Typesetting the table

This interview is part of a larger zine created early 2017—Typegeist—exploring the relationships between typography and popular culture.

Audiences can bet on receiving secondary art-pieces to muse over when musicians release bodies of music. Music videos, short films, cover art, and documentaries may accompany individual songs or entire albums, but it can be flawed to assume these pieces are accessories to music. The collaboration between musicians and alternate disciplines fulfills extensive art achieving individual autonomy, whether or not considered incomplete without the other.

The year 2016 reveals a growth in companion art that extends beyond the regular music video or cover art adoptions. Audiences were not only spoiled with Frank Ocean’s long-awaited album, Blond but also offered the chance to purchase his “Boys don’t cry” Zine. Solange surprised fans with a similar project.

A Seat at the Table, Solange’s third full-length album, explores both the pain and joy of black womanhood. Pitchfork’s “The 50 Best Albums of 2016” placed the album at number one, and Solange won her first Grammy for Best R&B Performance of her song “Cranes in the Sky”—featured on the record. The statement–heavy record was not the only piece of Solange’s 2016 endeavors. Eighty-six lucky fans received a hardcover book before the album’s actual release, but the arrival of A Seat at the Table clarified the contents of the piece. Available to view online, the art book is filled with lyrics from the songs and photos from the accompanying music videos.

The art book certainly is a companion to the record. However, those who received this piece before hearing the album saw soon–to–be lyrics as beautifully worked type, and Montreal based graphic designer Frédérique Gagnon is the craftswoman behind the art book’s typographic work. Frédérique’s previous book focused projects have been through Anteism—a publisher that specializes in limited, short-run editions.

“They are based in Montreal but have been working with international artists and galleries, largely out of New York. The founder of Anteism, Harley Smart, lived in New York before and still spends a lot of time there, including this summer when Solange and her assistants contacted him. I was then asked to explore concepts and designs for the book,” Frédérique, says.

A creep through Solange’s Instagram page (@saintrecords) reveals her interest in eclectic fashion, photography, art, and architecture. Frédérique explains her direction from Solange’s interests herself. “I was working from my studio here in Montreal, and I exchanged emails with Solange. I tried to understand a little bit about the creative process she went through while working on her album, what kind of visuals would have inspired her. She was helpful and sent a mood board of graphics, photos, paintings, and collages—mentioning a special interest in Donald Judd’s work and minimalism. I was especially inspired when she sent a few Matisse collages, which I already had on my desktop for personal reference.

With this in mind, I started working on mock-ups of the individual pages of the book and sent them a proposal. I gave them the concept for the text layout of the book and they were really happy with it. The rest was completed quickly as there was not a lot of time before her launch date. The art director who had been collaborating with her on the photography, Carlota Guerrero, worked on completing the book, added the photos and included the final versions of the lyrics.”

Flipping through the book reveals the collaborative work of diverse artists, but it is Frédérique’s text arrangement that sparks intrigue to her design choices. “The text layout I proposed to her adopted certain characteristics of early concrete poetry while following a more rigid grid to reference Minimalism and the reductive aspects of Modernism. Setting a graphics format that breaks design rules and puts greater emphasis on the text while leaving the viewers hyper-aware of the content. A sans serif typeface set in black on an open sea of white space still tends to devote to the art audience that they are in the territory of the Idea. My layouts were referencing a little bit more the rigidity of some of the Modernism design, whereas Carlota Guerrero ended up incorporating a few layouts that were more organic, referencing more of an Apolinaire’s calligramme, which were done earlier, around 1900.”

The album itself had not yet been released once the very first fans got their hands on the book, and Frédérique too did not have access to the music when constructing the typographic layout.

“I had access to the lyrics as well as the visual inspiration Solange had collected while composing the album. She was also helpful with discussing a little bit of her process. I think that not having heard the music beforehand was a cool experience because it made me really focus on the words and not the sound. I am really interested in linguistics and translation and thought this project was great research on the subject. Language is essentially quite abstract and esoteric, so making language visible is a compelling challenge to me. I was happy to work with the words and concentrate on translating them into visual elements.”

The talented Montreal designer saw a project like this not only as a challenge but also as a setting for her individual style of the craft. “What interests me the most in graphic design is the tension that emerges between the desire to not only organize but also to create confusion. I try to break away from restrictions and expectations, literally bending the qualities of the content. I was therefore glad to hear that this project asked for this kind of play with type—using type as images. I like to explore a graphic language that is gestural, and this project really allowed for that. Like I said, the purpose of this book was to make the viewers hyper-aware of the content, and one way to do so, I believe, is to subversively err in graphic design. By breaking familiar forms of delivery, you can disrupt the expectations of an audience, thereby emphasizing the content,” Frédérique says.

“What interests me the most in graphic design is the tension that emerges between the desire to not only organize but also to create confusion. I try to break away from restrictions and expectations, literally bending the qualities of the content.”

Working with other artists doesn’t always entail such creative freedom, especially when the deadline is tight, yet Solange offered up a seemingly blank canvas for Frédérique to work with. “This project allowed for a lot of creative freedom, as opposed to some other more commercial work I have done. I enjoy working with artists and photographers on their books. I feel that they appreciate how the process of creating books allows them to consider their work in a new and/or different way. I value this kind of collaboration and it is a quite a different process than working for clients, for example, on advertising content. However, the role of graphic design is to create a language that everyone can understand and relate to, and this idea, then, can be true for any type of project, in disregard of the creative freedom involved.”

“The projects I have been pursuing lately explore the role of instability and incidents in visual communications. I try to operate in a state of openness and allow the “random” to affect my work. I get most excited by the dysfunctional qualities of my process. I was therefore really glad to work on this project, as sometimes, I don’t have this much latitude when working with certain clients,” she says.

The young designer’s work on Solange’s art book is noteworthy. However, Frédérique’s personal website is full of equally impressive projects to peruse over. She’s been working independently as an art director and graphic designer for almost two years, as the designer pursued an undergraduate degree in communications and graphic design at Vancouver’s Emily Carr University before working two years in Montreal at La Presse. Frédérique, then, went back for further education and completed a one–year Masters certificate at Concordia University.

“The program was called Digital art and technology in design practice. I had the chance to be a teaching assistant for two undergraduate courses while completing this graduate certificate (advanced typography and a portfolio class). In 2014, I founded the studio Opération Béton, and I started taking on a wide variety of projects, working on commissions and self-initiated assignments of different nature (printed matter, editorial, exhibition design, environments, and the world wide web).”

Considering this growth in companion art it was only necessary to prod Frédérique regarding her opinion around the common phrase that “print is dead”—especially working as a designer who dabbles into the world of print.

“Indeed it is more common to see art projects associated with album releases I thought the collaboration between Frank Ocean, Tom Sachs and Wolfgang Tillman for Ocean’s Blond album was really interesting. I think it is a great way to learn a little more about a musician’s process when you are able to experience these visual narratives created alongside their release. I am interested in publication design and have had the opportunity to work on inspiring book projects lately, including the art book to accompany Solange’s album. There are a lot of reasons why I believe the printed matter is and will always be an important part of our society. Prints reactivate past events, they keep them alive in our constantly changing world in a way digital can’t achieve.”

Claiming print’s demise may be blurry, but the work of artists in 2016 is clear. The collaborative and community-based work in creating art juxtaposes the period of divisiveness we continually see on our screens, and the exchange between musicians, designers, artists and the like reveals the aim to communicate the same story.

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