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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