by Wayne Allan Brenner
[The Austin Chronicle, September 8, 2000]
Marc English, rock star. That's the impression you get after only a few minutes with him. The boldness and certainty with which he talks, with which he moves, the way he proceeds through a series of intricately linked jump-cuts while rhapsodizing about his work and the work of respected others. He's enthusiasm embodied, this tall guy in denim pants and white shirt, and his energy is backed up with a deep knowledge of design and its history. He's had classes in it (BFA from the Massachusetts College of Art), he's taught classes in it (as adjunct professor at his alma mater, and Southwest Texas State University, and elsewhere), he's even written an instructive and entertaining book on it (Designing Identity: Graphic Design as a Business Strategy). But he's been interested in the field for a much longer time.
"I got this album when I was 10 years old," he says, holding up a copy of the Beatles' Revolver, the album covered with finely lined pen-and-ink portraits of the Fab Four. "The cover's by Klaus Voorman, a German who hung out with the Beatles in Hamburg. And when I was a little kid, I was holding the album while listening to the songs over and over and over again - which is what you do when you're that age. And I'm looking at these illustrations and the photographic collage, and it's great. And then I'm in junior high and I can take my bicycle into Harvard Square - it's a little Stingray bike - and ride around and look in the record stores. And right next to the records are the books - the art books. And I see line drawings by Aubrey Beardsley much like the Revolver cover, and naked girls - and where else can you see, y'know, bare breasts in junior high and get away with it but in art books? And years later, I realized that the Beardsley stuff came from the influx of Japanese art into the West during the 1800s - when Beardsley was around. And I didn't know that back then, when I was 10, of course. But that's how I first got into it - from looking at my Beatles albums. The White Album with its embossed cover. Sgt Pepper's. So I - " he laughs, shaking his head " - I owe everything to John, Paul, George, and Ringo."
English did the whole rock & roll thing himself for years, after high school, attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston and playing in a series of low-impact bands. Eventually, he burned out. "I didn't feel like starving anymore," he says. "I saw too many people doing that kind of thing, the whole band living together in one house with a big box on the floor, two feet by two feet, filled with elbow noodles." So back he went to visual art.
Fast forward through the college years and past them: through stints as president of the Boston chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Art (AIGA); through almost two decades of graphic creations to promote the likes of Laurie Anderson, Houghton Mifflin, VTEL, Hoodoo Barbeque, Sun Microsystems, and locals Cinemaker Co-op, AIDS Services of Austin, and others; through the resultant citations and awards for excellence in design; through - on the personal side - a marriage and divorce that's left him with, at least, a Texas address and a wonderful daughter to share the cool things of the world with.
These days, English is hard at work in his studio on Goodrich Avenue. Well, he's taking some breaks - to speak at various symposia (he's on the national board of the AIGA, after all), to attend art openings (he has an upcoming exhibition of his work at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana in Mexico City), or just to explore different parts of the world (like Morocco and Tangier, where he recently experienced and photo-documented the culture once inhabited by his literary idol, Paul Bowles). More often, though, he's at the drawing board, even literally, conjuring light and shadow, paper and pen, mouse and software, in ways that result in stunning design for all manner of public and private endeavors. He's just completed an annual report for XeTel Corporation - vividly full-color, with multiple die-cuts and intricate production manueverings - and he's working on new identity systems for GirlStart and the Austin Film Society, not to mention hammering out a deal with an international aeronautics company that . . ..
Well, he's doing what he does best. His Cormac McCarthy poster for Texas Writers Month matches, in intensity and lyricism, the blood-soaked text it illuminates. His work for the Salvage Vanguard Theater production of David Bucci's Altamont Now - the main image is English's own booted foot stepping on the wrist of his young daughter, flowers falling from her opened hand - is something memory won't soon release.
And English is not unwilling to go on about these things. There's little humility from him, false or otherwise, but neither is there any lame boasting. Nor is this former Bostonian reticent on the merits of others; he holds the work of David Kampa and D.J. Stout in such high esteem, for example, that those men would likely be his heroes if they weren't already his friends. And the idea that his work will soon be shown in Mexico City, in the same place that's exhibited the work of Paul Rand, makes him grin like a fiend. He's glad to point out what works locally, too, as far as corporate identity is concerned: The Ace Custom Tailors sign, the logo for the new airport, the Taco X-press storefront on South Lamar. (Maria's Tacos, he calls that last. "My studio used to be across the street from them; I used to walk there all the time for lunch. Now it's so crowded, you can hardly find a place to eat. But you know what? I've got the sign they used to have, the old one. It's in my kitchen at home.")
All perfect embodiments of what those companies do and how they do it, sayeth the Design Shaman. "And Waterloo Ice House on 38th," he adds, gesturing to the north, his wrists obscured by various bands of silver, of copper, of finely wrought metal. "They've got those canoes. A row of canoes upended, way off the ground, cut in half, bright colors inside. All these things, the signs and other elements that talk about what's going on in a place and who the customers are - it's a visual language. And that's what we keep going back to."
Sure, but what if that language is ill-used? "I'll tell you," says English. "We have a client - who I won't name - and their logo sucks." He frowns, as if the offensive item has just materialized before him. "It really sucks, and we didn't do it. And you talk to them, and they don't understand why it sucks, but the attitude seems to be 'Well, it's worked so far . . .' And to me, that's not good enough. If you want to differentiate yourself, you have to be superlative. And you have to be superlative not only in your product, but in your promise - which is the signage and other visuals, the graphic identity that provides first impressions to your audience. If design is going to succeed in communicating, in product packaging, it's got to add something more. It's got to add something that enhances life."