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Experimental Jetset’s Whitney Museum Identity

It’s always great when a large and popular cultural institution gets a new graphic identity that ignites passionate arguments for and against.  Experimental Jetset’s new look for the Whitney Museum of American Art has done just that.  The debate is good and we look at some of the spreading opinions here.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 20-06-2013

The new graphic identity for the Whitney Museum of American Art is based on what Experimental Jetset refer to as the “responsive W”.  It is a visual system based on wavering a W that can assume different shapes.  “Unfolding the line,” the designer’s have termed it.  “It is line as a graphic agent of systems (and of anti-systems), as a signifier of modern art, as a sketch of things-yet-to-come, as a diagrammatic device, and as a representation of lineage (and thus of heritage).”

Experimental Jetset or EJ to insiders defines graphic cool. They are Wim Crouwel’s heirs and have constantly claimed the intellectual high-ground in contemporary Dutch graphic design.  Their work is (mostly) really good.  

But like pretty much all creatives who aspire to standards of excellence, they have a reputation for being haughty and even difficult.  They don’t really do interviews, and they hold a grudge against anyone who dares to criticize their work.

So given that much of the more serious reactions to their Whitney identity have not been glowing, there are going to be quite a few years of grudge.

In an essay by Francisco Laranjo in the Design Observer, EJ’s identity for the Whitney was rather vehemently attacked.  “A masterclass of ambiguity and ambivalence,” Laranjo writes.  “ One that builds upon gratuitous justifications [and] inconsequential buzzwords …”

Laranjo and before him Randy Nakamura accuse EJ of using fancy albeit random quotes that attempt to situate their work in a theoretical framework. think this attack isn’t exactly fair because EJ’s rational is just as much a pitch.  They are the designers, selling an idea to a client – not objective critics or theorists.

And while their writing may well try (and even fail) to establish itself as high-brow and academic, that, as far as we are concerned, is really for the client to decide.

“It doesn’t really come as a surprise that Experimental Jetset’s motivation for this new identity has drawn such a reaction from within the US,” say Cornelia Blatter and Marcel Hermans of COMA

“Critical writing is a very important part of the design education curriculum there and is often regarded as equally important as the design itself. Some of the most regarded US designers are actually better writers and speakers then designers … but sometimes it might be better to just let the design speak for itself (and EJ's work always does) and not publish such mumbo-jumbo.”

Laranjo also focuses more specifically on the very concept of the “Responsive W”.

“The W, the designers explain, represents both the non-linearity of art history and the museum’s treatment of it,” he writes.  “The logo apparently encapsulates the ‘heartbeat of New York, of the USA’; it is both ‘open and closed,’ ‘in and out, ‘Old World’ and ‘New World,’ ‘industrial’ and ‘sublime.’ With this degree of latitude, we might go on to suggest other equally valid (though so far unused) comparisons: Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, up and down, yin and yang, yes and no. According to EJ, the shape ‘could also represent the ‘dérive’-like journey of the Whitney through Manhattan, moving from one location to the other. It could also symbolize the signature of the artist; or the waves of the nearby Hudson; or the waves produced by sound and vision.”

Which of course all makes the new identity sound a little bit too much like a character form the iconic children’s hit Barbapapa.  It means everything and nothing, which almost makes it impossible to seriously critique.

“The wordings are bogus,” says Dingeman Kuilman former head of Premsela – Dutch Institute for Design and Fashion, and the ArtEZ Institute of the Arts.  “But that doesn’t mean that the concept is not working.  On the contrary I think it is because of its Peter Sellers-like emptiness …. Apparently when it comes to modern art museums there’s a strong tendency to present themselves as keepers of the modernist tradition.  And to keep away from nostalgia they hire designers that deliver this tradition with a twist and some story.”

Daniel van der Velden from Metahaven does not to judge the work of colleagues, but says he is proud of EJ for having created this identity.  “For me [this project] is about minimalism goes pop …  and EJ has always been about seeing inherently political properties in simple forms.  I think it is great that there is a discussion about what they did at some level of sophistication.”

Ian Lynam, clearly not caring about who he offends, wrote perhaps the most negative (and funniest) critique of the Whitney identity and of EJ’s methods in general.

“It’s almost impossible to write something that spells out how awful EJ’s redesign is, because it is just. So. Fucking. Obvious,” Lynam writes.  “But people love obvious these days. It looks fresh. Clean.

“It neatly mirrors corporate American Modernism because it is the look of Modernism without the underlying pro-social intention,” Lynam concludes. 

It’s a comment that resonates and perhaps offers a warning to young graphic designers who call their biggest influencers the early modernist torch-blazers.

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