JESSICA SVENDSEN — Interview
Jessica Svendsen, designer at Pentagram (team Michael Bierut), New York.
Hello Jessica, how are you?
Ready for summer.
Can you introduce yourself?
I am a designer at Pentagram in New York, working under partner Michael Bierut.
Where does your interest in graphic design and typography come from?
In a couple of the Yale residences, there are fully-equipped letterpress studios in the basement. During my first fall semester, I attended a demonstration at one of the presses and I was immediately captivated by the process. As I set the type, letter by letter, I began to understand the relationship between the textual and the visual. I realized that the form could not only illuminate the meaning of the text, but also create new meaning.
As an English major, I primarily studied modernist literature. I gravitated toward the modernists because they used visual signifiers to defamiliarize the reader. They experimented with how typography, composition, and book design could be part of the narrative. My preoccupation with the visual and the textual started to extend to other academic coursework. For my senior thesis, I analyzed a volume that juxtaposed Toni Morrison’s poems with Kara Walker’s silhouettes. For a seminar on Virginia Woolf, I researched her role as a letterpress typesetter at the Hogarth Press. At the same time, I enrolled in undergraduate design courses and I began designing for departments and student groups.
It took me a few years to understand the critical difference between these two paths, being an academic or a graphic designer. Both require analysis and interpretation, but design requires expressing that interpretation in a visual form.
Can you tell us more about your work at Pentagram with the team Michael Bierut?
Each Pentagram partner oversees their own team of designers. On Michael’s team, each designer is responsible for their own client list. This structure allows us to engage with different clients and to design across a wide range of formats. We oversee entire projects, from conceptualization to execution. Because Michael generously trusts each of his designers, our team is both exceptionally efficient and each designer has a deep ownership over their work.
Are there any projects that you have done and that you enjoyed more than others?
As a graduate student at the Yale School of Art, I designed weekly posters to announce visiting critic lectures in the MFA Photography Department. Each poster references the work of the visiting artist, but using certain formal devices—collapsing depth of field, qualities of light and shadow, playing with spatiality—I also tried to decontextualize and reframe the content. For a series on photographers Joel Sternfeld and Richard Misrach, I used vinyl letters on plexiglass. I then photographed how the sun casts angled and distorted shadows behind the letterforms. To find the appropriate backgrounds, I spent several afternoons exploring various spaces and materials around New Haven. The process was deeply rewarding, in a way that informed later projects. The series not only combined a number of interests—photography, architecture, light—but I realized I prefer working with objects in physical space.
What are the key features of your design?
I feel increasingly cast as a typographer, an experimental typographer, or type-driven designer, which I am dubious about for several reasons. I fantasize about working exclusively in images. But typographic expertise and obsession is ultimately what may differentiate a designer from a photographer, or illustrator, or filmmaker. While my typographic work may define me as a designer, I am more compelled and challenged when I push work to be entirely photographic, filmic, or spatial. Then, typeface selection is an intuitive, easy, and unimportant decision. It becomes a means of communication again, instead of an expression of style.
Is there any designer you appreciate a lot?
Artist Amie Siegel is photographer and filmmaker. Last summer, I saw her latest film Provenance at the Simon Preston Gallery in New York (and a second screening when it was exhibited at The Metropolitan Museum of Art last fall). Through a series of slow tracking shots and meticulous framing, Siegel traces, in reverse, the global trade of canonical modernist furniture. These chairs, tables, and desks, were specifically designed for Le Corbusier’s government buildings in Chandigarh, India. But Siegel documents the pieces as they are used in present day Chandigarh, being stripped for restoration, photographed for catalogs, sold for record sales at auctions, and ultimately, sitting in private homes and yachts across the globe. There is no voice over. Instead, Siegel threads this narrative through a montage of exquisite images. The resulting film becomes a contemplative experience, where one begins to question the value we place on images as much as objects.
Which books are on your bedside table?
Area X, the trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. The genre is atypical for me, but I was convinced after reading a conversation between VanderMeer and book cover designer Peter Mendelsund. The narrative is unexpectedly captivating, especially considering how uncanny, strange, and indefinable the area is.
The last word…
Interview : Dennis Moya & Tiffany Bähler — 02.15
Images ©Jessica Svendsen.