Julian Bittiner interview

"I don’t think good work is ever made quickly or effortlessly." We pick the brain of Yale lecturer and graphic designer Julian Bittiner.

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i. 20 Books From my Library
Client: Breda Graphic Design Festival

Poster made in response to a commission from the Breda Graphic Design Festival with the theme ‘decode’. I made a selection of 20 books from my library whose subjects offer systems for analysing and interpreting visual culture. Using the book titles as visual source material I rearranged them into one extended title, creating a new visual and verbal code that is simultaneously personal, historical, and absurd. Footnotes enable the viewer to identify (decode) the sources.

ii. Beginningless Thought/Endless Seeing: The Works of Stuart Sherman
Client: NYU Steinhardt

Exhibition catalog documenting a posthumous retrospective of the artist Stuart Sherman. The catalog surveys the wide spectrum of media that comprised the artist’s creative practice including performance, writing, drawing, collage, sculpture and film. A custom designed typeface is informed by the geometric abstraction and symbolism in Sherman's drawings.

iii. Nothing Up My Sleeve: An exhibition based on the work of Stuart Sherman
Client: Participant Inc./Regency Arts Press Ltd

Exhibition catalog focused on the performance work of the artist Stuart Sherman and including a selection of historical and contemporary artists whose work engages ideas of deception. The catalog is organised in two parts and read in two directions: one side features images and essays related to the work of Stuart Sherman, the other features the work and writing of related artists.

iv. The workspace

All photos © Julian Bittiner 2012

You are originally from Geneva, Switzerland; when did you move to the US?

After finishing high school in Switzerland I studied at Parsons in Paris for a year before transferring to Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles in the fall of 1992. My brother was in college there at the time and I had visited California a few times on vacation with my family in the '80s. I was a skateboarder infatuated with American culture, particularly the myths that California had to offer.

Where are you living now?

I live in Woodside, which is a neighborhood in Queens, New York.

"I was a skateboarder infatuated with American culture, particularly the myths that California had
to offer."

What did your parents do?

My parents are not artistically oriented – my father is a retired accountant and my mother worked for an airline industry trade group – but a fair number of my extended family are in the creative field. My brother is a lighting designer. 

After working for various studios and companies, you decided to start your own practice in 2004; had this always been something you wanted to do?

I’ve always been independently minded, having originally studied Fine Art. Upon graduating with a degree in design in ’99 I wanted to work for one of the few small studios or independent designers in LA, such as my teacher Denise Gonzales Crisp, but as a foreigner I needed a work permit and only a larger studio could get you one. So I went to work at MetaDesign in San Francisco, which was something of a culture shock as most of my teachers at Art Center were Cal Arts graduates. In a way this represented the beginning of an ideological shift eastwards, looking back to my roots in Europe for inspiration. Though I officially set up my own company in 2004, initially I worked mainly as an in-house freelancer for companies like Apple and Wolff Olins. It wasn’t until I moved to the east coast to get my MFA that I started to work directly with my
own clients.

Do you think your Swiss origins have influenced your design work?

Yes, though consciously only for the last ten years or so. Until the mid '90s I had no awareness of the legacy of Swiss graphic design, and when I first learned about it I wasn’t terribly interested. Living in LA in the '90s, it was all about Postmodernism (our discipline trailing other disciplines like architecture), and though schools like Art Center were built on a Bauhaus model, Modernism was viewed as a staid, spent force. 

As the Swiss design scene, centered around ECAL, began to reinvent itself, along with a more general renaissance in Europe at schools like the Werkplaats and the Rietveld, I became more interested in exploring the history of Modernism, which was much more eclectic and iconoclastic than I had imagined. Nowadays I try to balance my European and American influences and develop a design practice that is somehow rooted in the culture of New York. 

After finishing your MFA at Yale in 2008 you began working there as lecturer; what prompted the move to become an educator?

I had ideas about wanting to teach in some capacity after graduating and when I was offered the position in my final semester at school it was too good an opportunity to pass up. Because the School of Art wants its teachers to be primarily active practitioners, teaching doesn’t conflict with my professional goals, though getting the balance right can be a challenge, but one I’m happy
to have.

How would you define your role as a lecturer?

I’m currently teaching two classes each semester – an introductory design course and a typography course for undergraduates, and an advanced design class which has a mix of preliminary year graduate students and senior undergraduates. In addition to this I participate in end-of-semester reviews in the graduate program, admissions interviews, and occasional special projects. For example, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and I have been advising a small team of graduate students who are editing and designing an issue of GRAPHIC magazine to be published at the end of April. And recently I collaborated with a faculty member in the School of Public Health on a cross-disciplinary project called The Art of Public Health wherein we organised Public Health and Graphic Design students in pairs and tasked them with collaboratively creating a poster that addresses a pressing public health issue. 

Have you noticed much of a change in design education in recent years? 

This is only my fourth year teaching so I don’t have that much perspective but what I notice is increasingly difficult is the need to balance larger themes and goals while being responsive to and engaging new technological and social developments. To what extent can you train designers to be excellent thinkers and image-makers and typographers and researchers and programmers and photographers and filmmakers? You can’t so you have to choose where to focus and how deeply to delve. The design world seems to be in a mode of perpetual transition. 


"To what extent can you train designers to be excellent thinkers and image-makers and typographers and researchers and programmers and photographers and filmmakers?
You can’t..."

What has been the most rewarding project you have worked on so far?

I like variety and I find different projects rewarding for different reasons. Sometimes I’m particularly happy with a design idea, other times it's the content that really interests me, or the project represents the opportunity to work in a new medium or explore different production methods (of course I’m happiest when all these elements coincide).

I also enjoy working with the same client on multiple projects over time, such that you develop an understanding and a history together and can push ideas further than you might otherwise. One such client, who is also a friend, is the curator Jonathan Berger – we’ve done four projects together so far including two exhibition catalogs for the artist Stuart Sherman. 

What influences and inspires you? 

I’m a fairly obsessive book buyer and my interests are highly varied but ultimately I tend to get a lot of inspiration from a fairly small number of things that I discover and distil over time. Most recently I came across a short video about ‘The House of Glass’, an incredibly original and imaginative building made in the early '30s in Paris by the furniture designer Pierre Chareau. The specificity of the architecture in relation to the site and the needs of its inhabitants, and the level of detail that went into its design and construction, is really amazing.

I think figures that stand a little outside of their discipline, allowing for a certain remove and critical distance, as Chareau did, often create some of the most interesting and memorable work. I remember Karel Martens once telling me that he chose to live and work in the relatively remote town (by Dutch standards) of Arnhem, so that he wouldn’t be too influenced by others and could develop his own practice independently. I rather admire this approach.

How do you approach a new project?

Always by trying to delve as deeply as possible; learning as much about the project as I can and giving myself as much time as possible to come up with a response. The better I address this research phase and allow time for truly open-ended exploration, the more the outcome surprises me and hopefully brings something new and interesting to the table. I don’t think good work is ever made quickly or effortlessly.