A Conversation with Charlotte Cheetham
January 17 2016
There is a lot of bad design on the internet. Anyone with a dial-up connection and half a brain could tell you that. But for the past ten years, french curator Charlotte Cheetham has been quietly compiling one of the greatest archives of contemporary graphic design in her small corner of the web known as manystuff.org. She flat-out ignored flashy and trendy design, instead digging deep into the vast pool of internet ephemera and pulling up some of the most thoughtful projects, publications, exhibitions and events shaping the conversation around graphic design in the modern era.
To visit manystuff is to embark on a journey down a rabbit hole of theoretical essays, archived imagery and design critique. It was a journey that often took you beyond the screen – to book fairs and lectures, many organized by Cheetham herself. Interacting with contemporary design both physically and intellectually was the end result of many a manystuff post. Hers was a novel approach to speaking about design, on the internet and in the age of the internet, an it did not go unremarked upon. In their essay On ManyStuff for Graphic Magazine, graphic design team Experimental Jetset said, “The future presents itself in the shape of a paradox: the documentation of printed matter as the ultimate function of online media. There’s a certain beauty in that”.
On the first Monday of this year, Cheetham quietly announced the culmination of what is now a tidy ten-year project with a simple post on the manystuff.org. The announcement sent a ripple through the tightly knit community of readers, counted among them some of the preeminent graphic designers and artists today. The site will remain online to serve as an archive, but in an age where the stream of content for consumption seems endless, it seems particularly poignant that there is such a finite end to a project such as this. We reached out to Cheetham to ask a few questions on the occasion of manystuff.org’s closing.
Hometown: Toulouse, in the south of France
Current Location: Paris
How do you take your coffee? No coffee, I prefer tea
Do you have a Sunday ritual? A walk in the city, lunch in the Japanese quarter, and a visit to the museum with my boyfriend and son.
You are a self professed autodidact – can you pinpoint when you first became interested in graphic design as a field and form of study?
My boyfriend was studying Graphic Design when we first met over 10 years ago. I wanted to know more about Graphic Design as it appeared to be relevant to my own studies, in Communication and Art History.
When you began manystuff.org, what were the topics you were hoping to explore and the questions you were hoping to answer?
When I started manystuff.org I had no hopes at all. The point was just to share with my boyfriend and some friends my modest research. I have to admit that I started the blog about graphic design because I needed a topic, a pretext, to start a blog. At this time, Internet was not as prevalent as it is today and I wanted to try to use it as a window to myself.
Have these topics and questions changed? How so?
With time I became more educated about Graphic Design and I began to specialize my research (printed matters, multidisciplinary projects, etc). I also began to organize exhibitions and publish books myself, and as such I also oriented my interest toward the study two spaces, the space of the exhibition, the space of the book, and the path that connects one to another.
What can design do that other forms of communication can not?
Graphic Design is to give form to information. It is essential in our era.
You do not describe yourself as a designer, but as a curator. Can you elaborate on what you see as the distinction between the two, and why you self identify as curator?
Indeed, I am not a designer. With my projects, I try to tell stories about design and art by activating objects (books, posters, etc) in a new context.
The exploration and research that began with the manystuff.org website have expanded in to exhibitions and publications online – what are the limitations that you’ve encountered with the website that drive you to more physical forms?
Very quickly I felt frustrated with the website as it is very hard to really experiment with the objects involved through the screen. They are tangible matter and have to be experimented with in a tangible way in order to be fully understood.
With your background in Art History and your study of design through curatorial projects beginning with but certainly not limited to manystuff.org, do you have a sense of how the work of the past ten years will sit in the larger history of graphic design, art and the culture?
We can say that the work of today will among other things be a great testimony to the Internet era.
Can you elaborate on the, for lack of a better word, ‘end’ of manystuff.org?
manystuff.org was a great pleasure for me during 10 years. A pleasure to make and communicate my researches and observations. But I need to take a break, to redefine the project. And I had a child this year so I have to admit that I want to spend the most time possible with my son and its father: family first!
And it would seem the most obvious question is also the biggest, what is next for you?
I am looking for a job actually: so if anybody is interested, just send an email!
We would like to note that the above image was sent in response to an inquiry for a portrait of Cheetham for use in this post. We have yet to confirm that Charlotte Cheetham is not, in fact, a book.