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Philippe Apeloig: Experimental Modernist
Font Magazine - 2001
The posters of Philippe Apeloig are all about poise. One exemplary piece shows a photograph of a Japanese Butoh dancer crouched before an upright egg the size of his head. A ghostly glow illuminates the dancer’s face as he approaches the egg, his fingers nervously splayed before him. Hovering vertically to the left is Apeloig’s delicately balanced type bearing the name of the dance troupe, Sankai Juku—“studio of mountain and sea” and the title of the work, Unetsu—“the egg stands out of curiosity.” The type seems to approach the egg with the same trepidation as the dancer, and for Apeloig, a deft typographer, the relationship between the two is not accidental. Moving type around is a great deal like choreography, he says. “When you read a text most of the time it’s very static—you don’t even look at the shape of the letters, you consider the meaning—but one of the goals of the designer is to make text appear spectacular, like a show that really catches your eyes.” In fact, Apeloig, who was born in Paris in 1962, spent ten years of his early childhood learning to be a dancer, before arriving at the revelation that he wasn’t a natural. “I was very bad, I think, because I never had rhythm, but I loved the movement.” He discovered graphic design “by accident” he says, at the Paris École Supérieure des Arts Appliqués, where a general arts degree included a class in what the school titled “visual expression.” This led him to calligraphy and a schooling in the French-traditional approach to design (think Cartier). But it was during internships at the Dutch graphic powerhouse Total Design that he acquired a taste and understanding of the Modernist approach that became the underpinning of his work.
Apeloig is a Modernist in the experimental sense of the word exploring the formal limits of a predetermined medium, materials and palette. His monograph, to be published this Summer by Lars Muller, is devoid of interactive design, TV graphics, or CD covers and almost entirely full of posters. “I’m not fascinated by TV or the Web,” Apeloig explains of his pursuit of the poster. “You have to protect yourself and to learn to not see. It’s very hard to keep a clean eye. There are millions of images surrounding us polluting our visual capability.” His work is rooted in the typographic language and compositional tenets of the International Style, yet couldn’t be more different from that of an arch disciple of Swiss Modernism like, say, Massimo Vignelli. Two posters from 1998 illustrate the point. The first, for the Octobre en Normandie festival, based on the theme of “birth/rebirth” or “naissance/renaissance,” is a duotone montage of rays of light, a butterfly, a dying—or dancing—figure. It would not be out of place lined up next to a Herbert Bayer or Moholy-Nagy, were it not for the dimensional depth and seamless production qualities that bring it into the 21st century. From the same family is a Caribbean literature poster for a book fair. Riffing on the tropical theme, it depicts an abstracted sun casting rays of light over salsa-dancing blocks of translucent type forming patterns reminiscent of windswept palm trees. As both dancers and designers know, flexibility is the ticket to fast learning. After two years working as a designer of posters and graphics for the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, Apeloig visited the US and befriended the digital graphics pioneer April Greiman, a designer he admired for merging irreverence and freshness with a strong typographic sense. Apeloig was inspired enough to obtain a grant from the French Foreign Ministry and left for California, where Greiman had offered him an internship in her studio. Arriving in LA in 1988, however, he was horrified by the sight of designers lined up at computers like secretaries. “The Musee d’Orsay is about the 19th century,” says Apeloig, “and arriving in LA was like jumping into the future with all these people with their keyboards and their screens.” After a few months, Apeloig came to the inevitable realization that he couldn’t return to Paris without having learned to produce work on this then-emerging Macintosh computer. He began to pick up on Greiman’s appreciation of pixellated, low resolution and moired textures, and learned the basics from her. “It was so painful at the beginning,” he says, “and I made so many mistakes, but the mistakes also opened doors.” Greiman notes how Apeloig’s dynamic compositional sense and strong type was transformed by the impact of digital tools. “I think the technology here really influenced his work a lot,” says Greiman. “He was able to experiment more easily and hybridize things. Before that he was pretty much a traditional graphic designer.”
A poster for a 1992 exhibition of Apeloig’s work at Arc en Rêve, a center for contemporary design in Bordeaux, bears certain similarities to the Greiman approach positioning sans serif type on a fine grid of shifting planes reminiscent of a screen-test pattern. By 1994, when Apeloig had arrived in Italy armed with a fellowship for the French Academy of Art in Rome, he was incorporating elements of the computer’s modular approach to type in his design. Inspired by the classical lettering inscribed in stone all around him, he began developing an architectonic typeface called Octobre. “My goal was to create a typeface using solid objects like wood or stone,” he explains. He used it for a poster promoting a dance and music festival in Normandy, where it appears in various sizes arranged on a grid and connected by rules in a composition reminiscent of a choreographic diagram. The rather traditionalist-minded client, expecting a photographic image rather than an all-type poster, initially balked at the idea. Apeloig won the fight and the Tokyo Type Directors Club liked it enough to give it a gold prize.
Now a full-time professor at The Cooper Union School of Art, Apeloig is attempting to bridge the gap between the technological obsessions of his students and the perennial need to develop a typographic sensibility beyond the defaults of the computer. Having come of age at a time when the computer was first embraced as a radical solution, he is now witnessing it take over. “Design is idea-oriented,” he says, “that’s what’s missing in the US, which is more technologically driven.”
As part of the antidote, he has invited a roster of internationally known designers to give one-off lectures at the school, including Wang Xu from China, Malcolm Garrett from Britain and Wolfgang Weingart from Basel, the latter a designer whose direct influence on Greiman is well documented, and whose rigor and individualism played an important part in Apeloig’s development. “It’s important that students don’t limit themselves to what they learn from their teachers,” he says.
As for his own work, it has taken a turn toward the sparely executed conceptual wit that is enjoying something of a renaissance in New York at the moment. His exemplary poster in this vein is one advertising an exhibition of, appropriately enough, posters. The names of participating designers are printed on nine mini posters within the large sheet, their edges turned over to reveal brightly colored reverse sides. Only when viewed from a distance does the game reveal itself. The mini posters in fact form letters spelling out two words, “the poster.”
Texte: Peter Hall