Style that's all over the California map

Special to The Times

By turns cool, hot, reserved, raucous, muted and irreverent, the sampling of West Coast graphic design on view in "Grown in California" may be bound by the exhibition's state-of-origin theme, but stylistically, the work wanders all over the map.

An understated wine bottle label designed by Napa-based CF Napa for Joseph Phelps Vineyards looks as if it could have been handcrafted in the 19th century. Seemingly residing on a different planet is Stardust Studios, part of the L.A. area's booming motion graphics community, which produced a music video for the rock band Incubus by splicing performance footage with shots of Adolf Hitler sprouting wings and morphing into a bloodthirsty eagle.

The cacophony of contrasting voices sounds like an inevitable development to Minneapolis-based graphic designer Charles Anderson, one of five out-of-state jurors who picked 173 pieces from more than 3,000 entries in the design competition of AIGA, the professional organization formerly known as the American Institute of Graphic Arts. In an age of Internet-enabled collaboration, he says, the notion of a singular West Coast sensibility is fading fast.

"If you had to make generalizations, stylistically East Coast design is more photographic, less decorative, more black and white typography.... The West Coast has always been more illustration-centric, more camp, more kitsch, more open, more funny, not quite so serious, not quite so verbally literate. Some of these cliches are pretty deeply entrenched and have been around for years," he explains. However, Anderson adds, "there's less of a stereotypical style than there used to be as far as what California graphics look like."

"Grown in California," a belated follow-up to "California Graphic Design 1980-82," runs through Dec. 8 at Pasadena's Art Center College of Design. Open to AIGA members as well as non-AIGA designers, the competition and resulting show -- which is open to the public -- encompass business cards, coffee bags, posters, corporate PR, stationery, book covers, restaurant coasters, wrapping paper, TV commercials, websites and more. All of the work was produced from 1998 through 2004.

On the whimsy front, booklets for photographer Eric Tucker of the Long Beach-based design firm Article are jacketed with fuzzy impressions of pink and green flowers. Three-dimensional cardboard sculptures spring out of "The California Pop Up Book," a history of the state created for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art by San Diego illustrator Gerald Bustamante, of Studio Bustamante. Product design company Knock Knock, based in Venice, decorates its self-produced gift wrap with a grid of massively magnified photographs depicting the human gene for colorblindness.

Striking a somber note, Los Angeles designer Adriana Parcero's self-commissioned "Seams" book dissects the human cost of garment industry outsourcing, via photography, text and diagrams. Cahan & Associates of San Francisco dramatizes an annual report for healthcare services company Neoforma by devoting an entire page to a single sentence set in huge type.

Designer Brian Jacobs of Pentagram's Bay Area office organized "Grown in California" while serving as AIGA's San Francisco chapter president and says he noticed a regional bias emerging in submissions: Northern California designers, with 113 winning entries, dominated Web graphics; Los Angeles-area designers contributed 48 exhibition winners but monopolized the relatively new field of motion graphics, comprising animation, live action and visual effects.

"Interactive media and motion graphics seem to be the story on the West Coast," Jacobs says. "California typically adopts new technology much quicker than the rest of the country, and I think it's probably safe to say the best interactive and motion graphic designers are in California."

Chief among them: art director Karin Fong, who created a spare, sleek homage to modernist furniture in her best-in-show spot for the Herman Miller furniture company. Fong works at bicoastal design agency Imaginary Forces' Hollywood office, but most of the motion graphics buzz emanates from Santa Monica and Venice, where twentysomething design school graduates produce irreverent shorts at award-winning design shops such as Motion Theory, Blind Visual Propaganda, Stardust Studios and Brand New School.

"California has a very different vibe than New York," argues Jonathan Notaro, a Cal Arts graduate who formed Brand New School five years ago. "New York is so much about street art and feels maybe a little more hip-hop-inspired just because it's more of a pedestrian culture and, therefore, more of a graffiti culture. Whereas in California, I think a lot of graphic design has to do with surf culture."

Case in point: Brand New School's commercial for Fox Cable Networks' extreme sports channel Fuel TV. The deliberately primitive-looking stop-action animation spot stars a plucky plush doll who survives a skateboard mishap, a fiery motorcycle crash and a catastrophic downhill skiing accident before landing safely in his girlfriend's bed. The hard sell is confined to a final frame stamped with the Fuel logo. Notaro says, "Skaters and surfers buy into graphic design so much quicker than other sports, so it made perfect sense for us to do something for Fuel."

On the phone with Notaro is Brand New School creative director Jens Gehlhaar, who produced three "Grown in California" pieces. "On the East Coast," Gehlhaar notes, "there's a bigger gap between corporate culture and underground art. On the West Coast in general it seems like it's easier here to get something underground into the mainstream."

Michael Hodgson, president of AIGA's Los Angeles chapter and co-owner of Santa Monica design firm Ph.D, moved from London to L.A. in 1979 shortly before the organization put together its first state-centric survey. "Graphic design in California is taken a lot more seriously now than it was 20 years ago," he says.

"When I first came here, great stuff was being done in the music industry in the days when doing an album cover meant you had a 12-by-12-inch canvas," he recalls. Hodgson also witnessed the rise and fall of the fractured, sometimes unreadable typography popularized by David Carson in the 1990s at Santa Monica's influential Ray Gun magazine. "The sort of typographic experimentation going on 10 years ago has all been sort of worked through and now there's a return to very clean, quiet, but beautifully crafted pages of type.

"Design definitely has a place in museums here, as it has for a long time in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and now at San Francisco MOMA," Hodgson notes. "There are design icons, whether it's a pair of 501 Levis, or the original Sony Walkman, or the Montblanc pen, or Apple's '1984' TV spots, and I think some of the graphic design that's happening now needs to be seen in that light."

In a visual culture clotted with ephemera, the blurry gradations dividing crass commerce, artful design and fine art may indeed be defined more by intent than the objects themselves.

Juror Anderson describes design as "art with a purpose."

Brand New School's Gehlhaar believes temperament plays a defining role as well. "I think designers go, 'I'm not this big interesting person where the entire world will be interested in sharing my stories.' It's a little more humble, where you go, 'I just want to make cool stuff and get paid for it.'

"It's not the actual craft, or the application of the subject matter, or the voice, or the strength of voice that makes us different from [fine] artists. It's more that our attitude is we like to get that kick in the butt when somebody calls us and says, 'Hey, this is the project; you want to do it?' "

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'Grown in California'

Where: Art Center College of Design, Wind Tunnel Gallery, South Campus, 950 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena

When: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4:30 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays

Ends: Dec. 8

Price: Free

Info: (818) 558-3968; www.aigalosangeles.org/gic

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