Sean Adams interviews Martin Venezky, Published in Step Magazine
I mentioned to a friend recently that I was interviewing Martin Venezky, and she responded with shock. How could I, in her words “the king of neat,” interview Martin, “the king of chaos”? Oddly, I thought the same thing. But once I began talking with Martin, I realized how easy it was to assign labels and cubbyhole each of us to fit easy classifications. At first glance, Martin’s work is a jumble of forms and images, seemingly random in their placement. On further inspection, though, a sort of multilayered meaning becomes apparent. A piece is not a one-note boy band tune, but a discordant harmonic triad.
SA: So, Martin, what’s with the controversy? Why do you think you and your work elicit such strong opinions from the design community?
MV: King of chaos? No, Sean, no! I don’t think my work is chaotic at all! Rambunctious and jubilant—sure. But “a jumble of forms”? As for controversy, that always surprises me, since I imagine that my work flies well under the general design radar. I realize the kind of work I do isn’t right for everyone or every project, but then again my work is much broader than most people realize. A lot of it is really very refined and respectful. The most extreme or radical aspect of my work is the time it takes to make these things. And, except for the obvious dismal financial ramifications, I can’t imagine why that would upset anyone.
SA: Is it justified or misguided?
MV: Some folks may see my work as a car wreck, but I think it is more like a busy, urban intersection. There’s a lot to see, but it all flows with its own logical order and gets you where you need to go.
SA: One of the markers for success in our industry is to become a “famous designer.” One aspect overlooked in that ambition is that for everyone out there who thinks you’re swell, there is someone else who really hates your guts. What do you think about the idea of celebrity, good and bad, in the design world?
MV: I think that for celebrity to have any meaning it requires commitment and sharing. That commitment could be for the absolute craft and integrity of the work, or it could be as a teacher or writer or sponsor.
SA: You mentioned the word melancholy in an interview once, and it seems to follow you around like a lost puppy. I’m not sure I see that as a driving force in your work. There are many other emotions and ideas being expressed. Where did the melancholy idea come into play?
MV: I titled the lead essay in my monograph “Design and Melancholy,” so I’m not reluctant to use the term. But as I frame the argument, melancholy is a motivation for the processes I employ, rather than the feeling expressed by the end product. Collecting discarded ephemera, working with delicate materials and anticipating the inevitable unraveling of my surroundings—these are all aspects of my process and my need to create. But I wouldn’t expect anyone to decipher that from looking at the work itself.
SA: I see humor in your work all the time. Is that intentional, or am I just completely misreading it?
MV: Yes, definitely. Humor is a direct result of objects coming together in unexpected ways. The humor I enjoy the most is not the literary joke-telling sort, but the surprising relationships that reflect and encapsulate the external world.
SA: Your work has such a powerful and personal voice. Has it always? What were the forces that helped shape that voice?
MV: I’ve always been an interior sort. That is, I’m used to looking at the world as a somewhat misinformed observer—curious but unsure, preferring to look through a window rather than walk through a door. That has given me a lot of time to think about how the world gets stitched together, and to examine and poke at the structures beneath the spectacle.
SA: And how has that voice evolved over the life of your career?
MV: The biggest evolution has been in seeing my own eccentricities and “outsider” status not as a handicap, but as a valuable point of view worthy of expression. It’s unfortunate that design marginalizes the eccentric because I find these unexpected creative bursts essential to invigorate what could be a dreary profession.
SA: Talk to me about your relationship with your clients. A question I get often is, “How did you get away with that?” This sort of presumes that the client is an enemy, which I don’t agree with. But, really … how do you get away with that?
MV: Most of my clients contact me because of the work they’ve seen. My clients are usually passionate about what they do, and that already establishes some common ground. If I am thinking of an unusual approach, I discuss it with them right away rather than save it for a formal presentation. So not only are they free to say no, but they become a part of the creative process right at the start and can watch and comment as ideas develop and mature. I know some clients insist on it, but I really hate the whole “provide us with three ideas in a formal presentation and we’ll choose among them” routine. It is so antithetical to creative inspiration and is probably what makes enemies out of clients.
SA: So your perfect client. Who would that be? What kind of work would you do if I told you could do any project in the world? Just so you know, I don’t really have this power.
MV: I’ve really liked the kind of work I’ve been doing and the people I’ve been doing it for. But now and then I would love an opportunity to prove how my way of working could translate into larger campaigns with larger audiences. This may surprise some people, but I’ve never been opposed to commercial work. However, I have been dismayed by the narrow scope in which most of the commercial world operates.
SA: Now to the People magazine section of this Q&A. What’s your personal life like? Do you work continuously? Raise chickens? Watch endless amounts of reality television? I’m trying to get to what defines you as a person, not just a designer.
MV: Well, my working life does consume a lot of my time, but for me work and play are so completely entwined that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Because I teach a lot I try to keep an eye towards what is happening in popular culture; not that I feel the need to embrace it, but it is valuable to consider the messages that my students receive through the media. I guess that means that even when I attend movies or theater or concerts, I’m still working. It’s that curiosity of trying to understand why things are the way they are—why people dress the way they do, where peoples’ convictions and beliefs come from, why they buy what they buy. The world is such a fascinating, complicated place with so many forces pushing against each other, and almost all of it is designed in one way or another.
SA: Carol Hanisch’s essay in Feminist Revolution  discusses the idea that personal problems are political problems: “There are no personal solutions at this time.” Your work does combine the political with the personal. How do your politics influence your solutions or the choices you make as a designer?
MV: In my opinion anything that divides people into groups or separates one group from another is political. Design is extremely political in that it uses all sorts of techniques to stratify a population. Designing a label that suggests a product is “gourmet” or “old fashioned” is as political as a get-out-the-vote poster. Designing a restaurant that dissuades certain economic classes from participating is as political as creating a country’s flag. In many ways the more insidious the design strategy, the more powerfully it works as a political agent. People have a hard time defending themselves against something they can’t see.
SA: So you’ve been at Cranbrook, lived in Providence and now Los Angeles. Has location had any bearing on your process and work in general?
MV: I don’t think so. I’m an inside person quite literally. I like the cold and the rain because I don’t feel guilty about staying indoors. The lovelier the weather the more I feel that my compulsion to be inside is at odds with the world.
SA: I was talking to Louise Sandhaus and Lorraine Wild recently, and we discussed the idea of doing a series of small events for AIGA Los Angeles that would focus on “the disenfranchised.” There seems to be a perception that there is a big design establishment —The Man—and another set of designers who are ignored because their work is too radical. Personally, I think this profession thrives on diversity, and there is room for all kinds of design, sort of like “dissent is the core of democracy.” You, on the other hand, engage in “radical” work, but stay involved with teaching at CalArts, working with AIGA, being part of the community at large. Why?
MV: I agree with you that the profession is broad and diverse. Things get complicated when design is seen strictly within the business framework. Granted, for most of us it is a business, but considering the fact that most design programs are associated with art schools rather than business schools, shouldn’t the artist model be at least modestly pertinent? I think that opinion is important to be voiced within professional organizations.
For many years, before I attended graduate school, I was doing painfully uninteresting work; work that I never show anyone today. It was in my bosses’ interest to keep me at the boards cranking this stuff out, so they were the ones telling me how fantastic my work was and paying me reasonable amounts for the effort. Looking back I regret the years I wasted wallowing in mediocrity. I feel obliged to teach with honesty and integrity … developing in [students] the tools of self-criticism, experimentation and invention so they don’t fall into the same trap. That’s my way of sharing, and it is very important to me.
SA: If a young designer came to see you to show his portfolio, what would you be looking for?
MV: I usually only hire former students, because I’ve had the chance to observe how they work, experiment and handle criticism. That being said, I hope that young designers can develop a portfolio that doesn’t try to be all things to all people. I’d rather see a body of work that explores a set of typographic ideas or questions in depth than a portfolio that has a bit of humor, a dab of roughness, a touch of corporateness.
SA: What are you working on now?
MV: I’m in the middle of designing two books—one on the history of the Burning Man festival and one on a collection of early travel albums and journals. I’m also finishing a poster for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and a museum catalog for Mills College in Oakland.
SA: And finally, what’s with the bear?
MV: The bear first appeared in an early issue of Speak magazine. I had wanted to keep him as a mascot for the publication. Dan Rolleri, the publisher and editor, declined the offer, claiming how much he disliked animal characters as mascots. OK, I thought, I’ll just save him for myself. So when it came time to run my own design studio, I had the bear before I had a name for the business.
To me, he looked a little hungry, so “Appetite” seemed right. I added “Engineers” to keep me from being confused with a restaurant, and also because, as designers, we are always called upon to engineer appetites for our clients’ wares.