Friday, January 29, 2010

T-Shirtism: Experimental Jetset and the typographic graphic tee

The use of words as a main, even primary, component of a visual art piece like Seth Carnes' "i heart poetics" installation seems, to me, yet another marker of the growing use of typography as a consciously used visual tool beyond esoteric graphic design circles. It's kind of strange, really; while the explosion of screen-driven media threatens to diminish the use of language with images, images and graphics seem to exhibit a growing fetish for typography more than ever--particularly, with Helvetica. American Apparel sells tee-shirts featuring letters of the alphabet. CB2 sells pillows with inane, random words set in its type. And in 2007, Gary Hustwit's documentary on the typeface, made to celebrate its 50th anniversary, was pretty damn popular.
But before each of these, there was this famous tee-shirt designed by Dutch design studio Experimental Jetset in 2001.
Though basic and simple in appearance, the idea behind this shirt was actually quite conceptual. Taking the notion of the classic band tee-shirt and abstracting it to as archetypical and minimal a form as possible, the studio sought to inject self-referentiality into their design. A band shirt that comments on band shirts, this tee invokes the most famous band in the history of rock--the Beatles--without including their band logo, any rock 'n roll imagery, or faces of the members. By listing the names of its four band members in as generic and neutral a type as possible, Experimental Jetset's design omits the figurative and the representational, abstracting imagery through text.

The tee was so popular, but Experimental Jetset wanted to make clear that the tee was not about the Beatles as much as the idea, so they followed it up with versions for the Rolling Stones and the Ramones.

In subverting iconic imagery, their use and alignment of text became an iconic image in itself. And, since it was so easy to make, it was copied by a lot of people, who took the liberty to replace the names of band members with whatever four (or five, or six) nouns they so pleased.

I wonder if typographic tees are something we will look back at in a few years and say, "Ohmygosh, that's so 00's," just as logo tees were, like, you know, so 90s. 

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