Kenneth Fitzgerald | Essays

Martin Venezky's Beautiful Melancholy

Since its publication earlier this year, Martin Venezky's It is beautiful...then gone has met with scant (any?) critical review. With few surveys of this kind being published, every release seems worthy of examination. Significant questions are still being asked about the monograph's role in design and differing approaches to the form.

That It is beautiful...then gone has kept below the radar is unfortunate but, in its own way, in keeping with Venezky's work. With its oblique origin (he proposed a book on his teaching), lack of hyperbole, and discreet scale, IIBTG seems to deliberately defray attention. In its non-intuitive way (for design), the book demonstrates why Venezky is a distinctive figure in the field. And it's not for the reasons you'd expect.

Venezky is recognized as a strikingly original formalist. He gained attention early, with a feature on his Cranbrook projects in Eye no. 10 (reproduced in IIBTG) and an image on its cover. For much of the 1990s, Venezky had a dream showcase: art directing the feature magazine Speak. He was also selected for the first National Design Triennial at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

Popular and critical opinion focuses almost exclusively on the beauty of Venezky's work and his unique methods of generating it. Though not necessarily a Luddite, he eschews the digital for "design made difficult": time-consuming, handmade constructions in which found imagery plays a prominent role. Efficiency is subordinated to efficacy. Opinion on the quality of Venezky's work isn't unanimous, though not rising to the point of controversy. (Are there any more formal outrages left?) He has been criticized for incomprehensible layouts (Speak editor Dan Rolleri admits that Venezky's distinctive style limited their ad sales), and the limited practicability of his processes and products.

Venezky's accomplishment is not so much in the innovation of his form, but its ability to summon a particular, subtle mood that is unique in design. The designer declares it plainly in his writing; Venezky is a literary designer, both in his underappreciated talent as a writer, and in his design sensibility. The title of his conversational introductory essay states it clearly: "Design and Melancholy." Is there any other designer with this perspective on their activity? To link these two things is professionally risky, but for Venezky, essential.

Venezky expresses design in terms of decay, memory, and "...the shadowy world of before, the impending excitement of things on the verge, and the discarded world of after..." This is lousy copy for a capability brochure. The title of this book itself is a statement of impermanence, evanescence, and loss. Design famously boasts of timelessness, order, and celebration.

Typically a promotional vehicle, graphic design trades in the positive. It is rarely reflective or ambiguous. If form is called upon to send a message, to generate a mood, it is decidedly upbeat. (Except in the realm of information design, where the message is: what's love got to do with it?) Even if not flaunting smiley faces, the common graphic design presents a "Have a Nice Day!" air. What distinguishes the exemplary practitioners is their willingness and ability to break that cheery façade. They dig deeper, mix it up, have shadings, play minor chords.

In its purposeful and fragmentary nature, Venezky's work evokes more deliberative moods. But it is never dispirited. It is affirming by compulsively collecting—everything is of value—then remaking life's debris. If the hallmark of art is making us rethink the commonplace, Venezky's work is made worthy by his transformations of the ordinary. It is a feat of observation, acquisition, and dedication. His results are dreamlike in the way dreams stage their dramas on cheap sets. Your everyday digs stand in for Paris, or outer space.

While IIBTG's contributing writers name-check prominent artists (Malevich, Léger, Calder) when discussing Venezky, they surprisingly overlook a more obvious relation: Joseph Cornell. This influential artist famously compiled and collaged. Cornell—who did commissioned magazine and self-initiated design work—constructed his own melancholy world from salvaged scraps. Where Cornell employed images of Medici princes or Lauren Bacall, Venezky uses antiquated found photographs. It lends both artists an out-of-time aspect to their work that is mysterious and evocative.

Venezky's products are the antithesis of what's considered the finest proof of formal design success: "inevitability." Inevitability is a sign of conformity: that a popular Platonic ideal exists of what design should look like. The "inevitable" design channels that ideal. This is often advisable. Design often needs to acknowledge and meet expectations to create effective meaning. But, as an artifact of culture, design should also be—at least occasionally—expanding culture. By adding melancholy to design's sensibility, Venezky brings a maturity to the field, the possibility of conveying something deeper than synthetic cheer or disinterest.

As mentioned before, Venezky is a very literary designer. His typography reveres words; his stuttering repetition of characters savors the experience of characters. Violence isn't being done to language; it is being exercised, indulged. A careful consideration of his layouts shows an ultimate concern for readability, with classic typefaces in somewhat quirky, but regular settings. Variations on norms are measured and rarely inaccessible.

IIBTG reminded me how unremarkable I usually found Speak's covers. (I was a rare subscriber.) And this book's cover is similarly restrained. Compared to Venezky's stunning poster work, they're puzzling letdowns. But this is further evidence of his appreciation of the specific task at hand. He engages the entire article, not merely the flashy opening spread. The covers are of a piece with the whole issue, setting a low-key and intriguing tone.

IIBTG still misses opportunities. Even if he considers his pre-Cranbrook work unrepresentative (or embarrassing), it would be enlightening to see Venezky's design before the apotheosis. Was there no precursor—a wholesale transformation? And to mention but be given such a tiny sample of his Spec magazine project is frustrating. Where design monographs are usually too graphic design-centric in their estimation, IIBTG gives no perspective on Venezky's place in the field. Two abstract essays from staffers at the same art museum is one too many (they also qualify as client testimonials).

The teaching material that initiated IIBTG here becomes an interesting but unrealized addendum. The student works are doodles without context. Unlike Venezky's explication of his studio collages, there's no explanation of whether or how the student imagery was used as more than abstract exercises. Form is never an end in itself for Venezky, but the school projects never go beyond form.

It is also unfortunate that Venezky didn't include his philosophy statement ("Design that wants what people want") from the website of this firm, Appetite Engineers. It is one of the most succinct, sensible, and inspiring statements on design that's been written. It would've been nice to have it on paper with the work.

But what is on the pages is welcome and enlightening. IIBTG isn't meant to be the definitive statement on Martin Venezky's design. Like the work it holds, the book's an attempt to convert the ephemeral to permanence, melancholy to delight. The possibility—the promise—of making things into (and seeing things as) their opposites is the contrary intention of this book. It is beautiful...and here.

Comments [18]

I was a fan of Venesky's - especially his promos - that used to slide across my old desk at Ogilvy, NY. Always tactile and freshly irreverant. After viewing his "classic" web link (above) I think back to that old debate: If beauty is the reason (for lack of a functional imagination?) your 15 minute purpose will certainly be gone in 5.
felix sockwell

i think this is a good model for monographs, as it is highly personal, with candid talking about one's process, and a lot of work over a span of years. ive read bloggers saying there is a similarity to karel martens' book, printed matter; i think the size is similar, as well as the use of blue type, but i think on a formal and philosophical level, i think the two monographs are worlds apart. but what i do find common to both is that they show both professional and personal work, as well as sketches, and its clear to see how one informs the other.

i quite enjoyed the appendix that shows martin venezky's collection. to me, they talk to me more about who he is and what he is interested in as a person. how he walks through the world and what he notices (as it appears that he picks up what he notices, and takes it home). i get the sense of design and melancholy more from looking at his things, the obsessiveness of his collection, than i do from the actual work. the collection is works of design as they are, old found throwaway objects that somebody has had the care enough to keep. where were they found? who did they belong to? what happened to those people? why did this person save all this stuff? seeing the photographs takes me somewhere.

the sense of melancholy there is lost on me when the collection becomes source material and graphics for new design works. perhaps they have to be thrown away and recycled again by somebody else. but their reuse, for me, takes out the context of melancholy, and brings them to life again. perhaps thats the point, but im just saying that it doesnt conjure the sense of melancholy and decay to me, as they have been brought back to life.

Every once in a while a designer or critical writer comes along and posits a theory about a design methodology. For example:

Glaser: Art = Work
Sagmeister: Style = Fart
Heller: Designer = Author

Each one changes the way people look at design. Venezky's ideas about decoration are sort of interesting and I like the way he explains its value - that decoration resonates with people on an emotional level, that its more than just a rational experience, but engages people somewhere down in the lizard part of the brain. Intrinsic to this argument I think, and unstated by Venezky, are ideas about good taste. You might call the swirl in the new Burger King logo decoration, in the same way you might call the recent Sprite graphics done by Ogilvy's BIG decoration. But both are tremendously different, and elicit different responses.

I never really thought of Venezky as a decorator, although he seems to group himself into that category. The Cranbrook set seems to have gotten a reputation as "decorationalists" which is maybe good or maybe bad. I always saw Venezky's form as more intrinsic to his projects, rather than secondary to the content - which I think the descriptor "decoration" seems to imply.

I wonder if the notion of melancholy in design is just a clever way of Venezky justifying his own personal style. As a designer, he owes a lot to predecessors like Tomato, David Carson, Funny Garbage and in the realm of fine arts, Robert Rauchenberg, (and as Kenneth points out, Joseph Cornell) to name a few.

I've been a fan of Venezky's work since his early days at Speak magazine, and I do appreciate his insights on his methodology. It'll be interesting to see how his work changes as he moves back to the West coast.
david hartman

A kudos for both Martin and Kenneth. A well thought review, which I am sure, was a pleasure to write because the object of the analysis was abundantly juicy.

Two things to consider that make Martin's work that much more interesting to discuss: Martin does not shy away from speaking about his work in terms that do not belong to graphic design. Kenneth notes that "Venezky is a very literary designer. His typography reveres words; his stuttering repetition of characters savors the experience of characters." His typography does revere words, but I would add that Martin likewise does not shy from absorbing the models of language to frame his work. It is this ability to venture into the darkness, what otherwise would belong to the disciplines of literature, gender studies, even psychoanalysis, that contributes to the refreshing nature of his work, his thought. And Kenneth is equally adept at annexing new territories of language for graphic design: "melancholy" after all, is a trope of literature, and here Kenneth expanded our discourse and domains of thought.

"Theory does not leave its object untouched." Martin and Kenneth have most definitely left a mark.
David Cabianca

Kenneth, the discussion of melancholy is obviously one of the key claims you make for Venezky's work here. Manuel expresses scepticism about the degree of melancholy in Venezeky's designed pieces. Let's not let such a significant point pass by unexplored. Could you expand on your analysis a little with reference to an example or two of the designs shown in the book so we can get a better idea of how melancholy is expressed in these pieces?
Rick Poynor

Rick and Manuel raise some interesting points. I have always felt there was a connection between Venezky and Vaughan Oliver, another designer who is able to evoke mood with enormous subtlety. Both have used collage to create powerful, frankly sentimental associations.

But collage in and of itself is not necessarily a generator of nostalgia: witness designers as different as Eduardo Paolozzi and April Greiman. Collage is the process most likely to permit personality to emerge.
Michael Bierut

Not much graphic design rises above the the cheery sentiment of 'have a nice day.' Kenneth makes a good case for Martin Venezky's ability to extend the emotional lexicon of design.

The emotional impact of most graphic design rarely extends beyond a sense of mild engagement. We're talking about the emotional heft of wallpaper - the sort of wallpaper you find in office corridors. For the thinking designer, cool detachment seems to be the only note that can be struck with any conviction.

I agree with Michael Bierut's comment that Vaughan Oliver offers emotional range in his work, but it's hard to find it elsewhere. Which I think explains why graphic design is so little valued in the non-design world.

Interestingly, clients often talk about design's emotional range; they talk about the need to convey warmth and impact and friendliness. But then at the same time, they suppress and discourage emotional gestures, restricting themselves to a narrow band of formulaic expression.
Adrian Shaughnessy

Michael, I think you raise an interesting point as well about collage. Forgive me my meandering from the point of this thread:

What is it that sets apart graphic design from other disciplines, such as architecture, painting, 'new media', and sculpture? I've always assumed that it has to do with typography. It's an engagement very specific to graphic design. In Mevis and Van Deursen's book, there is a comment in the writing that typography is one way to distinguish oneself as a designer. Karel Martens, Mevis and Van Deursen, Experimental Jetset, Joseph Mueller Brockman, Emil Ruder, Designer's Republic, David Carson, Emigre, Wim Crouwel, Wolfgang Weingart, Peter Saville: whatever your opinion of them, each had specific approaches to the use and configuration of type in their work that distinguished them and made some contribution to graphic design. Typographic treatment is what seems to signify an era, style, or attitude.

It's interesting that Michael Bierut mentions collage as the way to allow personality to emerge. I believe this is true too, in a way. But more often than not, graphic designers are called upon to create typographic structure more than image making (though this is not always the case). But then again, in many jobs, its not really so much that way as image takes precedent over language.

I find Martin Venezky's collages of his cat (sorry dont have the book right here for page reference) quite exceptional. in those spreads that feature these collages i feel the intense emotionality of venezky's writing comes through. on the other hand, Kenneth Fitzgerald refers to V.'s treatment of words as 'literary', though im not sure what that means. there are emphases placed on certain words that apparently contain a certain feeling through the use of contrasting sizes. i find the type treatments and typeface selections or overall structures quirky, but not so interesting.

for me, collage, is a signifier of fragmentation, an index of disparate objects of everyday life. the approach still sits pretty squarely in the modernist tradition. collage always seems to go back to the constructivists, or later to rauschenberg, as david hartman points out. but does it really define personality so much? doesnt the selection and consistent implementation of color, shape and typeface in an identity system demarcate personality much more?

Somehow, Michael accessed the 2000+ words that I set aside in writing this. There was a paragraph comparing Venesky and Oliver, and the latter's mood of menace in even his typography.

Some Venesky work is more melancholic than others as are certain aspects. The display typography that is slightly blurred, of traditional font, that is also stuttering as if trying to fix memory, is one. But it's really the dynamic of the elements, all of which say that something isn't quite right, can't be set right (pun not intended). It's the secondary definitions of melancholy I think of, pensiveness, reflective. The old photo needs to be of subdued color, to be between a snapshot and a staged documentation. And it's all labored over, as if replaying.

Melancholy is musing in many different ways. It's not intense, it's tinged, accepting. The harsher emotion, depression, hits you. Melancholy seems studied, a choice to live in a past, in a imperfect attempt to recall and save.

Is the melancholy inherent in the image or in the choice of it? We all know we can't go back there, it's never brought to life again (and was it ever the way we thought it was?)

Venesky's typeface is literary for me as, while it is explored as form, the faces are eminently readable. I follow those words along, reading/seeing.
Kenneth FitzGerald

What is "literary" about reverence for words? (Great writers often attack language: James Joyce, Paul Celan, etc.) What exactly is "non-intuitive" about the work or the book? Be specific: that Venezky is "recognized" or "criticized" is nice, but who is doing this recognizing, where and when, and who is doing this criticizing, where and when?

"Efficiency is subordinated to efficacy" is a neat phrase, but is it a true one? Is the process under consideration necessarily more effective? If so, why? In what specific way is it effective? And, conversely, is it necessarily less "efficient"? Maybe the design process is distinct from the tools ...

Why is linking design and melancholy "professionally risky"? And is this linkage professionally essential? Or it is essential to Venezky's design process? And again, what exactly is melancholic about design or about Venezky's design?

You claim that "design famously boasts of timelessness, order, and celebration." I have to wonder where and when this boasting occurs and about what exactly. Design has never been monolithic and it has always used the tension between presence and absence, order and disorder, etc. to do its job, i.e. create the energy that is interest.

"Timelessness"? What about the timeliness of design? Its ability to be the visual language of a moment? And its related but opposed refusal of time itself: the timeliness of design refuses time itself: the time of design is atemporal: the eternal present is not timeless.

And you claim that design is "rarely reflective or ambiguous". Take a look at a recent design annual. Or Poynor's No More Rules. Design has been ambiguous for years, by which I mean a century. Effective ambiguity creates interest. And design always or almost always conveys a "mood" of one kind or another. It lends "mood" to what would otherwise be mere information, mere communication.

"The hallmark of art is making us rethink the commonplace". Is it? Who says? Is this design "art"? And what art makes us rethink the "commonplace"? The Sistine Chapel? Rubens? Greek Sculpture? Dada? Did pop art make us rethink the commonplace?

"Dreams stage their dramas on cheap sets". Do they? Try building a dreamscape, colliding realms of time and space...

"Inevitability is a sign of conformity". Is it? The inevitability that you seem to have in mind is a sign of physiology, of optics. Chaos too can seem inevitable. Complexity is inevitable.

And why code "conformity" as though "rebellion" were some kind of Platonic Ideal. Rebels are too cool for high school. But aren't we all beyond that. If there is rebellion in the work, what is it rebelling against? And how?

Finally, how is depression different from and worse than melancholy? Why soften melancholy? There's nothing good about melancholy in Freud's description of it, for example. And it's not just that "something isn't quite right": it's that the world has a huge hole in it where a meaningful center used to be. Melancholy is the mood which recognizes the (inevitable) fragmentation of our world. It is the mood of Hegel's unhappy consciousness, of Walter Benjamin's Baudelairean flaneur. Melancholy admits the incoherence - forced by time - of any construction, any communicative device.

And isn't the melancholy our melancholy? The melancholy of the viewer? An image is an object : how can it feel melancholy? And why should the choice of the image be melancholic? And how would we know if it was? Why should we care? What matters it the form of the work and the way that that form effects the viewer.

With temporal distance from the instance of creation, communicative clarity becomes less and less distinct. The world in which the object had its home, and therefore its meaning, disappears, and it is replaced, in inverse relation, with a new dissonance and a new means of frustrating our understanding and our identification. This is why even good design that is too much of our moment can be boring (corporate cool, etc.) while poor design from the past seems saturated in mood and power even as we understand its purpose and place, its communicative means, less and less clearly.

That in mind you can't just say that melancholic works are beautiful. Beauty is harmony, order, repose in the fullness of meaning. Melancholy is displacement, disorder, agitation, the absence of a center. If melancholy is beautiful, how is this contradiction the case?

Stuart Kendall

Thanks to everyone for your comments. I am always interested in how others perceive my design and writing. However, it may be useful to point out that when I wrote the essay, "Design and Melancholy," I was describing the mental state that caused me to develop certain processes, choose particular imagery, and organize my environment. That any of my work evokes an emotional reaction, be it melancholy or delight, is greatly appreciated. But it was never my intention to make work that is explicitly read that way. For me, melancholy is a generator of work (as opposed to depression, which in its most severe state can be debilitating). I respect the role of critic that you are all exercising so well, and so I want to stay out of the direct conversation. I just thought this clarification might be helpful.
Martin Venezky

you can't just say that melancholic works are beautiful

Correct, and I didn't.
Kenneth FitzGerald


Once work is let out into the world, it forms a public engagement with the world. The fact that the voice is stong and consistent allows critics and theorists something to "bite" on to. I am not sure whether your intent is an issue as much as the fact that your intent is consistent.

Melancholy recognizes a sense of loss (whether that loss or absence is one of innocence, memory, emotion, among others). Unlike nostagia, melancholy does not revel in loss, it does not reduce an absence to a form of "entertainment" and thus mere kitsch. [Proof: Can one say that Venezky's work is "entertaining"? No. One can partake in the emotion generated by the work--an emotion of melancholy created by the displacing and disorienting effects of collage. There is joy present in the work, but not the delight of the kind packaged by Disney.]

That melancholy is a literary trope means that it is a recognized mechanism a writer can use to convey an idea or emotion. It can be represented both through language--and through images. In both instances, it is not an easy trope to create. It is in fact quite subtle and can easily fall into a nostalgic saccharine.
David Cabianca

Kenneth, you haven't answered my question about which particular pieces by Martin Venezky express melancholy. Now Martin arrives to say that it is not his intention to endow the work with this emotion.

Which projects, or sections within those projects, embody melancholy and how exactly, in terms of image, composition and other stylistic choices, do they do this? I have a copy of the book and perhaps other readers of this thread do, too. (It has been a Design Observer recommended book for several months and has come up previously on Jessica's scrapbooking thread.) Just point us to the pages.

Or are you simply saying that the perspective and sensibility (you use both words in your post) that inspires the work's creation is one of melancholy, as Martin notes above, but that this is not necessarily the mood of the work itself?
Rick Poynor


"Correct, and I didn't."

There seems to be some confusion. As Rick observes, you don't point to the melancholy in specific works, and, as I maintain, you didn't explain precisely how melancholy relates to beauty. How precisely do you define melancholy and beauty, and how do these things come to be perceived by the viewer?

We can let all the other imprecise statements and ungrounded assertions go, but you should at least try to address these points.
Stuart Kendall

I've made three mistakes here, at least.

First, I should not have allowed this piece to be retitled as it is (my title was "Toward the Blue Peninsula" which I don't claim is so great but it wouldn't have gotten me into this muddle). Nowhere in my essay do I link beauty with melancholy. Stuart, if you want a definition of beauty, you'll have to try another shop; that good was never offered here.

What I say is:
Popular and critical opinion focuses almost exclusively on the beauty of Venezky's work.

This may be interpreted as my making the assertion that Martin's work is beautiful. But I'm not. It's "popular and critical opinion" that says his work is beautiful. This whole essay is me saying: let's talk about something else, it's not the issue.

[I do use the word "stunning" to describe Martin's poster work. And my last sentance is "It is beautiful...and here" but should be read in the context of the paragraph—"beautiful" is Martin's word, not mine.]

That this discussion has gone the way it has seems proof that people can't get off the Beauty Trip (my original, punning title for the essay because people just can't get by saying Martin's work is beautiful and leaving it there—and it's a great Television tune, too).

I also write:
Venezky's accomplishment is not so much in the innovation of his form, but its ability to summon a particular, subtle mood that is unique in design.

This may seem like some strained parsing but I do not identify that summoned mood as melancholy, nor did I intend to.

Mistake #2: "mood" should be plural, so as to agree with this:
In its purposeful and fragmentary nature, Venezky's work evokes more deliberative moods. But it is never dispirited.

Mistake #3: Dashing off my response to Rick's question while at my office wrangling a multitude of hassles before classes start tomorrow. Particularly the Vaughn Oliver "menace" comment. (Why I wouldn't be a good blogger, I don't think fast.) I should have rejected the premise then. However, I do think there are melancholic (?) aspects to Martin's work and I identified them. But I'm after "more deliberative moods" (and melancholy is one of them).

I'm in agreement with Martin, melancholy is about him:
Is there any other designer with this perspective on their activity?

I was hesitant about writing this because I didn't want to put the idea out there that Martin was a depressive and his work should send you into spasms of grief. I find Martin's work (as I say in the essay) affirming.

Now, if I was a better writer...
Kenneth FitzGerald

A little fish jumping into an ocean.

I'd have to disagree that any of Mr.Venezky's (I'm 21 here) pieces are meant to express pure melancholy. Rather, I believe that it's that fact that in a world of computer-generated, slick design, Venezky is able to create more of a connection through the human imperfections and non-perfect alignment within his works. Even something as simple as "T Collage" on page 030 of his IIBTG invokes a human connection, just because it appears humanly generated and not printed out pixel by pixel from a computer screen.

Imagine speaking with a friend via E-mail and then Snail Mail. Isn't more of a connection generated when reading hand-writing instead of a screen font?

Also, the fact that Venezky often times uses found images within his works. The images have a past, a journey. They have history. The audience treats that differently than a "perfect" stock photo from Corbis. The found images become the dog rescued from the dog pound. Sometimes they make the best and most loving pets.

As far as the Venezky's teaching projects, I do have to agree with Kenneth. Most of the projects displayed ARE nothing more that abstract doodles.

However, as a student it would be refreshing to be reminded that all design is not on a thumb-drive or burnt to a CD. Personally, I like designing on a computer, but I would love to learn how to leave the darkness of the lab and be in the open world of photocopiers, pasteboards, and hands-on materials. Take it back to the old days, so to speak. Even if it was just for fun. Education is always good.

The production craft is there for most students, but not the creative craft of alternative mark-making. Sometimes students need a reminder and Venezky provides that lesson.
Derek Munn

Thanks for Kenneth's "Melancholy" baby: astute and provocative.

I would, however, take issue with his contention that Martin's teaching materials provided "no explanation of whether or how the student imagery was used as more than abstract exercises." True, Martin states that his exercises are not meant to extend beyond formal analysis of materials and processes, and that "the class is really about developing methods of investigation and vocabularies for evaluation" rather than specific application. Nevertheless, he does show how Jeff Miller's student color studies became the foundation for three Speak magazine spreads.

Michael Dooley

Jobs | June 18