After a decade in mainstream advertising, Singaporean designer Theseus Chan founded the independent consulting firm WORK in 1997. Three years later, he created a sibling publication, Werk magazine. Frustrated by the aesthetic tedium and reserve he perceived at larger ad agencies, Chan used these new ventures to foster innovative design. With WORK, he has devised unconventional new modes of advertising, including “guerrilla” pop-up stores and promotional zines. He draws inspiration from street art to represent his luxury clientele, such as Comme des Garçons and Louis Vuitton. WORK has also designed branding and advertisements for the 2006 Singapore Biennale, Adidas, Uniqlo, and UBS Bank, among others.
Like Chan’s firm, his magazine, Werk, is known for pushing boundaries. The graphic design publication is printed in small, meticulously crafted editions. Chan experiments with textures, materials, and new binding techniques to produce each issue. He uses an organic process to design the magazine, and works without a clear idea of the finished product. He prefers to be surprised by the outcome, and to surprise his readers in turn.
In 2012, Chan was invited by the Ginza Graphic Gallery in Tokyo, Japan to design a poster for a solo exhibition of his work. At this time, Chan was preparing to design and publish the twentieth volume of his magazine Werk, whose theme was “The Extremities of the Printed Matter.” Werk is issued in a limited edition of 800 to 1000 copies, and each copy has a unique appearance, a reflection of the handcrafted nature of its production. Chan designed both the cover of the Werk volume and the exhibition poster at the same time. Both designs use Helvetica Neue font and feature the text in bold, black letters laid out across the space of the paper. For the poster, which Cooper Hewitt recently acquired, Chan added a map of Ginza that appears behind the text. The appearance of the black map is suggestive of flaking paint, and Chan highlighted the precise location of the Ginza Graphic Gallery with a flake-like white speck. In keeping with the hand-crafted nature of Werk and the well-worn aesthetic of the issues theme, Chan and his team at WORK took the printed posters and crumpled each one before smoothing them back out, adding a physical dimension to the piece that recalls a distressed wall, and reminding us of the unique potential of posters to take on a physicality all their own.
Caitlin Condell is the Curatorial Assistant for Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.