I remember seeing Lee Friedlander at a lecture showing his work that was eventually published in his book Nudes. During the Q and A, someone asked him “What are your influences?” He paused and then said, “Well…yesterday I had a great bowl of bean soup.”
This, of course, wasn’t an answer we were expecting. This was a room of photographers. We wanted a “photography” answer. We wanted a tidbit of wisdom from a great artist.
Bean soup. He said bean soup, and that made more sense to me than if he rattled off a list of names known or unknown. After all, what were we going to think about if he had answered, “Oh…let’s see, Atget, Brassai, blah blah blah.”? Of course, influence comes from many directions and often from unexpected places.
The book 136 Points of Reference by the graphic designer Jonathan Ellery and his design studio Browns, examines influence through 136 objects from various collections.
These “points of reference” range from books, to a license plate and from manhole covers, to a photo of Bruce Gilden (not a photo by Bruce Gilden but a photo of Bruce Gilden). This book shows that Ellery has great design taste and finds fine examples in the most unexpected places. By featuring them inside a book and outside of the real world, he holds these objects up for close inspection and reveals both their beauty and hidden poetry.
This book works like opening a time capsule and examining the contents. Through these objects we may find a sense of who the collector was, and what material was an important part of their life.
A few sections of the book are given over to other artists who name a few of their own reference points. Martin Parr includes John Hinde Studios postcards, Evidence by Mike Mandell and Larry Sultan, the work of Tony-Ray Jones, and ephemera from a miner’s strike that includes a decorative plate. The great designer Alan Fletcher shares 5 of his own creations and constructions along with their back stories.
As you know, I love books that reproduce objects and this book satisfies in that sense. But the one draw back is, from knowing and seeing the collections of several designers in my life, they all seem to include the same kind of stuff. A drink coaster, an oddly beautiful luggage tag, postcards, books, street signage, advertisements, business cards, etc. A friend of mine compulsively photographs the designs on the labels of 45 rpm records, collects beer labels, and has an apartment full of examples of product packaging. All of those things have informed and educated him as a designer. Even Andy Warhol’s time capsules contained similar material and their references can be seen in his work.
If you think about the fact that the entire world is full of this ephemera and different human sensibilities, there could be several billion books of this sort created for every person on the planet. Maybe they wouldn’t be a nicely designed and presented as this book, but I know I’d like to take a long look at them.
As much as I enjoy this book, it is no revelation towards anything but a designer’s look at design. What we may need to do is ban designers from creating anymore of these books and only allow non-designers to do this sort of compiling.
I will bring up Martin Parr’s name one more time to mention one aspect of his collecting that intrigues me. Alongside his collections of what you might expect, postcards, Saddam Hussein watches, and the like, he diverges from “design coolness” and embraces poor examples in equal measure. His collections of Spice Girl ephemera and tacky wallpaper actually contribute to a more complete portrait of Parr, the world and what he draws from as reference than most designers might risk revealing.
By the way, someone should ask Jonathan Ellery what his 92nd Point of Reference is. His book jumps from 91 to 93. Perhaps a missing page could also be a considered a Point of Reference.
Or was it going to be a Spice Girl crisps wrapper?
This title is very expensive through Amazon so I am not providing a link.