Under cover, Jenny Nicholls

Fronting up: Classic New Zealand Magazine Covers
Richard Wolfe
David Ling Publishing in association with Auckland War Memorial Museum, $49.99,
ISBN 1877378062

There are too many magazines. But I would say that. For a number of years (outside the timespan of this book) I have designed the cover of Metro magazine, and I hate all those other harlots screeching for your dollars. The fact is that today you can choose any one of thousands of magazines, and for us it’s war. Perhaps you buy Metro already. But you might walk past, you might forget. I need to make you notice me now. I need to seduce you, to be frank, and not just once.

The usual commercial imperatives apply, as well as a responsibility to the journalists who have worked hard all month. They are relying on you, the designer, not to let them down, not to sell them short. The words are done: now sell their ass.

All this is true. But magazine cover design is also an art form. Space, colour, metaphor and type are swimming pools of possibility, where the only guides are instinct and your own eyes. Like any art, it’s personal. But, unlike other art forms, it must be understood immediately, which is, counter-intuitively, the most difficult thing.

Richard Wolfe’s book contains more than a century’s worth of often beautiful work by New Zealand designers. It’s nice to see their work, because without meaning to sound cranky, graphic design is an unsung business. To the rest of the arts community, the taint is capitalism. To everyone else, the taint is that of the merely aesthetic. We are seen as the hairdressers of journalism, of meaning. So I am happy to see so much New Zealand graphic design – but hopping mad, too, because as so often in this country the designer’s role is not understood.

Tellingly, ironically, the cover is pug ugly. The content, in essence, is an illustrated history of New Zealand magazine cover design, ending – for some obscure reason – at 6 May 1996. Each cover is given its own page and a brief blurb containing the magazine’s CV, and some titbit from the magazine’s insides. I can understand the difficulty in attributing typographical work on the very oldest magazines. But the lack of a design credit is hard to forgive in contemporary magazines which carry staff lists.

The caption for the North & South January 1988 cover is typically outrageous, as Wolfe mentions the name of the editor, two assistant editors and one of the senior writers. But the name of cover designer Pali Pancha is absent, though Wolfe would have had to pass it on his way to the others on the list inside the magazine. That cover, chosen to represent North and South, is in any case a baffling choice. The “Great New Zealand Summer” image couldn’t be less typical of a magazine which is notorious for its hard-hitting conceptual covers.

Meaningless, lazy captions abound, such as “The provocative cover used (my italics) a photograph by Kim Christensen, and was designed by the magazine’s art director William Chen.” (Metro, November 1988). Chen’s role is misunderstood and underrepresented. He conceived, visualised, commissioned and art-directed the photograph. The caption accompanying this cover would have been an ideal opportunity to discuss the career of Chen, an influential New Zealand magazine typographer and the art director of Metro for over 17 years. Instead, Wolfe waffles, “Under editor Warwick Roger and his deputy Stephen Stratford, a regular Metro feature at this time was Felicity Ferret’s ‘City Life’ column which promised ‘Close Encounters of the Urban Kind’.”

Oddly, conceptual covers don’t seem to have interested Wolfe. These are covers which use visual metaphor to convey an idea: such as George Lois’s famous 1969 Esquire cover collage of Andy Warhol disappearing into a Campbell’s soup can, which illustrated “the final decline and total collapse of the American avant-garde”. There are plenty of examples of clever use of metaphor in local magazine covers, and it is hard to understand how this genre could have escaped Wolfe. The lack of an index of the designers, art directors, illustrators, photographers and editors mentioned in the text adds to the intellectual torpor.

Wolfe presents these covers as social-historical objects produced by their age, museum pieces, rather than works of serious individual artistry. His lost opportunity of a book reminds me of one of those small-town museums run on a shoestring, with brass bedpans and milking buckets proudly displayed, cobwebby oddities from a different era. Under each quaint artefact rests a dusty little card with a meandering legend, handwritten by the old chap who runs the place.

 

Jenny Nicholls is an Auckland reviewer.  

 

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Posted in Media, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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