Learning from La Vegas

My column in Blueprint magazine always covers the main topic of the issue. This time they asked me to write about Las Vegas.

Las Vegas is
a cartoon of itself, a standing joke, but without the slightest hint of irony, or self-distance. It is perhaps the most American of US cities, built evidence to the fact that bigger is better and that better is bigger. Nothing in Las Vegas started as an original idea, and nothing seems older than 10 years, but the sheer amount of borrowed images makes the whole totally incomparable.

In their 1972 book, Learning from Las Vegas, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour argued that there was meaning in a place that their peers had scorned, in this case the hotelcasinos, parking lots, and enormous neon signs of the Las Vegas Strip. For them, this place heralded a new but perfectly legitimate aesthetic, one that we needed to study to be ready for the future. What trickled down from this theory to us graphic designers was a new style: The Vernacular.

Certain artefacts are not attributable to an artist, a designer, or an architect. I had always referred to those as apocryphal. Not anonymous, because the authors were known, but the results of their labours were not deemed worthy of a credit. What has been called secondary architecture is mostly apocryphal and responsible for the look and feel of our cities way more than ‘real’ architects would like to admit. Apocryphal work by publicly employed architects and designers ranges from street lights to bus stops, park benches, transformer kiosks and sewage works to paper forms, wayfinding systems and the corridors of hospitals and other public buildings. Work by these uncredited authors does not have to be inferior to that of celebrated artists, it is the conditions under which the work has been done that is different. A city architect will not get sued if a building he planned collapses. Not even his administration will get blamed, as they usually manage to find an outside supplier who will answer for any mistakes or shortcomings. By the same token, he will not have his name in the press, nor engraved on a brass plate. Lack of consequences, good or bad, seems to deny those projects that final kick, as if the designer simply could not be bothered to stay a little longer, try a little harder and fight for his concept.

Vernacular design just exists. It doesn’t win prizes nor get discussed by critics or praised by clients. We have always had a soft spot for the hand-painted signs for barbers in Africa, hand-written menus in little local restaurants and lovingly arranged gnomes in suburban gardens. But after ‘vernacular’ had become a household word in the Eighties, professional designers started exploiting naive ideas and images for their commercial work. Letters from handmade signs were scanned and made into designer fonts, overalls worn by railway workers became trendy city chic and the garden gnomes became part of postmodern architecture.

While you could look at this transfer of no-name designers’ work into the professional mainstream as straight-forward, inexcusable exploitation, you could also argue that it takes us out of our ivory towers and puts us back in touch with ordinary peoples’ aesthetic. Perhaps we can learn something from those who may have no ambitions to change the world of design as we know it, nor formal training. They probably wouldn’t even use the word ‘design’ for what they do. They just draw plans, paint signs and type on keyboards, using whatever software or fonts come with their cheap machine. We could learn that design, architecture, even art depends on natural talent as much as on academic training. Vernacular design also seems to work fairly well without knowledge of all the constraints and rules we are taught at schools and universities. I am not proposing that self-taught engineers start drawing up plans for nuclear power stations or that administrative assistants write and lay out forms for social security applicants. (Come to think of it, that’s what most of those forms in most countries look like.)

I do remember the one thing that attracted me to the vernacular: the joy of achievement that spoke through a lot of that work. Not because they were aware of having solved a major problem, saved humanity from starvation or reinvented their respective disciplines. But having witnessed an artifact made where none had existed before, the laypersons, the apocryphal designers, probably enjoy the results of their efforts more than we professionals do with all our knowledge of what went wrong, how good it could have been and how misunderstood our true genius generally is.

That brings me back to Las Vegas: nothing there will win a design prize. No building, no gaming console, no graphics. But millions of visitors come to the city that has no reason to exist, other than offering an uncomplicated way to get older by a few hours or days, while taking away our superfluous cash. Cheap weddings and divorces in a place that manages to quote all the styles ever built seems enough to attract more people than all the modern art museums ever will. Perhaps even now and again we need to go to Las Vegas to eat some humble pie.


  1. The Las Vegas of Britain
    I wonder which British town or city might be nominated as our Las Vegas. The designer and educator Kelvyn Smith once suggested that driving through the garden of England that is Kent, and coming across the garishness of Margate, was akin to Las Vegas emerging from the Nevada desert. Andy Altman of Why Not Associates suggests students make a pilgrimage to Blackpool to sample the typographic delights on offer. At a recent LCC Talking Graphics Ken Garland took us on a guided tour of vernacular typography at home and abroad. He marveled at the artistry of instantaneous shop sign lettering.

  2. Some humble pie for elitists indeed. :) Thank you for sharing this interesting insight.

  3. daniel

    you know what? having a wife and kids, especially a wife that is nowhere near as elitist and ridiculous as i can be (even though i’d never want to be know as that), i’m forced to eat the humble pie and just freaking enjoy my life. that might even mean one day going to Disney World (ACK.) but i have to put that aside and know that it’s more important making memories no matter where i am.
    good post. so right.

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