Freeze-framed vision bites
The Designers Republic: New and Used ExhibitionMappin Gallery, Sheffield
6 April to 30 June 1996
The Designers Republic belong to a group of designers that revolve around the music scene and feeds on its renowned capacity for constant change. In the 1980s in particular, the insatiable nature of the music business provided a motor for the creation of new visual currencies. A certain strand of British graphic design fused with club culture and independent and mainstream music producers to explore contemporary ideas of corporate image-making. The resultant work covered everything from flyers for one-off club nights to sleeves for bands naively signed to punishing long-term album deals with major labels, or others putting out their stuff through enthusiastic indies.
The likes of Peter Saville and 3 Associates found a ready platform for their skills, while a further sub-stratum equipped with Macintoshes and an eye for the stealable image generated a flood of posters and general publicity for a computer-literate and unashamedly sample-based rave generation. The Designers Republic (no apostrophe) fall somewhere between the slick, corporate professionals and the do-it-yourselfers. This exhibition illustrated their role and skill in creating a visual language for a world dominated by the twelve-inch, the club, the sample and the indie/dance crossover.
Much of the graphic design incorporated in this exhibition – a selection of camera-ready artwork and proofs of assorted album sleeves, posters, flyers and promotional materials – is tied either to the club scene or to the music industry via a range of artists and organisations representing the various facets of the clubby, indie/dance axis: Pop Will Eat Itself, The Orb, Age of Chance, Coco steel and Lovebomb, together with LFO and the like. To put it simply, The Designers Republic have thrived and continue to thrive upon a particular kind of hipness.
It could be argued that the client list has conditioned the nature of the work. Pop Will Eat Itself, for example, are an apocalyptically tinged Midlands combo with a penchant for breakbeats and sampling. In the late 1980s they created and now patrol a cultural and musical territory bounded by Blade Runner, Judge Dredd, mix and match sampling, manga, commix and graphic novels. The packaging and promo materials developed by The Designers Republic for the band reflect musicians’ obsessions with a soon-to-arrive future world in which a kind of semiotic patois dominates all forms of graphic communication.
Thus letterforms are mutated into italicised japanoiserie and record sleeves look like freeze-framed vision bites from a television screen hooked up to a rogue satellite dish. The Pop Will Eat Itself material represented here was an exploding combination of satellites, globes and atomic symbols: a graphic environment in which signals are scrambled and corrupted by the background noise of a hyper-communicative world. Pixellated and fuzzed photographs, circuit boards and flower-power typography collide in designs which appear to have been put together from samples themselves. Information is presented in a mish-mash of techno-pop images: buffer-dump test type and computer game packaging. These icons of the cut-up and comic-inspired generation are melded effortlessly into the graphic world created by studio.
The Design Republic are also very good at big, clean logotypes counterpointed by what look like stretched versions of the fuselage decals on the Shinkansen express train. These are the kind of graphics that characterise the pristine world of LFO’s house music and The Orb’s ambient confections. They are also good examples of well-executed, culturally aware graphic design and you can see the point in hanging them on a wall.
What wasn’t so clear was why album sleeves for Whycliffe’s Rough Side and Fuzzbox’s Big Bang were included in the exhibition, unless it was to demonstrate that The Designers Republic are also capable of safely manipulating text and photographs within a tight corporate brief. Next to the majority of the work on display, however, these pieces looked dull. It was interesting, too, to spot the poster for the Victoria & Albert Museum’s “Art of Selling Songs” exhibition and to note that it is not as strong or well-realised a design as those which surrounded it: the colours looked weak by comparison and the typography seemed crowded.
The presence of those blips in the otherwise relentlessly well-realised world of The Designers Republic’s logos, sleeves, idents and posters serves merely to point out just how sound the studio’s work can be when they hit their stride. But the exhibition still lacked on a couple of points. The casual browser interested in graphic design would, I am sure, have been helped by some opinions from the designers about the work on display, or even some basic cataloguing information – dates, clients, brief, and so on. Furthermore, the point of exhibition was obscure. Had this been a retrospective in the true sense of the word, then hanging a relatively old poster like the V&A effort next to a newer design would have made sense in terms of explaining process and progress and just what The Designers Republic are about. However, no such explanation was available, so the result was simply a mute collection of images.
Somewhat bizarrely, “New and Used” took place in a small café populated by tables and chairs and lunchtime diners. It may be that the powers that be at the Mappin Gallery simply wanted a few things dotted around to brighten up the place while some building work was going on. It seems a shame that having gone to the trouble of selection material, framing and hanging it, more effort could not have been spared to help it make more sense as an exhibition. For if anything, this space and the exhibition did a disservice to the better examples of The Designers Republic’s work – and there were plenty of them here.
First published in Eye no. 10 vol. 3, 1993.