Book Bound: The View From Design


Images of Kristian Henson in his Brooklyn Studio by Malaya Velasquez Saldaña 

The Manila Review is a global operation, with its design unit being run from Kristian Henson’s (KH) studio in New York. In this conversation with MR editor, Lisandro Claudio (LC), Henson discusses design philosophy, nationalism, and the diaspora.

Lisandro Claudio: What is MR's design philosophy?

Kristian Henson: Utility is the first word that comes to mind. From a practical standpoint, our design decisions are based on an economy of means. We try to accommodate as much material as we can into each issue and make design choices that keep costs low. Conceptually, utility also represents the cultural role we seek to play in service to the Filipino arts community.

I see MR's design as fluid. It is a constant work-in-progress. Each issue we build on the last, subtly tweaking as we grow with our readers. The serial nature of magazines allows for incremental change and adaptation. We are able to redesign slowly because we have the luxury of time. Maybe there is something poetic about a magazine's changing nature that echoes the shifting nature of what being Filipino means.

Not long ago, I met with Patr ick Li, the creative director of T—The New York Times style magazine. He examined MR and remarked that the design felt confident. I had never thought of it that way before. It was interesting seeing the design translating in that way. I intended the design to embody the progressive stance of our writers and give weight to the substance, but I'll take it as one description.

LC: How do you choose artists for the publication?

KH: I mainly select artists based on what would feel right given the intention of the essay. Sometimes that means the artist matches the humor or tone of the author. Other times it means a key element to their practice is aligned with the subject of the piece. I also try to create a mix of artists living and working in Manila and those abroad.

It’s a tricky balance, but an important one if we're trying to portray a full Filipino experience. I would hope we're able to bridge a critical gap that exists between the Philippines and its global diaspora. If anything it showcases the strength of the contemporary Filipino world presence. For this same reason, I invite non-Filipino artists to contribute as a means to be all inclusive and gain outside perspective.

LC: You mentioned confidence earlier. I think the confidence of MR’s design reflects abroader confidence among diasporic Filipinos, especially in the US. I think Filipino-Americans in creative fields are sick of being the “invisible minority.” But, of course, I’m saying this from afar, from my perches in Kyoto and Manila. Am I correct though?

KH: The feeling of confidence is rooted in a dissatisfaction with being quiet for sure, especially since we are creative and expressive as a people. A boiling point is beginning to be reached and I love that the new projects simmering up are decentralized. It's coming from everywhere at the same time in different expressions. No doubt this new wave is empowered by the internet and social media as a frictionless way to connect. I also believe its due to a certain cultural force that the millennial generation brings. To go further, the Filipino/American relationship is tricky to navigate. It is interesting that, growing up in California, Filipinos could fold into other cultural groups with little problem. We easily mold ourselves into Asian, Latino, and African American communities. Personally, I was a bit of an outsider, because I grew up in a white suburban part of town, isolated from the big Filipino neighborhoods of Carson, Glendale, Westlake, Panorama City, or San Gabriel. I ended up gravitating towards other countercultures such as punk and still found Filipinos in these scenes rebelling the same way. No matter the social group, I gather that all FilAms felt marginalized and alienated from both America and the Philippines. Orphans of sorts.

While I think we still battle with issues of assimilation, we all collectively picked up elements from our cultural experimentation. From utter love, questioning tradition, aimless wandering to complete separation— these are themes of the diaspora which are now being channeled in new froms and what I hope will be a fresh narrative or cultural voice.

LC: As editor of the publication, I’ve tried to stay clear of blatant acts of nationalism in the content. I think trying to define “Filipino” has been the crutch of older publications. The nationalist insecurity, for better or worse, fuelled many artistic endeavors of the past. I’m not too fussed about telling people what being Pinoy is all about. I just want to generate nationally relevant conversations, which, I guess, is still a form of nationalism. But it’s not a foregrounded nationalism. I’d like to think it’s subtle. How do the design folks think about this issue?

KH: I definitely felt the same way. Nationalism actually really scares me, because it leads to violence and flattens the Filipino experience through the forging of stereotypes. So it’s a bit of a stigmatized word for me. Yet, we are put to task to make this journal represent ourselves, in a way that can include the full array of different and battling voices that Filipinos have.

The design solution was to make MR in a neutral style, while still creating a unique visual tone. Hopefully the relative simplicity of the magazine serves as just a stage for the diverse views of our writers and artists.

The main point, going back on how Pinoy identity is serviced by a magazine, is to keep printing, keep charting and documenting our experiences. We have a problem with history and remembering, perhaps as a symptom of colonial manipulation. I find it critical that we keep recording our present in order to be icontrol of ourselves and leave behind a body of research for those who will follow in the future.