David Consuegra: Ornament Without Crime. Lucas Ospina

In Adolf Loos’ renowned diatribe Ornament and crime[1], the Viennese architect makes a radical call:

 

The modern man who holds ornament sacred as a sign of the artistic superabundance of past ages will immediately recognize the tortured, strained, and morbid quality of modern ornaments. No ornament can any longer be made today by anyone who lives on our cultural level.

 

Loos targets his preaching to the «aristocrat» and in his battle against ornament he makes an exemption to the «inferiors», among which he includes his shoe maker:

 

My shoes are covered all over with ornaments consisting of scallops and holes. Work done by the shoemaker for which he was never paid. I go to the shoemaker and say: «You ask thirty kronen for a pair of shoes. I will pay you forty kronen». I have thereby raised this man to heights of bliss for which he will thank me by work and material infinitely better than would be called for the additional price. He is happy. Happiness rarely enters his house. Here is a man who understands him, who values his work and does not doubt his honesty. He already sees the finished shoes in his mind’s eye. He knows where the best leather is to be found at the present time; he knows which craftsman he will entrust the shoes to; and the shoes will be so covered in scallops and holes as only an elegant shoe can be. And then I say to him: «But there’s one condition. The shoes must be completely plain». With this I have cast him down from the heights of bliss to the pit of despondency. He will have less work, but I have taken away all his joy.

 

In his 1908 manifesto, Loos’ vanguardism, charged with a certain amount of paternalism, left a two-way open path: on the one hand, an ‘aristocratic’ path, sceptical, iconoclastic, capable of detaching itself from the heraldic trace of the past; a way of thinking that favours the strictness of the practical and the value of utility against the meanders of tradition. And on the other hand, the craftsman’s path, sacred, cultural, introspective, in which the desire for applying ornament is an instant of delight, an archaic form of happiness. It is enough to look at David Consuegra’s body of work compiled in this book, to find these two open paths, and far from an exclusive idiom or a self indulgent solipsism, it is possible to see his design work as the product of a continuous flux between the rigorous and sensuous, between order and liberty.

 

After finishing his master’s studies in the United States, Consuegra returned to Colombia in 1963. It is possible to imagine the designer confronted with this battleground: a landscape characteristic of a «gentleman’s» country populated with eagles, coats of arms, and gargoyles in sober colours and bland and patriotic combinations; advertisements, posters and catalogues in an old fashioned typography, tasteless frames and careless compositions; but also, present everywhere, the mimetic and enthusiastic assimilation of the ‘international style’: with its economy of forms, stress on geometry, and simplification of the figurative.

 

The way Consuegra sailed through this sea of opposing forces is present in one of his first designs for a «mark»: the image for the Museum of Modern Art of Bogotá. On one hand, the visual identity: a combination of four triangles or two capital letters that allows the eye to trace and retrace the figure ­—and for any hand to repeat it—, a pictogram «without ornament», simple, practical and discreet; an exercise in precision of writing that has a perennial presence. And on the other, the body of printed work that he designed for the museum: advertisements, posters, and catalogues in which the image was formed by graphic variations. The designer repeated the museum’s mark lavishly, with fluency and determination. Also, to advertise the art exhibitions he made a series of posters with parallel images in which he dared to draw variations of the artist’s own styles, of their marks. Instead of reproducing the works of art directly, as was the traditional way, Consuegra created a series of «ornaments», in which, with his own hand, he gave the subject of any exhibit its «graphic» and typographic voice. It was a work of interpretation which distilled the essence of the artwork, in order to create a sort of visual poetry, an ingenious effort close to the Italian word disegno (drawing), designio (plan), signare (signature).

 

Consuegra’s creative work inevitably influenced the museum’s image, which far from portraying itself as a pompous box for the decorative and unimaginative exhibition of glamour, or as a pseudo cosmopolitan franchise, it rather displayed this budding institution as the apposite place for the interpretation of the works of art; as a place capable of reading and re-reading its contents according to the mood and subjectivity of each reader, including the young designer to whom the museum’s director, Marta Traba, had granted total autonomy so that he could put in practice his talent (and put his signature on it). The designs that Consuegra did for the Museum of Modern Art revealed that the exhibitions started before the opening show, with its printed matter, and once the shows ended, there remained a graphic echo of them. They were design brackets that represented a fine prediction to determine and measure the value of the experience proposed by the curator (a happy combination which in its modus operandi, recalls for instance, the titles designed by Saul Bass for Alfred Hitchcock’s movies).

 

The interchange between art and design, between thought and expression that Consuegra achieves is something that happens very rarely, and it is an epiphany that only lasted a few years in the museum. With Consuegra’s departure and the change of curator, the institution lost the attention to detail, and it interrupted the rhythm of its own history. Nowadays the museum’s trademark has gained in weight what it has lost in quality. It entrusts its iconography to the advertising beat that bears its name «MamBo»; today’s institution is one which is incapable of resuming the exercise created by the mutual complicity of Traba and Consuegra.

 

Consuegra maintained the free fluctuation of his intelligence: he could cross from designing a practical book of marks, to a children’s book, from creating publications in which he himself worked as designer, editor and publisher, to actively teaching and creating university programmes, from designing a logotype for a modest company to giving a conference in front of a global audience. It was a game that he always played very seriously, just as children play, and thanks to his virtuous dedication prevented his work from becoming a monotonous, solemn, and tedious adulthood practice. In El Mundo de los colores (1983), a book he dedicated to his son Nicolás, he took the four colours that are the origin of all ranges of polychromy and he granted each one an image and a short text. He starts with yellow, then cyan, magenta, and finishes, just as everything in life does, with a strong and vital black stain, to which he dedicates the following words:

 

I am black, like the night,
quiet and still.

 

And I am white, restless,
like the day.

 

If you did not know it,
I am the pencil, and also the ink.

 

And me, the paper where you draw.

 

Me the board and the great black board.

 

And me, the chalk.

 

Paint us big, very big,
if that is what you want;
or very small, if you prefer;
because in your drawings
you should only take into account how you portray us.

 

Consuegra uses the «children’s» book to make a direct reference to the conceptual nature of printing. This is a design about the economy of design itself, an «aristocratic» visual universe like Loos wanted it, but tinged by an expressive will that does not hold back from the dogma of rationality, but on the contrary, takes advantage of that space —which others would have left empty— as a contingency zone open to opportunity. This is why Consuegra embodies many personalities, a «mathematician of aesthetics» for some; a «post-modern» who respects ornament, for others; but this artist was never trapped by either the presence or lack of style, or by being a master of concept or being «crude as a painter». His challenge was to have a versatile command of style, a gift that not everyone has, and for a graphic designer who oscillated between prominence and anonymity, between communication and visual poetry, it could be the highest virtue.

 

This, the first extensive publication about David Consuegra, demonstrates how multifaceted his work was. With the reflections by researchers such as Álvaro Medina or Patricia Córdoba, it is possible to see that the meaning of visual identity, the distinctive stamp that includes different terms such as logo, logotype, symbol, logo-symbol, mark (or any other synonym used in graphic design), is a complex entity in which Consuegra blends the legible or written (logos), with the pictographic and symbolic. Consuegra’s task of designing works of visual identity was not an easy one, given that the work involves combining different visual and written strategies in order to encapsulate in one image the name, the function, and the individuality of a company. In this respect Consuegra will define the problem, and he will allow us to see both the abstraction of a shape legible enough (a face), just as the deconstruction of letters that form the initials or name of each individual project.

 

Thanks to the studies by Camilo Umaña and Octavio Mercado it is possible to see a parallel with other work contemporary to Consuegra’s. The examples of work that Umaña refers to have a double function: as I have already mentioned, they are useful for illustrating the opening of graphic design in Colombia towards international developments, and also to remember that the practice of graphic design has its origins in other tendencies such as Surrealism, Dada, Constructivism, and even Cubism. It is evident how Consuegra’s artistic education allowed him to cross the boundaries between interpretation and proposal.

 

Illustration and typography were constant interests in Consuegra’s work, and were evident since his university years. The «artwork» that Consuegra did in Boston and New Haven shows that drawing letters for posters or illustrations involved an understanding of their form and structure. He did not count then with ready made images, nor with dozens of typographic fonts ready to use, nonetheless he developed a particular sensitivity towards typography and image. He was able to illustrate his own books, and also to commission others to illustrate his ideas. In Josep M. Pujol’s study about the books designed by Consuegra, it is possible to see his versatility for alternating between doing and delegating.

 

 


[1] The translation here has been quoted from: http://www.gwu.edu/~art/Temporary_SL/177/pdfs/Loos.pdf