Step Magazine by Sean Adams
A few years ago I was a judge for the New York Art Directors Club. Judging can involve conflict. There’s always someone who disagrees with you on everything. Fortunately for me, they’re always wrong. Then there are the judges who agree with me—the smart ones. That afternoon, there was a strong voice that seemed to echo my thoughts consistently. Of course, I loved that person immediately. Fortunately for me, that person was Carin Ggoldberg. Carin has been called a modernist, a postmodernist, a post-postmodernist and a multitude of other labels. The true story is that no label can apply for more than several minutes. Carin’s work is vibrant and clear. She fearlessly explores ideas and aesthetics when most of us would be frozen, concerned about others’ opinions. The result is a mix of some of the most seductive, exciting and unexpected work being produced today.
SA: I want to start with a story that made me admire you from afar for many years. At the AIGA Conference in Austin in 1989, Tibor Kalman accused you of “pillaging history.” Obvious reactions would be to defer to the voice of Tibor, or become defensive, deny the accusation and cite examples. You did neither of those. You agreed and pointed out the fact with remarkable humor that, at that time, “We were all pillagers.” So, where did that courage come from? Why not just roll over?
CG: Well, first of all, I was given the chance to respond to Tibor’s comment several years after the conference, when Ellen Lupton interviewed me for a feature article in Graphis. I responded by saying that we are all “pillagers” and added that Tibor pillaged vernacular imagery just as aggressively. I am very suspicious when artists or designers claim they never “pillage.” Not possible. It’s to what degree and the context and intent that matter.
I did not attend the [Austin] conference and didn’t hear about Tibor’s tirade until years later. At the time of the conference I was entrenched in both work and motherhood and wasn’t paying much attention to stuff like that. I have to admit, amazingly enough, that I really didn’t care at the time. I think I was just too preoccupied with work and life to really let it bother me. I wasn’t about to indulge Tibor by feeling hurt or defensive. I suppose if I was paying attention at the time and gave it some real thought, I would have really resented his using his colleagues and peers to further his reputation as an opinionated, self-righteous “bad boy.” Plus, I was in very good company. He also lambasted Paula [Scher] and I think Louise [Fili], so I didn’t feel singled out. The transcript of the event and his criticism is in Tibor’s monograph if anyone is interested.
SA: Back to the idea of appropriation. Your work liberally accesses motifs, styles and artifacts from the past. While many designers argue that we should be creating only the “new,” I don’t think that’s possible within the context of our oversaturated visual culture. Talk to me about your thoughts on appropriation or historical references.
CG: Well, it all has to do with where a designer “is”—literally and figuratively—during their formative years. I think that we are somewhat powerless regarding how we think and what we do as artists in regards to our social, cultural and political influences at any given time. Yes, I do believe we should always be trying to reinvent and surprise and make new things, but I also think that our culture and our personal experiences are very influential—sometimes insidiously—[as] to how we think, no matter how rebellious we would like to be. I was also pretty young at the time … and, again, very influenced by my peers and mentors and my day-to- day life. … I was learning and trying new things in an environment that allowed me to play. Simply. There was nothing forced or contrived about it. It had an open, organic quality that I treasure.
SA: It’s interesting that you were able to take a little of this from one mentor and a little from another and synthesize something very personal.
CG: I was working at CBS Records with Paula Scher, Henrietta Condak and Gene Greif in the late ’70s. I had come from CBS Television under the tutelage of Lou Dorfsman shortly before that, where it was all about corporate identity and highly finessed typography. Lou was a fanatic about detail … lucky for me. I learned the craft of design from Lou and his designers.
CBS Records was like a mini atelier/art school and we were all searching for new ways to make imagery. I would say that Henrietta was the first there to introduce historical vernacular in her gorgeous covers for the CBS Masterworks Series. We were also blessed with an amazing library of new and vintage art and design books and had access to magazines like vintage Gebrauchs-Grafik, Life and Fortune. We were looking at Cassandre, Herbert Bayer, Italian Futurism, Russian Constructivism and De Stijl for inspiration. Push Pin was a huge influence on all of us. We were educating each other daily. All that stuff totally thrilled us. And I think what made these references compelling and exciting was that it worked so well in the context of record packaging at the time.
In answer to your “synthesis” question: If you work hard at your craft and keep your eyes and ears open to new ideas it is inevitable that a personal style or sensibility will unfold. It’s not something that you can force or make happen.
I studied fine art at Cooper Union and thought I would be a painter. I approach my work as a series of experiments—don’t tell that to my clients—that inform each other along the way. Maybe that’s why the personal finds its way into the work.
I did not study formal design at Cooper. I learned on the job. My mentors were my teachers.
SA: That’s a surprising combo. How did that work?
CG: It was all about context and form. These influences inspired our desire to do more formal work as opposed to just being art directors and smacking tasteful type on a gorgeous photograph by Avedon or Reid Miles or Norman Sieff. We were bored with that and wanted to actually make stuff—paint, cut, paste and play. Unknowingly, we were right in the thick of the beginning of what only a few years later was labeled “postmodernism.” Who knew? Our experience had a life of its own. We weren’t trying to be academic or pointed. We wanted to have fun and make stuff. Unfortunately, we are now stuck with the label of postmodernists or worse, “pillagers.”
SA: And that migrated into the post-record work?
CG: These influences certainly continued when I started doing book jackets. Very often I was given titles that screamed for historically referenced and stylistic solutions. I was designing books written by Rilke or the Beat poets. I was designing biographies for many historical figures. Especially those in the arts. There were a slew of books written about Cold War and post-Cold War Soviet Union. And always nine or 10 books about the Holocaust.
The controversial cover I designed for Ulysses was the one that Tibor targeted. The very specific brief that I received from the editor and Judy Loeser, the art director of Vintage Books in the 1980s, was to design the cover in the tradition of the previous Ulysses cover, designed by McKnight Kauffer in 1949. The trajectory of the Ulysses covers is well documented in the book By Its Cover by Ned Drew and Paul Sternberger. I was specifically asked to play with a big capital U and to maintain the typographic direction of the previously published Ulysses covers. There wasn’t much of a hook or a concept to work with. The content of the book was specifically irrelevant [to] the brief. Therefore, style was the only way to approach the thing. I designed several variations and, again, my references came from modernist typographic posters. I rationalized that Joyce was a modernist. That was my hook.
Was it a total rip off of an original poster? No. It was homage to the poster and to the period. In the same way that Vintage Books was paying homage to Joyce and republishing the classic Ulysses, I was paying homage to classic works of design. At the time there was hissing and booing from my detractors. Still is. I say, tough. Leave me alone already. In the meantime, that cover is considered a classic, for better or for worse. I moved on the day after I handed in the comp. Next!
SA: You have a sublime sense of humor. How does that intersect with your work?
CG: You flatterer, you. Truthfully, that is the ultimate compliment. I try to instill my sense of humor in much of what I do … if not a sense of humor, then at least a particle of hope, humanity or joy. No matter how sophisticated or cool or modern and sleek I would like my work to be, I simply can’t help inserting some humor or wit or humility into it. I struggle with the desire to be a populist and an elitist, an intellect and an entertainer.
SA: When you were at CBS in the mid-1970s, it must have been a “boys club.” What was that experience like, both working at CBS during a historic time and being a woman in a male-dominated culture?
CG: Strangely enough, it wasn’t as bad as it is now. The men I worked with at CBS Television were, for the most part, really generous, wise, fatherly mentors. And when they acted in a creepy way—and they did—it was always out in the open and surprisingly harmless. The advantage of being a young woman designer in the ’70s was that the expectations of appropriate behavior had not been politicized yet. I am not suggesting that it was a feminist utopia by any means. But for the most part, there were a lot of classy, smart, talented people there, and the focus was on craft—making good work. The really disgusting, chauvinist behavior was more overt when I worked in the music division in the late 1970s.
SA: I remember being in college and having instructors who designed record covers for the big labels in Los Angeles. It seemed that they were all living in stylish houses previously owned by television stars and working with unlimited budgets to do things like making a cover out of fake fur. You were working at CBS Records around the same time. Did you buy a huge apartment from Linda Evans or make covers with ostrich feathers?
CG: Not even close! I will say, though, that as a staff designer at CBS at the age of 27, I made more money than I ever dreamed I would make—$27,000, and I had an expense account. I lived in a tiny studio in the West Village that cost $350 a month. That was considered a lot then. And I did buy expensive shoes on occasion. The budgets at CBS were really big at that time, but, as I said earlier, we often rejected the opportunity to have obscenely expensive photo shoots and opted to do more hands-on, formal solutions when we could. Fortunately, we had the option. No fake fur though. We left that up to Tommy Steele.
I started in the CBS music division as an art director. At the time the creative director was Myron Pollenberg. He was a force and a visionary. Although fairly young and inexperienced, I was hired and given the opportunity to collaborate with smart writers and art direct some great images for music ads. I was given the budgets and the freedom to do almost anything I wanted to do and worked with my heroes like Duane Michaels and Art Kane. This experience enabled me to segue into the package department—with a year stint in between at Atlantic Records—where I worked for Paula and Henrietta and John Berg.
SA: Why did you strike out on your own?
CG: I had enough with the shenanigans and bad behavior I witnessed in the music business. Again, the creative environment in my department was as good as it gets. There was energy and a free-spiritedness that I treasure and nostalgically remember. But it was definitely the height of “sex, drugs and rock and roll.” It was one big cliché: sexism, hubris, hedonism and generally bad behavior.
Creatively, it couldn’t have been better. Politically, it sucked. I was a staff designer at CBS, but when I started my own small firm I did record covers for pretty standard fees. I designed Madonna’s first cover for $2500. She was completely unknown at that time. I suppose if I had designed the second cover I would have been able to get tons more. That first record was her breakthrough album, and it went through the roof. I am sure she was not about to ask me, the girl hired by her record label, to do the second cover. She had the money and the power to work with anyone in the world. There was no indication of loyalty or thanks. I didn’t expect it, so I wasn’t disappointed.
SA: What you’re best known for is the book jacket work. There are an enormous number of book jackets on the shelves, but yours always jump out. What do you think the key elements of a good book jacket are?
CG: Since I haven’t done a book jacket for years—by choice—I feel a bit distant from that particular process. While I was doing book jackets by the zillions, I knew that it was important to entertain and educate the reader. And “jumping out” was imperative. Covers are displayed among hundreds of others. … My job was to make sure the covers I designed [stood] apart from the rest.
The fashion/style and expectations change every 10 years or so as to what makes a “good” cover. I was lucky enough to be one of the few designers able to work in a medium that was a bit under the radar at that time. The rock stars like Chip Kidd and Dave Eggers didn’t exist yet. But I do believe that we—me, Louise Fili, Fred Marcellino, Judy Loeser, Jo Bonney, Lorraine Louie and Paula—made a huge impact on changing the face of jacket design and shifted the paradigm. Phil Meggs wrote an article about this in Metropolis titled “The Women Who Saved New York.” Plus, record covers were on the decline in size and impact, and book jackets became the new opportunity to do experimental work. Marketing wasn’t as involved or invasive, and computers were not ubiquitous, so the expectations for speed and multiple designs and revisions were fewer.
Both book jackets and album covers are opportunities to respond to and, in some way, interpret the art of music and words. It is my responsibility to aspire and pay homage to the art and intelligence that exists between the covers. I think it is a very noble job.
SA: How do you get there? In other words, what’s your process?
CG: Well, for music you listen. For books you read. I would read only half or three-quarters of a fictional book—never the whole thing. I did not want to become too emotionally invested in the story or the writing at the risk of not being able to solve the problem objectively. … My job was to find the best way to make an image that illuminated the voice of the writer or the musician. It’s often a more subtle or suggestive interpretation of another artist’s voice.
I rely on visual innuendo and iconography. The key is to tell a story without telling the story. Covers are more conducive to image making and do not rely on a narrative. Entire books do—that is when storytelling happens. It’s a more cinematic medium. Doing book jackets and album covers was the closest to making posters. At the time, that was the ultimate medium. I was happy making mini-posters.
SA: I have fallen hopelessly in love with the jackets for Mother Said and the SVA book. How did you come to both of those solutions?
CG: Hal Sirowitz, the author of Mother Said, is a very deadpan, minimalist poet. His writing is stylishly style-less. It is comic and Freudian and tragic and totally without pretense. I wanted the cover to look like it wasn’t designed. I wanted the type to look sloppy, just kind of plopped in. No finessing. Very “un” and generic, tonally. I did have Ed Ruscha in the back of my mind at the time. The image of the pocketbook came from a 1950s mail order catalog and conjured the memory of my mother’s handbag.
That bag always had a clasp that made a loud snap! when [it] closed. It was always something that symbolized caution, privacy and secrets. It was an extension of my mother and her personal life, and it was verboten. Hal had a very ambivalent, Woody Allenish response to his mother in his poems.
SA: What about non-book-jacket projects? Do you approach them the same?
CG: Not always. I try to bring an artful touch to all of my work, but I am very aware of the criteria and responsibility I have to the client as well as to the reader or viewer. But I always see everything I do as an opportunity to educate, illuminate and elevate the reader and the client visually. I try to be responsible to the subject while contributing a new or illuminating perspective.
SA: Your husband Jim Biber, a partner at Pentagram, is a gifted architect. It’s not surprising that your own apartment is such a spectacular space. What I like about the apartment is that it’s an exciting collection of objects, cultures, design and art. It’s not the sterile, cold environment that most of us imagine an architect living in. What was the process for designing the space with Jim?
CG: We always lived in a small one-bedroom in the Village and never had the space or the means to really express “us.” We did collect art and posters and furniture over the years, so when we finally bought our house in Brooklyn, we were able to design the space around all the stuff and ideas we collected over the 25 years we’ve been together. The house gave us the room and the palette to make a space that really reflected our aesthetic.
I have to admit that our collaboration was a very pleasant experience. We really did have fun thinking about each room and agreed with each other on most decisions. Jim’s experience and talent enabled us to design the space on a very small budget. We aren’t decorators. Much of what we own and collect are things that have some meaning to us. We travel a lot and much of what we have comes from our trips. I will admit that I like to curate the space, and I get a bit obsessed with the placement of tchotchkes. Jim is less particular about the small stuff. It works well for us.
SA: It’s clearly made for a family. How do you juggle the work, the need to stay inspired and fresh, and the family?
CG: I’m not sure it’s really made for a family. It may not be too perfect or expensively renovated, but my son Julian has complained that we live in a museum.
How do I juggle? With great difficulty. I will say, without going into a 17-page feminist diatribe, that having a family and a marriage and trying to be a thoughtful/relevant/ designer/professional/ human is really hard. … If I’m not happy with the work I’m making/doing, I am not easy to live with. I get cranky, bitchy and at times morose. I tend to be very hard on myself and have very high expectations regarding my work and success as a designer. That’s not always very compatible with family life—or particularly cheery. I want to be a great—not just good—mother and wife and a great—not just good—designer. I’m not sure that’s entirely possible. Bottom line, my family’s happiness and well-being come first. I am very lucky to have a supportive husband who believes in me and actually still likes me a lot. Knock on wood. I don’t think I will ever be resolved about any of it—maybe a bit less tortured, but never resolved. Inspired? Fresh? God knows, I try.
SA: Tell me about the most exciting thing in your life today. It’s not required that it be a design project.
CG: Exciting? That’s a tall order. I’m not Jane Goodall. I am very happy with my life, and I am lucky. My son just finished his first year of college and is thriving. That is exciting. Jim and I are resolved and certain that he is now officially smarter than we are. That’s the way it should be. We are really proud of him. And I am still very happily married. That’s [as] exciting as it gets.
I am still excited about my work but often very disappointed with the [opportunities] to make lots of work for good clients. … The days of many consecutive covers or jackets are over. Although many failed and some succeeded, I relished the chance to learn from my failures and successes. It’s the continuous flow and the process that I miss. I have a short attention span and need to juggle lots of work. Otherwise I get bored.
SA: You teach at SVA, you give time to cultural organizations; you’re the current president of the AIGA New York chapter. Why? You’d have so much more time to catch up on TiVo if you stayed at home.
CG: I do both. I am a TiVo devotee. I can’t imagine life without it. I love TV, and I’m proud to say it. Plus, how can a designer not watch TV? It’s our culture, like it or not. TV is an important point of reference just like anything else.
I am a social person. I like being with people who are likeminded. I like doing things that are meant to inform and elevate. Teaching gives me the opportunity to inspire and be inspired. It forces me to stay on my toes and practice what I preach. Plus, I want my students to understand the importance of what we do as designers and to respect the profession. I hope they will become designers who learn to think about what they do as professionals and as responsible human beings. If I am going to encourage students to enter a profession of making stuff, that stuff better be beautiful, responsible and smart. Otherwise, we don’t need it.
I enjoy being president of AIGA/NY. Although it can be incredibly time consuming, the experience has mostly been a joy. I love collaborating with my peers, and I’m given the chance to raise the bar and give the membership some real bang for their buck. Generally, I hate “clubs” of any kind, but if I have the opportunity—and the power—to shape the content of the programs and the overall tone and attitude of organizations like AIGA, I feel I am doing a service—once more, it is an opportunity to educate and inspire. Fun and a few laughs are also a big part of the payoff.
SA: Objects can define a person very well. What’s your working space like? I’d love to know the contents of everything on your desk this minute.
CG: My desk is very boring. I miss the days of mess. I have fallen into the computer/automaton workspace. I sit in an Eames lounge chair with my laptop—on my lap—answering e-mail or writing stuff like this more often than I’d like these days. I spend much more time tending to the “business” of design and career maintenance than I would prefer. To quote Joni, I am always plotting to “get back to the garden,” so to speak. I keep thinking this is temporary, and that I will eventually get back to “the work” once this phase is over. In the old days—BC, before computers—I was buried in papers and images and stuff. Good fodder. I do have a magnetic wall that has a revolving display of images. And I have shelves of books and boxes of scrap I have collected over the course of my career. All that visual “stuff” gives me both pleasure and a sense of security. It makes me happy and gives me hope.
SA: Designers are compulsive collectors. I’m always starting a new one, then dropping it. It’s a bad habit. What is your prized collection?
CG: I have mini-collections. I like my eraser collection. I like my very small, old, twisted flower frog collection—they look like little Calder wire sculptures. I have a nice hatpin collection and a small collection of book covers with cryptic/perfunctory one-word titles—“secret,” “shop,” “focus.” My art and design books are very important to me. They ground me and humble me. When I travel and go to flea markets the hunt gives me a mission and a problem to solve. But I’m not obsessed. Really.
SA: And finally, what’s the best place to eat in Brooklyn?
CG: Frankie’s Spuntino. 457 Court Street. Great meatballs.