Emily Larned recently became Assistant Professor of Graphic Design and Chair of the Graphic Design Program at the University of Bridgeport, and also runs a design and letterpress studio called Red Charming in the American Fabrics Building in Bridgeport. Her journey to her current position as designer and educator has certainly not followed a traditional path, which makes her story all the more interesting.
Your story begins in 1993 — you were just 16 — when you self-published your very first zine, “Muffin Bones,” which you once described as “an autobiographical art-lit-truth-fiction-fun-comic sort of thing.” What first attracted you to zines?
Like many other suburban teenaged girls in the early 90′s, I discovered zines from reading Sassy magazine. I asked for Mike Gunderloy’s book, “The World of Zines,” for my 16th birthday, and I made my first issue within weeks, before I even saw an actual zine. I didn’t even know about the zine community at that time, which is what really makes zines so special — I had no idea I’d be getting 5 pieces of mail a day for years.
Self-publishing was a natural culmination of what are still my interests: art, design, writing and handmade production processes.
You graduated in 2000 from Wesleyan University with a BA in Studio Art (Printmaking & Typography). What made you choose Wesleyan, and how would you describe your coursework?
I chose Wesleyan because of its excellent academics, small size, and its sense of community. Or rather, communities. There’s all kinds!
My coursework was diverse: film studies, history, East Asian studies, religion, environmental science, literature, theory & semiotics, philosophy of mathematics, art history, anthropology… My training was definitely that of a BA, not a BFA: I was a generalist. In fact, Wesleyan has only one graphic design course: Typography!
My concentration was due to my thesis rather than coursework: I wrote, designed, letterpress printed, and handbound a trilogy of books about seeing.
How did your career take shape while at Wesleyan and then upon graduation in 2000?
The summer before my junior year, I interned for Brooke Tinney, a bookbinder, and Petery Kruty, a letterpess printer, both in Brooklyn. A semester later I initiated a student-led course entitled “Artists Books: Content & Form.” Around that same time I began interning for letterpress printer & publisher Robin Price in Middletown, which I did for 3 years.
After moving to NYC in 2001, I became increasingly involved with Booklyn, a new not-for-profit artist alliance based in Brooklyn, while I continued making my own books and zines. While most of my work for Booklyn was volunteer, some was paid: from 2001-2005 I traveled around to different institutions, giving lectures, workshops, and selling the work of our associated artists.
I worked a variety of part-time jobs: I taught art to children, worked as an artist’s assistant, and took on various commission letterpress projects.
In this period I made books mostly all by hand, using letterpress and silkscreen, and to generalize, you could say they were about ideas: syntax, group theory.
I also made a color-photocopied, letterpress-printed-cover screw-post book about thrift stores, and several photocopied zines with letterpress printed covers. “Thrift Store” was later discovered by a small press, Ig Publishing, and they published it as a mass-market title in fall 2005. They didn’t let me design it, though, because I had no professional experience designing on a computer, let alone working with an overseas printer. I think I designed the original book in Word.
I’ve always been interested in content as well as form, and Yale’s graphic design program seemed to be the right place for a reorientation…
You went back to school in 2005, eventually graduating from the Yale School of Art in 2008 with an MFA in graphic design. What were your motivations behind going back to school?
Already by 2004 I was growing restless with the book art world: it felt insular and esoteric. I was making work for archives, and not for everyday life. I wanted a readjustment through which I could reconsider how and what I was making. I was sick of carefully making handmade books, but not of writing, communicating messages, and determining how those transmissions should appear. I’ve always been interested in content as well as form, and Yale’s graphic design program seemed to be the right place for a reorientation… and it certainly was! It took me pretty much all three years of graduate school to realize that form IS content.
And for many years I suspected that I would enjoy teaching at the university level. So I figured going back to school for an MFA was a win-win.
Could you describe your work at Yale? How much of it was done on a computer, versus hand-done like your previous zines and letterpress work?
I made pretty much everything on the computer, but I would often incorporate handwork: digitally printing two separate posters and then weaving them together, or in Illustrator making intricate word-and-image posters entirely out of tiny identical Xs, like a manual/digital cross-stitch. I enjoyed figuring out different ways of using software: like scanning individual letterforms from old magazines, carefully ordering the resulting jpgs, and using Photoshop’s Automated Contact Sheet to generate posters. I used my scanner a lot and I liked setting up systems that would dictate how the result would appear… I made books, posters, stop-motion animations, a few screen-based projects, typefaces.
You recently became an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design and Chair the Graphic Design Program at the University of Bridgeport. How did this opportunity come about and what has been your experience so far?
Are you ready for this? I knew my awesome predecessor, Amy Papaelias, from zines! We regularly traded zines in high school, and gradually lost touch. We reconnected in 2006 when she moved to Bridgeport for her position at UB. I had moved to Bridgeport in 2005, when I began graduate school at Yale, and once Amy arrived she recognized my name in an owners’ association email list. So not only were we both in Bridgeport, we both bought condos in the same converted factory!
After I graduated from Yale last year, I was adjuncting at UConn Storrs and at SUNY Purchase, and I was living part of the time in NYC and part of the time in Bridgeport, where my letterpress studio still was. As you can imagine, I was spending much of my time on the road feeling really uprooted. I kept on thinking how great it would be to be in one place. I really enjoyed teaching, and was excited about the idea of design as a social service, so when Amy mentioned that she was leaving her position, I realized that it was a tremendous opportunity. I could teach, live, work in my studio, and become involved with the community, all here in Bridgeport, a city that really needs anyone doing anything!
My appointment began this fall, and it has been great so far. I’m really excited about the work my students are making. We’re just finishing up a collaborative project at the Barnum Museum. My seniors are currently working on an identity and promotional campaign for DCC, the Downtown Community Council, a grassroots arts group which puts on free outdoor music/movie/performance events every Thursday evening in downtown Bridgeport. The juniors — taught by Gary Munch — are working on a flu-awareness conceptual-cold-medicine-packaging project in conjunction with Student Health Services. There’s groundwork for students to produce a historical walking tour map of the South End, and graphics for the local cable access show Bridgeport Now.
What does graphic design mean to you? On the surface, it would seem that it has been about self-expression rather than problem-solving, and that you seem to prefer self-initiated projects over client work, from your bookmaking to now teaching. Would you say these are misconceptions?
I was definitely interested in self-expression when I was younger; now, not so much. My work is problem-solving: it is just that I am the one identifying the problem to be solved. I see design as a means of community-building, of creating the world we want to live in. I am much more interested in the idea of design as a service than I am in self-expression. I see design as an optimistic activity, a plan for the future: it is an assessment of how things are, and how things could be.
And I’ve actually done tons of client work: CD packaging, conference keepsakes, birth announcements, moving cards, business cards, stationery, menus, valentines, holiday greetings, programs, and many wedding invitations! Of course, the difference between being a designer and a designer/letterpress printer is that I am involved with every step of the process, from client meetings and pitching the concept to typesetting and choosing the paper and cutting it down and printing and folding and stuffing the envelopes and packaging everything up. Lots of the jobs I’ve done would have been mind-numbingly boring if I was only the designer. What made them interesting was the totality of the process.
You mentioned Booklyn earlier. Could you elaborate on Booklyn and your involvement with the organization?
Booklyn is a not-for-profit artist alliance in Brooklyn NY. Our mission is to promote the artist book as an art form and an educational resource through distribution, education, exhibition, and publication. This means Booklyn carries the work of about 60 artists, and we travel around to various institutions to sell it; we lecture and teach workshops offsite and onsite our office in Greenpoint, curate and design exhibitions, and publish books under the Booklyn imprint.
I first joined Booklyn in 2000, as an associate artist, when Booklyn began carrying my thesis books. I was appointed to the newly formed Board of Directors in 2001, right as we went through the non-profit incorporation process. Over the next four years I was very involved with Booklyn: I established the Education Department, and worked in distribution and on exhibitions. From 2003-2008 I served as Vice President — although I was in graduate school for the last three of those years.
I was elected President upon my graduation in 2008, but I resigned this summer once I accepted the position at UB.
You also co-founded another organization, ILSSA (Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts.) Could you tell us more about it?
ILSSA is a membership organization for those who make conceptual or experimental work with obsolete technology. We seek to build community and create resources for those whose work is largely undervalued by a society obsessed with newness and money. So, we publish a periodical produced by obsolete means, and organize events and invitationals for our members. Since our first call for members in January, we’ve grown to 86, including a librarian of deaccessioned books, an heirloom seed farmer, a designer/builder of vacuum tube audio electronics, a blogger whose posts are needlepoint, and a handloom weaver-as-social-sculptor.
Bridget Elmer, also a former president of Booklyn, and I co-founded it in 2008. We’re both writers-turned-letterpress-printers, and we wanted to create an organization for makers working in diverse forms and technologies who share our values: process over product, time over money, reuse over discard.
I’ve been letterpress printing for 11 years now, and I love the process for so many reasons: the action of writing something and then typesetting and printing it by hand is thinking an idea through to a physical end. It really is Author-as-Producer. I also like the endless cycle of reuse of handset type, and the objects and machines involved, and the physicality of holding a composing stick in your hand or cranking the cylinder down the bed.
I like the long-term relationship I have with my equipment. I’ve had my Vandercook since 2002 (it was manufactured in 1963!) and I learn new things about it all the time. As long as I take care of it (and myself!), we could still be making stuff together 40 years from now. In comparison, a laptop is like a hamster. You kind of get to know the little fella, and then, oh, he’s dead, on to the next one.
In contrast to what you call “obsolete technology,” how do you feel about what the computer has done to graphic design?
Although I am still a novice, I love the craft of handcoding with XHTML and CSS, of figuring out the best way of doing something. The process shares much in common with that of handset type, but you see your results much faster, which is fun!
The flipside to the ease of use is of course that it is so easy to make something, it can make designers lazy. And it offers way, WAY too many ruinous bells and whistles. That’s the biggest disaster: drop shadows, ok! Stretching type, wheeee! Let’s add another color! Wow, this font is coool! Horrible.
Also a lot of software interfaces just do too many things FOR you. You can’t really figure out how they work or why they are doing something you don’t want them to do. Then each “software upgrade” necessitates having to re-learn doing something you already know how to do. I find this deeply, deeply aggravating.
Like, I loved the Automated Contact Sheet in Photoshop CS2. I just checked my new CS4 — and it is gone from the Automate sub-menu! So now I have to re-learn how to access this thing which I had come to rely on. I most enjoy working — whether writing or designing or printing — when the work is a process of testing-to-gain-understanding, when you are always building on what you already figured out. Really understanding computers feels out of reach, as the technology keeps on changing, often in seemingly pointless ways. I’m really interested in learning programming languages, but I suspect I don’t have the time, dedication, and orientation required to master the stuff.
How about what the computer has done to self-publishing?
I think it is exciting, in theory, how many people are self-publishing now. The reality is that much of the material is not of any particular quality. No doubt that would always have been the case, but since self-publishing on paper took considerable more time and effort, the self-publisher had to be pretty committed to getting her message out there.
I used to say about seemingly-pointless zines, “Hey! At least producing is better than consuming!” But so many blogs are about consumption or product promotion I can’t console myself with that.
Also the web is just so HUGE that it doesn’t have the sense of community that zines did. People can be so mean on the web! With zines, your readers would write you letters gently suggesting improvements. On the web, feedback runs along the lines of “this sucks!” Not even Yale was that mean!
One real loss in web publishing is the lack of the material object, and all the evidence and information that an actual thing provides. I love it when website builders write notes into their html files for other source code viewers to read, that kind of personal touch, but it is rare on the web for the designer to also be the writer to also be the website builder.
The fact that most web self-publishers are bloggers using templates means there is a whole loss of information about their ideas. Paper self-publishing is writing, sure: but it is also making your own layout, and photocopying, and folding and stapling, and handwriting the address, and attaching stamps. Those are all design choices you have to make: what size and format should it be? White or color paper? Any color copies? Do you make drawings or collages? Do you handwrite it or type it? Do you use an envelope or make the cover a self-mailer? It is true that I miss the paper material object, but I think what I miss the most is seeing how weird someone’s handwriting is, and how they can’t fold straight.