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On a more tangible trajectory

Times Staff Writer

DESIGNERS are a dreamy bunch. Where we see chain-link fences, they imagine vistas; where we see letters as utilitarian symbols, they see vectors and human impulses; where we see books, they see experiences. Of course, some designers see their work as practical, physical -- necessary, in the most fundamental sense of the word. Inefficiency is ugly; lack of clarity is debilitating; language, in all its many forms -- aural, visual and print -- is only one way to tell a story.

This is where Lorraine Wild comes in. In the world of graphic design, particularly book design, Wild is one of the most innovative and thoughtful designers around. Her Los Angeles imprint, Green Dragon Office, established in 1996, has designed exhibition catalogs for museums including MOCA, UCLA’s Hammer Museum and the Getty Center as well as the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. There are art books such as “Looking at Los Angeles” (Metropolis Books), “Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Culture” (D.A.P.), “Beat Culture and the New America 1955-1965" (Whitney Museum of American Art / Harry N. Abrams) and “Masters of American Comics” (Yale University Press). Greybull Press, which Wild started in 1999 with two friends, Lisa Eisner and Roman Alonso, publishes photographic books -- forgotten archives of obsessions, heroes, subcultures, rituals and ceremonies, including a collection of Dennis Hopper photos from “1712 North Crescent Heights” and “Portraits of Women” by R. Crumb.

Wild has also taught at the California Institute of the Arts since 1985. (She was the director of the graphic design program from 1985 to 1991.) In spite of all this experience and authority, most of her work involves listening -- collaboration with curators, editors, publishers and artists. She has spent years studying the ways we read, think and absorb information, mix word and image. She is conscious of how often designers use a meta-language that can seem indecipherable. She does not, she insists, want to sound like a bloviator.

Wild’s studio is in a small, Spanish-style house with green trim and terra-cotta roof tiles next to her home in Hancock Park. She sits in a room with a conference table and wall-to-wall bookshelves. The jacaranda is blooming, and a vintage bicycle leans against a crumbling stucco wall.

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Wild came to Los Angeles by way of New York and Houston, after graduating from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan and getting her MFA from Yale in 1982. “Los Angeles is incredibly enriching for designers,” she says. “I can’t imagine doing the same work on the East Coast, where, at least through the 1990s, there was a much more conventional approach to design.”

Early in her career, Wild gravitated to book design as a more permanent showcase of her talents. “As a graphic designer,” she asks, “why design brochures that will be thrown away? I wanted to make something that would last.”

This idea of leaving a record is what makes book design appealing to Wild. A book, she says, has greater visual power than Web work or other “ephemeral” media. “Contrast your experience of going to YouTube,” she suggests, “with the experience of a book, which delivers a subject, and because the material has been edited, the interesting stuff is more immediately accessible. It has been digested and thought through.” Besides, she adds, “a book doesn’t flicker.”

But what about the notion that print is dead, that books will inevitably be replaced by newer, faster forms of information technology? Wild is not losing sleep like many publishers. Far from competing with new media, she claims, the book has benefited from the electronic revolution. Why? Publishers, she explains, “are now free to allow the book to be an object, a possibility that was not previously entertained in the hallowed and academic halls of publishing.”

But there’s more. “The experience of reading on-screen has made readers more aware of the inherent qualities only books possess,” Wild declares -- including a kind of definitive perfection she believes that print alone can achieve. In her view, other media are malleable and do not lend themselves to finality.

When Wild first hit the graphic design job market in 1982, the field was much more conventional. Modernism reigned. Designers had more control because they held all the tools and the knowledge. Now the field has opened up, thanks in part to computers. Designers have become participants.

“Design is not the first priority of most publishers,” Wild explains. “The classic relationship between an author and publisher involves the author being completely cut off from the design of the book.” And yet, the books Wild works on require design; they need a link between the images and the text that only a designer can provide. They are often the kinds of books that mainstream publishers, in light of the “harsh economic realities” of the industry, can’t really produce. Instead, such projects as “Bill Viola: The Passions,” produced in conjunction with the Getty, or “The World From Here: Treasures of the Great Libraries of Los Angeles,” developed with the UCLA Grunwald Center for the Arts, rely on museum budgets and public service organizations.

In Wild’s view, the role of the designer has changed to one of facilitator, even as Modernism has given way to a fascination with storytelling and narrative. “Before I went to graduate school,” she remembers, “Milton Glazer and others were predicting that design was going to become a kind of pink-collar ghetto as the audience for design broadened and became less elite.” Wild has found this to be more or less true. “I’m often working with material that someone else has created.” Her job is interpretive. In “Looking at Los Angeles” -- a panoramic collection gathering the work of some 100 photographers -- Wild and her team took an array of images and arranged them to tell the story of the city as a physical space.

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Wild is a typehead. (Her favorite font is Folio, which she loves, she once told an interviewer, for its “wonky eccentricities.”) She has written a great deal about type design, for which she retains a special fondness. Perhaps that’s because type is, in many ways, computer-resistant. The craft and culture of typography are not, as she puts it, “built into the software.”

Asked to elaborate, Wild continues: “The typographer must know something about hierarchies of meaning. The world is a mess typographically.” Ordinary magazines are a jumble of conflicting, cacophonous typefaces. “We live in a time where a degree of ugliness is allowed; designers have more tools and variety at their fingertips, but there is a lack of intention. Teaching design, one tries to convey to students the importance that one’s design mirror the meaning -- to keep the relationship between form and meaning alive. For young designers, typographic training is important because it is a crucial way to understand how meaning is conveyed in a culture.”

Wild uses her experience working on four books with the architectural firm Morphosis to illustrate how the computer has changed the design process. For the first book, “Morphosis: Diamond Bar Ranch” (Monacelli Press), published in 1989, designers had to figure out how to give two-dimensional photos and drawings a three-dimensionality and how to sequence images to offer a sense of what various places and buildings were truly like. Four years later, there was a huge shift in technical abilities, and three years after that, in 1996, the Morphosis office had shifted to digital production. “I lost power and control because of the technology,” Wild remembers. “They could put it together themselves, using their new toys.” With the fourth book, “Morphosis: Buildings and Projects 1998-2004" (Phaidon), however, the author-designer relationship returned to a more conventional form. Thanks to advances in technology, things had become so malleable that there was more time for conversation about the ideas that each page conveyed.

As for what this means in the present, Wild takes a utilitarian point of view. “The designer’s job is to make the world less overwhelming. Today, the stakes are higher. It’s easy to fall back on conventions because they are safe -- we all know what a book should look like. Some writers and artists play with those expectations in the way they sequence material, or by pairing words and images to create different stories. It’s this choreography that creates a visual narrative. I want the reader to not only get the message but also be let into the process.”

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Wild is chagrined that so many books have a sort of prefab design; particularly series and inexpensive paperbacks. She worries that books will either be very expensive or very cheap, with little middle ground. She believes in slow design: “Books are going to be around after we die, so there is an ethic to making them right, not just slapping something together from the mulch pile. Why kill all those trees to make something ugly?”

Although in Los Angeles, there is a strong job market in motion graphics because of the proximity to Hollywood, Wild has noticed a resurgence of interest among students and young designers in working with print. Students are fascinated with making books and books as objects. They look at books as an alternative universe to the screen -- an interesting twist in the Web era. Still, they are more accustomed to reading online than people in their 40s and their 50s.

“For me,” Wild says, “paper is an interactive document. I can ride it like a skateboard on Ocean Park Boulevard.”

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susan.reynolds@latimes.com


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