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Graphic Havoc

Discussion in 'Art & Design' started by misteraven, Dec 15, 2004.

  1. misteraven

    misteraven Administrator

    Joined: May 7, 1999 Messages: 9,001 Likes Received: 413

    ‘We really wanted to avoid doing one of those self-indulgent, masturbatory design monographs which are beautiful but essentially pointless,’ says LA based partner Peter Rentz of the new book of their work about to be published by premier UK design book publisher, Booth-Clibborn. He adds a little sheepishly, ‘Though I guess that’s what we’ve made all the same.’

    GH have a complex relationship to the design industry at large. On the one hand, the partners are simply a part of the newest generation of designers to rise through the ranks, ready to love the industry, respect its past, debate, discuss and forge its bright new future. On the other, they are representative of a small but forceful group of designers who want absolutely nothing to do with any ‘industry’ and who are slightly appalled at even the idea of being part of an establishment.

    Happily working across all media and stubbornly refusing to accept any prescribed limitations or boundaries, they are knowledgeable and entirely obsessive about design. Nonetheless, they remain resolutely un-starry-eyed and unromantic about its place in and importance to the world at large. They are, in short, the biggest threat the industry has had to face in decades, a Trojan horse within the assembled ranks, primed and ready to burst forth at any moment and delightedly upset the status quo.

    Perhaps it will come as no surprise to discover that none of the five ever formally studied graphic design. Three of them (Randall Lane, Derek Lerner and David Merten) went to The Atlanta College of Art to study drawing, painting, digital video and printmaking. Peter Rentz and Sadek Bazaraa, meanwhile, both have backgrounds in engineering and science, though they met while studying industrial design across town at Georgia Tech.

    ‘The idea of being formally trained as a graphic designer did not appeal to me in the slightest,’ says Lerner forcefully. ‘I saw the work that was coming out of that department at ACA at the time and it was so boring. It was brochure designs for restaurants, not done in any kind of interesting way.’ Lane adds succinctly: ‘It was stale 80s graphic design. It was horrible.’

    Instead, all five concentrated on extra curricular activities, getting involved in the graffiti/ skateboarding/music scenes in Atlanta. It’s impossible to ignore the obvious impact graffiti has had on their work as a whole. Indeed their very name stems from that of the graffiti crew founded by Lerner and Lane in the early 1990s, Graphic Havoc Artists. ‘That name actually came from right before I moved from Jacksonville, Florida to Atlanta,’ says Lerner. ‘There was this weird, sudden boom of graffiti and the city was like, “we have to put a stop to this”. The newspaper ran this story saying that they were banning the sale of aerosols to people under the age of 18 in an attempt to stop kids wreaking “graphic havoc” on the streets.’

    As such, they christened their design agency Graphic Havoc, dropping the word ‘Artists’ to differentiate their projects for clients from their individual, personal work. Even back then they were very well aware of the tension and differences between art and design and then, as today, all five deliberately worked on very personal projects entirely apart from their commercial work. As seems only appropriate, these side projects are not purely visual: Rentz, for example, runs a record label, Eastern Developments, for which he commissions his own agency to produce artwork. Bazaraa, meanwhile, plays guitar in one of the label’s bands, Bear in Heaven.

    ‘For me, fine art and commercial art are two completely different worlds,’ says Merten. ‘As such they require two completely different mindsets. I don’t romanticize doing graphic design any more: it’s a job. I mean of course it’s fun, you get to be creative, but with a painting you’ll stay up all night because you’re obsessing over it.’

    ‘I’m sure they influence each other,’ agrees Lane. ‘But my artwork definitely doesn’t look like my design and my design doesn’t look like my paintings or sculpture or whatever it is I’m working on at that time.’

    In 2000, the agency relocated from Atlanta to Brooklyn, with Rentz opening up the LA office in 2002. ‘We have a lot of pride in Atlanta, we really wanted to stay there and say “Screw New York! Screw California! There’s no reason Atlanta can’t be as cool as them!”,’ says Lane. ‘And then we realized that actually there was no way that was true. We were living in a one museum town…’

    In 2004 they changed their name simply to GH avisualagency™. ‘The word “havoc” proved to have a bit of a stigma to it,’ says Lerner of this decision. ‘It had been catchy, but once the company passed its tenth anniversary, we decided we wanted to show its maturity.’ In other words, they realized that while havoc might be a pleasing idea in theory (or in personal work), it isn’t necessarily what a paying client is looking for when employing someone to work on their design or marketing. ‘We thought it would be more accurate to have our name reflect the fact that we’re about good design, not one particular style,’ Lerner continues. ‘People sometimes assumed that we only did edgy or youth-focused work, and that’s just not the case.’

    But hang on a minute, how on earth did some punk/skate/graffiti kids with a somewhat cavalier attitude towards design and branding, not to mention no knowledge of how actually to run a business, end up celebrating ten years as a design agency? Well this is where the industry itself should sit up and take note, because as it happens they did it pretty much by soaking it all in and making it up as they went along. Alienated by the quality of teaching on offer in school, the five embraced the traditional punk philosophy of Do-It-Yourself, and did just that. They were helped along the way by a number of crucial discoveries, including magazines such as Raygun and Émigré and work by the likes of Neville Brody, P Scott Makela and The Designers Republic.

    Inspired by their mentor, former skateboarding professional Andy Howell, Lane and Lerner took their lead from recent start-ups such as Freshjive and Zero Sophisto and started their own clothing company, Theft Clothing Incorporated. Encouraged rather than disheartened when it became clear that people were more interested in their graphics than their clothes, they decided to act decisively. ‘The main reason we even started Theft was because we liked to design creative things,’ explains Lane. ‘When we realized that we were making more money doing design work and it was less stress than trying to make and sell the garments it was fairly simple to migrate from one to the other.’

    And so Graphic Havoc was born, with Lerner and Lane working from the apartment they shared with fellow designer Mike Hirsch (who was also a partner in the company for a short time). And though Lane worked first at Kinko’s and then at Turner Broadcasting Systems, Inc., meaning that Lerner was initially the only full time employee, they slowly but surely built themselves both a reputation and a client list, calling on friends to join them as they got busier (Merten officially joined in 1996, Rentz and Bazaraa in 1997).

    While Rentz in particular seems to regret a lack of formal education in either graphic design or branding, even he argues that in a strange way it’s probably helped them to create different looking, unexpected work. ‘I have to say that I wish I did have a formal graphic design training because I’m sure there are things that I don’t know,’ he says. ‘But maybe it’s good that we don’t have formal design training because it reminds us we don’t know everything. That constant self-doubt eating away at you is a positive attribute.’

    For his part, Lerner argues that the process of branding should be based on intuition rather than education. ‘When I was in junior high school, before I’d even got into fine art, I’d always drawn logos,’ says Lerner. ‘When I was in the seventh grade I came up with this one design which said DRL Design and I screenprinted it onto the back of a military field jacket. We started off with Theft, branding it and building it and watching it grow and then we got another client, [clothing boutique] Wish, for which we did pretty much everything for years. We were able to do it, to watch how it happened and then learn from that and allow it to influence us. We live in a world where we are surrounded by branding. If you are a visual person and you take the time to look at it and think about it and try to understand it then you’re going to know what’s good and what’s not good.’

    And their work is really very good. Not always beautiful, it’s nonetheless complex and detailed, with layer upon visual layer meaning that it genuinely stands up to repeat viewing. Meanwhile, their level of active collaboration means that while one person might start on a project, the others will add and subtract elements to ensure that the final results could never have come from one person alone, and as such are all the more unexpected. (They do, however, admit that this has become less practical as the years have gone by and they have got more clients and more work).

    Where they surpass some of their street-inspired peers is that they are very definitely not simply reproducing something for which they have already made a name. Yes, some of their work may have a certain graffiti twist, but there is no one GH look. They are not simply ripping off an existing style or repeating something they have already perfected. ‘In graffiti biting or copying someone else’s style is very looked down upon,’ says Rentz. ‘Design should be about problem solving, and while stylistic trends come and go, if they don’t solve a problem then in five years it will look like hell. It’s all style and no substance.’

    Nor do they only work in one medium. This may have confused clients over the years, but it also adds to the sense that while GH will obviously continue to evolve, they’re neither stuck in a rut nor done just yet. ‘We always wanted to do everything,’ says Lane. ‘It’s why we describe ourselves as ‘avisualagency’; we didn’t want to do just print or just web or just interiors… Clients do sometimes have a hard time dealing with that, they want to feel like they completely understand what you do, but we’d be bored to death if we only did one thing.’

    As such, their work includes graphics for record sleeves or club fliers (Prefuse73, Lush), packaging (Coca Cola), billboard advertising (Sprite, USA Networks), interiors (Wish), web design (adidas, Nick Knight), corporate identites (Machine, Soap Box Studios), clothing design (Lamb), broadcast design (Cartoon Network), film titles (Claire). Oh, and then there are the installations, exhibitions, records, products (etc) which are the result of their spare time. The fact that they have any spare time is surprising enough, but this wilful diversity is enough to drive any would-be pigeonholers insane. But, explains Rentz: ‘You have to grow; if you’re not growing you’re dead. And if you don’t do things twice then at least you’re growing.’

    And so what of the fact that almost despite themselves they are becoming a part of the design establishment and community? Speaking at international conferences, publishing monographs of their work… It seems their admirers shouldn’t worry, their radicalism hasn’t left them altogether just yet. While obviously excited and happy to be publishing their own book, they’re still resolutely unimpressed by their new-found grandeur, poking fun at themselves and simply refusing to take themselves too seriously. In an industry as spectacularly ego-driven as design, that’s definitely something worth celebrating.

    This text is an edited version of the introduction to the GH monograph being published in early 2005 by Booth-Clibborn Editions.

  2. Manifesto

    Manifesto Junior Member

    Joined: Sep 1, 2003 Messages: 227 Likes Received: 0
    nice read,
    thanks for the link.

    and this is on point...

  3. why write?

    why write? Veteran Member

    Joined: Oct 19, 2003 Messages: 5,859 Likes Received: 1
    yeah def a nice read, that link is hot.
  4. DREDZ

    DREDZ Senior Member

    Joined: Dec 14, 2002 Messages: 1,934 Likes Received: 0
    werd...i been diggin on gh's shit for a min...