This book is a tough one so let’s start at the most elementary level. Uncorporate Identity is one of those volumes that feel really good in the hands. You are drawn to pick it up and it’s a pleasure to handle. It falls open smoothly and the 600 pages flip easily. There hasn’t been anything quite this ambitious from a design team since Bruce Mau, the meister of bulky tomes, hit his stride. But Metahaven’s book isn’t an ego trip. It isn’t about them, and it doesn’t want to look any bigger than it has to be.
The presentation needs to seduce you because the book is going to make you work. Metahaven’s paradoxical theme is clearly signalled in its title. Exponents of corporate identity always assured us that the visual components of an identity could express the interior or structural essence, the ‘soul’ even, of the organisations they represented. Yet, as Metahaven points out, “Even a ‘brand personality’ – supposed to humanise the abstractions of organisation – has trouble closing the gap between itself and the intangible thing it stands for.” The stark reality is that the image often papers over a void, as anyone who has experienced the gap between a company’s friendly image and the dispiriting task of trying to get satisfaction from its call centre knows only too well.
The condition of identity
Brushing aside the improbable idea that there should be no more brands, Metahaven proposes two strategies for analysing the condition of identity today. The first is to expose the empty abstractions that lie beneath the meticulously confected surfaces. The second is to zero in on episodes of crisis when an organisation fails and disappears, but its emblems and logos linger on, like the undead, in the public domain. Continuing uncertainties in the banking sector and faltering national economies in Europe more than warrant the book’s scepticism about the relationship between organisational image and substance, and give it a timeliness it might not have had five years ago when we fantasised the boom could last forever.
From this outline it will be clear that Uncorporate Identity is no ordinary design monograph, any more than Metahaven is an ordinary design team. Daniel van der Velden and Vinca Kruk started the studio in Amsterdam in 2006 after working together on projects; Gon Zifroni, a spatial designer, joined them in 2007. Their aim is to initiate research projects of their own in collaboration with design schools, galleries and other cultural institutions. They write, engage in dialogues and interviews with experts in areas that interest them, organise conferences, and exhibit their speculative projects. They stress the importance of the specifically aesthetic outcomes that design can deliver: “We believe that speculative design, operating beyond the notion of ‘critical practice’, can serve as a tool of both analysis and creative action, outlining scenarios and potential approaches in what appears as an increasingly dicey world.”
Uncorporate Identity collects the critical design projects they have undertaken to date and amplifies them with new material. Metahaven’s intellectual confidence in their ability to engage on equal terms with academic thinkers outside the design field, and be taken seriously, is exceptional. Only a handful of graphic designers – Mau, 2×4, maybe Experimental Jetset – come anywhere close. The book includes dialogues with Boris Groys, professor of art theory, and Michael Taussig, professor of anthropology, and an essay by political theorist Chantal Mouffe; there are many others.
From Sealand to Pyongyang
These contributions are spliced together with a mass of notes, interviews, photos, texts, and project reports by Metahaven. To give just a flavour of their imaginative scope and wide frame of reference, subjects of research include the Principality of Sealand, a fortress constructed off the British coast in the Second World War, which became an independent ‘nation’; the unfinished, triangular Ryugyong skyscraper hotel in Pyongyang in North Korea, a ‘logo’ at city scale; and the enormous House of the People edifice constructed in Bucharast by the dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu.
Metahaven repeatedly returns to the question of European identity, casting doubt on attempts to construct a shared continental identity, seen in the indiscriminate addition of the ‘Euro’ prefix to everything from hamburgers to hairdressers to signify ‘cheap’. Last year, in a series of posters for Stadtstaat: A Scenario for Merging Cities, an exhibition for Künstlerhaus Stuttgart and Casco – Office for Art, Design and Theory in Utrecht, they accurately lampooned the hollow promise and flat, interchangeable language of the European city centre: Döner Kebab Internet Mini Market, Pizza Staat, Trust System Call Center – commercial services supposed to serve, in the words of another poster, a skin-deep ideal of Extreme Democracy. Management. By the People. The book’s final essay, History, Politics and Protocol in the EU Image, an observant, finely detailed piece of writing that shows Metahaven to be excellent social critics, would make a good place to start.
Reading Uncorporate Identity is like clambering around over sharp rocks: alarming but exhilarating, if you are prepared to put in the effort.
A reflexive approach
Metahaven’s ominous designs, such as their Affiche Frontière posters for CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux, menace and dare the viewer to respond, and the entire book is like this: angular, awkward, disruptive. Consciously or not, they have taken up ‘reflexive’ design where the Dutch provocateur Jan van Toorn left off. Their page layouts prod and cajole you with unfamiliar devices suggesting new modes of thought, but they don’t always know when to ease off, and many of these texts require full concentration.
This might be one area of the Metahaven project where more reflection is needed. It’s hard to visualise the ideal reader for this frantically bipolar production. I can’t see the academic contributors, or their university colleagues, feeling comfortable with a book that foregrounds page design to this degree, though they would find plenty of interest to read. I suspect designers will be intrigued, but struggle with an uncompromising style of editorial delivery that assumes the reader’s familiarity with the discourses of political science, philosophy, globalisation, urbanism and geopolitical studies. It’s a highly original design book, though, truly one of a kind. Wally Olins should check it out.
Uncorporate Identity, edited by Metahaven with Marina Vishmidt is published by Lars Müller with Jan van Eyck Academie; £45