of the school.
What is your preferred format or species of product to work on?
It is not so much the species of product but rather the generative process that is important for me. Collaborations with practitioners from other fields, for instance, make the process of design more informed by the outside world and able to deal with complex subjects. This is increasingly important, as graphic design has become a discipline which must seemingly be knowledgeable about nearly everything. What counts as intelligence in the field of graphic design must, in my view, be tied directly to its links with these other disciplines. An emphasis on content is also incredibly important as I consider the voice of the graphic design as constituting an editorial presence itself – rather than just a service provided at the very end. To this end I have recently initiated Bedford Press. Our hope is that a more direct link between content/design and technology/production will allow for more a nimble and autonomous model of small-scale publishing.
What is the most uncomfortable format for you?
Business cards – and all the other things which people expect graphic design to be.
You have quite recently curated an internationally travelling exhibition titled “Forms of Inquiry: The Architecture of Critical Graphic Design”. What was your motivation to do this show?
The exhibition was curated in 2007 under the auspices of the Architectural Association in London, itself a school with a rich tradition of critical, speculative and experimental work, as an exploration of the productive intersections of graphic design and architecture. FOI touches upon these various intersections by proposing models in which graphic design can both engage collaboratively with architecture and borrow from its expanded critical and methodological set of references. Together with Mark Owens and the exhibition’s contributors, we put together a modest book, which despite its size presents an incredibly diverse array of possible methodologies, and in so doing places a special emphasis on reading as much as the visual register of the show’s contents. But the main thing about the exhibition is this incredibly positive, simple notion that graphic design should be a tool for the production of knowledge, and in so doing departs radically from the idea of the designer as an agent who visualizes somebody else’s knowledge. The overwhelming response to Forms of Inquiry brought the exhibition from the AA to Casco, Office for Art, Design and Theory in Holland, lux Scène nationale de Valence in France and Iaspis in Sweden.
Do you have a particular attitude towards forms of revival or nostalgic retro-design?
What first attracted me to graphic design was how I naively thought of it as a question of cultural production rather than technique. So while there are moments in modern design, which I find incredibly interesting and beautiful, it is the fact that design inevitably points to other things – a poster to the events it announces, a typeface to a historical context – that I often find more interesting than the actual form. This is not to say I am against historical forms, or typologies, or the recycling of both of them. So much great work has been done before that it would be a crime not to use this as raw material. In fact, this is a cornerstone of what I would call Economic Design.
What are your most evident influences?
If I were to pick a favourite book it would be “I Seem to be a Verb” by Buckminster Fuller, designed by Quentin Fiore and produced by Jerome Agel. The idea of a equivalent to the speculative practices or “paper architecture” projects, often independent and self-initiated, was a real discovery to me as a student. These projects from the 60s and 70s responded to the conditions around them in ways that attempted to transform these realities. As prosaic as it might sound, what I took from this research was the value of making proposals where they are not necessarily solicited.
You have coined the term Economic Design. Could you please elaborate on this?
Economic Design is maximum effect with minimal resources. Economic Design is intellectually and materially efficient. Economic Design acknowledges that so much great work has been done before and therefore takes the liberty to repurpose existing forms when appropriate. Economic Design is the ideology of unwritten manifesto. Economic Design is not minimalism. Economic Design is not functionalism. Economic Design is not appropriation. Economic Design is totally economic.
Zak Kyes is a Swiss-American graphic designer living in London. In addition to running his own studio, Zak Group, he is Art Director of the Architectural Association, London.