Emigre | icon 032 | February 2006

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words Rick Poynor

The legendary graphic design magazine has printed its last issue. We look back over its 20-year history and lament that no current forums are matching its relevance, urgency or design mission.

So it’s over. Emigre, one of the all-time great design publications, is shutting down. Emigre the type foundry will live on, but founding editor Rudy VanderLans has commissioned his last article, conducted and transcribed his last interview and composed his final message to his readers.

VanderLans offers us 69 “short stories”, one for each issue, tracing the development of the magazine from its early days to the final book-sized issues co-published with Princeton Architectural Press. There is a mine of information here that will be a first stop for anyone exploring the magazine’s history in future.

By the early 1990s, Emigre was one of those magazines you had to get hold of the moment it appeared. VanderLans’ ability to focus, like a heat-seeking news missile, on the most significant design, ideas and people was uncanny. He would breezily disregard any notion of editorial balance and devote great chunks of an issue to designers barely out of design school, if he believed in the work. He brought a tremendous confidence to everything he did and, although his rule-bending, postmodernism-embracing, design-establishment-snubbing readers would never have used the term, Emigre had authority.

The large-format issues were like no previous design publication. VanderLans published long interviews in which he grilled the most inventive designers of the day – Jeffery Keedy, Edward Fella, P Scott Makela, Designers Republic, David Carson – about every facet of their work. His page designs were exemplary demonstrations of the new digital aesthetic and he lab-tested controversial typefaces by his partner Zuzana Licko and other designers championed by the Emigre foundry. These issues are collectors’ items now, essential viewing and reading for anyone who wants to understand how we got to where we are today in graphic design.

The writing that VanderLans published by American designers such as Keedy, Andrew Blauvelt, Lorraine Wild and Kenneth FitzGerald did much to set the intellectual pace in design criticism. Sometimes the essays became hopelessly self-indulgent and you wanted to grab the writer and shout “get a grip”, but you had to admire VanderLans’ willingness to take a chance, and it paid off with pieces that could never have appeared anywhere else. Keedy stands out as the quintessential Emigre insider: part sensitive type scholar, part hatchet man, he was a postmodern proselytiser who turned a jet of withering scorn on modernist backsliders.

It has been obvious in recent years that Emigre was running out of steam. The paperbacks were a return to something like the old form, though minus the visual thrill, but as he notes in the last issue, sales fell. A lot of the writing seemed to repeat what had already been said, or to sound a note of lament for the supposed demise of design discourse.

In the background, too, was the rise of the attention-stealing design blogs. But nothing produced in this area has so far equalled Emigre’s documentary achievement. Technology was transforming design, and the magazine sizzled with this energy. Nothing so momentous or contentious is happening in visual communication today. Blogs are places for everyday chatter. They lack the focus of a design mission and
no-one has used them to stake out an urgent critical position. Nor have blogs proved to be the medium for exploring new design aesthetics. In Emigre, form itself became a means of debate. What it said was inseparable from how it looked.

Emigre is somewhat overlooked now. Inevitably, it fell out of fashion and it is too close to view it with clarity. In time, the magazine and the design culture it represented will be studied with the kind of attention given to 1920s modernism and it will be seen for what it was – one of the watershed events in 20th-century typography and graphic design.


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