2x4's it is what it is
Originally published in Places Journal, November 2009

Founded in 1994 by Michael Rock, Susan Sellers and Georgianna Stout, the New York-based graphic design firm 2x4 is the subject of a new exhibition at Tokyo’s Eye of Gyre Gallery and an accompanying, well, object, called it is what it is — a hefty, rectangular, canvas-bound catalog that comprises a visual history of the firm’s design process. Self-published, with covers in six different colors (red, blue, gray, pink, yellow and gold), the book documents with exhausting intensity the beginning-to-end process of delivering multifaceted design to diverse clients in different media — the long and uncertain road from initial concept to a “practically autistic phase of visual generation” consisting of Sharpie-scratches, charrettes and stray thoughts, and on to the eventual, polished execution, which could be a printed document, an object, wallpaper, LED lighting or façade. To describe it is what is is as “illustrated” would be an understatement: merely four of the 1,000 pages contain copy.

Perusing the other 996 pages, readers will immediately recognize that 2x4 has created some of the most distinctive spaces and brand identities of recent memory. These include interactive environments for Prada and Chanel as well as logos for museums and cultural centers, e.g., the energetic, bright-blue piñata-bursts of the logotype of the Brooklyn Museum and the moody, glamorous, searchlight strokes of the on-screen animated logo of the American Museum of the Moving Image, which at once evokes the end of Casablanca and the beginning of Taxi Driver (when Travis Bickle’s headlights cut through a cloud of cinematic steam).

2x4 also created the striking, alpine-white identity for Malin + Goetz’s line of unisex hair and skin care products, with the intention not only of fashioning individual units of Cilantro Hair Conditioner and Mojito Candles, but also of translating this look into the brand’s flagship store in New York’s Chelsea. On the 2x4 website (but not in this book), Stout states that “the simple bottles use the required typography as a color field: each color signifying a separate line. When stacked together they form a bigger field, each bottle a pixel in a color composition.”

The pixel is a good metaphor for it is what it is, which is organized not chronologically, not geographically or even by project, but rather by undetermined themes that only become apparent upon close investigation. Readers (or should I say “viewers”?) therefore will find aspects of particular projects peppered throughout the book’s wide expanse, offering a fascinating and comparative glimpse into the linguistic, semiotic, social and economic factors that might inform the final product. For example, the firm’s work for Los Angeles’ Otis College of Art and Design appears on pages 24, 104, 249, 584 and 585. It’s the same branding project throughout, but one finds it in various phases. We see the project’s initial stages on page 24 — a broad-based comparative study of “other Otises’” ranging from the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (the logo of which is a child’s hand inside the palm of an adult, contained within a lavender box) to Otis Spunkmeyer (cookie lovers will recognize the homey, 1970s-vintage arc of text that, to this reader, recalls the intro credits to The Carol Burnett Show, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Hee-Haw all rolled into one).

Otis then disappears for a while, returning on page 104 as a bold, distinct and sturdy “O,” grafted onto baseball hats, tee-shirts and tote bags. Then, after succumbing to a whirlwind of case studies, demographic indexes, photographic records of computer screens or rejected typography tests related to other projects, Otis resurfaces yet again — we’re on page 249 — with the same “O,” now scaled-up and rendered onto the side of a building, and featuring the cryptic label “smog reduction.” Finally, readers can witness what may or may not be the ultimate iteration on pages 584–85: an Otis College of Art and Design course catalog. Given the buildup, it’s an oddly underwhelming deliverable — especially for a book about delivery.

But given the scope and arrangement of the book, the presentation of the Otis project trajectory might be exactly the point — it might leave us in awe of the razzle-dazzle processes at play in the 2x4 studio (alongside many other overlapping projects), or make us simply shrug our shoulders and think, yes, it might just be what it is. Ambiguity is key to it is what it is, which as a text could be misconstrued by intro-to-literary-theory undergrads as an exercise in reader-response criticism. At the outset, the authors identify the book as a “blurry telling of a blurry story.” But what may one day become a treasured, archival cache of ephemera for design history PhD candidates can also feel decidedly clubby and obtuse today. One wonders: What might any of this mean to someone not already aware of 2x4’s work?

The answer may lie in the other publications that 2x4 recommends on the e-commerce site for the book (where — full disclosure — a blurb of mine is featured). These titles establish the situational compass points not provided within the publication itself. What are the inspirations, the collaborations, the references behind the works documented here? Shoppers find “buy now” links to Rem Koolhaas’s elusive How it Works: Lagos, to the catalogue designed by Irma Boom for the Bard Center’s exhibition Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor and, most tellingly, to Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore’s 1967 The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, which at the time Bantam Books described this way: A look-around to see what’s happening — and why! You are changing. Your family is changing. Your education, your neighborhood, your government, your relation to “the others” is changing. Dramatically!

Forty years later, the tools that we shape continue to shape us, and in this sense, it is what it is succeeds completely, as a sensory experience, a McLuhan-esque technological extension of the eye. The images practically jump off the page into our consciousness and they literally jump off the page onto the walls of the Eye of Gyre Gallery. There, multiple copies of the book are fused together to stack and form a long, multicolor, mosaic-like table, a centerpiece to the content and conversation of the exhibition and the book. And not only does the exhibition reshape both text and book as furniture, but it also recalls one of the persistent motifs of 2x4’s work: the pixel. Here, 2x4 has captured that spirit in page after page of unexpurgated cool.