A Design History of the Hugo Boss Prize

The Hugo Boss Prize: 2014(New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2014), front cover. Design: Gavillet & Rust

The Hugo Boss Prize—the Guggenheim’s biannual award for the whole of an artist’s career—has been one of a few major prizes of its kind (without restrictions on age or nationality) since its inception in 1996. An ambitious catalogue, developed collaboratively by curators, artists, and designers, has accompanied each Prize exhibition. Overseen by a rotating cast of eminent design firms that has included Karlssonwilker, Project Projects, and Sagmeister & Co. (now Sagmeister & Walsh), the catalogue has long been an important component of the Hugo Boss Prize project, and the Prize’s curators actively promote experimentation in its design.

For the Prize’s first two presentations, in 1996 and 1998, all of the shortlisted artists were included in exhibitions at the Guggenheim Soho. The catalogues for these shows, designed by Lisa Ballard, paired small, pastel-covered books set in spare, sans-serif type, with booklets of tear-away postcards. In 2000, the exhibition relocated to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue, and the Prize exhibition took on a new form: rather than presenting the work of all the shortlisted artists, the museum gave the winning artist a solo show. At the same time, the catalogue was adapted to become an alternate means of showcasing all the artists on the Prize’s shortlist. Thomas Krens, the director of the Guggenheim Foundation at the time, wrote in the preface to the 2000 catalogue: “This publication, designed as a magazine for mass distribution, functions as an ‘exhibition’ in print. Each artist was invited to create a six-page project that would communicate the concerns of his or her work in two dimensions.”

As designed by Paul Carlos (now the co-owner of multidisciplinary New York firm Pure + Applied), the 2000 catalogue’s new shape—an 11-by-13.5-inch softbound slab of semi-translucent and glossy paper—still stands out from the other compendiums that might be expected to neighbor it on a shelf. At the beginning of the catalogue, Carlos interleaved blue translucent overlays of the artists’ names with heavy stock on which key works are depicted. This introductory procession of images overlaid with names suggests both montage and roll call, like a sequence of title cards.

The catalogues have retained Carlos’s large-format scale ever since, but within those parameters subsequent designers have played with a seemingly limitless range of possible idioms. The books’ typographic style and tactile qualities have evoked a variety of printed materials, from architectural presentations to college-ruled notebooks. In 2002, Cornelia Blatter and Marcel Hermans of COMA, a design firm based out of New York and Amsterdam, divided the area of the page into a modular plot in which the standard format was interleaved with pages of a smaller dimension. These smaller pages, which bear examples of works accompanying prefatory essays, are set off against the full-bleed project pages, thus according different dimensions to the projects’ documentation and to the space of the individual “exhibitions.”

For the cover of the 2004 edition, New York-based Stefan Sagmeister rationalized his own idiosyncratic handwriting into a pattern of circles laser-cut to reveal a reflective backing page. That year’s winner, Rirkrit Tiravanija, also riffed on reflectivity. In one work, he presented a miniature version of the classic modern open-plan interior, but replaced opaque surfaces with reflective ones—a modification, he said, that more correctly achieved a “multifaceted image of reality.” Filling this otherwise chilly, rational space with DJ performances and children’s readings, Tiravanija fostered a sense of inclusiveness between audience, artist, and institution. The first leaf of Sagmeister’s catalogue—the design of which was otherwise relatively direct and functionalist, “a formal problem,” as he describes it—perhaps carries a similar sense of inviting the reader physically inside. Sagmeister describes the structure in the terms of architecture: “This publication represents a number of stacked white boxes. We designed the outside signage as well as some guiding signs . . . [The artists] designed the exhibits.”

In the 2008 edition, New York firm Helicopter’s dividing sections incorporated background imagery taken from subsequent spreads, recalling both COMA’s modularity and Sagmeister’s partial transparency, though the 2008 book’s pages are resolutely opaque. Over the subsequent years, the sense in which the two-dimensional exhibition space was allied with the shape of the catalogue became a framework in which graphic designers sought to articulate the boundaries of each artist’s project. The 2010 catalogue, designed by Project Projects, took the form of a ring-bound portfolio, in which each artist’s section could achieve a kind of autonomy. Project Projects’ Rob Giampietro explains, “With the artists sharing the same ‘space,’ we approached the catalogue in such a way that you can start the book from every section.” Opened to one of the usually interior dividing pages—printed on the same card stock as the cover—the binding allows the sections to reposition themselves within the space of the book. As Giampetro notes, “Each artist can have, in a sense, his or her own self-contained catalogue. None of them are first or last, the book can start at any point.”

The 2012 catalogue, created by London-based designer Sara De Bondt, both continued this approach and subtly diverged from it: the tape-bound book nestles inside a slipcover, and each artist’s section is grouped in a translucent vellum overleaf, subtly staging it as a separate presentation. The white-on-white cover suggests gallery walls, within which each “exhibition” is introduced by a full-bleed photograph of the artist’s studio space. (In keeping with the expanded view of each aspect of the publication, these “studio spaces,” too, range from Rashid Johnson’s orderly warehouse to a detail of Danh Vo’s bathroom tile.) The spatial allusion roots the portfolios in the context of a specific place. As a contextual hint, De Bondt set the text in Cheltenham, the headline typeface used by the New York Times. In the preface, Richard Armstrong, Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, wrote that this detail gave the text “an uncanny familiarity while subtly emphasizing [its] role in recording a noteworthy moment in the evolution of contemporary art.”

If the designers who have worked on the Hugo Boss Prize catalogues have often demonstrated a shared interest in issues of structure and presentation, their approaches have varied widely. Giampietro described Project Projects’ process as conceptual, seeking to evoke multiple impressions that might not be reconcilable. “The way we saw it, the catalogue is an exhibition space, but also a magazine. It’s a prize, and a book, and a prize as a book.” Current events also informed the 2010 design’s split personality. “This was after the recession, so we were thinking of how it could be high/low. There’s already the idea of the prize as a trophy, but we also wanted it to look like a paperback you buy at the airport: names on the cover as large as possible, with sculptural embossing in this curvy typeface. There’s always some kind of conceptual operation at work. Ours was to make it of its time. Not of the future, or of the past, but of that ‘now.’”

Jan Wilker, of New York firm Karlssonwilker, who worked on the 2006 volume, characterizes his approach as anti-conceptual: not based on abstract ideas but driven entirely by graphic impact. “Like any German, at first I was drawn to the conceptual formula: research, ideation, verification, execution. But this project was proof to us that a concept-driven approach is not the only way of dealing with the project. There is another way, which is quite the opposite, where there is no concept; where we are just looking for form, shape, color. Like the job itself is in a parallel world. To take that step was ecstatic.”

Wilker notes that the firm presented two diametrically opposite proposals to the Guggenheim. The firm made the “archetypical designer’s catalogue”: rigorous, conceptually sound, and perhaps a little flat. The other version was based on a cover with an interlocking system of black lines, in which artists’ names, also in black, are overlaid with flocking. This furry appliqué is almost invisible at distance, but upon closer inspection it gives the cover, like the Méret Oppenheim teacup, a rude immediacy. “The conceptual [approach] was what a designer would do in a T.V. series about designers,” explains Wilker. “Not bad, but not really furthering any cause. . . . With the other, we said: ‘With this, there is no concept. This just is. But it’s something emotional and strange. It’s not slick.’ And they went for it.”

Both Wilker and Giampietro view their respective catalogues as favorite projects. “For designers, it’s a great commission. It’s very legible from year to year how the designer chose to intervene,” Giampietro said. “The catalogue becomes a discussion of the design’s response to art as well as the formal problems posed by the commission, year after year.” Indeed, it is the intention of the Prize’s curators that the book’s design should catalyze this kind of inventiveness and dialogue. “The process of inviting a designer to undertake the project is a very considered one, which applies the same criteria of innovation and influence that we use in selecting the shortlist itself,” notes Katherine Brinson, Associate Curator, who is co-organizing this year’s iteration of the award with Assistant Curator Susan Thompson. “We like to think that the Prize catalogues provide as much of a platform for avant-garde graphic design as they do for the work of the nominated artists.”

For the 2014 catalogue, Gillles Gavillet of Swiss firm Gavillet & Rust saw the publications’ dual nature—both permanent and inscribed with the signature of a specific time—as an opportunity to create “a fluid viewing experience.” In his design, a minimalist type programmatically snakes around the page, tying together visual elements while leading the eye from one corner to another. Gavillet characterizes the typesetting as “a thread between the different parts. It uses and deploys codes from different typographic worlds, from de-structured chapter openers to more architectural and contrasted essay pages.”

Gavillet emphasizes that the “reduced typographic vocabulary” unifies and draws together the sections of the catalogue. The typeface, François Rappo’s Optimo Plain, has an apparent simplicity, but, as Gavillet explains, “The way it’s drawn is very optical and graphic. It makes it possible for one letter or word to structure and define a page.” The divisions between sections are signaled by colored ribbons, which only become visible when book is opened. A black leather cover evokes the 19th-century luxury of Moroccan leather bindings, but is delicately fused like a soft cover, giving it a “haptic dimension that reflects its hybrid status.”

The 2014 catalogue, like each of the ones that preceded it, encodes its own particular moment in the intersection of visual, verbal, and material characteristics. As a uniquely collaborative performance in which the roles of artists, curators and designers intersect and combine, the Hugo Boss Prize catalogues look not so much like a series of exhibition catalogues, or even compilations of “exhibitions in two dimensions,” but appear as fully autonomous objects. Each one traces the unique gravitational forces—in art, in writing, in design—of its particular world.