David Reinfurt (born in 1971, Chapel Hill) is, together with Stuart Bailey, founder of the New York-based design studio Dexter Sinister. Here, he talks about his approach toward graphic design, the economy of print production, and the circulation of information.
In the sixties designers, at least in Europe, saw themselves as problem solvers. Today digital technology allows everyone to make use of images, words, hashtags, and memes. Consumers have become producers. How do you relate to the history of design? And how do you, as a designer, work today? The self-identified designers I know right now cover a broad spectrum of activities. They are assembling books, making websites, posters, identities, performing typical commissions, but also curating exhibitions, computer programming, organizing events, releasing software, making videos, running galleries, and circulating information in too many ways to list here. I suppose it is tempting for me to suggest that this is something new, but I am not convinced it is. The American designers Charles and Ray Eames made furniture, films, graphics, and exhibitions. They staged multimedia slide shows, developed novel teaching demonstrations, consulted with universities or other corporations, and so on. Some of their projects, they assigned to themselves, and some they received as commissions. Many of the projects fell somewhere in between. There is a comprehensive book of their projects titled Eames Design. Flipping through the projects listed in chronological order gives some insight into their heterogeneity. Throughout these, the Eameses had a clear idea of what linked their disparate activities. Design Q & A is an Eames film from 1972 presented in the form of an interview, which became the basis of a comprehensive exhibition of their work at the Palais de Louvre. The questions are direct, and Charles Eames’ replies are compact and precise. After being asked, “What is design?” and replying, “It is the arrangement of materials towards a specific purpose,” he is then asked if design is a method of general expression. He answers, “No, it is a method of action.” Although this reply is half a century in the past, I think it still usefully summarizes the kinds of projects that I and many other designers I know find ourselves doing. What links them is not a specific activity, but rather an approach. There is a great article titled A Happy Octopus on the Eameses’ approach, written by Philip and Phylis Morrison. This very much encapsulates why I think what they did matters. I use it in my teaching and it is here as a PDF.
In 2006 you and Stuart Bailey founded Dexter Sinister, a collaborative project, bookstore, and workshop at Ludlow Street. Since its inauguration, the initiative has challenged the boundaries between designing, producing, publishing, writing, and distribution. How would you describe Dexter Sinister’s approach? This must certainly continue from the previous question. When we set up Dexter Sinister, we borrowed the words of the British furniture designer Norman Potter and announced in an opening invitation that: “There is a certain sense in which we are wholly involved in metaphor and in which a small construct such as this – local to its context and wholly a one-off – may show some value also as a model, which will then be a model of address, of attitude and approach, rather than one of outcome or consequence. I do not want to strain its credibility further than that. In a more diffuse way, the same might be said of a small workshop. I hope however that by veering so alarmingly between the general and the particular, and between the realms of metaphor and practicality, I have suggested to you that every technical possibility has a wider equivalence, and a positive need to seek relationship with its neighbours. There are many roles for your own future workshops, and I hope you will occupy them with devotion, intelligence, and high good humour. Good luck with your inheritance!” The point is only that it might be possible to operate in a small, discreet manner, and at the same time, model an approach that might resonate more widely. This is more or less what Stuart and I have been working towards as Dexter Sinister. These days, the moniker is really just the compound name that we use for art and design projects that we do together. Previously, it was the name of the space on Ludlow Street, which we ran as a one-day-a-week bookstore as well as a publishing imprint.
In 2011 Dexter Sinister dissolved its publishing activities into The Serving Library. The format allows open access to a virtual and real space that hosts writings, PDFs, and publications. Why do you still believe in the importance of printed matter? When Stuart Bailey and I, together with Angie Keefer, set up The Serving Library, it was to directly continue the line of DOT DOT DOT, the magazine that Stuart founded and ran for ten years before that. Stuart and I worked together on DOT DOT DOT for the last five years, until we decided it was getting a bit too easy. Or rather, it was becoming too predictably loose. Somehow, it seemed like we could just do whatever we wanted, and it found a good reception, but that was not enough. So, we shook it up a little bit, invited Angie as a third equal partner, and established The Serving Library and its house organ, BULLETINS. DOT DOT DOT was a print publication, with conventional distributors, subscription services, modest advertising, etc. When Stuart and I started working on DDD, we began to occasionally excerpt articles and post them to the library at dextersinister.org. Upon starting BULLETINS, we decided to make that a more concerted decision and to not only offer every article we publish as a free PDF online, but to insist on that form as the starting point. The design of the format is based on a type size needed for reading on-screen, the texts are edited so that each can completely stand on its own with no further context needed, and the layout is standardized with a cover, an inside cover, and a text format that is rather rigidly consistent. We did not, however, want to simply dispense with the printed journal. That would have been easy enough to justify, I suspect, and certainly would be more economically feasible. But it seemed to us that what was interesting in publishing now was to explore the differences between how information circulates digitally and in a printed (analog) form. Each works quite distinctly and we thought (and think) that doing both raises some interesting problems. These problems are interesting for now.
It seems that most of your work is based on collaboration and on the idea of creating forums for sharing visions and thoughts. What does authorship mean to you? I guess, I would say that authorship means very little to me, at least in its existing terms. I am not so interested in identifying myself as an author, or as claiming my work, neither alone nor as Dexter Sinister, as authored. This is a function of when I came to design, I suppose. I see much of what a designer does, and much of what I do, as much closer to a producer. I end up coordinating the efforts of many different individuals in the projects I work on. On the other side of the equation, I also perform (and insist on doing) many of the most involved technical tasks that make the work possible. So, I am more engaged in both the technical details and the big picture than I am in the middle area that I think of more conventionally as the position of an author. I am not interested in developing an idea and then leaning on others to bring it into the world. I am, however, very much interested in developing an idea based on a concrete situation, often a prompt or invitation of some sort, working out all of the details, and designing the vehicle that will carry that idea into the world. In working with Stuart, we have often called this “publishing, in its most exploded sense.” At the same time, I am certain that I collect many of the benefits of being an author. The author has been critically “dead” at least since Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author from the late 1960s. In graphic design, Michael Rock published a text in Eye Magazine in 1996 titled Designer as Author. Rock’s essay inventories the difficulties or impossibility of treating a designer as an author. Still, the graphic design field at that time was so hungry for the promise of the title that the text was willfully misread, or more likely barely skimmed, in support of its title.
Looking at your design work as an ongoing project, you have created a very recognizable identity. It seems that you are investigating how signs can form letters and conversely, how letters can become signs. How would you describe your current approach to design? It is easy enough to mark a through-line across a number of projects that I am involved in. This might be something in the way that they look, stylistic tics in the language, or persistent themes, ideas, and images. As Dexter Sinister, Stuart and I make the connection from one project to the next absolutely explicit. An idea, a form, travels from one situation to the next in our work and I have come to understand this as a useful thread for anyone else interested in our work. But mostly, this is just a natural way for each of us to work. It is absolutely conventional in an art practice to have ideas, forms, or language follow from one project to the next. In design, this is much less often the situation and in our case, the projects usually end up being spread across any number of disciplines and contexts. This makes it hard for someone else to understand what we do, and I guess that if we were not so insistent on connecting one thing to the next, the centrifugal force of varying projects’ demands might make us lose our way as well, or become disinterested, and not to want to continue. So the connection between projects, or the “identity,” which you have pointed out, is more than anything else a self-preservation strategy, and also a very natural way to work.
In summer 2015 Eva Birkenstock, the former curator at MINI/Goethe-Institut Curatorial Residencies Ludlow 38, invited you to exhibit at Kunsthaus Bregenz. Do your exhibitions differ from exhibitions that visual artists would put together? The question behind that question might be: What makes a good exhibition? Eva specifically invited us to exhibit in the KUB Arena, located on the ground floor of the Peter Zumthor Building. The space is austere and particular. KUB Arena typically hosts exhibitions that are more discursive and performative than a traditional solo art show. For the last five years while Eva has been directing the program, many of the exhibitions have addressed design, architecture, publishing, and other disciplines outside or alongside the contemporary art field. The work we made in the KUB Arena was titled an erA. This was a 24-minute-long projected video, produced through custom software that we programmed. The video worked as something in between a spoken exhibition and an electronic archive. Here is a compressed description: “Conceived as a 1:1 memory map, an erA consists of a speaking asterisk that describes all previous projects that have taken place in the ground floor space of the KUB Arena over the last five years. Visually speaking, the animated asterisk is drawn from a shapeshifting typeface called Meta-The-Difference-Between-The-2-Font-4-D, also programmed by Dexter Sinister. Vocally speaking, it channels a voice synthesized from the sampled speech of curator Isla Leaver-Yap, then digitized by the company Cereproc Ltd. in Edinburgh.” I should unpack this a bit. The “speaking asterisk” is the only thing in the space and it is projected on the concrete wall so that it appears to float. The asterisk is animated by an electronic voice and moves in coordination with its speech patterns. We imagined that this becomes some kind of alternative publishing channel, something that is not quite an audio guide nor an exhibition docent, but fulfills those functions. By putting this in the KUB Arena and otherwise leaving it empty (well, we also did cover the entire floor in grey carpet for acoustics), we hoped to create enough room in a visitor’s head to assimilate the archive of previous projects. The asterisk begins by talking about itself (which is also, of course, the current work on view), and proceeds in reverse chronological order through the previous exhibitions, three per year for five years. The idea, or hope, is that the archive of that space is the one planted in the memories of its visitors. This is necessarily a dispersed archive and any one visitor will understand and remember different parts of the entire program. Perhaps this form of publishing and archiving is ultimately more robust than a more conventional, singular approach. I suppose it works more like an anecdote, which when retold omits or alters details, but always carries the central message. That is the point of repeating it. I guess folktales and jokes work the same way. In the description of an erA above, it is clearly linked to a number of previous Dexter Sinister projects, and this is important. I can answer your question, “What makes a good exhibition?” by suggesting that, for us anyway, a good exhibition is one which produces fodder for the next project. The “speaking asterisk” originated with The Serving Library, where Angie, Stuart, and I used it to channel BULLETINS as short videos. It was based on previous works by Dexter Sinister. The first is Meta-The-Difference-Between-The-2-Font-4-D, an ongoing font design project, which we use as more or less a “house style” or typographic signature. It also evolved from a number of Dexter Sinister audiovisual works, which used the voice of Isla Leaver-Yap. Her voice, at least in our heads, has become an aural equivalent to the font. So then, the “speaking asterisk” combines these two threads into one publishing vehicle, an interface of sorts. The asterisk was then developed and used by Stuart and me on a Dexter Sinister project as a kind of graphic/aural identity for a new space in Athens called Radio Athènes. We used it next in an exhibition at Bard College this spring to speak the wall text. Following Bregenz, the asterisk will be a central part of a Dexter Sinister show that opens at Kunstverein München this October. The titles of these last sets of four projects were all written in order to work with each other and add up to something else. Together, this compound sentence reads: “I’ll be your interface, broadcasting from the ether at 1:1 scale on a universal serial bus.” It doesn’t make too much conventional sense, although it does connect one thing to the other and that might be all the sense it requires, for now.