it is what it is

A thousand-page monograph on the design firm 2×4.

Eye of Gyre Gallery, Tokyo, it is what it is. [Photo courtesy of 2×4]

Founded in 1994 by Michael Rock, Susan Sellers and Georgianna Stout, the New York-based graphic design firm 2×4 is the subject of a new exhibition at Tokyo’s Eye of Gyre Gallery and an accompanying, well, object, called it is what it is — a hefty, rectangular, canvas-bound catalog that comprises a visual history of the firm’s design process. Self-published, with covers in six different colors (red, blue, gray, pink, yellow and gold), the book documents with exhausting intensity the beginning-to-end process of delivering multifaceted design to diverse clients in different media — the long and uncertain road from initial concept to a “practically autistic phase of visual generation” consisting of Sharpie-scratches, charrettes and stray thoughts, and on to the eventual, polished execution, which could be a printed document, an object, wallpaper, LED lighting or façade. To describe it is what is is as “illustrated” would be an understatement: merely four of the 1,000 pages contain copy.

Perusing the other 996 pages, readers will immediately recognize that 2×4 has created some of the most distinctive spaces and brand identities of recent memory. These include interactive environments for Prada and Chanel as well as logos for museums and cultural centers, e.g., the energetic, bright-blue piñata-bursts of the logotype of the Brooklyn Museum and the moody, glamorous, searchlight strokes of the on-screen animated logo of the American Museum of the Moving Image, which at once evokes the end of Casablanca and the beginning of Taxi Driver (when Travis Bickle’s headlights cut through a cloud of cinematic steam).

2×4 also created the striking, alpine-white identity for Malin + Goetz’s line of unisex hair and skin care products, with the intention not only of fashioning individual units of Cilantro Hair Conditioner and Mojito Candles, but also of translating this look into the brand’s flagship store in New York’s Chelsea. On the 2×4 website (but not in this book), Stout states that “the simple bottles use the required typography as a color field: each color signifying a separate line. When stacked together they form a bigger field, each bottle a pixel in a color composition.”

The pixel is a good metaphor for it is what it is, which is organized not chronologically, not geographically or even by project, but rather by undetermined themes that only become apparent upon close investigation. Readers (or should I say “viewers”?) therefore will find aspects of particular projects peppered throughout the book’s wide expanse, offering a fascinating and comparative glimpse into the linguistic, semiotic, social and economic factors that might inform the final product. For example, the firm’s work for Los Angeles’ Otis College of Art and Design appears on pages 24, 104, 249, 584 and 585. It’s the same branding project throughout, but one finds it in various phases. We see the project’s initial stages on page 24 — a broad-based comparative study of “other Otises’” ranging from the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (the logo of which is a child’s hand inside the palm of an adult, contained within a lavender box) to Otis Spunkmeyer (cookie lovers will recognize the homey, 1970s-vintage arc of text that, to this reader, recalls the intro credits to The Carol Burnett Show, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Hee-Haw all rolled into one).

Otis then disappears for a while, returning on page 104 as a bold, distinct and sturdy “O,” grafted onto baseball hats, tee-shirts and tote bags. Then, after succumbing to a whirlwind of case studies, demographic indexes, photographic records of computer screens or rejected typography tests related to other projects, Otis resurfaces yet again — we’re on page 249 — with the same “O,” now scaled-up and rendered onto the side of a building, and featuring the cryptic label “smog reduction.” Finally, readers can witness what may or may not be the ultimate iteration on pages 584–85: an Otis College of Art and Design course catalog. Given the buildup, it’s an oddly underwhelming deliverable — especially for a book about delivery.

it is what it is exhibition
Eye of Gyre Gallery, Tokyo, it is what it is. [Photo courtesy of 2X4]

But given the scope and arrangement of the book, the presentation of the Otis project trajectory might be exactly the point — it might leave us in awe of the razzle-dazzle processes at play in the 2×4 studio (alongside many other overlapping projects), or make us simply shrug our shoulders and think, yes, it might just be what it is. Ambiguity is key to it is what it is, which as a text could be misconstrued by intro-to-literary-theory undergrads as an exercise in reader-response criticism. At the outset, the authors identify the book as a “blurry telling of a blurry story.” But what may one day become a treasured, archival cache of ephemera for design history PhD candidates can also feel decidedly clubby and obtuse today. One wonders: What might any of this mean to someone not already aware of 2×4’s work?

The answer may lie in the other publications that 2×4 recommends on the e-commerce site for the book (where — full disclosure — a blurb of mine is featured). These titles establish the situational compass points not provided within the publication itself. What are the inspirations, the collaborations, the references behind the works documented here? Shoppers find “buy now” links to Rem Koolhaas’s elusive How it Works: Lagos, to the catalogue designed by Irma Boom for the Bard Center’s exhibition Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor and, most tellingly, to Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore’s 1967 The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, which at the time Bantam Books described this way: A look-around to see what’s happening — and why! You are changing. Your family is changing. Your education, your neighborhood, your government, your relation to “the others” is changing. Dramatically!

Forty years later, the tools that we shape continue to shape us, and in this sense, it is what it is succeeds completely, as a sensory experience, a McLuhan-esque technological extension of the eye. The images practically jump off the page into our consciousness and they literally jump off the page onto the walls of the Eye of Gyre Gallery. There, multiple copies of the book are fused together to stack and form a long, multicolor, mosaic-like table, a centerpiece to the content and conversation of the exhibition and the book. And not only does the exhibition reshape both text and book as furniture, but it also recalls one of the persistent motifs of 2×4’s work: the pixel. Here, 2×4 has captured that spirit in page after page of unexpurgated cool.

Gavin Browning, “it is what it is,” Places Journal, November 2009. Accessed 26 Jun 2022.

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Past Discussions View
  • Waasys

    12.03.2009 at 10:38

    Wow, look great!

  • Stan Walters

    12.03.2009 at 21:14

    A well-written piece, made easy to peruse by unobtrusive disciplines of style and vocabulary. Congratulations.

  • matthew

    12.04.2009 at 03:08

    This model design make me think of my youth, the colours and the shapes, just give me a warm feeling inside...... playing as a child.

    secure and loved



  • i buy logos

    12.04.2009 at 10:49

    Nice photo!

  • paul

    12.04.2009 at 11:56

    dunno 2x4 work so well but clearly written, thanks. wonder, by the way, if the rectangle dimensions of the book are on a 2x4 scale...

  • Pastic Cards

    12.04.2009 at 11:56

    I actually found this post through Google images. I had to take a second look as like Matthew mentioned it looks like something from childhood.

  • izdelava spletne strani

    12.04.2009 at 12:52

    Sometimes a simple idea is the best idea.

  • Eric

    12.04.2009 at 14:28

    Boy, that is a LOT of trees.

  • Alexandra Lange

    12.04.2009 at 19:45

    The installation reminds me of this Donald Judd sculpture, at MoMA, rather than anything from childhood.[email protected]/15375512/

    Or the stacks of Bruce Mau's Life Style in all the pretty colors when that first came out.

  • Roger

    12.04.2009 at 21:16

    Is it just me, or does a 1000-page self-published monograph on your own design studio seem tone-deaf self-indulgence in our current moment of financial austerity?

  • Rob Henning

    12.05.2009 at 22:38

    Roger, not it is not just you, I completely agree. It seems a spectacularly self-indulgent act of unfathomable hubris for a design firm to self-publish (and then try to sell) a monograph about their work. And that'd be true in any time, not just one of financial austerity. As I read this review, I just kept wondering: Who cares? I know, I know, we're supposed to think these folks are great, we're supposed to admire their work, etc., etc. But I just cannot muster the slightest bit of interest in the face of their self indulgent and extravagant self promotion. Far more compelling and interesting are the designers out there in the world who are quietly and modestly helping clients solve real communications needs.

  • Kenneth FitzGerald

    12.06.2009 at 10:04

    >One wonders: What might any of this mean to someone not already aware of 2x4’s work?
    The same as for those of us who are aware: Nothing.

  • designfollow

    12.06.2009 at 18:19

    Thank you very much this will be very helpfull

  • Joe

    12.07.2009 at 07:17

    Well, what should Sagmeister's books mean other than extremely self-indulgent and extravagant self-promotion, especially having in mind that self-promotion is a key feature of his work? Let those 2x4 alone, they have published and financed their book themselves, and if you don't like it - just don't pay for it.

  • Maja B.

    12.07.2009 at 20:44

    I give it to 2x4... they are very good at self promotion. This is not the first time they create an exhibition devoted to their work. I admire the way they promote themselves as "artists" rather than mere designers. However, it baffles me as to WHY a significant portion of design community buys into it? I mean, let's face it... it is what it is because it's nothing more. I haven't seen the book, so perhaps I could find in it something that would really surprise me... but knowing 2x4 work I just can't visualize what kind of process goes on in their studio? As their deliverables don't show much of a process driven design, which in my mind is about experimentation, innovation, originality and not constantly ending up looking like an American imitation of standard Dutch design.