A Storehouse of Treasures

What’s worse than bad taste in a designer? No taste.

There’s a scene in Gerhard Richter Painting where Richter mentions the “storehouse of treasures”—all the work he’s seen in his 80 years that he’s trying to live up to with his own paintings. He then discusses some images hanging in his office—a tree painted by Courbet, a drawing by Picasso (enlarged and inverted so it “could show me what it has to say today”) and a photo of Nazi officers having “a nice chat” next to a pile of dead bodies—all part of Richter’s Storehouse of Treasures. Hung in the same room are a few of his paintings. Later you find out that these are not some of his favorite paintings but some of his newest paintings, hung in the same room as the Courbet and the others to see if they hold up.

If you subtract the lazy, every mediocre student I’ve had has one thing in common—they had no taste. They didn’t have bad taste, they had no taste. If you ask them who their favorite designers are you’d get no answer (or they’d rattle off a few people who are famous at the moment meaning that they like what their classmates like and had no real catalyst for getting into graphic design beyond being able to draw), never mind if you ask what their favorite piece of design is. They had no Storehouse of Treasures. And they can’t get good (or at least interesting) without it.

You need a Storehouse of Treasures. You need the books you can’t part with even if you’ve outgrown the content. You need to have whole websites saved to your hard drive in case they change or disappear (or bookmarked on archive.org). You need to lust over certain posters or buy a record just for its packaging. The Storehouse of Treasures is a place to go to again and again that asks “Is this the best you can do?”.

I’m looking at mine right now. Its largely books. A copy of David Carson’s 2nd Sight, a stack of 1960s Grove Press paperbacks, Emil Ruder’s Typographie and a couple of early-00s Walker Art Center catalogs. When I’m designing a book, there will be a couple of these sitting on the corner of the desk. I keep them there as a challenge to constantly revisit them and then push myself harder.

The Storehouse of Treasures isn’t “inspiration” in the masturbatory way that people use that term now. Its inspiration in that it drives you. Its the embodiment of your definition of quality.

It can certainly extend beyond the boundaries of your chosen profession (though I think its critical that you have a solid foundation of true loves in your field. Otherwise thats a pretty big hint that you’re in the wrong line of work. Could you imagine asking a musician what their favorite songs were and getting a “Ehh, I don’t know. I like a lot of stuff. Like, who’s that one guy…”?). Gerhard Richter’s whole career, Lungfish’s The Unanimous Hour, and the book The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene are all in there. Its the art that makes me feel like “I must do better.” Not make better music than Lungfish or write a better book than Greene, but be better. Give more of myself to each project and demand more of myself in the process.

I’m not sure if this can be cultivated. Can you actually be years into study and then force yourself to be interested in the subject at hand? But maybe its the kind of thing that you receive once you start looking. The only thing I know for sure is that I can pick out the students who love design. Its always clear that they have taste—their own taste—and it drives their ability to work harder than their colleagues and to hold themselves to a higher standard.

Namdev Hardisty is designer, educator, writer and co-founder of The MVA Studio in Minneapolis.