Los Angeles

Graphic Designers of the L.A. Art World

Jessica Fleischmann, for Andrea Bowers at Project Row Houses, Houston Texas.

The print version is the artifact that shares images, thoughts, and circumstances of the expansive phenomena we call "art." Through print reproduction, artworks travel through time and space. Artists and arts institutions work with graphic designers on everything from books and exhibition design, to branding, ephemera, magazines, and multiples. Within the economy of the Los Angeles art world there are graphic designers who collaborate with artist "clients" to make these things happen.

Perhaps because designers are perceived as an element of the "economy," rather than as artists themselves, they aren't widely recognized. Or perhaps because one definition of "good" design is to succinctly take a concept and translate it into a tangible form through color, shape, type, image, paper, and then disappear. The contradiction here is the graphic designers working within the arts can be seen as co-equal creators -- entering into dynamic artful collaborations for each project that arrives at there table, rather then straight service providers.

There is a texture to how graphic designers in Los Angeles see the nature of collaboration. L.A.-based graphic designer Brian Roettinger says, "In some cases, the idea of designer-with-artist or designer-with-institution defines the designers role strictly as a service provider, which really has nothing to do with collaboration." Designer Jessica Fleischmann suggests a successful collaboration means both she and her collaborator are "open to the unexpected, to creating a space of unknowing where we can both explore." She also states: "The aesthetics of design are a vehicle for content, they communicate ideas--design is not just a veneer of nice form." Further defining the relationship she suggests "I see my work as translation--it's not my job to impose a style on the work, but rather to frame the work, a lens to allow it to be more clearly seen. Sometimes its merely a matter of reflecting back the artist's goals, perhaps with a bit of a challenge."

Designer Tanya Rubbak sees mutual trust as foundational to a successful collaboration. As to the issue of "translation" she suggests:

"Generally I think the most interesting collaborations are those where design can play the role of interpretation, rather then attempting a direct one-dimensional translation. Even more interesting is when it becomes a supplement that adds another layer of meaning, either formally or additively by creating a parallel dialogue. We understand or absorb things via metaphor, myth, analogy, and story. When these basic commutative strategies are played with and pushed towards fiction, stretched into spinoffs, meta dialogues, and side stories, it opens up endless possibilities for making memorable and exciting ephemeral objects and connecting with people in deeper and more personal ways."

Designer Kimberly Varella (who is also my wife) sees the relationship as "let's see what we can do together." She's interested that officially working as the designer; she's also been given curatorial credit for an exhibition, an organizer of works. Also she's been told relationships she's had with particular artists have informed their practices' -- And these artists' work has informed her practice. In this manner they are "equals."

To develop an understanding of how L.A. based graphic designers Brian, Jessica, Tanya, and Kimberly work in the arts, I've asked them to tell me about their collaborations and their inspirations.

Brian Roettinger

Has worked with: Aaron Curry, Jason Rhoades, Josh White, Willem Henri Lucas, Lara Schnitger, Aaron Rose, Liars, No Age, SCI-Arc, ForYourArt

Brian Roettinger: <em>Cornfabulation</em>, for Aaron Curry and Richard Hawkins, interior showing tearable signatures.

Can you tell me about a favorite project and some of the design decisions that you made in it?
I recently finished a book for Aaron Curry and Richard Hawkins from their collaborative show Cornfabulation, at David Kordansky Gallery in 2011. Aaron and I worked together to come up with a visual format attempting to mimic the exhibition experience. The book has a very distinct outside, and inside. The outside pages of the book are like wallpaper; each outside page is a full bleed with images covering the whole frame of the paper. The experience is very much like that of the installation, it's an in your face immersive experience, with very little breathing room. The inside pages are treated more traditionally -- with a bit of white space surrounding a work or its installation view. However the viewer must tear a perforation in each signature to get at them. Also we swapped out the process colors (CMYK) for their closest fluorescent equivalents. Everything is very bright. The experience of the book, and I take this from the press release, is " an example of how both artists move freely between looking and making, between experiencing culture as exhibitionist voyeurs..."

Brian Roettinger: <em>Cornfabulation</em>, for Aaron Curry and Richard Hawkins.

Can you tell me about a piece that you didn't design that you are inspired by?

I am inspired by Dieter Roth's Collected Works Volume which he began to produce in 1969. They inspire primarily for their rigid simplicity in design and format, but also for their innovation in the realm of artists' books. They were usually produced in a run of 1,000, though he would often produce an edition of each volume that included a print, drawing, or in some cases perishable materials.

The paper and content rages from volume to volume but they all share the same format, 23 x 17 cm (except volume 1 and 8). This size makes for the most efficient use of a printed press form, which made the books economically effective. They also all share the same typographic treatment on the cover, all lowercase dieter roth aligned left, and the volume number aligned right, on the spine.

A collection of Deiter Roth's Volumes.

Roth would sometimes draw in the last page to make each book unique. His experimental approach to dealing with offset printing was innovative at the time. He would reprint over existing printed material, Some volumes dealt with hand cutting, he would die-cut shapes out of each page to reveal snippets of the page behind, which gave the book more of a materiality feel. He would tie a doughnut to the cover. For volume 11 he crushed a light bulb in the covers recess with glue.

Jessica Fleischmann

Has worked with: Matt Bua and Max Goldfarb, Andrea Bowers, Olga Koumoundouros, Mark Hagen, Daniel Martinez, Alexandra Grant, REDCAT, the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, the Department of Cultural Affairs.

Jessica Fleischmann, for Matt Bua and Max Goldfarb's <em>Architectural Inventions: Visionary Drawings</em>, published by Laurence King, 2012.

Can you tell me about a favorite project and some of the design decisions that you made?

My current favorite is Matt Bua and Max Goldfarb's 336-page compendium Architectural Inventions: Visionary Drawings (published by Laurence King, out this month). It was a lesson in how not to make a book: huge project, miniscule budget, artists as editors, minimal institutional support...such a wacked out, over-ambitious labor of love. Design decisions were to make a pragmatic container with a bit of attitude--a slightly absurd yet highly readable type family. Matt and Max were in upstate New York and I was out here. They did come out for a long working weekend, camped out in my studio. Sequencing and pairing of images was key. This was an ideal kind of collaboration in that I can't say which images they paired up and which ones I did.

I loved helping artist Andrea Bowers with the chairs for the "Everything is Political" show at FOCA in 2010. I love that the chairs are meant to be used, sat on, are a part of everyday life. Each chair memorializes an artist who's influenced Bowers, while the design on the seat relates to the artist memorialized. Typefaces were historically relevant to each. The unifying display type is a stencil font also used in the catalog, which references guerrilla graphics. I still love the Project Row Home project I did with her back in 2010; composing and typesetting the 2006 Obama statement: "What Washington needs is adult supervision." The simple act of covering the facade of a house with text (carefully chosen typefaces: compressed highway signage font for the long words, italic all caps historical reference serif for the rest of the phrase.) remains powerful. Sometimes it's the small moves.

Can you tell me about a piece that you didn't design that you are inspired by?
Blueprint for Counter Education posters, Designed by Marshall Heinrichs. 1970. A visual mnemonic/focuser of discussion in a classroom setting. It's a tool. A pointer. It's provocative. It's open ended. It's complete.

Tanya Rubbak

Has worked with: Adam Overton, Claire Cronin, Brian Getnick, Anna Mayer, Hana van der Kolk, Karl Haendel, Oona Gardner, Itch Journal, Human Resources, LACE.

Tanya Rubbak, typographic poster for exhibtion of Besht at Pomona College Museum of Art.

Can you tell me about a favorite project and some of the design decisions that you made?
Besht is a collaboration with performance artist/musician Adam Overton. BESHT is The Bureau of Experimental Speech and Holy Theses, a project and show that will take place at the Pomona College Museum Of Art, from 1 Nov to 16 Dec, 2012. It's an "experiment in public address, exploring the commingling of speech, authority, and performance".

The typographic poster is a compilation of sketches and different explorations capturing the large scope of the project. The variety of typographic voices and forms signify speech and speaking, of all types. The poster becomes a visual score you can perform -- the many tones, moods, volume levels, and voices of BESHT. It's exuberant and exciting, but to the point of being psychotic and overbearing. It addresses both the celebration and the criticality that are part of the project. It's like someone annoying who won't shut up. But either because they're funny or charming, or smart, you can still tolerate and even enjoy their company.

We're also working on Besht Weekly, a conceptual newsprint publication
that will accompany the weekly event series. The newspaper will have a
different persona each week with various design interventions. Themes of the first week are focused primarily on embarrassment; one's mind blanking when on stage, being nervous about speaking in public. This first issue, and to some degree the whole newspaper, has an inferiority complex about being a dying medium replaced by Internet. It tries to be like the Internet but is not doing a good job. There are lots of glitches and awkwardness that comes from confusion between mediums and things being out of place. It's trying too hard.

Robert Brown John; Obsession and Fantasy poster for a pop art exhibition at the Robert Fraser Gallery, London, Early 1960s BJ described this

Robert Brownjohn, stationary for a British rock 'n' roll photographer Michael Cooper, 1967.

Can you tell me about a piece that you didn't design that you are inspired by?

Robert Brownjohn, stationary for a British rock 'n' roll photographer Michael Cooper, 1967 by Robert Brownjohn. This is a cult classic piece of the 60's. It's pretty funny could be seen as a cousin of early work of John Baldessari. Brings up interesting questions of authorship in graphic design. BJ was a cooler, less conservative, and more cultured version of Don Draper. And much more tragic. He hung out with Charlie Parker and Keith Richards, battled a heroin addiction most of his life and died at 45. He's responsible for many iconic design pieces. His work was always mixture of sharp visual play and poetry. A lot of pop and conceptual art influence, but also still rooted in materiality and experimentation of the European Avant-garde. He studied in the Institute of Design in Chicago under László Moholy-Nagy.

Kimberly Varella

Has worked with; Edgar Arceneaux, Charles Gaines, Steve Roden, Fritz Haeg, M.A. Peers, Machine Project, Glow Santa Monica, California Community Foundation, Pomona College Museum of Art, LACMA.

Kimbelry Varella, Script DVD box for the LACMA and John Baldessari.

Can you tell me about a favorite project and some of the design decisions that you made?
I've worked with artist Edgar Arceneaux twice and both times I've used ephemera, including his notebooks, to weave together a book. For the 2011 exhibition, Hopelessness Freezes Time, ephemera made up a large part of the shows catalog. The artworks were presented as inserts that folded out from his notes. This way the book was a kind of inverse of a traditional artists monograph- where the glossy photos are the center piece and the ephemera is the back matter. My collaboration with LACMA and John Baldessari, for the Script DVD, employed ephemera too. Because of the simplicity of its form, the DVD box couldn't be belabored. I came upon the idea immediately: a paper covered box with a hidden magnetic closure, felt-lined, cobalt blue, gray and orange, with a blue felt dot hub to hold the DVD. Baldessari kept the cue cards he used to make the film Script. They were the perfect: yellowed, dog-eared, fingerprinted. When I'm designing a catalog often I have nothing to start with. I glean images from the web, place Greek copy, and basically tell the story from my own imagination. With this project I had the advantage of all the materials being available. The design for it came together quickly. It was more like a giant gesture, making it feel genuine -- to the work, but also to me and my practice.

Kimbelry Varella, Inside of the Script dvd Box for LACMA and John Baldessari.

Another piece that stands out is the catalog I recently finished for Charles Gaines. He was my teacher at Calarts, where I studied art. My meetings with Charles centered around Content & Form...why the material for the idea? To me, this has always been a driving question in any of my practices and Charles put it into dialogue. It came into to play translating his piece Sky Box I, which is a time based work involving text, the night sky, and changing light, into static imagery. I'm really fortunate when I get to work with an artist who understands the value of intimacy and storytelling with the design of a book and values the collaboration.

Can you tell me about a piece that you didn't design that you are inspired by?
I remember back in the 90s when I really started becoming aware of artist's books, I was given one of Ann Hamilton's monographs from the Dia. It was the installation she did with all that hair. I remember the full bleed luscious photos on all the toothy warm uncoated paper and it gave me this feeling like I was actually there. Or, even better, it was like I was inside. So entirely intimate, private, sublime. It's crazy how vivid that memory is. I think that's what I like the most when I'm designing books, and probably what I'm best at: making a new experience for the reader. Making something that's maybe small in remnant, but huge in conceptual expansiveness -- the unfolding of a story. The crazy thing is, I don't even know who the designer was.

Kimberly Varella, The font 'Wrong' was created from John Baldessari's hand writting for the short  documentary A Brief History of John Baldessari by filmaker's Supermarche.

Kimberly Varella & Department of Graphic Sciences, book design for the Wisdom of Sun Ra, Whitewalls.

Dig this story? Vote by hitting the Facebook like button above and tweet it out, and it could be turned into a short video documentary. Also, follow Artbound on Facebook and Twitter.

Top Image: Jessica Fleischmann, for Andrea Bowers at Project Row Houses, Houston Texas.

About the Author

Robby Herbst is an interdisciplinarian broadly interested in socio-political formations; behavioral architecture, languages of dissent and counter cultures. He is a writer, artist, teacher, and something other. He co-founded, and ...
Previous Post
Next Post

LEAVE A COMMENT Leave Comment  

section header: disciplines
icon, Architecture/ Design discipline

Architecture/ Design

California becomes an international export by redefining the concept of city and home.

icon, Community Arts discipline

Community Arts

Through workshops, education and placed based projects, art is the connective tissue of a community.

icon, Cultural Politics discipline

Cultural Politics

Funding bubbles, cultural deserts and the politics of access to the arts in the 21st century.

icon, Film & Media Arts discipline

Film & Media Arts

At the shadow of the entertainment industry, video artists and underground filmmakers take a stand.

icon, Literature discipline


Noir, sunshine and dystopia create a multi-ethnic narrative that is read, watched and admired around the globe.

icon, Multi-Disciplinary discipline


Multi-hyphenate works that combine disciplines, remix dogmas, and reinvent the wheel.

icon, Music discipline


A dialogue between cultures, the music of our state serves up the California dream like no other artform.

icon, Performance discipline


Staging the drama of California through dance, music and theater.

icon, Visual Arts discipline

Visual Arts

Breaking away from the European and New York vanguard, California reinvents the art world.

Featured • More Columnists
Loading Columnists...