On Designing Siah Armajani: Follow This Line
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The Gradient

On Designing Siah Armajani: Follow This Line

Siah Armajani: Follow This Line published by the Walker Art Center, 2018. Photo: Bobby Rogers

As the Walker co-organized exhibition Siah Armajani: Follow This Line continues its run at the Met Breuer, catalogue designer Aryn Beitz shares a behind-the-scenes look at the process that birthed the exhibition’s rich, 448-page publication.

The Beginnings

“Armajani’s work helped us articulate our own practice,” Slavs and Tatars state in the Gradient interview, “Slavs and Tatars: Siah Armajani, Red-Black Thread, and the Art and Act of Reading.” “It’s difficult to place his work: Is it architecture? Is it sculpture? Is it participatory? Similarly, Armajani never aligned himself with the monadic identity often ascribed to (and accepted by) by other Middle Eastern artists. His work is as American as it is Iranian, as Protestant in some sense as it is Shi’a.”

Spread from Siah Armajani: Follow This Line. Photo: Bobby Rogers

In full disclosure, I wasn’t very familiar with Armajani’s practice prior to beginning this project. I quickly realized, as Slavs and Tatars point out, that his work is quite hard to place. Spanning six decades, his artworks, at once abstract and political, engage a range of references: from Persian calligraphy to the manifesto, letter, and talisman; from poetry to mathematical equations and computer programming; from the Abstract Expressionist canvas to American vernacular architecture, Bauhaus design, and Russian Constructivism.

Spread from Siah Armajani: Follow This Line. Photo: Bobby Rogers
Spread from Siah Armajani: Follow This Line. Photo: Bobby Rogers
Spread from Siah Armajani: Follow This Line. Photo: Bobby Rogers

In many ways, this made my job as the designer of this weighty monograph both challenging and exciting. I had to quickly identify a common thread that would conceptually hold the book—and the artist’s life’s work—together, and, because I wasn’t attached to a particular aspect of his practice, I had no expectations for what this book could, or should, be. I knew, however, that it had to successfully (and intelligently) represent Armajani’s incredibly diverse and often challenging and ambiguous body of work.

Early Sketches

Early stages of research included working closely with curator Victoria Sung and curatorial fellow Jadine Collingwood to sift through boxes and boxes of Armajani’s personal archives as well as the Walker’s comprehensive archives. Together, we embarked on an extensive search for photographs, film slides, video stills, ephemera, and exhibition materials that would accompany the essays, artists’ texts, and plates section that together, would tell Armajani’s story. Because of the nature of his work and the various ways in which it had been documented over the years, we had the arduous task (with help of ever-diligent image master, Greg Beckel) of transforming old, dusty film slides and photographs spanning six decades into something that felt both cohesive and contemporary.

During early conversations with Design Director Emmet Byrne, and the curatorial team, we tossed around the idea of using bold shapes and colors to reference Armajani’s architectural, Bauhaus, and Russian Constructivist-inspired works. While these sketches had a slightly more playful and contemporary feel, which Emmet and I both loved, we quickly realized such an approach was not going to work for a book of this scope and depth. And more importantly, it didn’t feel like Armajani; it was far too loud and bold.

We also discussed using all black-and-white imagery to create visual coherence as well as applying an “image trace” effect to some of the artworks to emulate the illustrations of a dictionary, but that didn’t feel quite right, either. As I couldn’t justify manipulating the images, and art directing all new photography was obviously not an option, I made the decision to accept and embrace the imagery as-is and to print the entire book in CMYK. While I knew it would pose some design challenges, this felt like an appropriate approach given what I knew about the artist and his practice. From that moment on, the concept and form of the book began to fall into place quite naturally, although not without a few very onerous moments.*

The Form

Most of Armajani’s previous catalogues focused on his bridges and public artworks, often categorizing the artist as a “bridge builder.” While I was interested in that side of his practice, I found myself most fascinated with his use of copying and tracing as both a process and methodology as well as his use of the dictionary, which figures into many of his artworks, as a tool for investigating language and meaning.

This led me to think about dictionaries and encyclopedias—how they look, feel, and smell, and what they represent. I began to think of Armajani’s book as a comprehensive reference book that would house and illustrate his six-decade-long career. After all, his practice draws inspiration from poetry and philosophy, architecture and mathematics, politics and contemporary life. The dictionary felt like an appropriate analogy. In the spirit of these multilayered associations, I began to think about how I could use the practice of lexicography to thread such disparate thoughts and forms together in a cohesive way.

According to the book A Practical Guide to Lexicography, “A Dictionary page has at least two columns, the heavy-weights have normally three columns of tightly packed information. The font size is too small for the eye of the over-forty age-group, the paper is abnormally thin.”

“Abnormally thin” paper
A dense and inky table of contents

The Concept

“The first line was done by a master … and we would just follow.” —Siah Armajani”

Some of Armajani’s early works reference his formal training in art and calligraphy as a young artist. In his childhood drawing lessons, he was instructed to repetitively copy apples, pears, and other fruit, while in his calligraphy training he was tasked with tracing over simple phrases of script until he perfected them. Armajani resists these rote exercises in many of his early works as a means to question authority and tradition: rather than display a practiced calligraphic hand, he chooses to use an informal script that reflects, as he describes, “the way ordinary people talk.”

The idea of repetitive copying and tracing, and his own interpretation of such acts, would become a topic of conversation during one of my early meetings with Armajani. In discussing his artwork, Two Dimensional Dictionary of Things and Non Things (1960), we spoke about his process of sourcing icon-like illustrations from a 1945 edition of Webster’s Dictionary. Each picture has been meticulously cut and pasted onto the canvas in alphabetical order—from “aardvark” to “zone”—read from top left to bottom center. In the work, he crossed out any explanatory text accompanying the pictures, creating his own playful lexicon of “things” and “non things” via copy and paste. I asked Armajani why he chose to “cut and paste” the dictionary illustrations and he answered, “Because I couldn’t draw them myself” (I quickly realized that was not true, it was just his self-effacing nature coming through). Yet, still intrigued by the notion of the dictionary, I located a copy of the 1945 edition of Webster’s on eBay and ordered it for my own reference purposes (more on this later).

Detail of Siah Armajani’s Two Dimensional Dictionary of Things and Non Things (1960), showing the illustrations he cut and pasted from a 1945 edition of Webster’s Dictionary. Photo: Ilmari Kalkkinen

Another artwork, Moon Landing (1969), further highlights the artist’s interest in tracing and obscuring. The New York Times’s special issue devoted to the lunar endeavor became a canvas for Armajani. As he read, he traced in ink pen over the letters of every word in the 18-page segment, marking his own presence as part of this collectively momentous event.

This idea of legibility—or rather, illegibility—was interesting to me. Armajani was obscuring his own artworks through the physical act of copying and tracing. There is an apparent push/pull component in much of his work: he both gives and withholds, reveals and obscures. I began to wonder if I could accomplish the same through the design of the book. With the structure of the book determined, my first question was how might the concept of tracing become a conceptual thread that would formally tie the book together?

The Paper & Typography

In thinking about the dictionary and looking at various examples, two things repeatedly stood out: the paper and the typography. The thin, bible-like paper used in dictionaries allows for a certain amount of transparency that speaks to this idea of dense, endless layers (or pages) of information and knowledge. Its transparency also made me think of the mylar paper Armajani uses in many of his works as well as the architectural tracing paper I often saw on his drafting table in his studio.

That’s when designer Ryan Gerald Nelson introduced me to the book, Artek and the Aaltos. As I flipped through its pages, I knew instantly that I wanted to use the same paper. We didn’t know who made the paper, but after a bit of research I discovered, via designer João Doria, that it was created by graphic designer Irma Boom in collaboration with EU-based paper manufacturer Igepa.

Once I was able to source the IBO One paper and locate a printer that had experience working with it (thank you, die Keure), I had to convince Emmet, the curators, and of course, Armajani, that this was, without question, the paper. While I pitched printing all 448 pages on the IBO One paper, others preferred to use a less transparent paper for the plates section. With their blessing to use IBO One for the front matter, essays, and back matter, I began to think about how I could utilize the transparency of the paper to both reveal and obscure information. Inspired by Armajani’s use of tracing, layering, and obscuring in many of his artworks, I took a similar approach through the use of the translucent IBO One paper, which I had hoped would obscure the text and imagery ever so slightly while also illustrating, several layers (or pages) deep, more than 60 years of the artists diverse career. I say “hoped” as it became clear early on that I wouldn’t truly see how the design would appear (i.e. the obscuring and layering effects I was going for) until I was on press. While somewhat risky, the ambiguity felt appropriate.

Press sheet at die Keure showing the translucency of the IBO One paper
Siah Armajani’s Prophet Ali (1963) is an example of how the artist would often use tracing as a method of obscuring. The show through of the paper emulates this technique, allowing the text from the previous pages to show through, further obscuring the artwork.

I experimented with opacity to try to envision what each page or spread would look like, anticipating the show-through of three pages deep (in reality, you can actually see nearly 10 pages deep). After reviewing final sketches with Emmet, he described the aesthetic I was going for as “weird and warm and luscious and hazy and organic—a perfect emulation of the Siah’s work.” In retrospect, Emmet had a fairly good idea of how the book would look and feel printed, but I was less certain (or maybe just anxious/scared). In the end, the ambiguity and unknowns led to several serendipitous—and beautiful—layering effects, many of which weren’t discovered until I was on press.

Returning to the 1945 edition of Webster’s Dictionary, I scanned the small illustrations from the copy I ordered from eBay (the same illustrations used in Armajani’s artwork Two Dimensional Dictionary of Things and Non-Things), blew them up, and used them as the opening spreads of the book. I wanted to boldly introduce the idea of the dictionary as well as notions of layering and tracing, which were made immediately visible via the IBO One paper.

Copy of the 1945 edition of Webster’s Dictionary that Armajani used in his work, Two Dimensional Dictionary of Things and Non-Things. Victoria Sung, Jadine Collingwood, and I used colored Post-its to mark the illustrations that reference a particular work or aspect of the artist’s practice, such as the bridges and bridgeboards shown on this spread.
Press sheet at die Keure showing the opening spreads of the book. The blown-up illustrations were sourced from a 1945 edition of Webster’s Dictionary.
Opening spread of the catalogue. Photo: Bobby Rogers

The plates paper was selected for its color and lightweight feel as to keep with the dictionary aesthetic. The show-through of the paper, while not as translucent as the IBO One paper, feels complimentary, allowing for an easy tactile transition between the essays and the plates section. The artists’s texts, also printed in CMYK/rich black, take on a more contemporary feel and speak to Armajani’s influence on a younger generation of artist based in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East, while also maintaining an encyclopedic vibe through text-heavy marginalia. The book ends with a section of texts by Armajani, an illustrated chronology, and back matter, all printed on the IBO One paper, bringing the book full circle.

Typeface selection required a bit of trial and error. I wanted a weighty serif that would reference a dictionary, but I didn’t want it to feel too decorative or stodgy. Century Schoolbook felt like a natural choice, as it’s often used in periodicals and reference books, but I needed a complimentary and more contemporary serif for running text—one that would feel somewhat chunky, yet refined, and inky when printed on the IBO One paper. Janson Max Neue was the answer. As the story goes, graphic designer Sam de Groot commissioned Dinamo to re-draw a version of Janson Text that he had hacked back in 2008. You can read all about it here, but as Sam points out, “Dinamo’s additions to Janson Max Neue are refreshingly ahistorical and contemporary,” which is exactly what I was looking for. Finally, Swiss 721 helps offset the heaviness of the serifs, bringing a clean aesthetic to sections that are intended to communicate a more contemporary tone.

The Cover

The cover of the book is rather ambiguous, an intentional move on my part (also, one of Armajani’s only requests was that his name not appear on the cover). Early on, I thought the cover should be purely typographic as I was struggling with the common conundrum of selecting a single image to represent an artists’ six-decade oeuvre. As mentioned earlier, many of Armajani’s previous books positioned him as a “bridge builder” or “public art artist,” something I wanted to avoid doing altogether, but especially when it came to the cover. I became determined to position him in a new light by highlighting artworks that were unexpected, or unknown to much of the public.

Siah Armajani: Follow This Line exhibition catalogue (front and back cover). Photo: Bobby Rogers

North Dakota Tower (1969), the artwork that modestly adorns the cover of the book, is significant for a few reasons. The conceptual artwork was presented for the first time in the Walker Art Center’s Design Quarterly no. 74–75 (1969) magazine, and it is also one of Armajani’s favorite works. When I presented cover options, he pointed to my North Dakota Tower sketch and quietly said, “That’s the cover.” He deemed it “poetic and gutsy,” which in many ways, sums up his entire practice. I was thrilled with his choice as it was exactly the aesthetic I was going for—a dictionary or reference book that feels old and dusty, yet contemporary.

Photo: Bobby Rogers

When it came to selecting a color for the cover, I wanted to avoid defaulting to the expected Bauhaus or Constructivist color palette. The ochre I chose has a retro yet contemporary and timely feel, and it’s also a color that shows up in a few of Armajani’s works.

Architectural Entity Even Event (2) At One Moment Shadow-ful Area Equals Shadow-less Area (1970). Photo: Bobby Rogers

In the end, and thanks to an unwavering amount of trust from the artist himself, the unexpected, hazy, weird, humble, gutsy, and poetic qualities of this book (or more importantly, Armajani’s practice) far surpassed any expectations I had for what it could, or should, be. And despite the sixty years of information, knowledge, imagery, and work that is densely packed into its 448 pages, it’s incredibly light-weight to boot (thanks, Irma).

Heartfelt thanks to Siah and Barbara Armajani, Victoria Sung, and Jadine Collingwood, for your unconditional trust and support; and to Emmet Byrne, Greg Beckel, Alanna Nissen, Ryan Gerald Nelson, Clare Davies, Sebastian Eising, Paul Anthony Knipper, Elin Miller, Karen Jacobson, Annie Jacobson, Pamela Johnson, Ben Schwartz, Jas Stefanski, Anne Collingwood, Cameron Wittig, and Bobby Rogers whose tireless writing, editing (words and images), proofing, photography, feedback, *corrupted-file crisis management support, and overall emotional support made this book possible.

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