"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.”
She professes to a certain fascination with the way writing is manifested on the page, and the ways in which we represent information. “I have this interest in diagrams, and the visual representation of information. It’s actually a bugbear for me,” Bantjes states. “I’ve been completely astounded by the number of designers and design writers—particularly if they are writers who are also designers or artists in some way—who will write something and provide no visuals with it, or at the very mini-mum a couple of representative images. I feel there is so much possibility for representing ideas and thoughts and processes and flow of information in a visual way that is not used by the vast majority of people who are writing.”
Warming to the topic, she continues, “Even things like presentations at conferences. They’ll talk and they’ll show some pictures, but they don’t integrate the visual aspects of communication into their talks—and it blows my mind. I think that’s incredibly weird,” Bantjes says, her voice rising with inflection.
“For instance, a while ago FontShop asked me to contribute something to their font 004 issue and they gave me six pages; they had a theme of community. I initially wrote an article about community and the levels of inclusion and exclusion that exist in any community. After I had written the basic article, I started to illustrate it and just started chopping away at the stuff that I had dealt with in the article until the entire article was gone and what was left was this illustration that was representative of the stuff I had been talking about,” Bantjes explains. “I have a lot of other ideas in my head for things like that, that I’d like to do, which are an integration of the thinking, writing and distillation of ideas, and bringing it into a graphic environment...” she says, stopping for a breath.
“I don’t have a design process. I don’t research. Quite often I’ll wake up with the idea,” she relates, but then laughs and allows that often those ideas turn out to be a bit hare-brained. Her clients include Pentagram, Stefan Sagmeister, Michael Vanderbyl, Winterhouse, Y&R Chicago, the New York Times, AIGA, Wired, Texas Monthly, the Guardian and Wallpaper*; they come to Bantjes for her typography, illustration and design—those elements fuse to create an elegant and thoughtful approach to a range of topics.
“I’m not one of those people intimidated by the open brief,” Bantjes states. “I was thinking about this the other day: What are the ingredients that allow me to create my best work? One of them is the open brief. I just did something for a client, basically giving me a size and one word, which has to be readable, and I created what I’m pretty sure is my best work yet. The thing for Stefan: His brief was, ‘It has to be beautiful and legible.’ For the Guardian: ‘Something with the word Surrealism, no dripping clocks.’ The Design Matters Live poster for Debbie Millman and the AIGA...no particular restraints beyond the obvious ones for posters and mailers, etc. All the stuff I’ve done for the GDC [The Society of Graphic Designers of Canada]. I’ve had carte blanche. Often, the more direction I’m given the lesser quality the work. And almost the worst that anyone can say is, ‘We’d like something like [something I’ve done before].’ I hate to repeat myself. The worst is, ‘We’d like something like [something someone else has done]’—to which my answer is always ‘no.’”
After breakfast at a nearby café, we photograph the motel’s great vintage neon and head out of the Anza-Borrego desert. The steady hum of Marian’s rented Cadillac DeVille underscores our conversation as we climb out of the desert floor and head west. Despite her lack of a commute, Bantjes is an excellent driver, deftly handling the mountain’s curves and grades. She is silent for a moment and then introduces a new topic, one she has put considerable thought into—the role and meaning of ornamentation. She’s mystified by the types of people who are drawn to her work that she feels shouldn’t be aesthetically inclined to appreciate it. “There is something about ornamental work...” she says. She sees it as an expression of obsessive devotion, this idea that if something is precious, it must be crafted by hand, not through “digital trickery.” Bantjes takes the conversation further, tying the question of ornamentation to larger issues such as the meaning of beauty and whether there are universal standards of beauty, a topic suited to a drive far longer than one hour. A Vancouver colleague, Sigrid Albert says, “You are doing just what the medieval monks did when they illuminated those manuscript letters with their immense attention to detail and passion, almost visibly grasping for communication with a higher being/a higher state of being, however one wants to express it. I don’t know how I didn’t see this sooner. You’re creating deeply spiritual typography which goes beyond religion.”
Being an atheist, she might debate how much of her work is heavenly inspired, but there is no doubt that Marian Bantjes’s work is done with great patience and care. She will continue to ponder the value of ornamentation and her role in the design world—those and many other topics are as wide open as the sky over Bantjes’ garden. ca