Fingerprint 2: The touch of the hand in contemporary design

[Tom Biederbeck] Further testimony of the power of the handmade in art and design, Fingerprint 2 is Chen Design Associates’ sequel to their 2006 book, Fingerprint. This transfixing follow-up takes the concept a step further into digital terrain. And for paper-lovers, the geography of Fingerprint 2 is an Eden of imagery in print. I spoke with studio principal and creative director Josh Chen and Kathrin Blatter, lead designer on the book, about the art, the artists and the process of creation.

From Fingerprint 2: 3D letters and poster by Vilnius (Lithuania) Academy of Arts Design Department

Paper is by and large the medium of choice in Fingerprint 2, and that must be by design. The content of your new book is almost all print work, isn’t it?
I would say about 95%. We do showcase a couple of websites, but even there, it’s about how materials come into play. This really is the crux of what we’re trying to do with the Fingerprint series — to remind people that the connection with our material environment is what humans crave in the end.

At left, poster for Merge Records by Maggie Fost; at right, typographic book by Taste Inc.

Your first Fingerprint book was aimed at the all-handmade. This book brings the work more into the digital environment. What was your philosophy for exploring this?
The first book was heavily weighted toward the handmade because it was born out of a reaction we had as a creative team at that moment in time. A lot of what we were seeing around us was super-hyper-digitally created to the point of perfection. There’s really nothing wrong with that. But our feeling was more like, “Who else is doing stuff with a sense of the human connection or fingerprint in the work?”

We didn’t go into the second book thinking, “This is what we want to find: handmade stuff that has a connection with the digital.” As we looked through and curated various pieces for the book, it was a theme — interestingly enough — that rose to the top.

Mixed-media collage by Brezinka Design

Ultimately, everything that’s designed arises from the touch of a hand, even if the touch is only fingers on a mouse, a keyboard or a Wacom pen. When choosing the projects to go into Fingerprint 2, how did you decide where the threshold of “handmade” is?
A lot of that came from our intuition as we looked at the pieces. We didn’t go into the process saying, “This piece has to have x amount of handmade or x amount of digital.” The qualifier was what kind of emotional connection we had with the piece — “Where does this piece connect with us as human beings?” If a work had that resonance, then it crossed the threshold.

Kathrin, as the lead designer on this book, how did you approach the cover? You’re trying to portray the essence of the handmade in an object that is machine-made. What about the cover sends the signal, “This is a book about handmade stuff”?
There are three aspects that send the message. First, the hand-done illustration, just paper and ink. There are also the details we included in the big letterforms and the circles. These [impressions] provide the touch aspect. Third is the material: the chipboard itself.

When you pick the book up, you automatically run your hands across the deboss. To me, this is something that’s essential in graphic design. The best pieces are the ones you touch, the ones you have in your fingers. It’s not just your brain that interacts with the work.

Josh, how did you involve your creative team in selecting the work and producing the book?
The beauty of working in a group context is the magical thing that happens when we feed off each other. There is something to looking at projects that come from around the world and sensing there’s some kind of underlying thread.

Part of the process was to not let ourselves get in the way. Sometimes as creatives we try to manufacture the perfect way to approach something. With curating a book, that comes into play. I mean, we’d done this once, and it was a success. The pressure is always there in the back of your head: “How do we do this even better the second time around?” Some of the beauty in the second book came from our need to get ourselves out of the mix — not to let our brains over-think or over-organize it. Is it by sheer coincidence that these threads show up? Or is it partly the subconscious at work? It’s about not using your cognitive sense entirely, and instead letting your heart lead you.

Spread from the section of works by Stefan Bucher, 344 Design

Fingerprint 2 features in-depth written essays and visual essays by particular artists, including remarkable and very personal sections by Robynne Raye, Stefan Bucher and others. How did you determine who’d be on point for the showcases?
How we determined it was by whomever we could convince! It really was a labor of love for Robynne to put together the beautiful essay about her history, her process, what she’s accomplished. You’re not going to see this anywhere else.

Above and below: Spreads from Robynne Raye’s section

Some of the people we asked have been design heroes of ours for a long time. Others are contemporaries. We were able to feature people’s work alongside their essays, which wasn’t the case in the first book. Robynne could pull her section out to 8–10 pages, and it’s a little portfolio of her work. These sections are like pillars that hold the book together.

We wove the longer essay by Colin Berry through the book in the chapter openers. It has a narrative style to it, too.

Hand-torn poster(s) by Helms Workshop for The Hold Steady

This is a very visual book, but the text sections give it a center of gravity and add meaning to the images. How do you envision readers experiencing the book?
Today we have less around us that we can count on to go back to and experience more deeply. Things are increasingly superficial … one-dimensional. This caters to our immediate “want-it-now” culture.

Sure, people will gravitate toward the visuals in this book. But it’s not a one-dimensional book that you thumb through once, look at the pictures, and move on to the next book. What we’re trying to do with the Fingerprint series is to create places you keep coming back to … and keep discovering new things.

To be able to dig into the book at different depths for whatever time in your life you’re experiencing — that’s what I value in a book I cherish closely. A cherished book is something I keep returning to, to learn new things — to stimulate me, to educate me, to inspire me.

For more information, visit Chen Design. To order a copy of Fingerprint 2 (or Fingerprint) visit the Chen Design Felt & Wire Shop.

Photos: © 2011 StudioAlex

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