With her unique approach to typography and illustration, Canadian maverick Marian Bantjes has captured the attention of the design world. Matt Havercroft tracked her down to her remote island studio to explore her body of work.
It's been a busy couple of months for Canadian designer Marian Bantjes. As well as judging the typography category at the D&AD awards in London, she picked up a Gold Racie award from the National Retail Federation for the Want It campaign she created for Saks Fifth Avenue. She has also found the time to lecture students at the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis, win a commission for a new poster campaign and start work on a new book proposal. Not bad going for an artist who actively shuns city life, preferring to work out of a remote studio on an island off the coast of Vancouver.
With a distinctive style that blends illustration, type and graphic design, Bantjes is something of a colourful enigma in the predominantly black-and-white world of typography. Claiming to be inspired by everything from 14th to 18th century calligraphy, Islamic art and Victoriana, to modernist architecture, Persian carpets and even garbage, she has produced a diverse portfolio of work that includes disintegrating fonts made out of sugar, complex vector art collages and elaborate pen-and-ink graphic images. While this has helped to distinguish her from her contemporaries and won the admiration of international critics, she is the first to admit that being a maverick has its drawbacks.
"It's really hard trying to explain my work to someone who is not familiar with it - and I hate doing it," she says. "In fact, I'm not going to a party tonight because I can't bear the thought of doing it over and over. I sometimes say that I'm a 'graphic artist' but it usually requires more explanation like: 'A lot of custom lettering, ornament, sometimes patterns... a graphic designer but also an illustrator of sorts; a typographer.'
One of her favourite pieces is Sustainability, vector artwork she created in October 2007 for paper company Stora Enso. "This is, in my opinion, my best work," says Bantjes. "The word sustainability is created out of a complex, variable pattern. I have also used archival images of people throughout. I wanted to create a sense of family and time, because sustainability is about preserving things for generations, so I wanted people to think about a continuum of humanity. Close up, the pattern has depth, and from a distance it looks a bit like a tree and sky."
More recently, Bantjes produced Colours of the Brain, a poster campaign for a one-day conference on synaesthesia at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Produced entirely by hand, it's a 3D graphic representation of a head with a red line that swirls, bends and twists its way around a green ring. "I made something that is rigid, but organic, with movement, and a lot of colour," she says. "I painted it quite small, at 25 per cent of its final size, because I wanted it to reveal the brush strokes when it was blown up, and to be kind of blobby and rich."
For Bantjes, the strength of her work stems from this desire to be different. "It's very un-Canadian to toot your own horn, but I think that my work is more adventurous than many people's, and more structured and considered than most. And, if I do say so, it's also better crafted than most as well. This doesn't seem to matter, because I see a lot of god awful, badly drawn and rendered shit out there, but it matters to me."
While Bantjes' work has won her a number of awards, including the Certificate of Excellence in Type Design from the Type Directors' Club for her first commercial typeface Restraint, she has also made the transition from award winner to judge for a number of design awards. For her, the test of good design is how it affects you emotionally. "I look for something that delights me, which doesn't necessarily mean light and cheery. Of course the pinnacle is to find something you wish you'd done yourself. From there, I look for things that invoke my curiosity, make me approach and explore them, and after that it's detail. So many things fail the detail test."
This obsession with detail can be seen in much of Bantjes' work. However, she admits that her desire to create complicated pieces makes it hard to be happy with a finished piece. "Lately I've had trouble underbaking my work. I think I need to work past the point where I think it's finished. Most designers have a tendency to over-work and need to pull back. I'm done when I'm satisfied, but sometimes I need to push myself further."
Although Bantjes is best known for her work with type, she suggests that it is also her biggest weakness: "I'm very good with typography, but it's still not where I want it to be. Unfortunately I don't get a lot of type-heavy projects. I have to make these up myself. People often want to learn 'advanced typography' from me, and I don't know how to tell them I'm still struggling with that myself - and, in fact, I don't even know what that is or how you could possibly teach it."
Bantjes continues in her crusade to challenge typographic conventions and create work that grabs people's attention. "I think my greatest achievement so far is just being where I am, and having the ability to inspire people," she says. "I never foresaw that, and it has been remarkable and wonderfully rewarding. I hope I can keep it up."