Anyone who has watched John Berger’s Ways of Seeing will be familiar with the episode-long revelation that Berger makes about oil paint. According to Berger, the almost-tangible realism that an artist was able to reproduce in oils created an explosion in agenda-led paintings, paintings that weren’t about craftsmanship or documentation, but were about ostentatious displays of ownership, wealth and status. They hung as advertisements on the walls of equally ostentatious homes to show the owner (or sitter) of the painting’s influence, that a legacy could be bought. The ones that have survived the 600 years since oil paint’s invention, usually the ones preserved in wealthy estates, became canonical through their very existence and went on to influence the way we look at and relate to art today.
The problem with Berger’s argument about this somehow inherent meaning of the medium is that it’s so utterly convincing that it becomes difficult (maybe impossible) once encountering it to untangle your own thoughts on the matter. Every subsequent oil painting you come across arouses the same suspicion; it’s the same for the gold framed portraits hanging on gallery walls as it is for reproduced illustrations wrapped around a case-bound study of a branding agency.
See Charm, Belligerence and Perversity: The incomplete works of GBH, the branding and design agency’s first venture into publishing, a 200-page self-authored monograph. The very first sentence of the book states: “We always wanted to make a book about our work, but ever since someone mentioned the phrase ‘vanity project’ we’ve shied away from it.” But vanity project we have, and one with an oil-painted, gold-foiled cover to boot. The book (cover shown above) is fronted by a trio of highly-decorated, paintbrush-toting monkeys (presumably avatars of the acronymic Jason Gregory, Mark Bonner and Peter Hale) that are both the subject and authors of the cover at the same time. The back, an equally simian interior scene, nods to past projects that include Puma, D&AD, Miss Ko, and SLS hotels (for whom the oil-painted monkeys were originally conceived, illustrated by Steven Noble).
The animality of the cover aside, the publication is billed as a deep dive “into the GBH psyche”, an attempt to transcend their primal instincts through (somewhat vague) psychoanalytical reflection. Rattling through their 17 years together, creative outputs, rememberings and monologues are ordered by ‘psychological state’ rather than chronology. The result is sometimes anxiety-inducing (see the refreshingly honest story of an early project making music boxes for Eurostar where multiple production problems and a last-minute cross-channel dash make for an account which is stressful even to read), and often irreverent. The journey through the minds of this creative threesome and their team acts a base on which to explore the bi-polar complexity of designers’ egos (imposter syndrome / God complex, self-loathing / delusions of grandeur) – a subject that isn’t very often discussed.
In a collection of some of their most well-known work, including their extensive collaboration with Philippe Starck, it’s GBH’s collaborations with Puma that take centre stage, making up nearly half of the projects featured. A 25-metre high projection of Arsene Wenger walks on water in front of the London Eye. Mar Mostro – the GBH designed Puma entry to the 2011–12 Volvo Ocean Race – is reproduced in all its slick, big-budget glory. Both Starck and Puma’s former Chief Marketing Officer, Antonio Bertone, have written essays dedicated to themselves in the addendum. Interestingly, Margaret Calvert (former tutor of Gregory, Bonner and Hale at the Royal College of Art) uses her essay to discuss the state of design education rather than herself.
For the most part, though, the work takes rather a backseat to a series of stream-of-consciousness essays designed to “evoke a feeling of what it’s like to do this job if you just so happen to be considering getting into the business” – which are charming in a self-deprecating way. Whilst ‘People, not Projects’ points out the merits of interpersonal relationships at length (ie not hiding behind your inbox), the majority of these ad-speak-laden texts provide remarkably little substance in themselves. Criticality rarely comes in the form of 18pt body copy, regardless of how many references to Maya Angelou, Leonardo da Vinci or Sir Christopher Wren you include.
Frustratingly, GBH never really justify their work beyond the ‘conception of ideas’ stage. They seem to be interested only in the how? they make someone buy, rather than the why? or even the should we really be doing this? When working with Land Securities on their new Southbank-based development, Bankside Mix, GBH acknowledge they ‘were nervous about how to sell down-and-dirty consumerism to such a highbrow audience’. That’s about as far as it goes. Although GBH say they’re ‘putting themselves on the couch’, we never really get to explore past the id, the ego, into the super-ego, which seems like a shame, an opportunity to dissect commercially-orientated design that has been missed.
One of the hardest things for design education to do well is to simulate real-life working practices – the ups and downs, the work ethic, the emotional battle between the good jobs and the not-so-good jobs; to their credit GBH use this book as an opportunity to do so quite candidly. But an equally – if not more – difficult task is to facilitate critical thinking about working practices, something increasingly challenging with students who have grown up on (and therefore only want to go into) highly commercial areas of design such as branding and advertising, both typically criticism-light. As the book ends on their desire to pass on knowledge (“Becoming an educator… That’s success.”), it’s a shame that GBH never question the impact that their practice, and branding and advertising more generally, has on society. With the authority of an external voice, even the act of admitting flaws in the system could have been hugely influential on student minds.
Charm, Belligerence and Perversity is exactly the kind of self-reflexive, self-conscious offering you might expect from postmodern advertising. A book that is, perhaps, not a ‘book’ in the traditional sense at all but, on one level, an ad for GBH themselves and their clients. An ad that has taken on the form, and the inherent qualities implied, of a book – something that might warrant a place in the canon of design history.
Maybe the paintbrush-toting monkeys on the cover are the clue, ornamented with the all the stylistic symbolism of historic grandeur. From the very start the trio use the semiotics of posturing, but undermine it with the kind of humour that defends them against any reference to the exact status-laden oil paintings they ape (pun not intended). They are both de-evolved from their real-life humanity as well as meta-fictionally self-aware.
As a result, it’s impossible to tell whether the publication is an elaborate exercise in absurd-but-knowing irony that plays both the publishers and the readers of monographs, or just a truly self-congratulatory pat on the back. Either way, GBH want you to know that, despite being monkeys with paintbrushes, they’re pretty damn successful.
Just like the subjects in Berger’s 16th century oil paintings, GBH have ensured their own legacy. An interesting, relatively candid insight into the relentlessness of postmodern advertising and branding this may be, but a canon-worthy design book? Possibly not.
Charm, Belligerence & Perversity. The Incomplete Works of GBH is published by Black Dog Publishing, £29.95. See more of GBH’s work here
Hannah Ellis is a designer and university lecturer. See her work here