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BOOKS & IDEAS

On a more tangible trajectory

Graphic designer Lorraine Wild weaves words and images in ways that, she hopes, leave a lasting imprint.

July 01, 2007|Susan Salter Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

DESIGNERS are a dreamy bunch. Where we see chain-link fences, they imagine vistas; where we see letters as utilitarian symbols, they see vectors and human impulses; where we see books, they see experiences. Of course, some designers see their work as practical, physical -- necessary, in the most fundamental sense of the word. Inefficiency is ugly; lack of clarity is debilitating; language, in all its many forms -- aural, visual and print -- is only one way to tell a story.

This is where Lorraine Wild comes in. In the world of graphic design, particularly book design, Wild is one of the most innovative and thoughtful designers around. Her Los Angeles imprint, Green Dragon Office, established in 1996, has designed exhibition catalogs for museums including MOCA, UCLA's Hammer Museum and the Getty Center as well as the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. There are art books such as "Looking at Los Angeles" (Metropolis Books), "Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Culture" (D.A.P.), "Beat Culture and the New America 1955-1965" (Whitney Museum of American Art / Harry N. Abrams) and "Masters of American Comics" (Yale University Press). Greybull Press, which Wild started in 1999 with two friends, Lisa Eisner and Roman Alonso, publishes photographic books -- forgotten archives of obsessions, heroes, subcultures, rituals and ceremonies, including a collection of Dennis Hopper photos from "1712 North Crescent Heights" and "Portraits of Women" by R. Crumb.

Wild has also taught at the California Institute of the Arts since 1985. (She was the director of the graphic design program from 1985 to 1991.) In spite of all this experience and authority, most of her work involves listening -- collaboration with curators, editors, publishers and artists. She has spent years studying the ways we read, think and absorb information, mix word and image. She is conscious of how often designers use a meta-language that can seem indecipherable. She does not, she insists, want to sound like a bloviator.

Wild's studio is in a small, Spanish-style house with green trim and terra-cotta roof tiles next to her home in Hancock Park. She sits in a room with a conference table and wall-to-wall bookshelves. The jacaranda is blooming, and a vintage bicycle leans against a crumbling stucco wall.

Wild came to Los Angeles by way of New York and Houston, after graduating from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan and getting her MFA from Yale in 1982. "Los Angeles is incredibly enriching for designers," she says. "I can't imagine doing the same work on the East Coast, where, at least through the 1990s, there was a much more conventional approach to design."

Early in her career, Wild gravitated to book design as a more permanent showcase of her talents. "As a graphic designer," she asks, "why design brochures that will be thrown away? I wanted to make something that would last."

This idea of leaving a record is what makes book design appealing to Wild. A book, she says, has greater visual power than Web work or other "ephemeral" media. "Contrast your experience of going to YouTube," she suggests, "with the experience of a book, which delivers a subject, and because the material has been edited, the interesting stuff is more immediately accessible. It has been digested and thought through." Besides, she adds, "a book doesn't flicker."

But what about the notion that print is dead, that books will inevitably be replaced by newer, faster forms of information technology? Wild is not losing sleep like many publishers. Far from competing with new media, she claims, the book has benefited from the electronic revolution. Why? Publishers, she explains, "are now free to allow the book to be an object, a possibility that was not previously entertained in the hallowed and academic halls of publishing."

But there's more. "The experience of reading on-screen has made readers more aware of the inherent qualities only books possess," Wild declares -- including a kind of definitive perfection she believes that print alone can achieve. In her view, other media are malleable and do not lend themselves to finality.

When Wild first hit the graphic design job market in 1982, the field was much more conventional. Modernism reigned. Designers had more control because they held all the tools and the knowledge. Now the field has opened up, thanks in part to computers. Designers have become participants.

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