Saturday 07 Feb, 2015

Great to be in Paris again, especially when it's the result of an invitation. Friend and colleague Michel Bouvet – renown French poster designer and driving force behind the design festival La Fête du Graphisme (now in its second edition) – invited me to include books from the studio in the exhibition We Love Books! A World Tour in Paris, also in its second edition as an international exhibition – the first edition took place in Echirolles, France in 2008 in which work from the studio was also included.

Ironically, but very pleasantly, I get to have dinner with friends from Porto (Lizá and Artur from R2) in Paris rather than in Porto where we live – a reflection of the all-consuming professional lives that most of us lead. But I'm not complaining – events like this are always welcome opportunities to meet up with old friends and make new ones. 

Left to right: Françcois Caspar, Michel Bouvet, José Albergaria, Rik bas Backer, Fons Hickman.

The programme for this years Fête du Graphisme was diverse and spread across Paris. It included a variety of exhibitions, some with specially commissioned posters displayed in streets all over the city, conferences, lectures, special showings and visits. A good video report can be seen here. The Cité internationale das Arts alone hosted three exhibitions on four floors. On the first and second floors was the exhibition Utopies & Réatilés, showing the work of the German illustrator and designer Henning Wagenbreth, and of the renown Japanese poster designer Kazumasa Nagai. Both of these exhibitions made easy viewing as poster exhibitions usually do – because they're large scale single surface works. The juxtaposition of these two bodies of work created an interesting contrast – the controlled, often calm but intricate designs of Nagai and the colourful and expressive illustration designs of Wagenbreth. 

The silkscreen posters of Henning Wagenbreth

On third floor was the exhibition We Love Books. The exhibition has as a subtitle, 'A World Tour' which expresses its principle objective – to give the audience a taste of book design from around the world, including work from countries that don't usually feature on the normal circuit of design reporting. That part is clear on viewing the exhibition but it still suffers from the habitual book-exhibition problem – that it invariably turns into an exhibition of book covers. Even though one is able to get a sense of the book 'as object', not being able to look inside leaves the viewer with an incomplete journey. It's understandable that curators are concerned about protecting the exhibits from damage, and multiple copies of books are simply not a realistic option. Perhaps though, for the sake of a deeper understanding of book design, it would be better to run the risk of exposing books to handling. The alternative is to ensure that the catalogue makes up for what the exhibition is unable to fulfill and therefore reproduces multiple spreads from the books. So it's a shame that both the catalogue and the exhibition do the same thing. Exhibiting posters is one thing but in showing book design what matters is being able to view narrative sequence, picture editing, use of colour, typography, hierarchies, and print quality, and naturally it's frustrating when you can't see it. 

Photo: Didier Pruvot for la Fête du graphisme 2015

Photo: Didier Pruvot for la Fête du graphisme 2015

Photo: Didier Pruvot for la Fête du graphisme 2015

Books from the studio on display

And on the top floor was the exhibition Underground. Revues alternatives, une sélection mondiale de 1960 à aujourd’hui displaying underground graphics from around the world from the 1960's to the present day. This exhibition is a visual explosion of graphic styles and applications.

Every exhibition has at least two moments of experience. There is the global overview – the sight that greets you on entering which forms a first impact. It's an impact that not only sets the tone for your experience, it also acts as a contextualisation – a curatorial view –  intentionally or not. The other moment(s) is the nature of the individual focus. There is so much going on in this exhibition that it's difficult for your eye to stay in one place for long – a bit like being in an electro-domestic store where all the TV displays are tuned to different channels. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In this case it does convey an energy of production, and it highlights the range and diversity of the many strong independent voices that counter mainstream publishing, both ideologically and visually. It's also a reminder of the extent to which graphic languages are developed outside of the mainstream graphic design profession.

Events that deal with graphic design are not particularly common and to organise a festival such as this is a real achievement. Michel and his team are to be congratulated. In this second edition they have cemented the idea of the festival and hopefully it will grow in the years to come.

One of this year's initiatives was the organisation of 10 workshops run by 10 international designers, taking place in 10 different design schools in Paris. It was motivated by a desire to establish stronger networking between design schools. A nice twist in aiming to achieve this was that each workshop received a selection of students from the ten schools. My workshop took place at ESAG Penninghen in Saint-Germain – more about that in 'Part two' to be posted shortly.