Exclusive Interview with Amy McFarland, award winning designer for more then 100 exhibitions

Amy McFarland was head of the graphic design department at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). During her 24 year career at LACMA, Amy designed many books as well as graphics for more than 100 exhibitions, featuring such fine artists as Jasper Johns, Gustav Klimt and Picasso. McFarland also worked on such major exhibitions as Van Gogh’s Van Gogh, King Tut and Tim Burton. She has won over 50 design awards including the Library of Congress George Wittenborn award for best art book in North America of 2000 (Ghost in the Shell: Photography and the Human Soul, 1850-2000) and the American Federation of Arts best exhibition graphics within the United States for “When Art Became Fashion: Kosode in Edo-Period Japan.”

Her work has also appeared in numerous publications. Here, her love of book design encourages her explorations outside the traditional boundaries of bookmaking. She enjoys reinterpreting the traditional format of art books, playing with the numerous possible juxtapositions between words and images, and presenting unique graphic surprises for reader and viewer alike.

OV: Can you explain your concept of “Clean Slate Design”, the name of your new design company?

AM: I came to LACMA at the age of 24 and was the youngest employee there for many years. I was most fortunate to be surrounded by great mentors who had an exceptional eye for the sublime. Last August, I was laid off and had to start all over again. Although I felt vulnerable at first, I wanted to shift my energy into thinking positively. The lay off was unforeseen but it was a blessing in disguise because I had a great deal of curators tracking me down with their heart felt support. The word “clean” kept on coming up in sentences on how the curators described my design, work ethic, and my design process. Plus, I literally was starting over with a “clean slate.” I also encourage my clients to rethink their visual branding as well. So they too, will be starting fresh with a clean slate of new ideas.

OV: What is your general approach to design?

AM: Most artists and designers will start off with some kind of “spark” of inspiration. Once I have that “spark” I immediately challenge myself into coming up with 10-15 well thought out ideas that the client will enjoy reacting to. I also feed off of the client’s thoughts and wishes. It is always surprising to hear their interpretation on what is laid out in front of them. At this point in the design process, I remind them that the possibilities are endless. There is no one answer. Sometimes the client can be fearful of the less predictable because of their usual aesthetic “comfort zone.” I love working with clients who are willing to go through the journey with you. It’s a win/win situation because there is a 100% chance that the end result will be innovative and fresh.

OV: How do you choose a texture or color?

AM: Designers have to practice being like “Switzerland” (neutral) when it comes to leaning towards any favoritism in color or texture. The appropriate always helps strengthen and support the design philosophy. Legibility is a must!

I learned a great deal in picking out gallery wall colors for museum exhibitions from a great man named Bernard Kester. He was the dean of Art and Architecture at UCLA and has a masterful eye. If he did not like something, you would know. He was the litmus test on great exhibition design at LACMA for over 40 years.

I recommend going easy on texture…like perfume, you want to support the content, not overwhelm the art with mixed visual messages.

OV: Which artists and designers have inspired you? And Why?

AM: In general, when you are working with a master artist or curator, usually there are no egos involved. There is instead, a collaboration that is genuine. I worked with John Baldessari on the Magritte exhibition and he was simply lovely! When you get into the same rhythm as your client or, in this case a guest artist, your vision becomes synchronized. The process is honest and clean. The level of enthusiasm is contagious!

My favorite book designer here in Los Angeles is Tracey Shiffman. She did her first book at LACMA. I met her in the late 1980’s. Her work is like sipping on good wine! It was enjoyable throughout the entire experience.  She has a healthy respect towards artists and this shows in her work. When I experience a book designed by Tracey Shiffman, I know that I will be pleasantly surprised by her design decisions. I love that!

OV: What makes a good design?

AM: With a fresh approach towards design, one is reinterpreting a thought or idea. It does not necessarily mean to make the design avant-garde or have only three people understand the concept. We design to communicate to the masses. Hopefully we can produce something where people will continue to talk about it. Good design engages you for a long time.

OV: One quality that is most recognizable in your work is the consideration and detail in the way someone holds your brochures and invitations. It is obvious that the physical experience of opening and handling of these objects is part of your design. Can you describe your process of creating this experience?

AM: I come from an Asian background and therefore, my work can be described as an “origami” experience. I consider exploring this concept during the beginning stage of my process. Invitations are wonderful opportunities for this investigation because it is the preamble to the actual special event. These invitations give me the challenge to try and “sell” the idea to someone who has to get all gussied up on a school night and drive into the city who personally may not have originally liked the art. I’ll ask the events coordinator after the reception is over if there were a great deal of people in attendance. My biggest compliment was that they ran out of appetizers for a 16th century Mongolian calligraphy painting exhibition. Who knew that this exhibition would draw such a massive crowd?

OV: Describe one of your favorite projects?

AM: I’ve had many favorable experiences yet the one favorite project will most likely be the Ghost in the Shell exhibition and catalogue design. I was working with the head curator of the photography department at LACMA. He studied design in the late 1950’s so he was knowledgeable in my practice. I had a meeting with him in his office one day and he showed me the white Xeroxes of works that he was considering to be part of the exhibition. Half of these images were of nineteenth century patients in asylums. Very disturbing yet I could not take my eyes of these powerful images! I knew instantly that I had to be apart of this exhibition. I got a letter from Richard Avedon complimenting me on the design of the book.

OV: Why did you enjoy this project?

AM: I told my curator about how I originally wanted to be a doctor. I used to read the medical journal called JAMA to bed. I was so disturbed by the images found in the book but yet the design of a medical book was less unnerving to me. That was my “spark” in interpreting the content of this project. I tend to “build” secret design ideas that can be more personal to the people involved. The cloth cover for instance, is a cream colored leatherette that resembles skin (the Shell) and the embossed circle in the middle became the curator’s martini coaster. (This curator had a martini every night).

OV: Describe how designing for museums is different from working with other clients (hotels, design firms, commercial design, etc.)?

AM: Museums are sacred spaces. It is our collective society that dictates to museums which artwork is worth the investment in preserving for our future generations to enjoy and interpret. In working in a museum, your colleagues are all there with a common interest: to support and preserve the art. Museums also tend to be non-profit so your marketing ideas are towards a prospective visitor and not directly to a buyer. Most people will visit a museum only once every few years so finding the right image and type solution is very important. The design must represent the experience of a museum.

Working with a for-profit company is different. The designer’s contributions need to support the company’s visual messaging. You can become apart of that dialogue in recreating a new visual message but the outcome of your design should positively support their revenue.

OV: Can you describe the most recent project where you worked with Olson Visual?

AM: Sure! I was hired to do the graphic interpretation of Carefree California: Cliff May and the Romance of the Ranch House exhibition by the Art, Design, and Architecture Museum at UC Santa Barbara.  This exhibition was part of the PST program here, in Southern California. Cliff May was a well-known architect that practiced primarily during the 1950’s.  It is very challenging to do an architecture exhibition because of its large-scale space. Looking at drawings, one cannot fully interpret the experience in walking into a three dimensional environment. Having very large photo murals placed within the galleries allowed a visual reference to have a three-dimensional experience. For instance, looking at 1950’s people blown up to the actual size of them playing tennis in front of a Cliff May home, added support to the content of this show. These large graphics were also, printed by Olson Visual.  They fabricated the title wall and didactics. The shape of the didactics were taken directly out of one of Cliff May’s drawings. I thought that in having a mid-century sign reinterpreted as the gallery didactics would add to the experience. Plus, there were over 150 drawings, and most of them were pencil drawings on cream-colored uncoated stock. The wall color was kept very neutral. In this case, the galleries needed a bit of a “punch” to help the overall experience, as one goes through one gallery and into another. Everybody was thrilled over the final outcome. I thought that AD&A Museum was treated in the same caliber as in our local major museum’s here in Los Angeles.

OV: Describe your experience when working with OV.

AM: I’ve worked briefly with other fabricators in the past.  I always find myself, highly favoring Olson Visual. Most of their employees are artists so they have a trained eye in matching color. That is a special skill that many other fabricators do not have. Olson Visual always keeps up with the latest technology. I find that their staff gets very excited when a new tool is being introduced. There have been times when I will drive down to Hawthorne, to their office, and will work directly with their employees so that we are all on the same page. OV is also very open to exploring using unusual materials. Eder Cetina has been my contact for over 10 years.  I have learned so much from him. He has shared with me the latest hardware devices to help support a banner system.

OV: Why do you think Olson Visual is one of the leading graphic providers?

AM: The three Olson brothers understand that the communication age is here to stay.  Living in a major city that has a tremendous appetite for new imagery/concepts, there is a golden opportunity to explore what is the current pulse on information graphics. Providing good customer service is most reassuring.  In addition, with Olson Visual, you are truly in good hands. Things sure have changed since Mr. Olson opened up his business on Beverly Blvd., back in the 1950’s.

OV: What are OV’s best attributes?

AM: I would describe Olson Visual as: having a good “artistic” eye towards details, quality driven, by your side from beginning to end, asks lots of questions before beginning the project so that there are no misunderstandings, and will work within your budget. They also suggest other ways to execute a project that may be less expensive. This is always welcome!

OV: Do you have a favorite quote or a message that you would give to another designer?

AM: Well, I used to say to my wonderful and talented designers at LACMA, “what we do is not a cure for cancer.” In other words, if you go about your design process too seriously, then your great ideas can get squashed. A playful creative process is important and this is usually why we decided to become designers in the first place. The fearlessness in the creative process will lead you to more inventive ideas. I also am a strong supporter in not allowing yourself to make mistakes as long as you learn from the experience.

Being a good, well-developed designer is a journey. One needs to embrace this because design is never one result at the end of that journey.

Also…travel when you are young!

To find out more information on Amy McFarland, please visit here website at: http://www.cleanslatedesign.biz.

Carefree California: Cliff May and the Romance of the Ranch House
February 26 –June 17, 2012
http://www.uam.ucsb.edu/Cliff_May.html