On Late Style


On Late Style

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“O but they say the tongues of dying men enforce attention like deep harmony”


—Richard II


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Is there such a thing as “Late style” in Design?


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"Late style" (as you’d imagine) refers to the work done by artists towards the end of their lives or careers.


"Late style" can occur almost as a symptom of advanced age. "Late style" emerges with the artist's awareness that death is, if not necessarily approaching, then inevitable. This intimation of mortality, coupled with a career's worth of technical mastery leads to "late style." Examples of “late style” would include Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, or Tempest; Melville's Billy Budd; Tolstoy's Hadji Murad; Matisse's cut paper; Wittgensteins Philosophical Investigations; Beethoven’s opus 132

(Late Beethoven, the Beethoven of the last quartets, for Adorno, Said, and others, is the very paragon of "Late Style.")

"Late style" is generally thought to describe, not only an artist’s autumnal works, but also his/her best works.

Therefore “late style” is always assigned to works ex post facto.

"Late style" is not necessarily the result of a lengthy career:

Haydn, for example, throughout his long working life, never developed a "late style." Keats's "Late style," arrived during the six years before his death at 25. Keats achieved in poetry what he never achieved in life: a "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness."

"Late style" is made up of strange, almost warring bedfellows:

Wisdom and rebellion; Nostalgic longing and philosophical detachment; Existential sobriety and religious reckoning; Stubborn, hard-won intransigence and nothing-to-lose flexibility...

"Late style" generally includes liberation from the strictures of established form.

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"Late style" presumably occurs in all media.

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Where is the "late style" in graphic design?

Amongst designers, whose "late style" do we ponder and admire?

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There are many older designers in the public eye. There are many experienced designers garnering their fair share of attention from the design community. But it seems that, as designers age, they tend to evolve into statesmen rather than as master designers; much like ball players who become coaches and play-by-play announcers. (Of course, with athletes, physical limitations mark a necessary end to their careers. Which is to say: why do designers go to pasture so early? eye-strain??) There is a common assumption that older designers give talks, teach, and write books whilst younger designers create the groundbreaking design work. We have "Young Guns" awards, and, at the other end of the spectrum, medals for lifetime achievement.
Of the elder statesmen and women who are still active designers—the highest accolade one gives is to remark on the enduring freshness of their approach. This kind of praise indicates to me that Design prizes vigor and novelty over substance and gravitas.

Of a design hero of mine, my senior (and better), a mentor of sorts, I always say: "she designs like a twenty year old." This is meant as, and is, a high compliment indeed. (In case young designers are unaware: maintaining a fresh, ever-renewing eye, over time, is very, very difficult. Few actually accomplish this feat.)

I notice that we occasionally admire the very fact of an older, still-functioning designer, but expend very little thought on the nature and quality of the work produced. When the work is praised as representing a summation of a life’s work, I’ve observed that this work tends to be categorized in the “fine art” bin, rather than in the “great design” bin; as the “serious” work tends to be, say, the paintings or collages that the designer had always maintained as a sideline. Have you noticed this?)

In other words: is it that the medium of design isn’t robust enough to support "late style?"

Is the only work that rises to the level of "greatness,” necessarily, work without clients?

i.e. Fine Art?

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Of a recent article about an elder design statesman, I noticed how the article's writer edged away from discussing this designer's work, and that the gist of the piece concerned the subject's writing, his philosophy, his mutating relationship with clients. This article had all the trappings of a "late style" paean, but it stopped short of describing what, from a graphical perspective, would have been the interesting bit, the meat and potatoes: the design work.

Can you imagine an article on Monet in his later years that wasn’t deeply preoccupied with his water lilies?

A quote from this particular article's subject: "There are three responses to a piece of design - yes, no, and WOW! Wow is the one to aim for." If these are the only three responses to a piece of design- is it any wonder Design has no "late style?"

“Late style” might provoke, if not “wow:” “Hmmn…” or” Really?” or “Aaaaah.”

Maybe even What the hell?!

If Design itself is predicated on youth (certainly the preponderance of things sold, are sold to the
young—or so it would seem, if our mass media is to be believed) then “late style” isn’t feasible.

If Design is not predicated on youth; perhaps it demands timeliness.

Familiarity with the zeitgeist is integral to Design.

Conversely, Repudiation of the zeitgeist is integral to "late style."

Is the very paucity of older, working, in-house designers itself the necessary result of Design's deal with the devil—its dependency on the marketplace with all of its attendant fashions?

Designers, if they are good at their jobs (sometimes even when they aren't) eventually become art directors or creative directors- jobs that rely less on one's skill as a designer. I myself am one of these art directors (though God knows I try to keep designing as much as possible) so I tell you from experience that nothing atrophies ones taste and skills so much as art direction—with its necessary reliance on other hands.

A general lack of older designers in in-house design departments could thusly be blamed on upward mobility— Fewer older, working designers leads to less “late style” around to notice, and praise. 

Though I believe there is more to it.

I fear that Design is for the young.

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Of a well-known established designer: as he ages he becomes more and more tone-deaf to typography. And who could blame him? Hes probably set tens of thousand pieces of copy in his career. His emphasis now is on The big idea, not the paltry minutiae. But: (speaking of deafness: Beethoven was famously irascible about the prissy details of his métier. Of course the sheer glory of his genius subsumed his idiosyncrasies; his bad taste. Beethovens genius made of his spastic ugliness: late style.) Design cannot support such a disregard for detail. In the case of design: the typography, the detail, IS the design. Without, say, pretty type, you have ugly, ineffectual design.

Worse, of course, than an ugly newness, is a cookie-cutter sameness.

Boilerplate is a symptom of aging.

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Is design for the young? Is it?

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What will become of me as I age?

I am no spring chicken myself—having come to the whole mishegoss rather late.

I am midway through my lifes journey. (did Dante enjoy a late style? In the Divine Comedy, his (literally) middle aged avatar is guided by the wiser Virgil. In the field of graphic design, wouldnt we prefer young Beatrice as a guide? To remind us of those trivialities and trends we care not one whit about anymore? The diagonal slashes? The reflex blues? The crossed-out type and multiple format books that grace the Tmblrs of a million design aspirants? Beatrice would know what the cool kids were up to. Beatrice would be on Pinterest.)

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I repeat my question: What will become of me as I age?

I dont know— and maybe this is why I'm so intent on solving the mystery of:

Whither all the mature design?

Mathew Arnold believed growing old meant:

“Los(ing) the glory of the form, The lustre of the eye.”

I can't help thinking that if we apply this verse to the commonly held design virtues of "form" and "eye," then I'm in for a sad professional dotage.

In which case I might as well consider returning to the piano.