Our most incorrigibly melancholy designer

In Art Works designer Scott King presents his creative work to date, offering up a unique collection of caustic and self-critical projects

Scott King is an unusual case. Very few British graphic designers manage to sustain a successful working practice in the territory he has chosen, which lies somewhere between art and design. It’s a murky zone where, even now, the unwary explorer is more likely to be shot by both sides for failing to measure up to the professional requirements of either art or design than admired for attempting something new and challenging. King readily acknowledges he had misgivings about graphic design right from the start as a student at Hull College of Art in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He couldn’t see the point of most of it: the frivolous stylistic choices, the unimaginative copying from design annuals and the Sisyphean repackaging of everyday products.

The designers he has most in common with are probably Fuel, in their earlier three-man, east-London-hard-nut incarnation as committed self-publishers. King shared their rejection of unnecessary decoration, though he wasn’t of course alone in that. By the late 1990s, many rueful designers found they’d had a bellyful of high-calorie aesthetic excess and now favoured a more spartan visual diet. But where Fuel no longer produce personal work as baffling as it was strident, preferring now to operate as idiosyncratic part-time editors of their own Fuel publishing imprint, King kept on going with the self-initiated projects. He still has occasional clients, but the only client he seems entirely reconciled to is himself, which isn’t to say he is totally happy in his work. He may well be our most incorrigibly melancholy designer.

Everything starts with the writing
It’s appropriate, then, that Scott King: Art Works is published not by one of the usual design outfits, but by the fast-growing, Zurich-based art publisher JRP Ringier, which has previously produced a Peter Saville catalogue. The book’s direct, self-explanatory structure – King designed it – reflects the man: intro at the front, interview at the back and a chronological run of projects in between. While some might find this plain to the point of being artless, it has the virtue of showing without adornment or self-hype exactly how King’s career has developed to date.

My one complaint is that the text type is more diffident than it needed to be and that’s something one might have expected King to get right because, for him, everything starts with the writing and the ideas it contains. At college, he became interested in conceptual artists such as Dan Graham and Joseph Kosuth: “These kinds of works made it clear to me that you didn’t need ‘design’ if you had a great idea, if you had something to say – it kind of affirmed to me that graphic design in the hands of an imbecile would just get in the way of the point that was trying to be made.” His aim since then, he tells Lionel Bovier, has been to reconcile conceptual art, or at least his version of its pared-down visual language, with his own dilemmas and concerns.

A visual dissident King’s first job as art editor, then as art director of i-D didn’t offer the scope he needed, though he made his mark with some jarringly awkward layouts before falling out with the style magazine and leaving abruptly. His next project, Crash!, a collaboration with the writer Matthew Worley, was a tactical weapon with a payload of rage and scorn. Aligning themselves verbally and visually with a line of dissidents and naysayers that stretches from Wyndham Lewis’s Blast to the Situationists and punk, they delivered a series of withering manifestos, sometimes presented within other publications, that ripped into the ‘lad’ culture of the day, Chris Evans, David Baddiel, Oasis, Radio One, Hello! magazine, the ‘it’ girls Tamara Beckwith and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, and the tyranny of leisure. Reading these scorching, sulphurous texts again is a reminder of how timid, devoid of challenging ideas and reluctant to cause a stink popular culture has become.

At Sleazenation, where he was creative director from 2001 to 2002, King appeared to achieve the perfect fit, at least briefly, between his jaundiced satirical vision and a magazine that was remarkably self-aware about the contradictions of its position as a would-be critical commentary on fashion, celebrity and consumer culture. His ‘Cher Guevara’ cover image is an unforgettable icon of its moment and several other covers – ‘I’m with stupid’; ‘Now even more superficial’ – are almost as pungent. Here again, we can only lament the lack of anything so caustic on newsstands today.

I am not star material
By this time, King had started to exhibit in galleries. He has always seemed less sure about this work. (As an art director, on the other hand, he feels complete confidence in what he is doing.) I share his uncertainty about the gallery art. King might not want to be a designer, but inspired collaboration brings out his strengths and, in Worley, he found the ideal intellectual partner. When left to his own devices, King’s writing becomes morosely autobiographical. One recurrent theme is his fascination with rock stars: Sex Pistols, Joy Division, Kurt Cobain, Richey Edwards of Manic Street Preachers – note the untimely ends. Now 40, King says he is getting over this fixation, yet a typically self-critical digital print, consisting of a text by King and a photograph, describes his recent audition for a friend’s band. Whether this actually happened or not, he presents it as an ignominious failure. “I am not star material,” he writes. “I have no presence, I have no voice, I have no ideas about music or lyrics.”

Tracey Emin or Billy Childish can get away with this kind of self-obsessed and self-lacerating autobiographical art, although it still becomes wearing quite quickly. For me, in King’s case, such an unfiltered emission of private misery feels like a dead end. It works better, as in his Self Portrait as a Catholic Pie Chart, where he co-opts existing graphic devices and structures as a receptacle for personal feeling. Maudlin it might be, but it has the saving grace of being funny, too. If the monograph is any guide, I suspect King’s brand of neither-art-nor-design works better at page size than on the wall. Scott King on iPad, perhaps? He and Worley would probably detest it.

Scott King: Art Works is edited by Lionel Bovier, designed by Scott King and features text by Jon Savage. Published by JRP Ringier (£24), the book includes 200 images of King’s art and design projects from 1992 to 2010. More details on Art Works are available on jrp-ringier.com and King’s portfolio of work can be viewed on his site, scottking.co.uk

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