An Interview with Art Director Art Chantry: "Stop Faking Design"

An Interview with Art Director Art Chantry: SUTTONSIGNER.jpgBy Ward Sutton

Art Chantry's work can be seen on telephone poles, art museums, and everywhere in between. Based in Seattle and Tacoma, he has created hundreds, or likely thousands of band posters, LP and CD covers, and designs for magazines, newspapers, and zines. One could argue his visual style had as much to do with the Northwest music movement of the 80s and 90s as the music itself. As art director of The Rocket (a publication that chronicled the music scene of that era), Art gave me my first break when I moved to Seattle in 1991. I recently got the chance to ask him about his approach to art directing publications, his inspirations, and what magazine he would redesign if he could.

WARD SUTTON: To my eye, your design work on The Rocket seemed like one bold experiment after another. I especially remember a series of issues where you rotated the logo on the cover a little bit more each issue, with the logo eventually appearing vertical, upside-down, etc. How do you reflect on your approach to designing The Rocket?

ART CHANTRY: The Rocket was such a chaotic "fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants" affair that every layout and every decision WAS a bold experiment. We had no money, no budget, no technology, no nothing except the ambitions and imaginations of the people who slammed it together every month. As art director, i would desperately try to get things planned in advance--particularly when it came to hiring freelancers, who were always  working on the core of every issue. We would have been lost without them. Every freelance illustrator/photographer/designer/etc. I solicited brought their own eye and their own opinion to each project. The only way we could get these people to work for nothing (we paid them so little it was a mere token of appreciation and little else) was to offer them the freedom to invent and create. That alone made  a certain level of chance and chaos to each issue that it virtually became the trademark style of the magazine--no matter how hard I tried to prevent it.

3Chantry.jpgI eventually began to design the pacing and dynamics of the interior structure of the magazine to become a classic "clothes rack" (like you'd see in a department store). It would be solid, well-built, reliable and consistent. Then we'd hang all the frilly ideas and styles and images on that rack to display and attract the reader. It still looked chaotic and experimental, but the foundation of the overall structure was solid as rock.

The specific mention you make of the rotating masthead was a project I'd been wanting to try on The Rocket for years and years, but nobody would let me try it. You see, the only reason that a magazine's masthead was always at the top of the magazine cover was simply because of the physics of the newsstand display--the only visible part of the cover was the top edge. But The Rocket was never displayed on a newsstand. It was always dropped on the floor in a bundle at the hipster boutiques, music stores, restaurants, coffee shops, etc. It would usually become a messy pile, spread out on the floor. The whole cover was always on display. So I immediately wanted to have the freedom to place the masthead anywhere i wanted to. But even The Rocket editorship couldn't handle that idea. So I never got to try it. The experiment you mention was actually conducted over the last six months that I worked at The Rocket. I gave my notice and then simply DID IT. Every issue, I'd rotate the masthead clockwise around the cover (it ended upside down at the bottom of the cover panel). I continued it up and around back to the top. My last issue, it was plastered back up on top and then I was gone. I did a full 360 degree circle! Very proud of that. No one noticed.

4Chantry.jpgWARD SUTTON: One stand-out issue featured the coup of getting Ed "Big Daddy" Roth to illustrate the cover. How did that come about?

ART CHANTRY: That Roth cover was back in the mid-1980s (1985, to be exact). It was our annual "holiday" issue (made in the December of the year before, but released on January 1, 1986, to allow a month off for the crew). Every year we hired "somebody famous" to do that holiday cover. We had Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, Matt Groening, Milton Glaser, Von Dutch, Nathan Gluck, Ed Fotheringham, Gary Panter, Drew Friedman, and a host of others do our holiday cover over the years.

I decided I wanted to try to snag Ed "Big Daddy" Roth to do a Rat Fink cover for us. I looked him up and managed to find him living in Utah (he'd converted to Mormonism). Talking to him on the phone was a trip. He had retired (he had been working as a sign painter at Knotts Berry Farm for the last 20 years). He was recently hired to do a record cover for a band called The Birthday Party. When he listened to the record (only after it was released with his artwork), he was appalled. He still thought of rock 'n' roll as Chuck Berry. The Birthday Party (Nick Cave's first band) was the antithesis of what he considered "moral." In fact, he had recently attempted to re-birth Rat Fink as a crusader against environmental waste and damage.

So Roth immediately said he'd never do another rock 'n' roll piece--period. But I finally convinced him that The Rocket was different and cool and he'd like it. I sent him a stack of back issues and got back in touch and he LOVED it. He immediately set out to do a cover image for us (I think we paid him $400). What he sent was a dirty, sweat-stained T-shirt with a black and white, airbrushed line drawing (with the original pencil sketch still visible underneath the ink) of Rat Fink wishing everybody happy holidays riding a huge, phallic, rocket hotrod. Actually, the T-shirt had two sides; the back side was more of a standard portrait of all his characters wishing everybody Merry Xmas.

I basically took the two images, photocopied them and collaged the best parts of both into one image. Then I had to add all the color mechanically (this was before computers) by cutting overlays. Since we couldn't afford a real color separation, I used that old "zipatone" dot screen adhesive stuff to create my own color builds (using rosettes created by moving the dot patterns physically until the moires disappeared). The resulting cover was a big hit. It was one of those "OH YEAH! I REMEMBER THAT GUY" moments. In fact, later on, Roth personally told me that The Rocket cover was responsible for the whole rebirth of his otherwise forgotten career. After that, he came out of retirement and became a national figure in the underground hipster scene again. He had a tear in his eye when he told me that. That was really touching to hear from an old hero.  

1Chantry.jpgWARD SUTTON: I saw legendary illustrator Jack Davis speak a few years back and someone asked him, with regard to the movie posters and album covers he'd illustrated, if he liked all those films and all that music. He said he often didn't see the movies or listen to the music, and if he did he often didn't care for it anyway. When you were working on The Rocket, or at Sub Pop, etc., did you feel it was important that you, yourself, like the music or other content you were designing for?

ART CHANTRY: Unlike Jack Davis, I made it a point to research each and every client/project I had to work on. How do you design anything for a client without knowing WHO and WHAT that client was? I listen to every record I've ever done a cover for. I read every play I ever did a poster for. I tried to see live performances of every band I ever did work for. There really was no other way to SPEAK for a client unless you understood that client's language and idea.
Of course, there were exceptions to that. Some of the bands I already knew by reputation or media branding. Others I had no access to and had to rely upon their management input (always really bad). Basically, the less I knew about a project, the worse and more "decorative" (rather than "designed") the piece would become. Some were so bad and so altered by the client after it left my hands that I had to pull my name from the project. Other times the people involved were such assholes and crooks that it was impossible to get decent work through the process because of the way they were treating you. But overall, almost all of the work I did for all of these small, independent businesses I'm very proud of. Of course, the casual viewer would never understand how well they worked, because they never knew the backstory. But that's the way it is with virtually every design project. The best design so supports the project that it becomes invisible. This is how the language of design works. The best designers are virtuoso authors and grand manipulators of this shared visual language of design. But we never know who they are.

5Chantry.jpgWARD SUTTON: You are a master of finding obscure imagery, sampling it, reworking it, and making it something uniquely your own. Given the changing definitions of what an "illustrator" is these days, do you consider yourself an illustrator?

ART CHANTRY: No, i don't consider myself an "illustrator" in the classic definition of the term. However, I am a "commercial artist" in the classic sense of that term. I can fake illustration - make an image - of course. And my design work is often so stylized that it virtually becomes an illustration as a whole. But when people hire me to do an illustration, I DESIGN IT (I don't draw it). That's a distinction that even the very best art directors can't quite understand. They think in terms of picture and type. I think in terms of the whole piece. It's like a forest and the trees, situation. I always think in terms of the forest. That's because I'm a designer, not an illustrator.

It's also complicated by the basic methodology of how i approach my work. I do montage/collage/assemblage. I take type and photos and drawings and words and colors and meanings and I put them together to say something. It's very much like something Frank Zappa said in an interview. He was asked, "Frank, what exactly is it that you do?"  he replied, "I'm a conductor. I take stuff and make it interesting. It might be my stuff, it might be your stuff, it might be some stuff I found in the garbage. Then I arrange it in new and unexpected interesting ways. I'm a conductor." Well, you could say the same thing about a designer. We do the same thing. This is a post-modernist era. The benchmark approach to concept work in such an era is appropriation of past ideas. We, as postmodernists, put these old ideas into new contexts and juxtapositions to create new ideas. Imagine it was words and not images. We don't invent the words we use. We access the same words that Hemingway or Dickens used. But we arrange those words to create new sentences, paragraphs and meanings. It's as primitive and innate as any creative process. That's what I do. And that's not illustration at all.

6Chantry.jpgWARD SUTTON: If you could redesign one magazine, what would it be?

ART CHANTRY: Wow. That's a tough one. I've always had the juvenile fantasy of redesigning Rolling Stone magazine (just like I've always had the silly dream of designing a record cover for the Rolling Stones). It'll never happen, of course. And what would I do? I have no idea. I'd have to study the problem like any other design problem I'm presented with. Sometimes the best redesign is to leave it alone. But being such a big "stylist" in my work, it will still look very different from how it does now. (Thus directly contradicting the idea that in the best design, the designer's hand is invisible. I believe that. Therefore, by my own definition, it means I do bad design work intentionally. That's often the case, too.) Magazines are in such a sad state design-wise that just about any old classic magazine that still exists (and there are so few left) would be a real pleasure to recreate. I would definitely trend backward and attempt to go back to a lot of text and much less graphic imagery. We so horribly over-design magazines these days (I can't tell the editorial spreads form the advertisements any more). We design very, very ignorantly. Computer design means fast design and minimal research. Ideas can't be generated that fast, unless the designer is a great ad-libber. I'm a great ad-libber, but that's still too fast to have any depth. The more thought that goes into the magazine design, the better it becomes. That's obvious.

Yeah, I'd try to make everything look like Esquire or look like Holiday or Harper's Bazaar from about 75 years ago. A big oversized awkward OBJECT full of interesting ideas that you can't find elsewhere in our contemporary capsule form. Real writing, real design, real text to READ. But this is impossible now. Those days are really gone. A magazine like I envision would fail immediately.

Chantry Monsters2.jpgWARD SUTTON: When the Seattle Art Museum held a retrospective of your work in the mid-90s, you gave a lecture where you highlighted designers and design objects that inspire you. One of the things you talked about was Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine (pictured above). What about that magazine appeals to you, and how does it connect to some of the punk rock sensibility that appears in your own work?

ART CHANTRY: I don't look at contemporary design for inspiration anymore. I don't think there are very many good designers out there (at least in the "fine design world" I so long aspired to belong to). And there are precious few new or interesting ideas presented in "fine design" anymore. When I look at design, I go back to different eras with different cultures and different voices and ideas to think about. I try to apply their thinking to what I am doing. I compare it to learning languages--subcultural language forms. The slang and accents and isolated thinking that creates a subcultural visual voice becomes unique when applied to a mainstream project. It introduces the old classical languages of the past to the bereft language of the moment. It expands and forces thinking.  

Chantry Monsters3.jpgI've always been a sort-of conduit between these subcultures and the mainstream cultures. I've straddled that fence with one foot firmly planted on either side. The result is that I've never been fully accepted by either--both sides of that fence treat me as a pariah, renegade thinker. I'm too mainstream for the subculture and and too wild for the mainstream. I get labeled as a rebel, a contrarian, and iconoclast, etc. etc. That's all fine and dandy, because as long as they are trashing ME personally, they notice my ideas and copycat them. That's how we learn, we copycat. Children don't invent walking, they watch adults walk and try to copy them. That's how the human mind works. I'm able to expose both sides of that fence to these "other" ideas and I then get to watch them flower into new paradigms. It's the best part of what I do.

As for Famous Monsters specifically, it was designed by a guy named Harry Chester. His monster type is unsurpassed by anyone else ever. His design thinking appears primitive and staid, but he was a clever and sneaky fella. He introduced so much to our general population by sneaking his ideas through his friend's (clients) projects and through our child minds. Did you know that Harry Chester also designed Mad magazine? He also design Help!, Humbug and Trump. He did all of the Warren publications, too (FM, Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella, Screen Thrills, Wild Westerns, Spacemen, etc.). He touched so many fabled careers and styles and primal cultural ideas that he virtually created the entire design style of the underground we have today. My incorporating of his ideas and re-presenting them to the mainstream design world in my own work was one of the myriad ways this came to pass. I'm not taking credit for it; entire generations of his viewership did the most work. But I certainly helped. Because that is what I do. I design culture.

11Chantry.jpgWARD SUTTON: You were doing some amazing things with xerox machines and stat cameras before Photoshop existed. Do you think the ubiquitous digital technology we have now has helped or hurt design?

ART CHANTRY: I have to admit that I'm real tired of responding to this question. I get asked it by virtually every design student in America at one point or another. The digital world has branded me a dinosaur, a luddite and a noncomformist. They generally find much amusement in me and love to tease me about my "old school" ways. All because I think the computer is a terrible design tool. It shields the designer from what he is actually supposed to be doing. I still work with my mind, my hands, my ideas, and the technology of printing processes. I think in black and white; I think like a printing press. That doesn't translate to a digital format. When was the last time you printed on anything but coated #2 white paper? When was the last time you did anything round? When was the last time you used tinted varnishes? When was the last time you stacked solid inks to build a rainbow of colors? So many parts of the physical printing process has been tossed out that it's quickly getting lost.  

Because so much of my career was built around nothing (no budget, no nothing), I had to work with whatever I had to use. I became a master of really shitty printing. I can make bad printing look like a million bucks. I can make lettering with a potato. I can dig into a garbage can and create an award-winning, important design. That's simply because I know the processes involved. Most computer designers most definitely DO NOT. I once gave a workshop at one of America's premiere design schools/programs. The graduating students had put in 8+ years to get the degree they were to receive in a month. The first (and only) question they asked me was "can you explain the difference between silkscreen and offset to us?" That's not a design education, that's a crime. It was embarrassing.

So I insist, with my students over the years, that they stop faking design (substituting "decoration") and really learn about the process they are involved in. Go work at a print shop for six months. And then watch a lot of television. After that, they will have an extremely well-rounded graphic design education. I know that sounds like a joke. But it's not.

[All the posters, CDs, and magazine covers in this story were designed by Art Chantry except for the two samples from Famous Monsters of Filmland.]

Art Chantry Facebook page
Art Chantry posters at Gigposters

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