Back in February, EoD’s Madeleine Morley spoke with designer Kimberly Varella about recent work she’d produced through her L.A.-based studio practice Content Object. One featured book, Machine Project: The Platinum Collection (Live by Special Request), is an anthology of past workshops, presentations, and performances from the local not-for-profit art and events platform of the same name. It also served as a catalog for the organization’s mid-career retrospective, which exhibited at the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College. Machine Project explores the intersections between disciplines—particularly art and science—with an absurdist sense of humor. We took an in-depth look at Varella’s process for designing a catalog that reflected Machine Project’s aesthetic and philosophic sensibilities.
You’d never know it from the exterior of the modest storefront in L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood, but once inside Machine Project, visitors are invited to participate in a kaleidoscopic range of events. Typical art and crafts classes include Pocket Sewing 101, or Drawing and Drones, where participants “learn some drawing skills and techniques along with some live ambient/drone musical accompaniment.”
For those interested in technology, Cybersecurity for Modern Hellscapes will teach you how to secure and encrypt emails, phone calls, and text messages. Or if you’re more of a live theater buff, there’s a workshop on Improv for People Who Would Never Take an Improv Class, or the must-see Tragedy on the Sea Nymph: An Operetta in Three Acts Starring an All-Dog Cast.
Varella says synthesizing such diverse event programming into one cohesive book was a challenge, but fortunately, she’s been collaborating with Machine Project’s executive director Mark Allen since grad school, when they attended the California Institute of the Arts. “We’re both influenced by the same pedagogy from CalArts, and that’s very reflective in my style still today. This project was a beautiful invitation to go hog wild, using lots of different vernacular in a singular space. Though there are a lot of different components, there’s still a system in place that serves as a thread throughout the book, and takes you on a journey.”
We’re interested in exploring that idea of subspace and the sublime.
Dividing the book into three sections, Varella created distinctions with various paper stocks and colors, as well as curated categories and an index. Footnotes became another essential component to the design system. The first section includes an account of Allen giving a tour of Machine Project, and the footnotes intentionally outweigh the tour’s word count at 2000 to 800, inverting hierarchy and emphasizing the metaphor that runs throughout the book of above level and below level.
Varella explains that “really the true story is in the footnotes. We’re interested in exploring that idea of subspace and the sublime.” This is evident in the book’s foldout diagram of Machine Project’s floor plan, which maps the history of the space through the physical holes and stains that have been left on the floorboards over time.
Allen says, “Machine’s sensibility is deeply curious, friendly, and interested in the widest possible range of things that people do. Because we have such a plurality of approaches and viewpoints, it was really important that the book have as many possible ways of representing that as possible. We wanted a unifying design sensibility, but within it, room for a lot of different aesthetics.”
Towards the back of the book is where readers will find a treasure trove of contrasting styles and vernacular typography on posters advertising the 200+ events Machine Project has held over the years. “When you attend CalArts, there is such a strong poster culture in the design program that allowed for aesthetic experimentation,” Allen explains. “I knew I wanted to continue that tradition with Machine Project, and when we started designing the book it was clear that including the posters was an essential component to archiving our history since we opened in 2003.”
Many of the posters are still designed by current CalArts students, a partnership facilitated by faculty member and regular Machine Project collaborator Gail Swanlund. Other local artists, illustrators, and designers are also commissioned, as well as design students from neighboring programs at UCLA, and Otis College of Art and Design.
Working with Machine Project reminds me that we’re all authors and we are all audience.
With a page count of 310 and a hefty cloth-bound hardcover, Allen thinks “it’s almost like you can evaluate Machine by the weight of the book. Part of what makes Machine function culturally is that it’s a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I think this book allows people to see the totality of Machine or the whole of what we do in relationship to each other versus attending a singular workshop or event which might only tell part of the story.”
One of Varella’s favorite design tasks for the book was creating a back cover that was truly representative of Machine Project. In response to the publisher’s slightly twee and reductive description of the “quirky Los Angeles art space” (ugh), the design and editorial team opted instead to replace it with a collaborative index based on memories, notable events, or words that appear repeatedly throughout the book.
Thinking back on the late-night email chains that led to the compilation of the index, Varella says, “as designers, we aren’t just moving pictures around or kerning type, we’re also very much a part of the editorial or curatorial side of things. It was great to be involved in that process, and collaborate on top-level decisions. Working with Machine Project reminds me that we’re all authors and we are all audience.”