Senior designer at the Walker Art Center, Ryan Gerald Nelson first discovered the institution’s design department during his time as a student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Professors encouraged him to apply for the Walker’s prestigious, yearlong design fellowship program, which he was awarded straight out of his undergraduate studies. After a year at the Walker, Nelson entered into a full-time position at Dwell magazine in San Francisco, never having had an opportunity to focus on independent commissions.
Eventually he made his way back to Minneapolis in late 2009, quickly making himself available for freelance work. It was perhaps no surprise, having kept in close contact with his former colleagues, that his first-ever commission came from the Walker: a brief to design the graphic identity and gallery guide for a small solo exhibition for South Korean artist Haegue Yang.
“Working with and for clients in the field of contemporary art was something that I knew I wanted to shape my practice around, so I was more than happy to accept the Walker’s commission. I found Haegue Yang’s work intriguing: her installations made use of venetian blinds, theatrical and decorative lights, infrared heaters, scent emitters, and fans. Overall, it was a complex and sensory-rich show.
“I was invited to design the project by Emmet Byrne, who is currently the Walker’s design director and was a senior designer at the time. For the project, I had one central consideration to keep in mind: in addition to the exhibition of Yang’s work, Yang was also the Walker’s artist-in-residence during a portion of the run of the exhibition. The curators had therefore decided that, in addition to the gallery guide for the show, a small publication to document the goings-on of Yang’s residency was in order.
“It made sense that the two should physically live together: it just wasn’t readily apparent, both physically and conceptually, what shape that pairing would take.
“One major idea from Yang’s work that we responded to was her use of origami and folding, an interest that derives from the minimal and magical nature of how a simple sheet of paper can be transformed. Unfolding, for Yang, is also important: in flattening out a piece of origami, the visual and physical nature of the folded lines become charged and meaningful. Therefore some form of folding and unfolding seemed crucial to how we’d pair the two separate publications.
“Time and monetary constraints related to the residency publication meant that we had to consider its production before thinking about the gallery guide. To save costs, we decided to use Lulu to print it, and the standardized formats and sizes used by Lulu became a useful limitation.
“I decided on a newspaper format for the gallery guide, rooted in the fact that we could fold it down and then nest the residency publication nicely within the fold, allowing them to live together as related but distinct pieces. The two publications are also visually distinct: the residency publication more of a black-and-white document, while the gallery guide is large with moments of full-color images highlighting Yang’s work.
“We continued to look for subtle but suggestive ways to represent Yang’s conception of folding within the design of the guide: one way that we did this was to have the printer ‘mark’ each spread with a series of horizontally-running letterpress scores, but not carry out the folding on those scores.
“Instructing the printers that the letterpress scoring should not be utilized as a functional step in the operation of folding a sheet down was, no doubt, a very unusual request!
“The scored lines also hold a conceptual and formal relationship to a number of other works by Yang. One of her pieces, Gymnastics of the Foldables, shows a simple clothes-drying rack photographed in a variety of folded positions. Other works of Yang also explore and make use of venetian blinds: the formal rhythm of the horizontal lines of the blinds are reflected by the scored lines running across the guide.
“In a general sense, the commission allowed me to practice and learn how to respond to the work of an artist in a way that is representative of the artist’s ideas and aesthetic. It’s a simple idea, but it’s something that I still bring into my practice today.
“I also learned how to utilize my tools of expression (the integration of conceptually-rooted ideas, typographic approach, decisions about layout, format, printing, etc) as ways to subtly add to or reaffirm the content at hand, as well as to provide audiences with more and unexpected entry points in their interpretation of an artist’s work.
“More specifically, this project taught me to appreciate the value and inherently charged nature of combining contradictory elements as a means of calling attention to the elements themselves. For example: combining an offset-printed gallery guide with a print-on-demand residency publication, or pairing a low-brow, stylized display typeface with a high-brow, classic sans-serif body typeface, or employing a normally functional step in the folding process as a mark-making device that conveys an idea.”