AGI Open London

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Camp finalé for the two-day conference

The programme for the AGI Open looked promising, however, at the end of the morning on day one I was uninspired by the speakers and their contributions, the stern demeanor of MC Adrian Shaughnessy unsettled me. Illustrator Marion Deuchars stood out with her sincere and matter-of-fact approach to her practice. Kenya Hara‘s House Vision married with the theme of ‘No Client’, however, the relevance to visual communication design was baffling. After the first reference to Margaret Thatcher from Hamish Muir ‘I don’t mean to come over all Margaret Thatcher’, Roger Law – one half of Luck and Flaw – responsible for the Spitting Image satire, brought on stage a life-size model of Thatcher. I decided to opt out and visit the foyer and browse the books for sale.

Lunch consisted of a sandwich, small muffin and bottle of water provided in a brown bag. The bins were overflowing at the start of the afternoon session.

Vaughan Oliver was absent from the Cavaliers versus Roundheads debate, the Cavalier camp remarked that this absence was characteristic of a Cavalier’s sense of individuality. Sean Perkins led the Roundheads making a case for reduction and simplicity. Remove the lighthearted moments, and you were left with a debate dealing with the positive aspects of modernism’s paucity and post-modernism’s opulence, a debate that is passé and provided little in the way of new perspectives on the subject.

There were some notable soundbites from the last phase of day two. Pierre Bernard suggested ‘to communicate you have to respect your audience’ and ‘if you want to build something you have to know what kind of architect you have to be’. In discussing her much overrated hand-drawn maps, Pentagram’s Paula Scher exclaimed ‘if you throw it on and keep adding to it, it becomes ridiculous and you don’t know how bad it’s drawn’. Scher’s maps are endlessly repetitive and in her view poor technique can be masked by saturating the canvas. Rick Poynor‘s interview-cum-interrogation of post-modernism’s l’enfant terrible Peter Saville injected some much needed critical discourse. Provocatively suggesting that ‘some of us don’t just observe and critique – some of us have to do something’ raised an audible gasp from the audience, Poynor smiled, shrugging off Saville’s attempt to disarm the critic. Frustratingly Poynor pursued the tired hierarchical ‘design versus art’ debate, but Saville managed to curtail this with a lowbrow ‘archetypal labels seem to matter a lot more these days’ quip.

On day two the perennial issue of women in design laced the proceedings. WD+RU‘s Twitter feed provided a feminist commentary throughout the conference. The Mr and Mr parody of the TV game show Mr and Mrs (question master – Patrick Burgoyne, contestants – Jan Wilker and, via Skype, Hjalti Karlsson) reinforced the white, straight male design profession with a subtle homoerotic sub-text.

The show stopper of the morning was Margaret Calvert, whose reluctance to be on stage was tangible. The audience was in reverence of her career in design and this was beautifully showcased in a short film cut together with snippets of her appearance on the BBC’s Top Gear. Christophe Niemann demonstrated his flair with drawing, animation, wit and ability to take a lateral view of the subject. In a touching tribute to American illustrator Maurice Sendak, Niemann demonstrates his ability to communicate in a truly powerful way.

A historically interesting panel discussion on design publishing between Deyan Sudjic, John L Walters and Simon Esterson traced the collaboration between Sudjic and Esterson – launching Blueprint magazine thirty years ago to their time working on Domus through to Esterson’s co-ownership with Walters of Eye magazine. Sudjic explained that Domus had a fixed four-year tenure for its editor. This should be adopted at Eye magazine where the editorial, unlike the design, has become staid.

The morning concluded with Shaughnessy’s interview with Ben Bos on the history of the AGI, sadly this appeared to be a turn-off for some of the younger generation, who made for the exits around where I was seated in the balcony. Historical context in our subject is vital, and not wishing to dwell on the past, Berger sums up its relevance ‘the past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act’.

Lunch time, the collective noun for brown bags escapes me, but there are hundreds of them, the muffin replaced by a brownie.

A Question of Design – a panel discussion moderated again by Pentagram’s Michael Bierut was, according to Nick Bell, the first time in the conference where design issues could be debated. Bell lamented the lack of audience participation, acknowledging that this would have proved cumbersome given the 2000 head count. Mike Dempsey, former owner of CDT Design (where I worked in the mid 1990s) caused a rumbling in the audience with his use of the word ‘assistants’ to describe the female designers who had been employed at CDT, Dempsey’s penchant for divorcing the female gender from design, is reminiscent of  Le Corbusier and Perriand, or Charles and Ray Eames, the females rôle was to assist, never to collaborate or much less take the lead.

Matias Corea of Adobe talked on multiple obsessions, his passion for music was illustrated by his collection of albums, some of which are shown here:

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Chip Kidd‘s talent for design and captivating an audience resonated throughout the Barbican’s vast auditorium. Kidd’s passion was tangible, his narration of a Japansese Batman comic strip was camp, kitsch and utterly entertaining. Andy Stevens presentation on Letraset was low-key compared to Kidd but not without interest, fascinating was the hetereronormative projection by Letraset of their human characters used by designers to add scale to interiors. Tony Brook‘s collecting demonstrated his passion for graphic ephemera since an early age. Jeremy Leslie‘s authoritative take on magazine design provided a gentle preamble to Stefan Sagmeister’s closing showcase.

Sagmeister is a polarizing figure, a clever, canny and persuasive figure who commands an audience and through his investigation into happiness, revealed a vulnerability in his own psyche that struck a chord with me and those I spoke to.

The handover to Brazil for the 2014 conference was symbolically performed by a group of dancers, this finale was colourful and uplifting, but incongruous.

My zest for design hasn’t been diminished by this conference, but it could have done more to stray into new territories.

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