Article by Brian Donnelly

ISTORY SUGGESTS THAT even the most unexpected twists and turns never come completely from nowhere. Narratives of the career of designer and artist Marian Bantjes always note her sudden rise, “bursting” onto the scene in 2003, an overnight sensation at age 40. Her commitment to pattern and ornament combines in a fresh style that places her both alongside the stars of the design world and somehow a little to one side, on the outside, or even heading in the opposite direction.

Bantjes has been called a “designer’s designer,” but she also refers to herself as outside of the mainstream in design, as though her independence and insistence on personal expression place her in another category entirely—not strictly a communication or graphic designer, but not quite an illustrator either. She prefers the term “graphic artist,” in recognition of her ongoing attempt to do the impossible: “make a living doing something that I loved.” Meanwhile, critical response from one of the leading lights in the design field, Rick Valicenti, sums her up as, “Perhaps the most important, conceptually complete designer of our time.”

Her background incorporates abrupt shifts. After a year at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, she stumbled into a job with book publisher Hartley and Marks, working as a typesetter. She was taught to follow instructions “to the letter,” correcting technical details the designer overlooked; this was, she notes, “in no way a creative process.” Ten years there led to another professional challenge as a founding partner in a rapidly growing and busy design firm, Digitopolis. After a decade, she took a buyout to afford herself a sabbatical, and immediately began to work in the curvaceous and florid style that catapulted her to success, rendered in her own hand and on her own terms.

Despite the fame and acclaim she has earned, it can be hard to easily reconcile her work with the logic, rigour and geometry we most often associate with graphic design and professional visual communication. The elements of the page—the use of colour, the rhythm and flow of the layout and the cropped shapes of the photographs, even the shapes of the letterforms themselves—are all abstract elements, something we may overlook in our rush to understand the message and get the “meaning.” The open-ended nature of non-representational or evocative form would seem to make the central visual concern of design a matter of purely aesthetic distinction and a careful and pleasing sense of order. But you won’t get far telling senior art directors or large corporate clients to buy your idea because you think it just looks good.

More likely, the struggle to control and discipline the essentially abstract nature of design explains why professionals are at such pains to assert that research, logic and a clear rationale are the true principles of good work.

Beauty and pleasure were rendered anathema by machines and the modern sometime in the 1960s (much earlier in Europe); the postmodern served up a riot of shape and historical pastiche, but all in the name of an anti-aesthetic. No one has yet made the design world truly safe for playful curves, vegetative ornament, and beautifully obsessive detail. Bantjes has certainly challenged the confidence of design’s paradigms, even if it’s hard to argue they have yet been supplanted.

Her work broke out quickly and forcefully in the mid-2000s because it was both visually pleasing and structurally coherent and convincing. It uses references to history and the decorative canon in such an overwhelming and confident way that you can’t help but get it. The familiar gets reworked so thoroughly it bypasses your critical filters to work directly on the visual pleasure centres, like a flood of dopamine.

Bantjes is aware of the potential side effects of playing with feel-good visual drugs. She told an interviewer that, “I’m terrified of the hordes (of mostly young women) who love [her work, but also] unicorns and fairies and hearts.” But Bantjes very rarely falls properly into the categories of kitsch or Disney; there is usually more than enough visual thinking and edgy complexity to reward, even compel, close looking and careful appreciation.

Her radical calligraphy (normally a conservative and minor genre within design) variously evokes plant tendrils, heart and skulls, arabesques, Arabic calligraphy and tiling, medical illustrations, symbolist art, First Nations graphic patterns, tattoos and needle-point, hot rods and eyelet lace, octopus tentacles, Nintendo, Murakami, baroque architectural details, medieval manuscripts and Gothic blackletter, Aesthetic Movement interiors, and even the geometry of art deco and the Dutch modernist avant-garde.

Clients include magazines and book publishers (she designed her own artist’s book, I Wonder, published in 2010); paper company promotions and wrapping papers; clothing designs and retailers from Saks Fifth Avenue to snowboarding companies; art galleries, small companies and individuals, not for profit events and enterprises, and commissioned work from other well-established and well-known designers, many in the United States.

She works on the digital screen, largely in vector-based software that unleashes her uncanny knack for curves; but also by hand, in ink, pencil and ballpoint pen; sometimes in oil paint; or with letterforms from leaves nibbled and shaped by her fingernails. Grains of sugar swirl about, blurring the boundary between word and pattern; even nail polish and laser burning in wood have been incorporated. Bantjes famously “typeset” the phrase “I want it all” using fallen peony leaves. (This last work, she notes, “smelled fantastic.”)

Indeed, the direct use of natural materials, shapes and motifs is perhaps what places her farthest outside the current mainstream, as pixels and algorithms have propelled design far from the “natural” (now necessarily rendered in quotes) into the virtual and manmade. Her intention is not to regress, however, or devolve back to nature (although she does now live on bucolic Bowen Island). She has stated that she wants to “resurrect motifs that had been abandoned by modern-ism…without being nostalgic.”

And always, in the motifs she reclaims, one finds vegetative imagery, and sometimes actual flora arranged into letter forms, at the forefront. Bantjes’s work suggests it has always been easier and perhaps more convincing to celebrate the sheer visual pleasure of the natural world in expressive design than in the self-critical and anti-aesthetic precincts of contemporary art. She also demonstrates how the sheer visual variety of botany is easier to integrate across the spectrum of challenges and assignments in the typical design practice. Like most designers, Bantjes shows she is free to adopt and adapt ornamental, natural inspiration in a wide variety of ways. Floral and vegetative patterns arise more naturally, as it were, in solving communication problems than in forging the often restricted signature styles of individual artists.

For all her natural sources, however, Bantjes is disinclined to accept commissions from those who see her work as merely “type with a bunch of bullshit curlicues coming off it.” (She liberally uses earthy language as well.) She notes that early on, her work backed away from arabesques, allowing her to work through ornament while resisting “pretty things for pretty subjects.” Always, there is a structure underneath her pieces, and her goals are to showcase visual invention and invoke such seemingly anti-modern attitudes as curiosity, wonder, joy, surprise, and humour.

Her originality and independence, in other words, are not purely in the name of style or simple visual pleasure. She has commented on her appreciation for the social and political ideals that underlay the machines and mass production of modernism. She looks to the past, and natural inspiration, to dig deep into designers’ motives, not just as a source of forms to copy. Perhaps through her sheer invention, Marian Bantjes can teach us to leap over the functionalist rejection of ornament and find something approaching a “utopian… earnestly hopeful outlook,” linking hand to machine, and human to nature.

Excerpted from Spring/Summer 2014 Ornamentum. Click here to subscribe.

Bantjes has written and published a monograph and catalogue résumé of her work. See Marian Bantjes, Pretty Pictures (New York: Metropolis Books, 2013).

Brian Donnelly is Professor in the Faculty of Animation, Arts and Design at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario. He holds a BFA in fine art, a PhD in art history, and was a practising designer in a variety of roles for fifteen years.

How Are You
Ballpoint pen/digital March 2006