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Room: The Written Keystones

10. Partager le Regard: an antidote for division and fragmentation

Théo Miller, The Witten Keystones (spread 10), offset, 210 mm x 297 mm, 2020.

While building this infinite palace, the Initiator began to see text itself as a collection of building blocks. These Written Keystones are the basis of that, an important foundation of the typographic mason's practice.

In 2013, the French Ministry of Culture invited graphic designer Vincent Perrotet (1958) to pitch a new poster design for Fête de la Musique. Together with two other studios that had been preselected, Perrotet refused to take part in this call for bids. In a joint letter, the studios invited the Ministry to share its arguments for this procedure. The officials didn’t deign to respond, instead entrusting the project to a communications firm that didn’t ask too many questions.

This episode inspired Perrotet to write ‘Partager le Regard’ and publish it on a special website. In this text, the designer calls on the reader to reflect on this strange situation. An amazed Perrotet notes that in a world that is primarily understood through visual communication, those who control this process enjoy what amounts to totalitarian power, with no democratic accountability. He questions a government that has never developed a dedicated education policy – one that could enable everyone to gain insight in the history, practices and forms of this visual communication.

The message of Perrotet’s statement, which gained over 4,000 signatures, was clear: designers will never be able to establish a meaningful connection between art and daily life if they remain in ruthless competition and we will never get closer to the ideal by remaining divided. Shouldn’t graphic design be used as a tool to forge communities, to give shape to common values through visual poetry? Don’t designers have the imagination to propose opportunities for connection, and the resources to realise them? To generate their own meaning, utilising their own resources? If I can turn my own work into a city, why couldn’t the fruits of the entire profession be used to build a vast, labyrinthine building?

I’ve collected a panoply of spatial constructions, from text descriptions to built-up environments, to serve as examples for the Palace of Typographic Masonry – which is itself a spatial narrative. They can be admired in the cloister I have named ‘Palatial Examples’, and include works like Marino Auriti’s The Encyclopedic Palace of the World (1950) – in his own words “(…) an entirely new concept in museums, designed to hold all the works of man in whatever field, discoveries made and those which may follow”. Another natural choice is the Palais Ideal erected by the French postman Ferdinand Cheval, who devoted 33 years of his life to building this fantastic structure from stones he had picked up during his daily round. Or the ancient principle of the memory palace, a mnemonic technique that stores and organises concepts in an imaginary architectural structure. But these precursors also include Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), a 17th-century cabinet of wonders and the street plan of the Forbidden City. They’ve all served as sources of inspiration for the layout of the Palace of Typographic Masonry, in which the myriad aspects of the graphic design profession can be stored and viewed in connection. An antidote for the current division and fragmentation. A brick monument to the richness and diversity of narratives and forms found within graphic design – an affirmation of its significance as a public activity that helps our culture to find its bearings.

The Palace started as the idea: of an imaginary building that could house the physical, technical, cultural and philosophical aspects of the graphic design profession. But it has gradually evolved into a platform in its own right, offering room to other designers to experiment, work together and celebrate the rich heritage of the graphic languages. ‘The Written Keystones’, through which I seek to connect my predecessors Morris, Gropius, Gill, Munari, Garland, Bernard, Howard, Lupton, Van der Velden and Perrotet, forms the latest addition to this ever-expanding structure.

All languages are systems of dynamic relationships, games in which the building blocks are constantly being reinvented and rearranged. In the current era of screens, digital publishing and offset printing, the graphic designer is free to turn virtually anything into building materials that can be used to create new structures. Since graduating, my work has included all sorts of attempts to stack, bond, twist, distort and stage the elements of graphic language – signs in all sorts of shapes and sizes, as well as ornaments, images and symbols.

Over time, I began to see the text itself as a collection of building blocks. An important element in the aforementioned retrospective exhibition TM-City (2007) was the narrative of a city that you can wander through. This fantasy was expressed in the project’s physical shape and in the presentation of districts and a street pattern. But this metaphor also resurfaced in the text of the accompanying publication. Together with Sabine Niederer, I drew up a scenario in which she sheds light on the city’s various features during an imaginary tour.

Like many graphic designers – particularly in the Netherlands – I used to have an almost innate aversion to theory and ‘complicated essays’. But now I felt a bit more involved in this kind of reflection. After gaining an insight into the opportunities presented by this building material, I learnt to appreciate texts and use them to my advantage. From essays about graphic design to sociological articles: I discovered the joy of prying loose the valuable blocks and using them to create and build a world with fluent rhetoric – complete with interrelations and alliterations. It was similar to what I was used to working with the graphic language. Being allowed to participate in this game meant that I steadily felt more and more involved.

It has created an interaction in my work that allows me to forge a narrative in tandem with its visual representation. The most striking manifestation of this is the Palace of Typographic Masonry. The ‘Seven Rulers’ that form the starting point of this project gained shape after I had dusted off the writings of John Ruskin. It didn’t take long for the metaphor of the building to take flight, as a connecting factor in both its visual and substantive elements. The posters announcing the different Palace rooms show the required building blocks, each of which is described in text as a point of reference. And in the massive tome ‘The Palace of Typographic Masonry – a guided tour’, Dirk van Weelden leads visitors through the building, while pointing them toward the numerous sights to be seen throughout the still-unfinished structure.

Whereas previously I would ask others to serve as tour guides, by now I can do the talking too. Writing and the graphic design profession have a lot of common ground: working on a text is yet another way to create order by means of imagination, rhetoric and technique. To establish connections and get a grip on the world around me – as happened when I brought together these ten texts, lectures and manifestos. Following in the footsteps of Hendrik Wijdeveld, I took the ideas of my predecessors – from William Morris to Vincent Perrotet – and weighed them so they could be made part of a larger edifice. Calling them ‘The Written Keystones’, I continued to chip and polish them until, bonded by the mortar of my own experiences and supported by a scaffolding of social context, they could be incorporated in this immense structure. The fact that this is even possible: wouldn’t you say that’s a kind of magic?