What happens when a classical musician meets a punk rock star? The result, in graphic design terms, is the latest release of WERK magazine.
Bundled inside a handmade wrapper resembling a courier package plastered with stamps, customs forms, and white shipping tape, is a pristine hardcover book—a surprisingly conventional design for a cult publication better known for its experimental printing and production. Previous issues came in spray-painted covers, cloth pages, and frayed edges, but for its 23rd edition magazine founder Theseus Chan made the unusual move of making a book as German master printer Gerhard Steidl would.
Many would have recognized, but few actually seen IRL (in real life) the works displayed in I Have A Room With Everything Too. This recent exhibition at The Substation Gallery (2-12 July) showcased over a hundred books, magazines, and printed ephemera by design studios around the world—offering a rare opportunity to appreciate avant-garde graphic design outside the digital screen. Instead of viewing endless studio shots on infinite scroll and click thumbs up, graphic design aficionados could actually pick up design and flip, stroke, or even smell.
An annual report retold as a travel diary by Singapore design duo Couple, an art catalogue with a cover made from amusement park tickets by Indonesian studio Artnivora, and a calendar resembling a miniature pallet of printed sheets by Hong Kong based Co.Design were part of a line-up of eclectic projects assembled by curator Yanda Tan. Laid out across a single row of makeshift tables spanning the 23-metres long gallery were the mostly arts and cultural projects Tan had acquired from bookstores and designers via his art and design blogTHEARTISTANDHISMODEL and recent travels to other cities.
The collection is a diverse portfolio of graphic design production possibilities which reminded visitors of “the joy of holding something tangible in our hands that took hours, days, months to put together.” But this worked only up to a point. There was little context besides the name of the designer and their city of origin in order for visitors to appreciate the works beyond design as a process of production. This was particularly telling for the foreign language publications whose contents were indecipherable, rendering them no different from a mockup by printers. Even as many of the works wowed with their cool surfaces and exteriors, the lack of details on production processes or a nod to the printers meant how the designs were created remained a mystery unless the curator was on hold to conduct a walk-through. For instance, Yoshie Watanabe’s One Plus One Crossing book is an intriguing flip book of die-cut pages, but what makes it even more impressive is it was actually a packaging designed in 2006 to hold the story behind an engagement or wedding ring.
As the exhibition title suggests, the showcase is the personal inspiration library of Tan who runs the creative studio DO NOT DESIGN. The self-taught designer has clearly studied his materials well, as seen in his works which also feature in the showcase. The elaborate cut-out cover of his latest DEAR magazine and the hand-scrawled marks plus torn edges of his album design for Monster Cat both echo Tan’s obsession for the materiality of design—an aspect that the exhibition rightly points out isn’t always evident in a time where the digital image is our most common encounter of graphic design. I Have A Room With Everything Too presents graphic design in third-dimension, but still keeps it on a pedestal that is to be appreciated as an objet, rather than a material we encounter in our everyday lives.
Visitors may have felt déjà vu at the exhibition for another reason. In 2011, Tan held the first edition of a similar exhibitionfeaturing several of the same works, such as Theseus Chan’s WERK magazines and Stefan Sagmeister’s 1998 album design for song-writer Jamie Block. Back then, Tans’ exhibition was larger and even had a day of presentations by designers. This time around there was a printed supplement featuring question-and-answer interview with designers, as well as personal essays by lovers of print.
Without the shock of the new from four years ago, I Have A Room With Everything Too was less fresh, but still a welcome relief in a city where exhibitions on graphic design remain few and far between.
Theseus Chan: the name may not inspire awe in the States, but in Singapore he’s known to many as the godfather of graphic design, a reputation he’s earned with a body of work that continues to challenge his peers and excite a younger generation. None of his projects shows this better than WERK, a self-published magazine Chan started in 2000 to experiment with design production. The covers are torn and spray painted, or patched together from the detritus of the production process itself. Pages are made out of cloth, laboriously die-cut, or stained with printer’s inks and oils to evoke the scent of printing. The result is more than a magazine; each issue is an object that echoes the postmodern, “New Wave” tradition, an expressive and anarchic response to Swiss modernism.