Winter 2005

Baffling recollections

Recollected Work: Mevis and Van Deursen

Design by Mevis and Van Deursen. Text by Paul Elliman. Artimo, USD45, €40

If you are an admirer of Armand Mevis and Linda van Deursen, you will love Recollected Work, a new survey of their graphic design projects. If, on the other hand, you have never heard of them, or perhaps have heard of them but would like to know more about why they are so admired, Recollected Work will frustrate and baffle you. If you fall somewhere in between, your reaction will no doubt be ambivalent. Oddly, I sense that ambivalence is the very reaction that would please Mevis and Van Deursen the most.

Recollected Work is 208 pages long, and 22 of those pages, scattered throughout, consist of what can be inferred to be a transcribed conversation with the author Paul Elliman, a fellow critic at the Yale School of Art. Although the remarks in the book are cast in the first person, the speakers are not identified. Nor does the text seem to have been edited in any way. The rest of the book is filled with full-page, collage-like photographs of Mevis and Van Deursen projects. The pieces overlap, bleed off the edges, and generally defy comprehension. Here, a fraction of a book cover appears, obscured by a poster too big to take in properly; there, a magazine spread, perhaps upside down, peeking out from beneath a gallery announcement, covering up in turn a page from an identity manual. The projects are identified, sort of, in an index at the back of the book; future historians may have the skill to decode it, but I did not.

As Kurt Schwitters and others demonstrated years ago, everything looks better chopped up. Mevis and van Deursen’s work seems custom-produced for this purpose. All the pages look great. And all the pages look the same. The text, which almost never corresponds to the images with which it is juxtaposed, underlines this air of carefree diffidence. ‘We look back and think how much better they could have been.’ ‘It’s almost always our mistakes.’ ‘We just wanted to finish early and go home.’ ‘Maybe we’re too flexible.’ ‘It’s hard to remember when the designing took place.’ And so forth.

It’s also hard for a graphic designer to figure out how to put together a monograph these days. The elevation of our inherently ephemeral work that making a book like this entails is an exercise that has claimed many victims. Some will feel that Mevis and van Deursen have joined those ranks; others that they have ingeniously danced across the minefield. ‘When you look back over it like this it seems full of mistakes and bad choices and missed opportunities,’ one or the other or both say. ‘But you have to take these risks. Perhaps it’s unnecessary, I don’t know, but that’s design. Design is a risk you take.’ Does the risk pay off? I, for one, remain ambivalent.