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To Three, by emerystudio/WangXu

March 31, 2009

‘To Three’ is a book that provides us with the opportunity to thoughtfully analyse environmental graphics and how the discipline contributes to the legibility of individual buildings and the urban environment.

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Emerystudio’s new three volume, 4.2 kilogram, 500-plus page tome To Three has been released at an interesting juncture for one of Melbourne’s foremost graphic design studios. Over the last 20 years Emerystudio, led by designer Gary Emery, has developed a practice of sustained innovation in the specialised discipline of wayfinding and environmental graphics. The development of the book, an exploration of almost everything possible with print technology, represents a culmination of four years of long range correspondence between emerystudio and Wang Xu, a prominent graphic designer based in China. Xu progressively received completed projects from Emery and compiled and re-ordered the projects through his own cultural lens. Interestingly, Xu pursued this book out of an altruistic interest in developing a body of knowledge on environmental graphics within China.
The projects featured from the past two decades include the Parliament House of Australia, Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, Petronas Towers, Burj Dubai, Sydney Opera House, Manchester Civil Justice Centre and Melbourne’s Federation Square. The book, with its clear and concise essays, provides a chronology of how graphics and architecture can form a unified whole, as illustrated by the Melbourne Exhibition Centre. Completed in 1995, this project illustrates how a clearly refined signage and wayfinding system provides innate clarity to a building type generally synonymous with losing your way. For many in Melbourne the Convention Centre highlighted how signage elements, when integrated thoughtfully, could complete and enrich the many sentences of architecture.
Unfortunately, other projects in To Three have not been perceived as successful. Every second year in Melbourne, the State Government and industry launches the State of Design festival, which marks the importance of design and its many disciplines, and importantly, its broad congregation. Against this backdrop, in a moment of true Melbourne irony, the Minister for Tourism and Major Events, Tim Holding announced the demolition of a significant Emerystudio project. A constructivist-inspired series of signage elements for the City Museum and Old Treasury Building in Melbourne was deemed not in keeping with these significant historical buildings. While To Three is a celebration of significant environmental graphics projects around the world, the impending removal of the signs is a clear statement of how this specialised discipline is misunderstood and de-valued. Let’s hope the Minister will use the 4.2kg ‘gratis’ copy sent to him by Emerystudio for more than just a doorstop.
The lasting impression of the body of work presented in To Three is one of simplicity, with distinctive elements that rely on a highly rationalist language within the practice, which is perhaps why the book, with its 500 or so large format pages filled with trace overlays and A3 fold-outs seems at odds with the Emerystudio dialect. When contacted for comment, Emery explained that, “The work was handed over and I only wanted to see it when it was finished […] distilling visual information to its essence doesn’t necessarily translate to reduction. It’s about a different visual expression, it’s refreshing and re-invigorating to see it through a new field of view.”
Perhaps then what is particularly interesting about To Three is that it is also a statement about the sometimes-limiting desire on the part of designers to control perception of their work, and how when somebody else curates you a new persona can be created.
To Three is a book that provides us with the opportunity to thoughtfully analyse environmental graphics and how the discipline contributes to the legibility of individual buildings and the urban environment. However, the process of arriving at this extraordinary compendium gives us an insight into how other cultures may curate us. The elaboration is not contradictory; rather it’s another voice that has demonstrated an unerring interest in contributing to a design culture in both China and Australia.

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