The Poetry of the Commonplace, an interview with Jack Self by Richard Baird for BP&O

Jack Self (JS) is a London-based architect and writer. He is the director of the REAL Foundation and Editor-in-Chief of the Real Review, a magazine that explores, through a variety of topics and lenses, what it means to live today. The text below is an excerpt taken from a 10,000-word transcript of an hour-long conversion between Richard Baird (RB) and Jack Self. This covered architecture, graphic design, publishing and the review.

RB—I spoke to Jack Self about my desire to create an unexpected material object from the work I do for BP&O. That I did not know what form it would take, although the LogoArchive zine is now folded into that project. I would use words like performance or sculpture when speaking to people about it, to move the conversation beyond, say, an annual; a common suggestion (although it was always going to be material) as a way to draw people into a worldview. This is what Jack had to say about that and how Real Review creates new relationships with space and develops a dialogue between text and image, outside of their literal reading, by way of a vertical fold.

JS—A sculpture has a performance in space. It is silent, it doesn’t try to convince you. This is why I like buildings. Buildings, in the end, are not words, not arguments. They exist or they don’t exist. You can debate what a building means but you can’t debate the building. I mean, it’s either there or it’s not there. And I’m interested by that, by physical objects, the way in which they seduce you into their worldview.

The vertical fold [of Real Review] was one of OK-RM’s best moves in the design process. The brief, or the discussion we had, was that there should be a space to this publication, and they said “what do you mean by that?” I said there should be a space of the page. I should be able to have a relationship with the page in different ways.

I don’t know whether you know Mad magazine. It’s an American magazine, I think it’s still printed. Mad Magazine was very popular in the 70s, 80s and 90s. It goes very well with the MTV generation. It was quite unusual, kind of cartoon and zine-like. On the back page of Mad they used to have a drawing which was normally a typical scene of something, but you could crease it at two points and fold it over and it would then produce an entirely other image. So, it would be a drawing of a party and you would fold it, almost like the game exquisite corpse, and then get a picture of a face. What I liked about that was the way in which there is a physicality to that space in which the way of engaging with it you create new relationships. And they [OK-RM] went away and they came back, basically, with the vertical fold in which they said we can present, for example, only images, which then opens out to be a relationship with image and text.

In the way you flip through Real Review there’s a constant changing relationship depending on how you hold it, how you open it and how you read the different pieces of content within it. It’s so easy to feel depressed about magazine design because you kind of think, as I often think about all design projects, everything has been done before, where’s the room for innovation? What can I do that is somehow different or unusual or moves us forward as a discipline? And what they [OK-RM] had done was take the machine that puts horizontal folds in newspapers, and has done for the last hundred and fifty years, and simply rotated the magazine 90 degrees.

The first prototype we had come back from the printer was folded the wrong way. The thing had been done horizontally because, for the printers, the idea that you would do a vertical fold was just wrong. The beauty of that for me is, that although you do get magazines that have vertical folds for the post, this is, as far as I am aware, the first time it’s been used as a design element. They took something that was not a custom paper or a new print technique or a new type of ink, they took something which was already in existence, was banal, was inexpensive and which was overlooked as a result, and then they created innovation by way of a very simple gesture. That, for me, was very powerful because it shows you that, even within the most kind of banal and everyday experiences that we have, there could be something small there that can be changed to create quite a different relationship with the world. And whether you’re an architect or a graphic designer that type of poetry of the commonplace is a beautiful kind of space for design.

RB—This was a lovely conclusion to an illuminating conversation. The poetry of the commonplace brought into sharp focus my own relationship with Real Review and sparked my interest in the potential to use the appeal of mid-century symbols within a zine; a small but unusual format for this type of content, as a mode in which to migrate ideas. Real Review’s synergy between content and form, neither superseding the other yet perpetually jostling, and a material gesture as a tool to create new relationships; an exquisite corpse of text and image, offers a multiplicity of ways to engage with the magazine over time. It also affords the editorial team an opportunity to explore new ways of sharing ideas, to be able to reconfigure the magazine, to surprise and provoke, whilst maintaining a continuity and further the notion of paratext in physical space at little expense.

This is the second text of an ongoing series experimenting with new ways to write about graphic design, beyond the zeitgeist, beyond the pragmatic. For a full list of texts, click here. If you would like to contribute, please send an abstract using the form here.

Support BP&O

Thank you to everyone who has visited BP&O since its beginning in 2011. As many of you know, BP&O has always been a free-to-access design blog that seeks to offer extended opinion on brand identity work. It has sought to be the antithesis of the social media platform that often disentangles form, context and content. Writing articles can take 2-4hrs and are carefully researched.

I am passionate about design writing and believe that spending time to write about work, rather than just posting images, furthers design discourse. If you have enjoyed this article, have been with the site from its early days and would like to help contribute to its future, please consider supporting the site with a small PayPal donation. This will go towards the costs of hosting, CDN (to make the site quick to load) and Mailchimp, and cover some of the time it takes to research, write-up, format and share posts.