The work of Marian Bantjes radiates a sense of the eclecticism that she has cultivated, professionally and personally, over the course of a varied career as a book typesetter, co-founder of Digitopolis graphic design studio, and as an independent designer/artist/letterer — for which she is internationally known. Released in 2010, her book I Wonder (Monacelli Press) is an attempt to synthesize her penchant for ornamentation, her formal research and reading, and her lived experience into a kind of wildly illuminated manuscript of observational philosophy. The results are as complex and varied as the subject matter.
As early as the “Acknowledgments,” we understand that all bets are off, in terms of Bantjes’s treatment of text; all names in this section are etched out from the thank-yous in loopy, reflective script that playfully imitates handwriting. Bantjes shortly follows this with her introduction, setting the stage with enviable self-awareness.
“My typographic treatment will no doubt cause a certain amount of pain to some of my more rigorously trained colleagues in my profession of graphic design,” she writes. “However, I make no apologies for the typographic jungle I’ve painstakingly nurtured.” Bantjes goes on to argue that her treatment of the type and layout is “very conservative” by virtue of the fact that is it “ultimately readable.” One might consider readability to be an entry-level consideration for a book of essays, but given Bantjes’s stated claim, later in the introduction, that “the point of many of the things I write is simply to look at things differently and be able to extrapolate from one thing to the next,” it feels pedantic to apply such standards to her work. Bantjes is driving at something entirely different here, and the result is perhaps closer to an ultra-designed sketchbook, where a lack of restraint or editorial finish can be forgiven, in favor of the kind of kinetic energy that arises in the excitement of discovery.
Case in point: the essay “The Sun, The Moon, The Stars,” which illustrates some 14 pages of rather basic astronomical observations that Bantjes made during a 2006 trip to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, with correlating imagery of celestial-themed jewelry that was on display there. As Bantjes builds from three-pointed stars all the way out to galaxies, she refers to brooches, earrings, pendants, and bracelets, all floating in a dazzling matrix of gemstones and silver filaments surrounding her text. What at first seems like a mess of visual information and planetary factoids reveals itself to be a carefully ordered cosmos of layered systems — we learn something about the universe, we learn something about form, we learn something about jewelry. In subjecting the reader to a process of looking that becomes clearer through sustained attention, Bantjes offers as fair an approximation of the act of star-gazing as book-on-paper is likely to get.
Many of the essays seems to be playing with ideas of information design that, while perhaps de rigueur for web-based media, are infinitely more difficult to successfully convey in bound and printed form. While reading the opening essay, which muses on the titular concern of wonder, I initially felt that Bantjes’s tendency toward sweeping generalities and lack of footnoting gave the essay a dismissably informal tone. Then I realized that, in addition to actual footnotes, which cropped up in later pages, the main text was surrounded by quotations in little cut-out windows, a sort of high-design version of adding post-its with memorable quotes to one’s notebook, and these served to ground Bantjes’s ideas in a history of researched thought on a variety of forms and subjects. With her tendency to cut a broad swath from the Wunderkammer, through Islamic and Tibetan art, William Morris, tracing craftspeople from their status as pinnacle artists to outsider artists, it is no wonder that Bantjes must abbreviate her statements. Academia this is not, but it is an incredibly detailed thought exercise, and not one to be lightly dismissed.
Your milage may vary with I Wonder, depending on your appetite for eye-melting visual overload and your ability to sit with a book that takes time to reveal its true nature. It wasn’t until my third pass at the essay “Secrets” that I realized it contained an actual text, and not just an abstract block of typeface illustration. As with many moments during my reading of I Wonder, I had to shake my head in appreciation of Marian Bantjes’s singular worldview, and the confidence of an artist who knows herself well enough to trust a process that takes her into truly experimental territory, and trusts her reader enough to follow her there.