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‘Subterranean modernism’

Idea magazine is pleasantly print-fixed: none of the words it publishes are put online, so anyone wanting a taste of it simply has to go out and find a copy. The current issue, no. 341, has an article that refers to Hyphen Press and its efforts. This essay, ‘Subterranean modernism’ by Randy Nakamura and Ian Lynam, is perhaps the first published piece by unconnected observers to address ideas that we’ve been busy with for now 30 years. This is very pleasing.1

Nakamura and Lynam pick up the clues spread in the works of Norman Potter and Anthony Froshaug – the founding fathers of Hyphen Press – and link them to the practice of the Werkplaats Typografie at Arnhem, which they take to be the ‘ground zero for a prototypical critical design practice for the past decade’. The book In alphabetical order, a review of the Werkplaats’s first five years, edited by Stuart Bailey, includes texts by – among several – Potter, Froshaug, and myself, and so the evidence is public enough.

Subterranean modernism, as outlined by Nakamura and Lynam, does sound like something that I would subscribe to. They say that Potter and Froshaug ‘had a preference for process, the subjective, and the local. There was an assertion of the poetic, not through the unconsciousness or deliberately nihilist assaults on aesthetics and society, but by an attention to reason, craft, and materiality.’ They suggest that Potter and Froshaug can be understood as ‘an inflection point between modernism and postmodernism’. But another way of putting this would be to locate them in their place and time: they were British, or, more precisely, English. And they were active from the 1940s through to the 1980s. Potter used to say he was an out-and-out modernist; but to be a modernist in London in the 1950s was a very different thing from being a modernist in Chicago in the 1950s, or different again from being a modernist in Chicago in the 1990s, not to mention Frankfurt in the 1930s.

Norman Potter and I revised and reissued his book What is a designer in 1980, just at the moment of architectural postmodernism, which we abominated. Well, we abominated Ricardo Bofill, Quinlan Terry (that strain of classicism was postmodern too), and Memphis. Unsurprisingly we liked Giancarlo De Carlo, Aldo van Eyck, Renzo Piano – and so on. When the postmodern ideas came to graphic design, I wondered what the fuss was about. Britain had never really had full-blown modernism (that isn’t possible in a monarchy, even a ‘crown-in-parliament’ one), and I didn’t think it was right to give up on the steps we had made in that direction. Besides – as Nakamura and Lynam perceive – the modernism that I was drawn to had little connection with the corporate-capitalist version of modernism that came to figure in the North American imagination. This dawned on me in the debates in Emigre magazine in the 1990s, in which I made occasional appearances. Eventually I realized that in the minds of these Emigre polemicists ‘modern’ meant IBM and General Motors. For me it meant the Finsbury Health Centre and Kinneir–Calvert. Not for the first time, this was a case of the United States (not so much Canada) and the United Kingdom (Ukania, in Tom Nairn’s coinage) constituting different worlds, different mental and social spheres.2

I have to mention politics here, as Nakamura and Lynam hardly do. I grew up mentally in the 1960s and 1970s, and I grew up with marxism or historical-materialism: that way of thinking set the terms of all discussion and action. Here, as a short-cut, I can refer to the work of Kenneth Frampton, who figures in ‘Subterranean modernism’ too. In the full and rewarding published conversation with Stan Allen and Hal Foster in October, no. 106, Frampton speaks of his ‘born-again socialism’ – something that came to him rather late, when he moved to the USA in 1965. And I would say simply: socialism, that’s what I thought design needed to be about; and modernism was socialist. Of course: not so simple; it would need several hundred well-illustrated pages to argue and qualify all this. But certainly it required a lot of empathy to understand the entirely different mentality of the Emigre writers.

Nakamura and Lynam pick up the significance of Kenneth Frampton’s work for me: as someone who has tried to bridge practice and criticism. In the October conversation, Frampton said ‘I tend to approach historical material through the eye of an architect: I ask myself what is the predicament faced by the architect in making a particular work in a physical setting at a given historical moment.’ One could use this as an epigraph for a book: it says the whole thing very exactly. Frampton has been so prolific as a writer and teacher that it may be forgotten that he trained as an architect and worked for quite a stretch in architectural practice, with Douglas Stephen & Partners in London. There is one building to his name that still stands here, and in good condition: the apartment block Corringham in Bayswater. The building is now documented lovingly in an exemplary website, made by people who actually live there.

I can close these remarks by referring to a book that, as I write this, is on my desk in piles of hand-corrected proofs and drafts. Too early to give the title yet, it will publish the photos that David Wild took in Chicago, St Louis, and New Orleans, in the mid-1960s. Incidentally, Kenneth Frampton plays a walk-on part in this book – he helped to get Wild to the USA in that same year of 1965. The leading theme of the book is jazz – music of freedom and of modernity – and Wild is, I suppose, another of those ‘subterranean modernists’.3


1 I have to say that the context of this essay – a review of the present little explosion of graphic designers becoming publishers, compiled by Ian Lynam and the editors of Idea – isn’t one that Hyphen Press fits into easily or at all. Hyphen belongs more banally to old-fashioned small-press publishing: the design that gets its books into existence isn’t the point.

2 A strange passage in the essay are the remarks on Ruari McLean. British readers will know at once that these writers are foreigners to the culture by the fact of their giving McLean’s name in the form that a library catalogue or Wikipedia will know it: John David Ruari McLean. They write ’McLean’s activities of this period were pivotal in bringing a more modernist inflected design sensibility to a broader audience in the Anglophone world.’ This is a misconstruction. The figure who more nearly played that role was Herbert Spencer. McLean belonged to the eclectic middle ground of the culture.

3 David Wild would certainly be a ‘local modernist’. Most of his architectural work has been in the patch of north London where he lives: now three houses, several extensions and conversions for friends/neighbours. I remember that when the local bookshop was displaying a copy of a monograph about the work of Zaha Hadid in its window (and not Fragments of utopia), he burst into the shop to ask the assistants ‘what has Zaha Hadid ever done for the neighbourhood?’

Robin Kinross