Are we online? I’m sorry,” Marian Bantjes says when she realizes I’ve begun taping our conversation as we idle in the pool at El Sol Motel in Borrego Springs, California, on a warm fall evening. We’ve hiked up Palm Canyon to see the oasis, encountered mountain goats and a full moon and have returned from dinner bouncing around ideas like pinballs. Bantjes was invited to speak at CalArts and Art Center College of Design in Pasadena last November. She extended her California visit to include a side trip to San Diego and the Anza-Borrego desert. We had met at the icograda conference last year in Seattle, and I had offered to be her tour guide if she made it to Southern California.
Bantjes, a Canadian designer who lives on Bowen Island off of Vancouver, British Columbia, had never been to the American desert. The stark mountains, deep shadows and muted palette have inspired her to compare environments. Hers is one of some isolation, so this rugged site is not beyond her comfort zone. Bantjes and her partner Dante—with a great deal of elbow grease and seven tons of basalt—transformed their Alpine-style house into a modern functional home and studio and their large yard into a terraced garden. Bantjes is perpetually busy exploring ideas both written and visual, and is, as readers of her posts on the design discussion Web site Speak Up (www.underconsideration.com/speakup
) will attest, a very smart and, very opinionated, woman. She has tackled topics for Speak Up ranging from the design of Canada’s money to the iconography of Santa (and what that might mean for identity design), to reviews of art exhibitions and the aesthetics of cute (no to Disney but tribbles anyone?). “I can get rather riled up,” she admits. Her writing is frequently tongue-in-cheek, wonderfully descriptive and a perfect complement to her complex and lavish designs that combine hand-drawn and digital elements.
Above all, Bantjes is an elastic thinker. Her desire for experience makes her a keen cultural observer and her self-deprecating sense of humor informs those observations. She is one of those people who can both do and
teach—Bantjes teaches typography. While her work seesaws between design and illustration, she finds the term graphic artist to be most fitting, although some-what ironic, as she feels it is a term most designers would reject.
She is also a bit manic, and often undertakes huge projects with singular gusto (see second paragraph). Take for example this last Valentine’s Day. Not content with anyone else’s sentiments, Bantjes drew 150 personalized hearts. In an enclosed note (neatly typeset with initial cap and heart dingbat), Bantjes wrote: “Why I chose to do this rather than offset print like a normal person is a story not really worth telling.” But of course it is. It’s just one more example of the hands-on approach she takes to work, and to the sentiment that is infused into her artistic expressions whether written or painted.
In 1994 Bantjes founded design firm Digitopolis in Vancouver. She was co-owner and principal designer for nine years (and a year more as lead designer following her buyout as owner) before beginning her freelance career four years ago. She began to question her relationship to design and felt a career change was needed. She walked away from a successful business and hunkered down on Bowen Island to redefine herself, and create a retreat. “I took a huge risk. Most people can’t take that kind of risk,” she says, explaining that she had only herself for which to be responsible, adding, “When I decided to give that up, my income dropped to zero for over a year.” Her income still hasn’t risen to her former “comfortable” level, but work has recently picked up and she does not seem to lack for projects.
Now she juggles the hats of designer, writer and artist and seems at peace with the direction her life and career have taken. “My life is incredibly stress-free. I don’t have to go to meetings ever. All my clients are in some other city, or in the U.S. or the U.K. I don’t have to drive in traffic. I live a pretty good life on my little green island,” she concludes. She has a distinct comfort level with certain types of business interactions, and seems perfectly content to work in the type of relative isolation that could make a less resolute person rather twitchy. Although Bantjes considers the hours between two and eight p.m. her prime working hours, she confesses to usually working from about nine a.m. until midnight, “I think I’ve turned into a workaholic. I’m really only happy when I’m working.”