Originally published in 2+3d, Issue 10, 2004
There is an other, an ineffable, and alternate path nestled in the heart of a northern Detroit suburb. A space to unlearn and uncover. A common purpose draws people there, a spirit of discovery, investigation, experimentation, and intrigue. Cranbrook Academy of Art is a graduate school founded 70 years ago, based upon the ideals and principles of the arts and crafts movement. From its inception it was haven for a small community of artists from ten disicplines, who engage in individual pursuits and practices. Without any structured curriculum or required classes, each student was encouraged to follow her own meandering and deviating path of exploration.
Cranbrook Academy of Arts gained much prominence in the 1990s, when under the mien of Post-Modernism, issues of great debate such as Style, Aesthetics, Legibility, and the role of the designer were ushered in and reexamined. Cranbrook became a lightning rod for the debate, singled out by many as wantonly ‘transgressive’ and ‘ugly,’ or simply ‘bad design.’ Some influential designers have emerged from Cranbrook — Ed Fella, Jeff Keedy, Allen Hori, Brian Schorn, Scott Santoro, Scott Makela, Laurie Makela, Elliott Earls, Andrew Blauvelt, Matt Owens, to name a few — to disseminate their work in academia, in commerce, nationally and internationally.
The first designer-in-residence of 2D Design Department was Katherine McCoy, who introduced the inclusion of theoretical investigation in graphic design during her 20 year tenure. Inspired by the popularization of many idea’s of French deconstruction, she and her students produced an assault on the formal properties of graphic design. A period characterized by a reflexive design which dealt with the modernist cannon of graphic design as a point of departure. Beginning with a 1991 exhibition and book, Cranbrook Design: The New Discourse, which captured a ten year period of polemic and theoretically engaged design at the Academy. The book earned the Academy a place of distinction as well as infamy in the hearts and minds of many students, practitioners, and professionals alike.
The assault on graphic design standards and expectations was furthered by Scott and Laurie Makela, one time students of Katherine McCoy. Their provocative, albeit short five years, at Cranbrook was an urgent call to action. The Makela period is epitomized by the mantra ‘experience as theory,’ which was a inward looking, at times self-mythologizing, search for a visceral and ‘real’ component to inform and shape the work. Emphasis was placed on finding ones voice, vis-a-vis visual style and eccentricities. Performance’s were not uncommon, and often helped to give life to an otherwise flat discipline. The work was at times tautological, though not beyond critique. Charles Khoury, 2D 2000, now at Imaginary Forces in Hollywood, recalls “From the subject matter choice to the medium itself, nothing was addressed without justification. Which made us question ourselves and our approach to the work we do daily.” Practicing or experimenting with design minus the client, proved not to be so much academic as experiential; though clients such as Nike and Rossignol, brought in by the Makelas blurred the distinction between the personal and the commercial work. At its best the program under the Makelas produced provocative, charged, and radical works; at its worst it produced solipsistic and self-indulgent work. Those qualities were often not mutually exclusive.
“Most of the students enter Cranbrook with a great deal of practical experience and knowledge of the field.” Laurie goes on, “They come to Cranbrook ready to dive into an experimental ocean, get lost, and finally reenter the field with a refreshed, radicalized view.” In a class that ranges from 4–10, the designers-in-residence and the students form a uniquely close relationship over the course of two years. “The Makelas were doers which infected and spread to the students. They encouraged us to take a stance,” recalls Jeff Miller who graduated in 2000. Scott’s tragic and sudden death in 1999 greatly affected the students. For Brett MacFadden, also a graduate in 2000, it prompted him to create “…a response to Scott’s death at the end of the previous school year and my having spent the summer thinking of him and his interests in the mechanics of the body.” The result was a year long intense weight training endeavor for Brett which provided the basis for the graphic works that “developed as the experience unfolded — posters, performances, typeface, etc.” Laurie oversaw her last class graduate in 2001 as the sole chair of the department. The Makela design philosophy is captured in the monograph Whereishere, published in 1998.
Much of the emphasis on demonstration through action remained, yet had been subsumed, into more traditional modes of graphic design: motion graphics and posters. Personal experience commingling with theory as a means of both personal communication and exploration still remained the major tenet of the program. With an established reputation as the enfant terrible of design schools, Cranbrook had a growing international presence, left of center and below the surface. It attracted, and still does, many foreign students. Over the past five year students from the Netherlands, South Korea, and Lebanon joined the program. Cranbrook offered freedom and opportunity, through a rigorously self-determined course of study and platform for expression.
Design provocateur Elliott Earls, in the past few years had made several trips to Cranbrook in addition to monthly visits to Benetton’s creative consortium, Fabrica, in Italy. Elliott was chosen to continue as designer-in-residence, following Laurie Makela’s departure. He was the favorite of all the students, and administrators alike, because of his contagious and frenzied passion for design. His off-kilter career was a blooming realization of his graduate works he began under Katherine McCoy. Having turned his back on the established commercial design practice, after several firings, he decided he did not want to become another ‘info-burger flipper’ and pursued his experiments not only in graphic design in the traditional sense, but also in spoken word poetry, music, video, non-linear narratives, design and performance. Elliott’s work is a carnival of visual bombastic and linguistic twist, as exemplified in the sublime and the ridiculous The Apollo Program (theapolloprogram.com). However, underneath all the firework, his work is informed by commitment to craftsmanship, desire to connect with the audience through personal experience, and demand for intense audience engagement. He emphasizes a craft oriented approach to practice, tied to foundational skills, this approach is outlined in his two part essay in Emigre #65 and #66. Not a formalist he wants to elevate Design once again to “when Artist/Designer/Giants like El Lissitsky, Kurt Schwitters and Piet Zwart were working, design has never been all that it could be.”
Typically, work produced by the students do not simply rely on the prescribed method of direct visual communication advocated in design schools and in circulation commercially. Inspired by Elliott’s provocations, inspiration, and intellectual insistence, Kosta Stratigos, 2D 2002, felt compelled to work hard and to strive for more cultural resonance, and not simply a visceral expression. A native of Detroit, Kosta used his environment as a basis for work: “Detroit to me is very much about making something out of nothing.” His graduating piece was a 8" garage-rock record he recorded and automotive salvage installation to display the recorded. Also encouraged by Elliott, Arden de Brun, 2D 2003, felt “yoked then released” as he explored his depression, sexual anxiety, video game interests, b-movie fascination, bike riding, hip-hop, and general paranoia to spawn his dada-indebted ‘T3.’
Elliott insists that the ‘reading’ of such complex and codified work is a thoughtful endeavor that should envelope the viewer and coax, intrigue, and subvert her understanding. Private languages, personal mythologies, codes are regularly used as a means of subversive communication, prompted by alterity. As a way of developing ‘shared vocabularies’ during discussion, Elliot has instituted weekly reading groups. As current second year designer, Jung Kim explains: “Two people from department prepare questions to lead the discussion by providing a focus of subject to discuss with. Most of the materials are not directly related to graphic design. Since we are writing reviews on peer’s work based on the frame of description, interpretation, judgement and theorization, the exposure to the critical voices of outside of graphic realm informs our review in a way as we challenge to apply theories on the review.” The readings vary week to week, and jump from Nietzsche to Elliott’s own writing to critical theory, poetry, art criticism, and spiritual nourishment.
As Elliott continues with his own practice and works, he continues to inspire and influence the progeny of students who will come. He views his role as the one who has “to ‘stir the drink,’ to throw the intellectual cocktail party. At any good cocktail party you need a lot of friction, but too much and it becomes a war zone. Not enough and the studio is dead. Walking that line and getting everybody to walk that line with maturity is difficult.” When Elliott is not walking about the studio, meeting with students, he is diligently working in his own studio; an unspoken bond of mutual respect and responsibility. With a renewed vigor and change of guard, Elliott is ready for the next phase in his career as well as the next evolution of Cranbook’s 2D design department.
Through the years Cranbrook has shaped the face of visual culture and inspired many to follow its call. It remains an alternative, that upon leaving leaves you altered. The sum residue of the Cranbrook experience is not quantifiable, as the works themselves only represent a small offering of the actual experience. The self-critical process of learning is compounded by your peers who yearn to challenge themselves as much as they challenge one another. In the end its a cleansing of the doors of perception. And yet, it is all or what you make and nothing of what you can take.