Maximalism: The Graphic Design of Decadence & Excess

Maximalism: The Graphic Design of Decadence & Excess

Adapted from Maximalism: The Graphic Design of Decadence & Excess (RotoVision)

By Charlotte Rivers

Monkey Clan promotional, 2001

United States, Monkey Clan

When the bubble of the dot-com era burst, designers at new York-based monkey clan created this ad to place in Res magazine in a bid to win work and stay in business. It is inspired by blunt American capitalism, with a dash of death, doom and sarcasm. Instead of focusing on themes of greed and portraying the purveyors of this style in a negative way, Monkey Clan stepped into their shoes and celebrated the ingenuity and tenacity of salesmen in continuing to find a clever pitch, even when their ship is sinking.

"At the time there were a lot of companies going out of business. Our friends were getting laid off and we thought we might go out of business ourselves," explains Kai Pham of Monkey Clan. "All these unemployed freelancers were underbidding us on what little work there was out there, so we decided to poke fun at the general depressing situation. It was just ironic to think your last design piece would be your own eulogy. It produced a lot of nervous laughter."

This promotional piece ignores many of the most basic design fundamentals in its lack of focus, unsettling colors, and blatant use of clip art but its over-the-top visual bombardment supports the concept, as does the copy. "We wanted to make something totally incredible and insulting, yet pathetic and sad, like a drunk coming home from a bar to drink vanilla extract," explains Pham. "We wanted to make the design very American, very loud, and a total backlash against the minimalism that prevailed at the time. Most of that can be attributed to the copy. Instead of our usual clever and slick wordsmithing, we just attacked it, made too much copy and made it blunt. We threw in funny lines and included a dead Mickey, homage to the great American icon."

Created to look like a Sunday paper flyer, the designers tried to incorporate the techniques flyers use to grab people’s attention; they centered a “going out of business” display and then added small bursts of sale items. While Monkey Clan never actually got any new work from this ad, they did get two sympathy E-mails telling them to "hang in there," which they evidently have.

Carefree packaging for Johnson & Johnson, 2002 (and ongoing)

Australia, Gentil Eckersley

Carefree is Johnson & Johnson's major feminine hygiene brand. Australian design agency Gentil Eckersley was commissioned to help it capture the emerging teen market that had previously been ignored. It is a difficult market to target. What young girls consider "hip and cool" one moment has changed by the next, and the influence of peer pressure, and the fear of rejection this creates, is strong.

So, the team at Gentil Eckersley proposed a strategy that embraced change; they presented a multichoice and ever-changing brand anchored by a relevant graphic fashion theme. The designs of the packages are updated on a regular basis, in line with emerging fashion trends, with six new designs introduced every nine months.

"Successfully developing a brand strategy that actually advocates constant change, as opposed to defending a particular expression, is very satisfying," explains Franck Gentil. “We are quite involved with the local fashion scene here in Melbourne and Sydney, and getting people who usually see themselves as marketers of feminine hygiene and baby-care products along to highend fashion shows is really interesting. There is a huge leap of faith on their part because we present the concepts almost a year before production. Telling them that this or that is going to be so in, we’ll all be wearing it, and getting it right is a buzz. So is getting to do so much illustration. We all have a new-found respect for decorative arts.” This really is a unique way to look at tampon packaging; the banal nature of the product itself and the maximalist, glamorously inspired packaging around it is irony at its best.

American Institute of Graphic Arts promotion, booklet design, 1996

United States, Omatic Design

According to designer Geoffrey Lorenzen, of Omatic Design, the maximalist tone of this piece is pure irony; its grandiosity is meant to be so over-the-top that it is humorous. The booklet was commissioned by the Portland division of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), with the intention that it serve as a simple communication and reminder to members of the institute's services.

"We considered the insular and self-satisfied nature of the design community and created a parallel entity that was a mystical, secret organization with faux rituals and history," explains Lorenzen. "I wanted it to simply be a humorous, aesthetic explosion with heavy ornamentation and historically informed typography that propped up the mystical organization concept."

Inspired by the style of nineteenth-century typography that mixed fonts and font sizes with abandon, Lorenzen has used, in his own words, a ridiculous number of stock typefaces and custom type constructs. He even created a working font from proofreaders’ marks that looks like runes. "It was aimed at designers who would pick all of its elements apart," he says. Photography is by Marcus Swanson and Morgan Henry, with copywriting by Leslee Dillon.

The Grateful Palate catalog, poster, and mailing envelope, 2004

United States, Elliot Design

Los Angeles-based The Grateful Palate distributes and sells wines, and offers mail-order artisan foods, coffee, and other delicacies. Beth Elliot, at Elliott Design, was asked to design a direct-mail catalog showcasing the company's product offering for 2004.

Elliott has worked with The Grateful Palate for a number of years. Her work for them is inspired by the specific foods and products that it offers each year and the sensual world of food and wine in general. "BOOM, BOOM, the catalog’s theme, was an obvious source of inspiration in the work; explosive bursts of design flavor," explains Elliott. "The design aspires to making the products tantalizing and the storytelling entertaining enough to chew on throughout the year."

The retro pattern on the poster was created using reinterpretations of the patterns and symbols one might find on items in kitchens from the past and present; towels, wallpaper, cookbooks, labels, and food packaging. This poster also doubles as the catalog’s mailing envelope. Given the scale and number of folds needed for the poster to successfully function as an envelope, Elliott saw this as an ideal opportunity to use the panels for testimonials and product teasers. Each turn and opening of a fold presents something new to the reader, leading them toward the catalog within. Elliott has used a variety of typefaces, including Gotham, Frankfurter, Table Manners, Radio, Pinball, Pioneer, Oz, Phrastic, Japan Script, Cooper Black, Almonda, Helvetica, and Rounded.

Sport & Street magazine spreads, 2003

United Kingdom, 25 Survivors

Survivors is a creative agency that focuses on the fashion, music, art, and advertising industries. The team—John Vanderpuije, Yara Awad, and Adam Lowe—created this editorial spread for Sport & Street magazine. Published by Logos Publishing, Italy, Sport & Street is a fashion magazine, aimed at people interested in fashion, street culture, new designers and artists, music, global and limited edition culture, and branding, who have £25 (C. US. $46 to spend) on a magazine.

London's Design Museum identity, Graphic Thought Facility, 2003
Alice Through the Looking Glass illustration (right), Versus exhibition, British Council, 2003

United Kingdom, Kam Tang

Kam Tang's decorative style has certainly tapped into the zeitgeist. His highly ornate signature designs have made him a favorite of art directors and designers alike. His high-profile work includes the illustration used on the cover for the July/August 2003 issue of Wallpaper* magazine, and his hand-drawn "objects" used as part of the new identity for London's Design Museum, created by U.K. design group Graphic Thought Facility (GTF).

Tang’s drawings are always very intricate; with his "microscopic" way of looking at detail, he aims to uncover the essence of things. Although thoroughly modern, his work is steeped in the tradition of Japanese art and its ornamental aesthetics. Tang is also part of the new breed of illustrators who favor a return to a handcrafted approach. All his drawings are mapped out in pen and paper and then worked up by computer. Tang believes that a constantly tweaked image can end up lifeless, and prefers the irregularities of the hand-drawn.

For the Design Museum identity, Tang came up with about 100 hand-drawn objects to scatter around GTF’s typography. These objects represent the many areas of design, but the result is consciously ambiguous, so a paper clip looks like a slice of pie with no filling, and a ceramic vessel could easily be mistaken for a pork chop. The intentional effect is that the symbols don’t narrate the whole story, but push the viewer to use their powers of imagination.

Tang also instigates projects as an outlet for his experiments. His British Council show in Japan in 2003, featuring portraits to illustrate Alice Through the Looking Glass, was made of flat, organic shapes and patterns. Inspired by the highly symbolic, almost decadent book, Tang created one elaborate illustration that amalgamates the whole plot, with the characters intricately woven into the image.

Animalflowers wallpaper, personal project, 2001-2003

United Kingdom, Hanna Werning

Swedish-born Werning takes on the idea of flora and fauna in her colorful, graphic wallpaper designs. Pigs, seahorses, tigers, and butterflies—an unusual combination, but it works—all grace her designs. These come in rolls of wallpaper, on canvases, as posters, and as wall panels.

"I’m not sure why I started drawing the AnimalFlowers," says Werning. "I guess they started off as a kind of doodle. Normally I work to a brief and set concept, but these are pure visual, a strange combination of shapes and colors. The AnimalFlowers are built up in layers... It’s like an overdose in shape and color, but somehow they work as one piece without being too distracting."

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Excerpted with permission from Maximalism by Charlotte Rivers. Copyright © 2007 (RotoVision).