Wonder Woman

With her first book, I Wonder, Marian Bantjes hopes to rekindle the art of ornament and the illustrated text

Originally from the prairies of Saskatchewan, Marian Bantjes currently lives and works on Bowen Island, just off the coast of Vancouver in western Canada. She has referred to herself as a “lapsed graphic designer” and is these days perhaps most comfortable with the term ‘graphic artist’. This subtle shift came about in 2003 when she left her job at Digitopolis, the graphic design studio she founded in 1994, and began to concentrate on making work that was by turn highly personal and emotive, meticulously structured and obsessively detailed. Put simply, she was making the kind of work that made her happy.

As breezily wish-fulfilling as that may sound, Bantjes has in fact managed to successfully balance the occasional large scale project – for Saks Fifth Avenue, for example – while also working on smaller jobs for designers such as Rick Valicenti and Stefan Sagmeister, and design studios like Pentagram and Winterhouse. Bantjes has also garnered quite a reputation as the designer who sends out nice things to people: her annual Valentines project, now into its fifth year, has seen her posting handmade artworks to hundreds of her friends and acquaintances. This year she adds another project to her CV with the publication of her first book, I Wonder, a collection of visual essays on design, ornamentation, memory and the patterns and rhythms of visual language.

“Writing is something I almost get more pleasure from than art,” says Bantjes. “When I make art I’m easily distracted but when I’m writing I become intensely involved with it.” Having previously written various pieces for design blog Speak Up (a few of which resurface in edited versions for the book) Bantjes is no stranger to getting her opinions down. But researching and writing a book, complete with new imagery, lettering, patterns and borders on each of its 200 pages, is quite a departure – one that, she says, took her around 15 months to complete.

As books by designers go, it’s interesting to note that I Wonder isn’t a monograph of work at all. Rather, it’s an illustrated collection of thoughts and ideas. “There’s a line you cross when you’re about 12 or 13, when you leave illustrations in books behind and the books become just text,” she says. “For younger children the words and the visuals are more integrated, you even have words ‘made’ from things like felt, but as you get older the words and images start to separate.”

For Bantjes, I Wonder was a chance to make a point of bringing words and images back together. Indeed, in the book’s introduction she writes that she wanted to “avoid the ‘figure a’ form of illustration”, where the text points the reader to a specific image, and instead create an interdependence between pictures and text. This, she hopes, will link in with the overall theme of the book in evoking a sense of wonder in the reader, in the same way that illustrated manuscripts and historical religious texts once did. It’s not a reading experience that many will be used to, in our age of digesting short pieces of text on screen, and it’s all the more unique for it.

While drawn to Christian, Islamic and particularly Tibetan illustrated texts, Bantjes is firmly of the opinion that religion need not be a requirement for generating highly appealing visual reading. “With I Wonder, I wanted to prove that you can create secular texts that are gorgeous, that will draw people in to read them,” she says. “I’m an increasingly vocal atheist – I’d love to do a book for Richard Dawkins – but [humanists] actually have little idea about how to convey wonder. I think the promotion of science is really important work and it could be done in a visually wonderful way.” Frequently in Bantjes’ own work – be it an illustration, a magazine cover, or a poster – there is similarly an element of discovery; a visual game to decipher, or puzzle to solve.

At the TED talk that she gave in Long Beach, California in February this year, Bantjes explained how her post-2003 design life really changed when she started to noticeably “pursue a more personal approach to my work, with only [a] humble attempt to simply make a living doing something that I loved. But something weird happened,” she continued. “I became bizarrely popular. My current work seems to resonate with people in a way that has so taken me by surprise that I still frequently wonder what in the hell is going on. And I’m slowly coming to understand that the appeal of what I do may be connected to why I do it.”

Fans of typically hardline modernist graphics will, for instance, surprise her by showing an interest in her work, she says. “I think this is connected to wonder, as there’s something about when you can sense a person’s time has been invested in a project.” And it’s partly to do with the fact that, as she outlined at TED, her audience seems to recognise a certain integrity in the way she has decided she should work day-to-day. “So where my work as a graphic designer was to follow strategy, my work now follows my heart and my interests with the guidance of my ego, to create work that is mutually beneficial to myself and the client,” she explained at TED. “This is heresy in the design world: the ego is not supposed to be involved in graphic design. But … without exception, the more I deal with the work as something of my own, as something that is personal; the more successful it is as something that is compelling, interesting and sustaining.”

Bantjes is well known for her intricate, hand-drawn lettering projects, but she is equally at home on the computer creating work in vector art. Her recent poster for a gig that Brooklyn-based band The National were performing at the Wiltern in LA, for 2 3 example, even allowed her to design three posters in one. Screen-printed by the Delicious Design League and using a variety of inks, a different iteration of the poster was viewable in daylight; in ultraviolet light; and in the dark. But while the finished piece is undoubtedly a visual success, can it still conjure up the same sense of wonder by being created on a computer? Indeed, in Bantjes’s take on the politics of ornamentation in the book, it is partly the mechanisation of industry that she believes helped push rationality and functionality forward, at the expense of wonder and the imagination.

“When you see something that’s beautifully complex and you find out it’s been generated by a computer programme, there is a slight disappointment,” she says. “So when I’m working on the computer I’m doing stuff ‘by hand’ in that I draw individual things and arrange them myself. You can, of course, make a tiling unit in Illustrator and fill the page, but I prefer to do custom work. When I discovered there was a patterning tool I thought I’d wasted so much time! But then when I used it I couldn’t handle how it made everything so uniform, because I was so used to customising pieces.”

For the book, Bantjes has also incorporated her love of unusual, often mundane materials like cereal and pasta to create borders and patterns. In the chapter featuring photographs she took in Paris’s Père Lachaise, Montmartre and Montparnasse cemeteries, she has bordered each image with frames made of tinfoil, illustrated with Indian ink.

So what holds the picture – the ornamentation that surrounds it – has as much importance as the image itself. “I’m big on structure as it can add a lot visually and intellectually,” she says. “And I hate to say it but I’m deeply scornful of the ‘vomit and sprinkle’ type of ornament. But maybe in some other time there can be a true resurrection of ornamentation.”

In reading James Trilling’s The Language of Ornament for her book, Bantjes recounts his belief that there was once a ‘true’ language of ornament, but it was taken to its extreme in the Victorian era (“they slapped it everywhere, lost the craft and the vocabulary,” she says). Modernism then deemed it frivolous and put functionality in its place. “I would love to resurrect it,” she says. “It would make a great book; going back and figuring out what the different types of ornament were, how they should be used.” And while she’s adamant another research project isn’t on the horizon, Bantjes is certainly well placed to lead a rebirth of the medium.

“Nowadays, instead of looking at books, people read them,” runs a 1924 George Bernard Shaw quote that concludes I Wonder. Bantjes, combining words and pictures in her work, is certainly getting people ‘looking’ again. Now, she also has a manifesto.



Pattern Recognition

Bantjes enjoys using repeating shapes and patterns in her work. For this Holiday Books cover, shown top, designe for The New York Times’ Book Review in 2006, she created a knitted jumped in vector art. (Art directors: Steven Heller/Nicholas Blechman). For the cover for The Guardian’s G2 Puzzle Special, that appeared just before the Christmas holidays in 2007, she employed some rather more complex lettering. The supplement’s title was rendered in various colours so that it was just visible enough to be deciphered. (Art director: Richard Turley).


Inks, Inks, Inks

Bantjes designes this three-in-one poster for a concert that US band The National gave at the Wiltern in LA in May this year. Displayed inside the vneue, the poster was silk-screened by Delicious Design League in black (above), flourescent pink and glow-in-the-dark ink. As photographing it proved near impossible, these images show approximately how the poster looks in daylight, under UV light (or black light), and in the dark.

A Wordless Poster

“When I was asked to speak at Pop!Tech in 2008, I was also asked to create a poster for the attendees,” says Bantjes. “I knew that Pop!Tech is an electic conference and there would be mant kinds of speakers presenting on different topics. So I didn’t want to include specific words that might mean something to some but nothing to others. the theme of the conference, however, was ‘Scarcity and Abundance’ so I decided to visually work with that as a concept. The result is sort of ‘Mondrian goes to Tehran’.”

Abstract Forms

Bantjes was asked, along with ten other designers including Milton Glaser, Louise Fili and Neville Brody, to design one of ten special covers for GQ Italia’s 10th anniversary issue (top). In the end, she says she was happy with the “structured, manly, but pretty result.” And it’s not every day one is asked to design the look of a Laser sailboat, but for Wallpaper* magazine’s exhibit at this year’s Salon del Mobile in Milan, Bantjes did just that. “I decided to avoid the obvious of working with organic forms to go with wind, water etc and instead work deliberately against these forms,” she says. The result is something that “looked like it didn’t belong in the water at all, much like the cubist patterns of WWI and WWII ‘dazzle’ naval camouflage.”

I Wonder

The cover (top) for Bantjes’s book features artwork and a custom typeface created in Illustrator. For the illustrations featured in the chatper, Ye Olde Graphic Designer (below), which looks at the vidual language of heraldry, Bantjes’s drawings were made in Indian ink combined with vector art (the opening spread uses custom lettering, executed in Illustrator).

I Wonder is out now, published by Thames & Hudson. See thamesandhudson.com for more details. Bantjes’ well-mainted website also shows numerous art and design projects, at www.bantjes.com


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