Location of Ornament: Typographic Jungle of Marian Bantjes

Roshanak Keyghobadi | 2017

From the modernist art perspective, text is the center of meaning in rational graphic design. It manifests itself in the form of simple typography and is superior to image as illustration. Therefore, a successful and functional graphic design carries its message through legible typography, clear imagery and balanced compositions void of ornamentation.  As Alice Twemlow2points out, historically there have been ongoing debates (mostly hostile) about ornament and its position in art and design. The questions are whether it is dishonest and flawed (John Ruskin), if it should be tamed and codified (Owen Jones) or criminalized (Adolf Loos). Yet artists such as William Morris have utilized “purposeful” patterns, and most recently the P&D3 (Pattern and Decoration movement) has celebrated ornament and its artistic meaning. In Islamic art, ornament plays an important role. Titus Burckhardt4 explains that decorated surfaces and geometric interlacements are “direct expressions of the idea of Divine Unity underlying the inexhaustible variety of the world.”(p. 63) Oleg Grabar5 proposes that, “ornament is the ultimate mediator, paradoxically questioning the value of meanings by channeling them into pleasure.” He asks, “Is it possible to argue instead that by providing pleasure ornament also gives to the observer the right and freedom to choose meaning?” (p. 237)

Commonly ornamentation has been associated with women’s craft and domestic arts. Naomi Schor6 argues that the ornamental has traditional connotations of effeminacy and decadence and is not sexually neutral. She proposes that, “the detail is gendered and doubly gendered as feminine.”(p. xlii) She adds that what is threatening about detail is its “tendency to subvert an internal hierarchic ordering of the work of art which clearly subordinates the periphery to the center, the accessory to the principal, the foreground to the background.” (p.15) A number of contemporary female graphic artists7 have created visual spaces for employing and de-marginalizing ornament and detail and challenging the hierarchical logic of dominant graphic design practices.  Marian Bantjes is among this group and has been creating designs that are compactly ornate, obsessively crafted and playfully enigmatic. Her intricate designs fuse old and new, text and image, structure and freedom, familiarity and unfamiliarity in tightly planned configurations that may be unsettling to those with more conventional aesthetic taste. Her eclectic visual spaces are constantly in a state of flux and change. She tends not to become comfortable with a specific style or way of doing, and moves from one idea to the next, weaving together multiple visual references from 14th–18th century calligraphy, illuminated manuscripts, Islamic art, and Persian carpets to Art Nouveau, the Arts & Crafts Movement, Baroque, Rococo, Gothic, Victoriana, psychedelia, graffiti, currency and engraving. She also experiments with different mediums (computer, pen, pencil, crayons, paint) and materials such as sugar, dirt, flowers, plants and insects, cake decorations, plasticine and stickers.

In the introduction of her book I Wonder8 Bantjes states: “My typographic treatment will no doubt cause a certain amount of pain to some of my more rigorously trained colleagues in my profession of graphic design. However I make no apologies for the typographic jungle I’ve painstakingly nurtured.  Each piece has been very specifically designed, yet without disregard for my personal whim and sudden fancies. I maintain that I am, in fact, a very conservative typographer—the book is ultimately readable—but I’m not a conservative person, and if my choices and combinations push a few buttons, well, that is my voice as much as it is in the writing and the illustration. I’ve never claimed to be a paragon of good taste.” (p. 8)

Bantjes’ design is “design of inclusion”. Her art is not neutral. She not only includes herself in her work, but also includes her viewers in her visual spaces. She believes in the intelligence of the viewer to decode her visual language. The ornamental spaces that Bantjes creates connect to the communal memory of the viewers as well as the history of things, and the details that she diligently nurtures construct a unique location for mental and physical closeness. The “typographic jungle” of Bantjes is a densely detailed site for speculation, surprise and wonder. It is a new space that Homi Bhabha9 calls the “liminal space”, where outside and inside, past and present cannot be separated and continually come together and create a site that produces multitude of meanings. This is a “hybrid site” that is neither united nor fixed. This “in-between” site not only recalls the past but also renews it and “innovates and interrupts the performance of the present” as well. (p.55)

In her book Pretty Pictures10  Bantjes reveals the structure of her Sustainability poster (p. 88-89) where we can see the relationship between the word Sustainability (reversed and positioned in the center), two variable repeating patterns (in blue, green, purple and yellow) and the minute images of people (from her own collection and the Library of Congress’ photos).  Bantjes states11, “I love the idea of something that’s recognizable and readable to those who know how to read it, but not everybody else. I like the continuum between the readable and unreadable, the variation there is within that.”  She illustrates time (past, present and future), generations (individuals and families) and the sense of continuum in relationship to the concept of Sustainability in a tapestry of shapes, colors and words. The reversed white text appears in the front and on the surface, yet it is pulled into the ornamental depth of the poster. In this space, patterns and images are intertwined and simultaneously appearing and disappearing. Therefore, she is repeatedly re-ordering the position of background and foreground; at the same time they exist in equal and continual balance sustaining each other without hierarchical order and meaning — expanding from top, bottom, right and left. This is a hybrid space where the ornament is not positioned on the side and visual elements are not in binary opposition. Bantjes explains: “My intention was always to illustrate without illustrating… I want to show it’s possible to make a fully integrated document where the words and images are interdependent, neither able to fully survive without the other. The text is not the same without the imagery, the imagery is not the same without the text.12” (p. 7) Although ornamentation and particularities in Bantjes’ work stir up multitude of feelings and reactions (i.e. anxiety and image overload, refusal to decipher visual clues and create resistance to the details), it does not limit her visual voice and is not restricted by categorizations. In Bantjes’ art ornament opens up a new location for innovation and interruption that is complex and inclusive.



1. “Marian Bantjes is a designer, typographer, writer and illustrator working internationally from her base on a small island off the west coast of Canada, near Vancouver. She is a member of Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI), and regularly speaks about her work and thoughts at conferences and events worldwide. Her career spans 3 stages: she worked as a book typesetter from 1984–1994: she co-founded and ran a graphic design studio, Digitopolis, from 1994–2003; and since 2003 she has worked on her own as a designer/artist/letterer. It is this latter work for which she has become internationally known.” http://bantjes.com/about/
2. Alice Twemlow (2005) The Decriminalisation of Ornament, Eye Magazine. http://www.eyemagazine.com/feature/article/the-decriminalisation-of-ornament-full-text
3. “P&D flourished as an alternative in American art, in contrast to the painterly abstraction championed by critics such as Clement Greenberg. The energetic work of its artists challenged the status quo of Minimalism, Formalism, and Conceptualism. They valued the bold pattern, craft, and ornament that was prompted in the 1960s and 70s by a new regard for the Women’s Movement and women’s esthetic drive, non-western art, and artists’ travels in Europe, Mexico, North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.” http://www.hrm.org/pressbox/Pattern.html
4. Titus Burckhardt (1976) Art of Islam: Language and Meaning.
5. Oleg Grabar (1992) The Mediation of Ornament.
6. Naomi Schor (1987). Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine.
7. Homa Delvaray, Jessica Hische, Becca Clason, and more.
8. Marian Bantjes (2010) I Wonder.
9. Homi Bhabha (2004) The Location of Culture.
10. Marian Banjes (2013) Pretty Pictures
11. In 2007 William Drenttel and Jessica Helfand hired Bantjes to create Sustainability poster for the paper company Stora Enso which she later repurposed some of this design for Mooi’s line of carpets. Bantjes regards this poster as the best piece that she had ever done and currently it is part of the permanent collection of the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in
New York City.
12. http://nothingmajor.com/journal/455-marian-bantjes/


© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2017. This essay cannot be reproduced, quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole in any format without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.

* This article was originally published in NESHAN magazine #37

Image: Marian Bantjes, Sustainability poster design, 2007