Art Chantry: Designer, artist … collector

[Emily Potts] Art Chantry is one of 40 artists featured in Rockport’s new book, LUST, a traveling art journal of graphic designers by James Victore. This “sketchbook” traveled the world, passing from one designer to the next, all of whom contributed ideas for dream projects and passions in life. When the book landed in Chantry’s lap in Seattle, he recorded his lust to acquire and live in the Space Needle. Here he talks about the things he collects and lusts for, and how they inspire him.

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In LUST you talk about your obsession with the Space Needle. What is it about it that appeals to you?
I grew up in the Seattle area. I watched them build that thing back in 1961 for the World’s Fair. I’ve lived with that strange building looming overhead for 50 years now. When you have something like that hanging overhead, you think about it. You can’t help it.

It’s also an incredibly strange piece of architecture. It was designed on a napkin — I’ve seen it — and built as a vision of the future. Unfortunately, it was a Jetsons-style future that never really came to be. Over the decades, the owners — it’s a privately owned building, by the way — have tried to deal with its peculiarities and altered its design and appearance and function. They’ve added sections and floors, and turned off the flame on top, and painted it different colors, and placed lights and fireworks on it. They even built a two- or three-story glass building around the base that visually shortens it, so they can make money by selling souvenirs.

Living with this thing is like living with a strange uncle in the attic. What would you do with this mutant structure staring down at you every day?

You’ve openly admitted that you are a hoarder and come from a long line of hoarders. Tell me about the kinds of things you collect and obsess about?
Well, I’m not a hoarder in regards to the popular TV show version of the term, but I could be that way if I didn’t exercise a little restraint. I originally wanted to be an archeologist and even began to study anthropology for a time. I quickly gave up on that boyhood dream and bopped around a dozen different majors in school while supporting myself doing graphic design projects. I was a working graphic designer before I even knew what one was — strange but true.

“This is one of my favorite typefaces,” says Chantry. “I’ve used it on dozens of projects.”

When you are interested in studying the past, you save bits and pieces and relics of the past, so I began collecting those chunks of history in the form of records and books and posters and other printed ephemera. In the past, I have collected advertising buttons and stamps and bottles and signs and trading cards and comic books and records and labels and tickets, and even vending machines and televisions. I consider these artifacts of our modern culture — especially the modern-era subcultures of the postwar period. All of this stuff was, for me, language to be deciphered.

All this information comes out in my design work. I see graphic design as an age-old cultural language of form and color and shape and line and ideas that — dare I say — predates the written word, since letterforms are just graphic squiggles with a pre-arranged, agreed-upon meaning attached. When I do a design for a client, I draw upon this language I know so well — all of it gathered from my studies of the artifacts I collected.

In a distinctly real way, I’m actually doing archeology — graphic design archeology — in my work. I make my own cultural artifacts.

How do the things you lust over and collect influence your designs? Is it the details? Are these rash decisions, or do you tend to see something, think about it and obsess before you decide to get it?
When I look around for artifacts, I’m usually following a dialogue of design language I happen to be interested in. But it’s the act of searching that opens new doors and experiences. I may be fascinated with psychedelic posters, but when I begin to search for other psych materials, I find a wide range of stuff that fits directly, a lot that fits indirectly, and even some that sort of fits but in a weird parallel way. This all reflects the history of what actually happened, and you need to figure it out.

I follow a script that has been put together in my mind by the materials I have found and follow it where it leads me, but that script can change in an instant. Suddenly I may become interested in art nouveau, which was a very direct cultural lineage into psychedelic art, or I may look up Peter Max, who was a commercial artist who copied the folk art psychedelic style and marketed it as a commercial product.

Art by (left to right) Richard M. Powers, Heinz Edelmann, R. Crumb

Then there’s the TV show Laugh-In, which was supposed to look psychedelic, but was designed by artists who missed it by a mile … to most uninitiated viewers it was all lumped together and created a new sort of mongrel 1960s style that has been labeled “psychedelic” by popular culture. It was a fake version of psychedelia fostered by commercial interests trying to ape and profit another foreign style. See my point?

Recently I’ve started collecting books issued by Time/Life in the early 1960s. They were a mail-order style club that people subscribed to called the Time Reading Program, and they were beautiful trade paperbacks of important novels and books in the history of literature. The covers are all designed and illustrated by the cream of the crop of hip, cool, successful, often fledgling young artists of the early 1960s. You can find Ronald Searle, Seymour Chwast, Milton Glaser, Joseph Low and James McMullen — just to name a few — doing amazing covers for Dylan Thomas, Thomas Jefferson, John Collier and Nathaniel West.

Above, cover design by Alexey Brodovitch

Above, cover designs by Jerome Moriarty and Etienne Delessert

Above, cover designs by Seymour Chwast and Ronald Searle

All of them are amazing to behold and beautiful to read. Nobody seems to collect them, and you can find them in thrift stores for about 50¢. There seems to have been hundreds of them made and utterly forgotten about. They were a major place for young illustrators and designers to find paying work during the early years of their careers. Finding a stash of these little books in a junk store is like finding buried treasure.

Art Chantry has produced a body of work that, however unorthodox, rivals some of the best graphic design in the world. His art has been exhibited in the world’s most prestigious museums and galleries, including the Louvre, the Smithsonian and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He is the author of Instant Litter: Concert Posters From Seattle Punk Culture, and is the subject of the monograph Some People Can’t Surf. There is even a book about Chantry’s work published in China, in Chinese, of which he observes, “Nobody knows what it really says.”

Emily Potts is the acquisitions editor at Rockport Publishers.

Photo of Art Chantry courtesy of Ras Rasmussen/

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Comments (1)

  1. Posted by LEE MOODY on 04.7.11 at 5:53 pm

    In the morning ~ I get up ~ make strong espresso and read Art Chantry lastest dialogue explaining some design language in reference to something in his huge collection~ and I am so amazed and mesmorized that I forget to drink my coffee.. Art Chantry makes my Day !

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