“I hardly remember Max saying anything in particular about my work. Basically he just had a number of subtly differently loaded intonations in the way he said 'interesting'. But we all knew immediately if it was a good interesting, or a bad in-ter-esting..., or a convince me of it interesting.”
The graphic design department at Canterbury was influenced directly and unapologetically by Swiss Typography exemplified by the Basel School of Design. And (possibly questionably in the early 1990s) it was still influenced most by the work of people like Wolfgang Weingart (who visited in my fourth year) and Joseph Muller–Brockmann, maybe Bradbury Thompson too. But also by more contemporary designers like April Greiman, and (I hate to say) Neville Brody and David Carson.
We were also looking very much at the US schools that inherited the German/Swiss Modern design philosophy. And our work definitely looked like 'International Style' at a time when it was too late to be chanting such self consciously modernist maxims and a bit too early to be doing ironic neo-modernist parody. Also Ilam had an exchange with Rhode Island School of Design. The projects we did were straight from Basel, perhaps via people at RISD like Malcolm Grear. But we also wanted to go to Schools like Cranbrook, Cal Arts, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (Canada) and of course Yale.
One of the best things about Canterbury design was that we aspired to be part of an international graphic design community – graphic design to us was not merely about selling commercial products. It had a particular, significant, exclusive history that we felt privileged to have an insight in to. I know this sounds dangerously like a definition for modernism (with thanks to Scott Lash), but it is because of Ilam that I still instinctively feel the need to differentiate cultural spheres even within the visual arts. (I know it's anachronistic, but I can't help it).
Our understanding of this international lineage of modern design came from publications like Typographica, Octavo, Emigre, Eye, Baseline, TM (Typographische Monatsblatter) – all of which were in the library (if not in Max Hailstone's library). But it also came from Max's projects, and the steady stream of international lecturers who visited him/us. (In my final year: Mahendra Patel, Krysztoff Lenk, Franz Werner, and Hanno Ehses, as well as Wolfgang Weingart!).
I learned at art school that Helvetica is good and Chancery is bad. Never to force justify text or arbitrarily track text. But marginally more importantly – I also learnt that there is a wide world of graphic design that I wanted to be part of. I learnt that there is a varied history and specialized discourse that needed to be seriously studied (and was something that could not just be self taught in my garage). No really! I believe Ilam graphic design was the only course in the country where we students aspired to really seriously take a critical part in, to question and change the discipline of graphic design.
Maybe just one anecdote about Max's teaching here: the funny thing is that I hardly remember Max saying anything in particular about my work. Basically he just had a number of subtly differently loaded intonations in the way he said 'interesting'. But we all knew immediately if it was a good interesting, or a bad in-ter-esting..., or a convince me of it interesting? Obviously I can't capture this with mere standard punctuation. But if this critique style may seem pedagogically questionable now, it was really the great projects that he devised that carried the learning experience.
I think that one of the things I valued most about the Ilam course was the requirement to do humanities papers in other parts of the University. It was because we were doing philosophy, sociology, art theory, art history, etc., papers in departments alongside people who were majoring in those fields that made it challenging, but also extremely rewarding. Although I was a fairly average student in these classes, the academic rigour demanded of us to engage in a more rounded University course of study – and at the same time as specialising in an in-depth four-year major area of study – was invaluable.
Although the art students didn't have the reputation that the engineers had, I do remember lots of civilized drinks sponsored by The Sketch Club. (Whatever happened to those funds? SKUB must be rolling in it by now!). And there were a couple of great end of year fancy dress parties. Best of all were the graphic design weekend camps at the University's Craigeburn Huts with the obligatory hung-over trek through Cave Stream on Sunday morning with not enough torches (ie., one) to go around 20 students (pre DOC restrictions or OSH).
When I left art school, I imagined that I would get a job in a design firm somewhere in New Zealand. I quite liked the idea of working for a printer – because I wanted to learn more about printing. I also knew I had to do an MFA in a significant art school in Europe or the USA.
I ended up getting my first job at Waikato Museum in Hamilton (a well- worn path for Ilam graduates). I taught for a couple of years at Wintec (Hamilton) with a whole lot of ex-Ilam graduates who set up that degree as a kind of reaction to Ilam. I left there to do my MFA at Yale University (graduating 2002).
I think if I had gone to any other design course in New Zealand I would have become a mediocre desktop publisher. All other schools in New Zealand saw (and some still see) graphic design as merely vocational. I would not have aspired to, let alone been accepted into Yale University. But most importantly I would not have met the peers I am still in contact with and some of whom (in particular Luke Wood and Mark Stammers) I still rely on for their understanding, common history, shared cultural specificity in and reaction against the Ilam vision of graphic design. OK actually I don't see a lot of my peers, we've all moved on and really we probably don't understand each other much anymore, but still, we sympathise, and we still have 'the strips project'.
I guess I'd like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Max Hailstone who (anyone has read this far) will know died prematurely in a car accident in the US in 1997. Max certainly had his idiosyncrasies, but he did leave a great legacy to New Zealand graphic design – through his students and in his design work – that deserves to be acknowledged more.