Genuine Imitation

Genuine Imitation

classico_jars.jpgI’ve been thinking a lot about Authenticity: A User’s Guide, published by Michael Bierut on Design Observer earlier this week. In the post, Michael writes:

No one loves authenticity like a graphic designer. And no one is quite as good at simulating it.

As an example he discusses Joe Duffy‘s* branding for Classico Pasta Sauce, done in 1986. I remember the launch of that brand well, and I remember feeling a certain affinity with it – it made me feel more connected to my Italian roots, which I was three generations removed from.

The ideas of history and authenticity are particularly interesting in the context of American culture. Our history is relatively short, and the “pioneering spirit”, which remains at the core of a widely held concept of what it is to be American, propels us forward to the new.

There is also an opposite effect: we are incredibly vulnerable to nostalgia, to the ideal of “genuine” or “original” and to a compulsion (in my humble opinion and all that) of placing our very recent past in a historical context. (Hello, 90s revival anyone?)

Bierut points out that Tibor Kalman was vexed by the faux-authenticity of Duffy’s Classico labels, and with simulation on the whole:

2_tibor_kalman_barnesnoble.jpg“What’s going on here? Theft? Cheap shots?” he asked in a footnote to his legendary 1990 jeremiad “Good History/Bad History.””Parody? Appropriation? Why do designers do this? Is it because the designers don’t have new ideas? Is it glorification of the good old days of design? Is it a way to create a sense of old-time quality in a new-fangled product? Are the designers being lazy, just ripping off an idea to save time and make for an easier client sell?”

Reading this, I was a little puzzled. I haven’t gotten deep into it here yet, but Tibor is a hero of mine, which is somewhat weird since I’m not a designer myself. (And there are plenty of designers who think it’s absurd to idolize him at all.) But, as I wrote to Michael in an email after I read the article, what came to mind for me was didn’t he do exactly that himself when designing stuff for Barnes & Noble and later on NYC’s Florent restaurant? Both of those projects seemed to lean heavily on history and/or nostalgia to lend authenticity to the products.

Michael replied: “Tibor was nothing if not self-contradictory”.

*He of my adored Bahamas logo, which I have posted about excessively.