[Tom Biederbeck] “Print Is Alive!” proclaims this letterpress poster, by Martin Venezky of Appetite Engineers and printers Jeff Towner and Jim Wehlage of Third Bay Letterpress. Venezky’s account of their collaboration reveals the creative process behind this remarkable artist and designer. Click further to see the full poster.
How did the collaboration come about?
Jeff and I had produced two prints that sell at the SF MoMA store, where I was a featured artist, and a self-promotional piece.
When Jeff got a bigger press, he wanted something to announce it. He came up with “print is alive.” I did early incarnations of the concept that didn’t fly. Sometimes you put a lot of effort into what doesn’t work before you hit what does. Even when something looks intuitive and simple and direct, it’s often gone through a range of trials and errors.
An effortless quality with sweat behind it is the hallmark of talent: The outcome looks natural, obvious … when it’s anything but.
This is important to how I teach [Venezky has been an Graphic Design instructor at California College of the Arts since 1993]. If students are only accustomed to seeing a finished product, as opposed to understanding the processes involved, they develop the notion that it’s all about having a brilliant idea in your head. Then you simply realize the idea. It certainly doesn’t happen that way for me.
My work is process-based. It can’t be sketched out ahead of time. It’s a constant merging of different sources and strategies that butt up against each other. I take bits and pieces of ideas and see what happens when they shake hands.
The visual themes in this poster are what it proclaims to be: printed and alive. How did the themes emerge?
This wasn’t going to be a monster horror movie poster: “PRINT IS ALIVE!” I didn’t want it to be cute — mainly because I don’t think I’m clever enough to do that. I wanted something you could keep looking at and see new things.
I did an earlier version of the design that was much more controlled. But it wasn’t what Jeff was looking for. Jeff pushed me into doing design that was more “open.” [See Venezky’s earlier, elaborate mechanical and preview below. Warning: The web cannot do justice to the intricacy of the mechanical.]
I have a storeroom in my studio with string and glass and lenses and cutting tools. I have stockpiles of images and textures. When I’m doing handmade collage, I’ve usually got a big table full of scraps.
I just started jamming scraps together rapidly, with tape, and something began to happen. Things folded on each other, things obscured each other … it felt like something coming alive.
It didn’t feel like there was a designer standing around organizing it. This is a goal I always have: If you were to turn your back at any moment, the elements would start moving differently, merging in new ways.
It’s like when a filmmaker tries to shoot a scene as if there’s no filmmaker: These two people talking together aren’t in a “scene” — their conversation is something you stumbled in on. It takes preparation and planning to make it look like you weren’t even there.
I like working with patterns and orders and organizations. This is what a press does: It organizes ink onto paper. Through organization, something organic happens.
But it takes a lot of precision to make it feel organic. All of this care goes into something that feels carefree. It’s a struggle between the desire to keep everything organized and the desire to mess that order up.
Creative and destructive impulses “shaking hands,” to use your phrase?
They work together. Or they’re at each other’s throat. I’m not sure which!
Check in next week, when I talk with Jeff Towner about the letterpress printing that brought this poster to life.
Martin Venezky’s work bridges applied and fine arts — can you tell I’m a fan? Venezky is principal of Appetite Engineers, a design studio in San Francisco (you can visit Appetite Engineers on Facebook, here). He is the author of It Is Beautiful — Then Gone and co-author of The Push Pin Graphic: A Quarter Century of Innovative Design and Illustration. Among the books Appetite Engineers has designed, the editor draws your attention to Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man.