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'Art Chantry Speaks: A Heretic's History of 20th Century Graphic Design' is a graphic designer's archaeological “dig” through the left-over detritus of the 20th century.

Book Review: ‘Art Chantry Speaks: A Heretic’s History of 20th Century Graphic Design’ by Art Chantry

A Heretic's History Art Chantry is a con artist. The great con is the world of graphic design, and despite his protests to the contrary, Chantry is an artist. Like a magician revealing how his tricks are done, Chantry spills all in his new Feral House book Art Chantry Speaks: A Heretic’s History of 20th Century Graphic Design. Examples of his heresy to the trade abound, but I particularly enjoyed this quote, “Designers need to be aware out there. This stuff we do isn’t ‘art‘- it’s marketing language and propaganda.” No wonder they want  to drum him out.

Chantry’s career now spans five decades, and he has done many things along the way. He is probably best known for creating much of the visual language of the underground music scene in Seattle. His designs have graced album covers, singles, posters, and he was the art director of the Seattle music magazine The Rocket for many years. Although “DIY” is definitely one of the hallmarks of his design look I would say that more than anything else it is humor that defines his work.

That sense of humor is what makes this book so enjoyable. Chantry is a great storyteller, and A Heretic’s History is filled with concise essays and illustrations that are both informative, and highly entertaining. The 53 essays are grouped in three sections: “The Language of Design,” “Designers and Artists,” and “Tools of the Trade, Forgotten Processes, and Obsolete Objects.” Although Chantry touches on a wide variety of topics in the book, the theme that runs through nearly all of them is that graphic design is a living language.

Like slang, the graphic design language is a reflection of it’s time, and all of us contribute to it in ways that we do not even realize. A new “word” may be introduced, (or just as likely recycled), and we determine it’s fate. Examples abound, like the “French Curve.” In design circles, the French Curve was a protractor in the shape of a reclining nude woman – it was a joke, the “French Curve.” But somehow this exact figure became ubiquitous on the mudflaps of 18-wheeler trucks. How? Chantry has a theory, but basically this image became part of the conversation, it floated around, and eventually found it’s ultimate home as a trucker’s “logo.“

Another pretty incredible illustration of the way that this language is always in flux is The Grateful Dead’s famous “Skull and Roses” image. Although credited to San Francisco artist Stanley “Mouse” Miller, the picture was a wholesale lift of a 1913 woodcut by Edmund Sullivan for The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

As Chantry explains in his Foreword, he has straddled both the fine art world and the “low-brow” world of commercial graphic design. And as he notes, he has never been fully accepted by either. That is probably because he is too honest, and he talks out of turn. Giving out the recipe of the “secret sauce” is not going to win you friends among those who have been profiting from that secret for so many years.

By learning the language of design, we learn things that “they” do not necessarily want us to know. It’s not even about the product, it is about what you will respond to. In their famous 1984 commercial, Apple presented themselves as the rebel’s choice against Big Brother IBM. And it worked, they are now the number one company in the world, and everybody still thinks they are cool. The reverse is true as well. In “The Fine Art of Marketing Lowbrow,” Chantry explains how the Publisher’s Clearing House people were convinced to try a more up-to-date approach to their tried and true (and very familiar) mailers. The new concepts failed miserably in getting responses. PCH knew their customers, and that is why they still send out those funky thick packages with perforated tabs and envelopes and crazy colored inserts. Because they work.

Perhaps the most important point that Chantry makes is that by getting to know this language, we learn about a side of our culture that most of us barely notice. It is a fascinating way to study history. Chantry even mentions that he once considered archaeology as a profession. His book is a graphic designer’s archaeological “dig” through the left-over detritus of the 20th century.

This discussion would not be complete without profiles, of course. The section “Designers and Artists” includes looks at the careers of such famous names such as  Norman Rockwell, Andy Warhol, Peter Max, and Genesis P-Orridge (of Throbbing Gristle). Then there are the not-so famous (but should be) names, including Richard M. Powers, A.M. Cassandre, and “Disney’s Crazy Uncle in the Attic,” Albert Hurter. Paul Rand is the subject of an essay titled “Saint Paul.” The author believes that Rand has received an undue share of credit in design simply by outliving his contemporaries, and by being very good at self-promotion. This too seems to be a running theme.

In The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, Malcolm McLaren claimed that the whole Sex Pistols/punk rock explosion was a scam, masterminded by him. It was partially true, up until he lost all control and it took on a life of its own. Art Chantry goes him one better by showing us how graphic design is now masquerading as fine art. As the earlier quote shows, he knows what he is doing. But Art dissembles when he says what he does is not art. Or are those exhibits of his in the MOMA, Seattle Art Museum, the Smithsonian, and the Louvre part of the swindle? And so it goes…

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