studio catherine griffiths


John & Eye
by Catherine Griffiths


International graphic design magazine Eye is much-loved by its readership, so much so that you might say it puts the cult into culture. Artist and designer Catherine Griffiths recently caught up with music-loving Eye editor John L Walters before, and during, his recent visit to Wellington. Portraits: Bruce Connew.

John L Walters rolls up his trousers and paddles into the cool wavelet sounds of Scorching Bay on Wellington’s curiously tranquil south coast, and calls out, “I’m going to have that Michael Nyman tune (from The Piano) in my head...” Before The Piano was released, Walters had featured the tune in his audio journal Unknown Public (UP03 pianoFORTE): “An uncharacteristic, but cinematically powerful piano solo. His [Nyman’s] presence in the film, as an unseen nineteenth-century composer, is as wordlessly powerful as Holly Hunter’s,” he wrote.

We’re at Scorching Bay because John Metcalfe, a New Zealand musician currently working with Peter Gabriel on his New Blood tour produced an album, Scorching Bay, reviewed by Walters in 2004. (He said: “The best bits of Scorching Bay are as pure as a piano study or a solo improvisation.”) While in Wellington for Massey University’s BLAST design conference, Walters took a hotel in Cuba Street, the title of a track on the same Metcalfe album.

In conversation on the beach, I push him to recall the first album he ever bought. Either Help or Revolver, he says, and then quotes, in response, outspoken New York designer Paula Scher, “You can learn everything you need to know [about graphic design] from just three Beatles covers: Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s and The White Album.”

Walters is editor and co-owner of Eye magazine, the influential quarterly international review of graphic design, founded in 1990 by the equally influential Rick Poynor, a prolific writer on graphic design and visual communication who edited the first 24 issues (1990–1997). The simpatico Walters, dauntingly clever, was a musician, composer and producer in his first life, and moves seamlessly in and out of an infinite improvisation, where music and design play with, off and against each other. “Graphic designers are like session musicians,” he says, describing the selfless ingredient of collaboration. These cross-references tumble out of him.

“I can’t not think about these connections, it’s the way my mind works.” His assertion brings to mind designer/artist/teacher Paul Elliman who, by discussing his Concorcio de Transportes (2006) audio signage project, lifted TypeSHED11 (Eye supported Wellington’s 2009 TypeSHED11 symposium by publishing a Hamish Thompson preview on its Blog) out of a comfort zone, with voices from the Madrid metro “speaking as if they were typographical language”.

The print magazine comes out of an airy second-floor office in Hoxton, a London neighbourhood that’s part of London’s currently self-confident arts culture. Contributor Steven Heller writes, “Eye came into being at a very critical time in graphic design history: it was the beginning of the digital revolution, which propelled the so-called Postmodern aesthetic and Deconstruction movements. It was a time when type and layout experimentation was fervent, and literary and other communications theories raised the ‘discourse’ of graphic design.”

There’s not space here to speak at length about the blue-blood graphic design names who are or have been involved with Eye, so let’s just roll-call them. After Poynor, Max Bruinsma took on the editorship with issues 25–32 (1997–1999) before Walters arrived in 1999 (issue 33). Stephen Coates was art director for issues 1-26, Nick Bell from issues 27–57, and Simon Esterson since issue 58. Along with Bell and Esterson, contributors include Phil Baines, Peter Bilak, Malcolm Garrett, Anna Gerber, Steven Heller, Steve Hare, Richard Hollis, Robin Kinross, Ellen Lupton, Jan Middendorp, J Abbott Miller, Russell Mills, John O’Reilly, Tom Phillips, Alice Twemlow, Kerry William Purcell, Steve Rigley, Stefan Sagmeister, Adrian Shaughnessy, Erik Spiekermann, David Thompson, Teal Triggs, Veronique Vienne, Christopher Wilson and more. Rick Poynor now writes the regular “Critique” column. These names, edited from Wikipedia, and double-checked, I readily recognise from 20 years of reading.

Walters arrived at Eye, he says, just before the dotcom boom and bust, and launched its website just after (late 2001). Around the same time, he began writing about music for the Guardian, a review column held in high regard. And “now I’m a media owner”. He and Simon Esterson, whom he credits with bringing many new elements to the magazine, bought out Eye, in April 2008, just before the global financial meltdown. Walters is a Blogger and a Tweeter (175,000 followers: “Who are these people?”) in an era in which the iPad and tablet technology may be revolutionising the way we consume and pay for new media.

“I’ve gone from being a part-time employee to a full time co-owner and editor. The workload and risk is vastly different from just a few years ago.”

His parents were school teachers. He was raised in Creswell, England, a mining village with a brass band, in what’s turned out to be one of Europe’s most significant archeaological landscapes. Cave art was recently discovered at Creswell Crags, just a few hundred metres from where he grew up.

In the early ’70s, Walters headed to London to be part of the jazz scene (as I write, he’s attending, and voraciously reviewing, the London Jazz Festival) while studying for a degree in maths with physics. “I studied piano (not very well), played guitar, played in folk clubs, learned flute in the sixth form and bought a sax when I went to London after attending several jazz summer schools. I also studied privately with composer Neil Ardley.” He later joined Ardley as a member in the electronic jazz orchestra, Zyklus, 1987—1996. “School was also taken up with magazines (Eyebrow, Afghan Hound), silkscreening, drama, concrete poetry, the photography darkroom – all the pretentious creative stuff you do at 15,16, 17. Later I taught myself to play the lyricon (wind synthesizer); Richard Burgess (a New Zealander) and I worked on one of the first Roland MC8 Microcomposers in the UK, and on the first Fairlight CMI (keyboard sampler), which we borrowed from Peter Gabriel. You can hear our efforts (broken glass, cocked rifles) on Kate Bush’s Never Forever. It was the dawn of electronic music-making, which still dominates today.

“There was a time when British pop music was a big arts lab – you could bring together performance, touring, composition, writing, recording, video-making – play around with ideas and make them happen. I was fascinated by the realisation that you can make marks on paper and write songs, and it does make an impression on people, they remember it. That’s very thrilling, when you first do that – magical.

“I had a few lucky breaks in music – but it proved less enjoyable (and more difficult) to sustain as a career that would support a family.” Walters is married to writer and journalist Clare Walters – they have two daughters, the eldest, an aerial performer, is a hula hoop artist in the troupe Hoop La La.

“I went through that thing of no longer wanting to be an artist – the music business uses the word ‘artist’ which means somebody as a recognisable figure, as opposed to being a ‘session musician’, and I think having gone through a little bit of pop stardom, I actually thought that wasn’t me.”

Walters’s 15 minutes of “pop stardom” came in 1981 when his band Landscape (named after the play by Harold Pinter) hit the UK charts with the “hellishly catchy” (said a review) Einstein A Go-Go, followed by a further five minutes with Norman Bates. Peter Blake, the designer of the aforementioned Sgt. Pepper’s cover, designed a cover for their Manhattan Boogie-Woogie album, “which got rejected by the record company, RCA. It wasn’t a great album, but the cover was good.”

As a record producer, Walters had some top 20 success with Swans Way (Soul Train, 1983); he worked with Kissing The Pink, neo-progressive rock band Twelfth Night, ex-Pop Group pianist Mark Springer, and the jazz composer Mike Gibbs, whose 1988 album Big Music (Virgin, re-released on ACT) is “probably my most satisfying achievement as a producer.”

Eye came into the picture through John Warwicker (who had designed Landscape’s posters, flyers and first two album covers while a student, and later went on to form Tomato, a collective of artists, designers, musicians and writers), who suggested that they should approach the magazine about featuring Unknown Public, a hardback audio journal and CD compilation, an idea Walters devised with music manager Laurence Aston (who, in parallel with Unknown Public, established a management company, First Name, representing TV and film composers, including Zbigniew Preisner).

Named wittily after the audience for new creative music, and referred to, I read somewhere, as the “Granta of music”, Unknown Public’s guest graphic designers included Richard Hollis, Stuart Bailey (who later founded DotDotDot), Lucy Ward (successor to Paul Elliman at The Wire) and Jonathan Barnbrook, whose card inserts (see Barnbrook Bible) displayed a graphic critique of the music industry. Unknown Public never featured in Eye, but it was included in Poynor’s exhibition Communicate: British Independent Graphic Design Since the Sixties at the Barbican in 2004.

He describes the now dormant music journal (1992–2007) as “a self-subsidised labour of love” which “in retrospect seems like a bridge between my career as a musician-producer [’70s-early ’90s] and writer-editor [late ’80s-present]. When we met up last summer in London, he gave me UP15 Dancing/Listening and UP01–04 Volume One, an 80-page CD-book retrospective — both exquisitely packaged and exceptional to listen to. “The Unknown Public idea tested the ways music could be presented by using graphic design, but it was always difficult, and impossible to sustain in that format once people stopped buying music in a physical form.”

Later, when working as acting production editor at the Architectural Review, Walters would see copies of Eye on the publisher’s desk: “I think the first issue I read properly was number 13, which included Rick’s feature about Tomato, and Andrew Howard’s ‘There is Such a Thing as Society’.” Walters recognised in Eye, “a world that wasn’t mine directly, in that I wasn’t a graphic designer, but that felt closer to my interests than architecture or art.”

My entire Eye collection (I don’t have no. 1, damn it) is in storage, except for Eye no. 76, the music design special, and the latest issue (77) arrives in the post the day before Walters arrives in town. He writes to me before reaching Wellington: “The music issue is something that had been at the back of my mind for a while, and when Catherine Dixon (in London) asked me to be a co-curator of the St Bride one-day conference last January, the timing felt perfect: we could use that day as a kind of think-tank out of which the music issue could grow. Catherine and I were the ringmasters that day, since neither of us spoke! I also felt that we had turned a corner, with a lot more young designers becoming fascinated by the legacy and future possibilities of music design.”

The possibilities: a Dutch student of David Bennewith (a New Zealand designer in The Netherlands) has just emailed his portfolio. Opening it, I am staggered by the clarity with which this young man, straight out of the Academy of Arts in Arnhem, has mapped out his thinking, visually interpreting and systematising concepts of sound, time and space. Is this student’s experimentation the synchronicity Walters is seeking to encourage?

“When I talk about design and music, it’s not because I’m trying to impose music on graphic design, it’s in the hope that my observations might make designers think slightly different about their practice and thought processes, that it might be a helpful freeing up of the mind.”

The spirit of generosity in this subtle yet extraordinary gesture is what makes Eye stand apart, and why its legacy is matched by the loyalty of its hardcore subscribers. As a reader and collector of Eye, along with other culture/specialist magazines, some of them now out of print (The Face, Octavo, Typografische Monatsblätter, Emigre, Baseline, DotDotDot and, more recently, and closer to home, The National Grid), I developed a skewed sense of ownership early on, a sort of cult belonging, inspired by the minds of Barbara Kruger (issue 5), Katherine McCoy (16), Lawrence Weiner (29), Laurie Anderson (76). It was Eye that prompted me on journeys to find the poetic works of Joan Brossa (37) whose sensibilities helped inform mine. Sculptor Josep Subirachs, whose typographic Passion Entrance to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona brought tears (yes, design can move). I even followed the 1930s train journey of Rebecca West (author of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon) to the door of Croatian designer Boris Ljubičić, where I could “read between the lines”, at 100 per cent scale, the poster’s small print revealing the genocide at Vukovar in 1991. And in Basel, I witnessed Wolfgang Weingart making the book of his life.

Over the years, in my attempt to reciprocate, I would fire across small packages to Eye – “bombs in plain wrapping”, always with the option to leave them on a park bench – that might skim the editorial radar. Turns out Eye holds a small collection of Bruce Connew’s artist books, and Walters says he has worn threadbare the Wellington Writers Walk t-shirt with the quotation by Bill Manhire: “I live at the edge of the universe, like everybody else.”

Talking about his quest with Eye, Walters explains, “There’s a double challenge of living up to Eye’s legacy/reputation, and exploring new things as culture, technology and the profession move on. Eye has to keep changing and evolving, by its nature, but the readers have high expectations and rightly expect a certain standard of writing, design, visual editing, production, etc. It’s a challenge for our contributors, too, and they meet it magnificently.”

As we slip into cross-disciplinary talk, I recall Bruce Connew explaining The Poetics of Music by Igor Stravinsky, a book he’d read as a photography student in Guildford, England. He had replaced the word “music” with “photography”, and the book, he said, became sublimely about photography. I put this to Walters.

“A lesson to draw from Bruce’s experience is that it might be better to read a good book about a different discipline than a bad book about your own. For example, I found John Boorman’s book Money Into Light [about making his movie The Emerald Forest] more inspiring than many books about music production or graphic design.

“That cross-disciplinary influence was there long before I joined Eye, and while Bruinsma was editor I wrote “Sound, Code, Vision” for Eye 26... this blurring of bounda-ries between visual, written and musical languages...”.

This is a mind-swirling piece that substantiates the vast landscape of Walters’ knowledge, and his facility to wander intellectually through and connect rival expressive disci-plines. As he writes in that essay, “Frank Zappa warned against the fetishisation of musical scores by pointing out that ‘you don’t eat the recipe’. In some senses, the post-war avant garde’s obsession with graphic notation is a critical commentary on the redundant conventions of European art music.” The information in this feature, and the manner in which it is presented, is laden with an expanse of mind.

“In recent years, I’ve become more interested in writing about ‘mainstream’ graphic design — interviewing people like Marian Bantjes (72), Paula Scher (77) and Anthony Burrill (75). I made a deliberate decision a few years ago to get out more and meet more designers and discover different design cultures.”

When Walters arrived in Wellington, he joined us one evening for dinner with Luke Wood and Jonty Valentine from The National Grid magazine, and Ian and Clare Athfield. Perched high up at Athfield’s Titanic Tearooms on a Khandallah hillside, looking south to the Antarctic, it was a way of throwing open the conversation, extending a network of ideas. Later, he met designer, writer and author Hamish Thompson and type designer Kris Sowersby, both of whom have had their work published by Eye. In Sowersby’s case, National and Newzald were guest typefaces in Eye no. 72 (which first introduced Simon Esterson’s redesign). Eye employs a different set of text and display typefaces for each issue and, yes, back to the music design special, which employed Galaxie Copernicus, a collaborative typeface between Sowersby and Chester Jenkins of Village in New York.

Len Lye’s exhibition The Body Electric opens this week in Birmingham, and Walters is already eyeing up the New Zealand legend with a future feature in mind (imagine, experimental film, poetry, painting, kinetic sculpture, sound and, you guessed it, music), a possible cover image, spotted high up on a stairway wall of the ex-National Art Gallery, already archived in his mind.

Catherine Griffiths / ProDesign, New Zealand, Jan 2011

John L. Walters at Scorching Bay, Wellington.

Top spread: Eye 68 (2008). The first issue under the ownership of editor John L Walters and art director Simon Esterson. The cover features a detail of Jupiter by Antoine+Manuel (2008); a detail of Saul Bass’s identity for The Man with the Golden Arm; 1955; a detail of Ursula Andress from Playboy, (June 1965).

Cover images, Eye magazine / Portraits Bruce Connew © 2010


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