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The VCFA MFA in Graphic Design Program Blog

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Huh? #32: An interview with David Karwan

August 30, 2016

David Karwan is one of graphic design’s strongest emerging writers, as well as Art Director at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, one of America’s strongest institutional proponents of graphic design. He is responsible for creative leadership across many areas of LACMA’s visual communication including branding, exhibition, and publication design. His essay “Ray & Egon & Peter & Wilson” was reprinted both in IDEA Magazine and here on Perpetual Beta and he has published numerous essays, including “Agency and Urgency: The Medium and Its Message” (written collaboratively with Lorraine Wild) for the recent Hippie Modernism catalog for The Walker Art Center. Karwan received a BFA in graphic design from Western Michigan University in 2005 and went on to obtain a MFA in design from CalArts in 2012. Since completing his MFA, he’s frequently collaborated with artists, illustrators, musicians, and other designers to develop typefaces, books, exhibitions, and performances. Aside from his core responsibilities at LACMA he’s contributed many design-related essays to museum’s blog Unframed. His work has appeared in Idea magazine and the 2014 exhibition All Possible Futures.

VCFA Co-Chair Ian Lynam chats it up with David about his practice, inspirations, heroes and anti-heroes.

How is it that you became interested in writing about graphic design?

I should preface this answer by saying I wasn’t the greatest reader growing up. I definitely struggled grasping main ideas from books and had trouble focusing. It wasn’t until a high school art history class where I felt I wanted to read at all! I remember Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait was something that really grabbed my attention and curiosity—I really wanted to know about the painting’s different symbols, metaphors, and layered meanings. I think reading about art, and specifically painting, finally allowed me to focus on words explaining things. It enabled me to visually scan an image along with the text—reading became about looking and looking provoked reading, that was huge for me.

Title wall for Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium, LACMA, 2016, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Title wall for Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium, LACMA, 2016, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

The other high school moment which provided a strong connection between seeing and writing was my senior year film study class. Aside from being exposed to classics like Citizen Kane and Casablanca we were required to write reviews, thus forcing me to do nothing but generate responses to what I watched. Also this was the fall of 2000, still before Wikipedia got up and running so I remember going to the library to look up reviews of Citizen Kane!

Title wall lettering for Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada, LACMA, 2015

Title wall lettering for Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada, LACMA, 2015

My interest in writing about graphic design wasn’t uncovered until my first year at CalArts in 2010. One of my largest reasons for going to get an MFA was to expand my range as a graphic designer, but developing an attraction for writing was an unforeseen development. Lorraine Wild’s design history course provided a strong foundation for my writing growth. The reading responses and book reports were again a platform to write about what I saw. Design history or projects from the core seminar studio would lead me to track down essays by other faculty members like Mr. Keedy’s infamous Zombie Modernism, Fahrenheit 451 titles by Michael Worthington, and Graphics Incognito by Mark Owens (all worth multiple reads).

Visiting artist announcement for Kembra Phaler, CalArts, 2011

Visiting artist announcement for Kembra Phaler, CalArts, 2011

How does your interest in writing intersect with your role as Art Director at LACMA?

A large chunk of my time is spent presenting work from the design studio to a vast array of different individuals and groups within the museum, being able to clearly explain and articulate graphic design is paramount. I’ve found that writing about books, typography, exhibitions, and design history can be a form of training when having to verbalize and advocate for things we make. The other type of writing inherent in my overall design process is scribbling down process words, mind maps, or any sort of hybrid diagram which may help me connect form and content. I’m constantly in awe of that 1936 MoMA catalogue cover for Cubism and Abstract Art, designed by Alfred H. Barr Jr.

Tote design, CalArts, 2012

Tote design, CalArts, 2012

Are there any particular projects at LACMA that you feel like stand out as favorites?

From the Archives: Art and Technology at LACMA, 1967–1971 was a smaller exhibition in terms of square footage, but it unpacked this innovative program at LACMA from the late 1960s and early 70s. Art and Technology (or A&T as it became to be known) was an experimental initiative, run by curator Maurice Tuchman, which paired artists and corporations with the intent that extraordinary works of art could be created if artists had access to elevated resources. With many of the projects never built and infamous stories of artists working “in-house” at blue-chip companies, this installation displayed the process of the program—photographs, sketches, correspondences, and ephemera. A&T was such an interesting program, it was terrific to be able to spend time reading about its history and inner workings even while creating labels! I tend to be attracted to many of the projects which connect to the the history of the institution, the evolution of the Los Angeles art scene, or the city itself. Also, there was the added benefit to be able to write a piece about the original A&T catalogue, designed by Lou Danziger, for the museum’s blog.

Digital typeface, 2013–2014

Digital typeface, 2013–2014

Digital typeface, 2013–2014

Digital typeface, 2013–2014

Who are your heroes?

Well Claes Oldenburg, Hannah Höch, Christian Marclay, Walter Murch, and George Carlin are some of the historically larger-than-life individuals whose work I gravitate to. But many of my former classmates at CalArts, like Ania Diakoff and Tom Kracauer, are people I totally look up to. I was very fortunate to be around a swarm of incredibly smart, talented people at CalArts.

#13–15, from the series Letters to Stuart Davis, 2015, vinyl and paper collages #8, from the series Letters to Stuart Davis, 2015, vinyl and paper collages

#13–15, from the series Letters to Stuart Davis, 2015, vinyl and paper collages
#8, from the series Letters to Stuart Davis, 2015, vinyl and paper collages

#13–15, from the series Letters to Stuart Davis, 2015, vinyl and paper collages #8, from the series Letters to Stuart Davis, 2015, vinyl and paper collages

#13–15, from the series Letters to Stuart Davis, 2015, vinyl and paper collages
#8, from the series Letters to Stuart Davis, 2015, vinyl and paper collages

Who are your anti-heroes?
Omar Little (from The Wire) and Julian Assange.

Short essay on the design A report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1967–1971, LACMA UNFRAMED, 2015

Short essay on the design A report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1967–1971, LACMA UNFRAMED, 2015

Why Assange?

When I was a kid, I loved spy movies and thought Three Days of the Condor with Robert Redford was so cool. Later I remembered stumbling across a review Roger Ebert wrote, “Three Days of the Condor is a well-made thriller, tense and involving, and the scary thing, in these months after Watergate, is that it’s all too believable.”

John Altoon exhibition catalogue, LACMA, 2014

John Altoon exhibition catalogue, LACMA, 2014

Now today, the conversation revolving around “information” with regards to transparency, privacy, and surveillance is multifaceted and undeniably a topic of the 21st century. It touches upon art, politics, technology, design, and business and Assange is a central player with establishing WikiLeaks. Given how polarising a figure Assange is, he’s easily one of largest “anti-heros” who’s actually alive and not originating from a book, film, or television show!

Site Portait #20 from the Anonymous Monuments Series, college, 2013

Site Portait #20 from the Anonymous Monuments Series, college, 2013

Thanks, David!

That’s all for now, folks — stay tuned for another injection of “Huh?”, coming your way soon!