Dissecting the classics: a design round table

Interviews by Domenico Di Maio

Week 10

Redesigning a classic is not a simple task.
This is often because of the cultural weight that influential work intrinsically possesses. It is especially difficult for those who orbit artistic realms and whose work involves dealing with styles and stimuli from the past.
We decided to hold a round table discussion with illustrators and a type designer to find out their point of view about this great and important dilemma: how to re-invent a classic?

Contemporary Standard) Hello, this week we explore the topic CLASSICS, or how to reinvent/elaborate styles or ideas that we have come to trust in the past. Can you please all introduce yourselves?

Andrea Mongia) My name is Andrea Mongia, I’m an illustrator and I live in a city that is strongly tied with the past: Rome.

Ewelina Dymek) I’m a self-taught illustrator who works with mixed media combining traditional pencil drawings and digital solutions. I love working especially with minimalism and photorealism, and mixing contrastive objects. So far I’ve had the pleasure of working with Leo Burnett, Saatchi&Saatchi, Samsung, Wacom and more. I’ve also always been interested in fashion so I found a way to make use of my drawing skills and imagination, and that’s how I became familiar with fashion illustration. Although I work mostly in fashion, I’m always ready to face new drawing challenges outside that particular industry to gain new experiences.

Matteo Berton) Hello, I am an illustrator and cartoonist. In recent years I have worked on illustrations for children’s books, covers, newspaper articles and comics.

Nina Stössinger) Hello! My name is Nina Stössinger, and I’m an independent designer curious about many things, and particularly obsessed with type. I’m originally from Basel in Switzerland, but now based near the (rainy) Dutch coast, where I run Typologic, my studio for typeface design, typography, and code. So I make fonts, and I use fonts to make books and other design products, plus I make tools for making fonts. I love how it’s a very concise focus, but at the same time I get to work at the intersection of form, text, language, culture, technology and so many other fields.

CS) Reinventing a classic: a simple trend or an infinite and necessary loop?

AM) I guess it’s something you can’t avoid. Everything we create is something that already exists and is codified in the past, created and reinvented. A classic has outlived its time and continues to interfere with ours; it’s something that we confront every day.

ED) I think it’s rather a loop, which happens regardless of a specific point in time to a greater or lesser extent. There’s always room for cutting-edge solutions, which push civilization to the next level but there’s also the feeling of nostalgia to a previous time, especially in art in a broader sense. Take for example fashion; each season we observe ‘new’, must-have accessories or garments, which in fact are taken from the past and adjusted for contemporary times. I completely agree with Kirby Ferguson who said that ‘everything is a remix’ during his TED talk in 2012. I think each invention comes from old media and reinventing classics is a matter of curiosity and creativity – we’re inspired by things invented in the past and intrigued by how these things would function using modern solutions. It’s not a trend – something which is popular now but passé tomorrow, I perceive it as a constant phenomenon and a natural course of events.

MB) Classic books that I read over time dealt with universal and inexhaustible themes… every artist that contends with this in their respective enterprise, knows he or she is being confronted with man’s fundamental questions.

NS) In type design, it’s certainly not just a trend; our past is very present, and deeply informs work done today. I don’t necessarily think of it as a “loop” either – more as a (slow) evolution that relies on frequent glances back at where it’s come from. Type is studded with its own set of classics that frequently get referenced – works that have had an indelible impact on its history, and serve as points of orientation: the work of craftsmen like Jenson, Griffo, Garamond, Caslon, Fleischman, Baskerville, Bodoni, Didot; but also designers closer to our time like Dwiggins, Gill, Frutiger, Miedinger, Benton, Carter, Frere-Jones, Spiekermann… the list could go on.
I’ve heard some designers in this field claim they purposely don’t look at historical sources, so they won’t be weighed down by them. Frankly I don’t believe this idea of ‘freedom’ is helpful. As designers we exist in a context, our work is part of a continuum whether we like that or not; one ignores it at one’s own peril.

CS) Do you all believe that this process of reinterpretation occurs in a creative and unknowing way, or is it a result of precise analysis?

AM) It’s a mix between both things. During our growth we absorb thousands of stimuli and information, each of them leave a mark on our consciousness contributing to shape who we are today. It’s absolutely natural that these stimuli emerge unconsciously when someone is going to create something we like to consider as innovative, but this isn’t true, it’s just the result of what we are and what we want to tell.

ED) Well, it really depends. It might be a conscious, deliberate and scientific attempt from beginning to end, to improve already existing solutions or to create something new and adjusted for the particular time and culture we live in. However, we’re sometimes not aware of how the past influences and drives us to reinvent. In this case, it’s done on a subconscious level.

MB) Both. In my case after an analysis of the text I worked on a structure that supported and bound the illustrations, but when I went to actually create them, I went with the flow and followed my instincts.

NS) Creative processes probably always have a murky element of the unwitting – the gut feeling, the intuition that reaches us from we’re not quite sure where, feeding on the things we’ve seen and studied. But I think it’s useful to try to operate whenever possible in the light of reasoned analysis: If we’re just paddling along in a stream of vague historical precedent, we pass up a chance of conscious reflexion. Analysing what has come before us enables us to take a stance: to continue in this tradition or to question it; to cite certain bits or omit them; to exaggerate it or appropriate it or to look at it anew… such a conscious dialogue with history brings a chance of, in looking back, also bringing the discipline forward.

CS) It’s not a simple task to handle legendary concepts. It is even more difficult to give a renewed sense of beauty to something that has already had its day but that continues to influence the present. Thoughts?

AM) It is very difficult, it’s likely to fall into a sort of mannerism, stopping only in appearance, without really understanding what the classics were for their time, and why they continue to influence our own. I believe that this step is essential to reinvent a classic and create a dialogue with the present.

ED) It’s definitely not an easy task to do. I think it’s pretty difficult to awaken curiosity and wonderment in people nowadays, as many think they’ve already seen everything thanks to easy access to the Internet, which is said to be the greatest source of knowledge. But again, it depends on the type of person we target. Some stay curious for their whole life, while others decide to stick to the things they already know and feel comfortable with. Giving a new fascination to something already done involves a broad range of features, which include an innovative perspective, courage, curiosity, determination and a great deal of patience to become noticed by society. I think these features are rare among people, and there’s a small percentage of people who actually possess them all and succeed.

MB) The Divine Comedy, Journey to the Center of the Earth and Robinson Crusoe were illustrated by the greatest artists in history. I consider Dore and Wyeth my real teachers, so much so that if I close my eyes and I think about their books, their images come directly to mind. I have done everything to try and forget this when I found myself having to illustrate these titles.

NS) This is a constant question in typeface design, where compared to other fields the margin for innovation seems very small. On the most basic level, designers of Latin type are always reinterpreting the same old alphabet.
Of course there are lots of cases where old templates just get rehashed – I think of that as kind of a “re-enactment” of history rather than a reinterpretation. While such endeavours may be worthwhile economically or technologically, they may not in themselves add much to the cultural landscape.
I think it’s key to realize that we’re not only operating within a design-historical continuum, but that the context isn’t static either. The work we produce today responds to a specific time and technology and culture and mood, and is made by humans with individual styles and preferences. The same, incidentally, is true of the works we call classics. I think placing them on a pedestal and calling them things like “timeless” or “neutral” isn’t particularly helpful. If we look instead at how they came to be, and how they managed to respond so well to the specific challenges of their time as well as creating a value that transcends it, we make them accessible, open them up for reinterpretation. And personally I think that’s where it gets interesting.

CS) Dealing with classics is always very difficult. Treating them with respect without turning them into instruments of nostalgia is a very hard balance to maintain. How do you do it?

AM) I believe that repurposing a classic for exactly what it was meant to be used for is sterile work, my daily challenge lies in trying to actualize the message and the aesthetic content.

ED) I don’t see it that way, it comes natural to me. Whenever I’m about to work with classics, I always intend to add something from myself and I’m usually prone towards mixing traditional and new media, thus giving a new perspective to an already known subject.

MB) My solution was precisely that I gave a structure to be respected.

NS) Like I said earlier, I like “humanizing” the classics, contextualizing them. Also studying them, looking beyond the surface of form and trying to find mechanisms and ideas and concepts that might be transferable in a non-literal way to a new context, a new time or a new technology, or that could be recombined with something else… dealing creatively, analytically, intelligently with a rich heritage, I think, is fantastically interesting and worthwhile, certainly more so than just keeping on re-heating established concepts we already know.

CS) For a variety of reasons, many people professionally reinvent themselves, having sought inspiration from jobs that were prevalent back in the day, as if the past were a lifeline. How do you explain this need to look back on the past?

AM) In the creative sphere, looking back on the past and searching to find oneself in works of art that are distant from us and our time, is a natural instinct. It helps us to figure out what we like and from where we must start in order to rework, and by this I mean create something new.

ED) I think some of us are getting tired of being in a constant hurry in a world full of high-tech equipment and novelties. The cutting-edge technology is supposed to make our life easier, but in fact, it makes it more complicated.
Staying up-to-date with recent trends and news is exhausting because we’re overwhelmed by it, which is why some people are looking back to the good old days. They believe that solutions, which were working then are still good enough… so why not adopt them and disagree with a never-ending global technology race.

MB) Rediscovering past or obsolete techniques, gives one the sensation of giving more value to what we are doing now because it costs more in terms of time and effort.

NS) I mean, one can see one’s own body of work as a pyramid that rises as one keeps building it, where everything we’ve done lays the groundwork for later work and informs it. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that, but I hope to avoid getting stuck in repeating myself. We can’t avoid that we all see and think through our own “lens”, but we can look beyond to study – and be inspired by – others working before and alongside us, and remain curious outside of the bounds of our discipline too.

CS) What are your favourite classics?

AM) “Il Battesimo di Cristo” by Piero della Francesca.

ED) A number of art movements, like Art Nouveau, Symbolism, De Stijl, Bauhaus, Photorealism. As you can see it’s a mixture of completely different movements in terms of their philosophy and aesthetics but I always find contrast interesting. Try out combining these movements together – this should be fun!

MB) The Great Gatsby!

NS) A difficult choice, but I will name Nicolas Jenson’s famous roman type of 1470. Despite being one of the very first typefaces of the Renaissance, produced shortly after Gutenberg’s invention of movable type, it is stunningly accomplished. Radiating the understated, utilitarian clarity of humanism, it displays a masterful harmony of proportion, rhythm, and life. It laid a strong foundation for the evolution of Latin type, and somehow manages to still be fresh and inviting and eminently readable more than five centuries on.

CS) What projects are you currently working on?

AM) A pair of narrative covers and some personal work, to look for new roads or to rediscover old ones.

ED) I currently have a couple of things on my plate. For example, I’m working with Young & Rubicam Prague on a project for the Prague National Theatre, which includes a couple of vintage-inspired typographic illustrations. It’s definitely one of the most exciting and demanding commissions I’ve ever worked on as I had to completely step out of my comfort zone and learn a new technique which resembles 16th century hatching in a relatively short time.

MB) I’m back working on Journey to the Center of the Earth to complete a comic book adaptation, which I have been working on for the past two years.

NS) I am currently finishing my upcoming typeface, Nordvest. It is certainly informed by history but turns it on its head, as it were: While striving to be a serious text face, it (consciously, cautiously) breaks one of the most basic conventions of Latin type design by subtly shifting the bulk of its weight from the verticals to the horizontals. It has shown me how self-reinforcing convention can be, cementing itself over centuries, and that questioning it can yield interesting and novel results – which are not necessarily less valid or less functional. I will be really curious to see how typographers will respond and pick it up.

CS) And finally, what are your future plans?

AM) Reinventing Classics, forever!

ED) I still would like to focus on an illustration, working especially in my kind of technique which is mixing traditional pencil drawings with digital media. However, I’m also keen on exploring new drawing techniques and expanding my horizons. I definitely would like to learn new skills, for example hand lettering and making animations in After Effects. I’d also like keep working as a graphic designer and become more experienced with branding.

MB) I’m harbouring something but I’m not sure what it is yet. When I see the light at the end of the tunnel, The Journey to the Center of the Earth might take shape.

NS) I have a few designs in the works, most of them informed by various sources and backgrounds; I have also been working on a more literal revival of an early typeface by J. M. Fleischman, a ground-breaking German/Dutch punchcutter of the early 18th century. The idiosyncratic features of his most accomplished work (heightened stroke contrast, sparkly terminals, some unconventional decisions about proportion and divergence) have informed a number of recent reinterpretations; his early work is less elegant, rougher, but also quieter and less flashy. I’m still thinking about how to best translate this into a form that might be useful today.