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Robert Tombs: Index Graphic Design

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Essay by Ingrid Jenkner

Collaborating with Robert Tombs

Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery and the Owens Art Gallery are the two longest-term art gallery clients of Robert Tombs Studio. Both university art galleries have repeatedly engaged Tombs in the graphic design of exhibition catalogues and other printed items for more than twenty years. Now that I look back on this history of collaboration, I think it significant that during those years Gemey Kelly (Owens Art Gallery) and I were the curators in our region most strongly oriented by our formation, permanent collections and teaching practices toward historiography—advancing the always in-progress writing of Canadian art history by publishing exhibition catalogues. The intelligent interest taken by Robert Tombs in our publications has definitely influenced our selection of him as our preferred designer.

The assembly of an exhibition catalogue requires negotiation with artists, guest curators, contract writers, editors, photographers and co-publishers. By the time the gallery’s print production manager—at MSVU Art Gallery I am that person—has brought the catalogue to the point of submitting it to the graphic designer, he or she may be weary of the constant back-and-forth and ready for a series of simple, unilateral decisions. Unfortunately, a publication manager in that state of mind is ill-prepared to work with Robert Tombs.

As a graphic designer, Tombs insists on collaborating actively with his client. He reads the entire text of the publication. He offers copy-editing suggestions and may query substantive references. He expresses well-supported opinions concerning the sequencing and distinguishing of front matter, body matter and end matter. The choice of a typeface, especially if Tombs considers it “weathered by history,” may necessitate an enlightening discussion. The selection of paper stock and the inclusion or not of varnishes and cover flaps may also require negotiation. By obliging the client fully to consider such variables, Tombs ensures that the erudition of the text is always supported visually by the erudition of its design and the suitability of the publication’s materials.

When working with Tombs in the mid-1990s I was occasionally taken aback by his stylistic flourishes, such as markedly asymmetrical gutters and margins, or the juxtaposition of reproductions in such a way that differences of scale were obscured or distorted. With hindsight I understand that these seeming anomalies signaled the presence of a designed object, in the self-referential tradition of modernist artmaking. Tombs has since reminded me that he is “a modernist at heart, one with a planning obsession.” On the other hand, his designs for MSVU catalogues on the works of the mid-twentieth-century photographers Lisette Model and August Sander are much more classically conceived, indicating the challenge he set himself to “make the designs invisible.”

One MSVU Art Gallery design project that profoundly affected Tombs’s practice was Arnaud Maggs: Notification 1 (1998), a folded “poster-catalogue” documenting Maggs’s photographs of historical death-notification envelopes. In Maggs’s meticulous orchestration of indexical trace with denotative code, Tombs instantly spotted the parallels between the art production of this former graphic designer and his own aspirations as a designer/-photographer/-artist. The two became friends. In an article he later wrote about Maggs, Tombs noted that he had “graduated from white page to white wall.”

Tombs has told me, “I think I am doing that now, too.” It is a consummation with which I am happy to collaborate, this time as a curator, not a design client.

Ingrid Jenkner

• Quotations are drawn from e-mail correspondence with Robert Tombs, July 2015.

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