A Designing Woman With Radical Ideas : April Greiman Says Her Graphics Style Is ‘an Experiment in Creating “Hybrid Imagery” ’
When designer April Greiman’s poster “Does It Make Sense” appeared in fall 1986, it was alternately hailed as a radical advance in the art of poster design and condemned as pornographic, self-indulgent and inappropriate.
A life-size, nude fold-out of herself, digitized into an array of computer pixels--the microscopic spots of light that make up computer images--"Does It Make Sense” displays Greiman’s naked body adorned with the graffiti of scientific symbols and photographs of exploding supernova.
A brontosaurus, reproduced from a TV image, roams the figure’s groin. A hand holding a crystal ball sprouts from her head. A printed border exhorts the viewer to “dance, make sounds, feel, don’t worry, be happy.”
Commissioned for the Minneapolis Walker Art Center Design Quarterly, the poster epitomizes Greiman’s innovative bridge between art and technology.
She describes her style, which epitomizes the 1980s California New Wave in graphic design, as “an experiment in creating ‘hybrid imagery.’ ”
“At the heart of the concept of hybrid imagery is a recognition that, in inventing new technologies, we reinvent ourselves,” Greiman explained. “In the end, we can never be sure of who is creating who.”
A slender woman of 40, with finely modeled features and a shock of hennaed, punk-cut hair, Greiman bubbles with energy, enthusiasm and ambition.
“I consider myself blessed to be alive and working at this extraordinary time of innovation,” she said. “All our ideas, all our techniques are in the melting pot. Who knows what will happen next?”
Greiman has won international awards for her graphic designs. She was featured in the 1987 Pacific Wave Exhibition in Venice, Italy. She was chosen as one of six designers in an international poster design show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Her 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games poster of running legs silhouetted against a square of bright blue sky was the most memorable of 16 posters commissioned by the Olympic Organizing Committee.
“April Greiman’s work is literally explosive,” famed New York designer Massimo Vignelli wrote in the introduction to the 1985 book, “Seven Graphic Designers.” “By far the most daring and meaningfully experimental graphic designers in the world, her work is extremely intellectual and extremely emotional at the same time.”
Though trained as a graphic designer at the Kansas City Art Institute and the Allgemeine Kunstgewerbeschule in Basel, Switzerland, Greiman is unhappy with the title of “graphic designer.”
“Traditional graphic design, whether of the loose, American kind or disciplined, Swiss manner, is more concerned with the nature of the printing process than it is with visual and philosophical ideas. Though I’ve done every kind of graphic design commission, from billboards to menus, I chafe at the limitations of the designation.
“I want everything I do to be somehow a first, so I always try to open things out and rethink the subject from the ground up. Maybe that’s why so many conventional graphic designers object to the way I play fast and loose with all the media, from photography and TV through computers and laser printing technologies.”
Greiman’s 2,000-square-foot loft in a converted Lincoln Heights brewery mirrors her iconoclasm. The high, white space houses drawing boards and a host of Macintosh personal computers. A full-size billboard design printed on vinyl looks down upon movable work stations for up to seven associates.
The mezzanine conference room is furnished with futons and a TV set with video recorder. A huge window looks towards the downtown towers that symbolize the restless contemporary world Greiman finds so stimulating.
“I came to Los Angeles in 1976 because I was becoming disenchanted with the rigidities of the East,” the New York-born designer explained. “What I immediately loved about L.A., and still love, is the way the boundaries are never fixed. That’s the advantage of having so little local tradition.”
Greiman taught at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. In the early 1980s, she was appointed director of the Cal Arts program in visual arts communication.
At Cal Arts, she met Eric Martin, associate dean of the Cal Arts art school. The couple, married for six years, live in a traditional Spanish-style house in Silver Lake.
Greiman also met photographer-artist Jayme Odgers at Cal Arts, and Odgers became an important influence. Odgers and Greiman designed a famous 1977 Cal Arts poster that was adopted as the icon of the California New Wave.
“Jayme put the final polish on April’s art,” said designer Craig Hodgetts. “He gave her the gloss that has made her a celebrity darling.”
Hodgetts, along with several designers and architects who have worked with Greiman, applauds her “remarkable color sense.”
“Greiman’s ideas are outstanding,” said architect Barton Myers, who commissioned Greiman to develop tile and brickwork patterns for the proposed Cerritos Community Arts Center. “Her feeling for color, fused with her innovative computerized patterning designs, is unique.”
“April hit L.A. at exactly the right time,” Hodgetts said. “The design community in the city was in transition in the early 1980s. Ideas were popping, and all the interdisciplinary barriers were down. Fashion, restaurant design, graphics, photography and fine art were tossed into the blender. The results were often stunning, and April’s work was among the very best.”
In 1980, Greiman designed the menus, logo, mailers, advertisements, dinner plates and some of the interior for the now-defunct China Club restaurant on Third Street. China Club, with its striking Greiman bar mirror and 30-foot airbrush mural by Peter Sato, was an exercise in total or “environmental” design.
Despite its achievements and experiments--or perhaps because of them--the early 1980s were a rough time in Greiman’s life.
“There was a lot of criticism,” she recalled. “The people--mainly other designers--who were threatened by my innovations were the most bitter. But these criticisms, by forcing me to articulate my ideas, only served to sharpen my style.”
In the intensely competitive Angeleno design community, Greiman’s colleagues are wary of openly criticizing her style. Off the record, several complained about her “reckless mix-up of media,” “obsession with technology at the expense of design values,” and “queen bee attitude.”
Conventional designers often objected to including Greiman in their professional group shows. Her work cut across the lines that traditionally demarcate fine and commercial art in a way that upset many colleagues. “It all became too exhausting,” Greiman said. “But you can’t help breaking rules, if you want to stay alive.”
Greiman’s working methods are complex. The design of the MOMA poster, for example, involves a series of steps to create the “layering” that she seeks to add resonance to her designs.
Step 1: A background is created by entering the video image of a landscape into a computer programmed with high resolution electronic “paint-box” software.
Step 2: Greiman “boogies around” with the background images, overlaying sketches and blown-up 35-millimeter photographic slides of interesting textures and fragments of pattern she finds intriguing.
Step 3: This “layered” image is laser scanned to magnify the light-point pixels that make up the computer image. Each magnified pixel thus becomes a unique and separate geometry of tones and colors.
“Normally the digital pixels are invisible to the viewer,” Greiman explained. “But when you bring them into focus, you see that each one is different and fascinating in shape and color. This is what I mean when I say that we invent the technology and then it reinvents the way we see.”
The final stage in the poster design is the manipulation of the discovered textures and colors into an image that communicates an immediate yet complex message. When complete, it reads both as an art image and as a source of specific information.
“Just when people think they have April pegged, she’s off on some new journey,” said husband Eric Martin. “She is utterly unpredictable, as hybrid as her imagery and completely personal. What other designer would use a nude image of themselves on a poster issued by a major art museum magazine?”
“Am I the fine artist of the graphic design industry, or am I the designer of the fine arts world?” asked Greiman rhetorically. “I think of myself as a problem solver first and foremost. From that impulse all the rest follows.”
‘Iwant everything I do to be somehow a first, so I try to open things out and rethink the subject. . . . Maybe that’s why so many conventional graphic designers object to the way I play fast and loose with all the media.’