Marian Bantjes, the Michelangelo of Custom Decorative Lettering

The designer shares the inspirations behind her simple but mind-numbingly intricate work, collected in her latest book.

Back when Marian Bantjes was a graphic and type designer, her work was clean, simple, and unimaginative, she told me; her book training was bookish.

But then she found, embraced, and reveled in the Baroque style. Now, she makes exactingly complex custom lettering that has made her into a kind of Michelangelo for the 21st century’s decorative lettering renaissance. Her new monograph (the second in four years), Marian Bantjes: Pretty Pictures, reveals just how pervasive her ornamentation is in all forms of graphic design, from page to screen.

Benedict Redgrove

Her style emerged in 1996. But its origins, she said, are a bit of a mystery even to her. “There's nothing in my life or the life of my family that was in the least bit Baroque or patterned or ornamented. The only source of influence I can find is my travel to exotic countries in my 20s, India, Thailand, Italy, Spain, Bali, and Africa, that are the possible seeds of my interest in intense decoration.”

The work is not merely pretty, however. The level of intricacy involved in even the simplest design is mind-numbing. But: “It comes very naturally,” Bantjes noted. “Ideas form in my head quite quickly, and while I've certainly had my share of false starts, the process is relatively simple provided I'm working under my own steam and/or have the full support of a client.”

Although she opened her own design firm, specializing in book design, in 1994, she closed shop in 2003 to begin experimenting on her own. Her decorative influences run the gamut from Middle Eastern to African to Asian, and she can shift from interpreting or mimicking one to another and combining a few with ease. “It's really due to whim and what I'm interested in exploring or experimenting with at that time,” she says about her mannerisms, emphasizing that it is not “the more detailed the better,” usually it's whatever is the more challenging. “I'm particularly fond of systems, I'm interested in using new techniques.”

Pretty Pictures, a voluptuous tome packed with sketches and finished work, begs the question of whether simplicity has any place in Bantjes life. It seems the answer is yes: She lives simply on a small island off the west coast of Canada, near Vancouver.

“I'm very fond of Modernism, and I try very hard to pare down the number of things I have in my house and my life,” she said. “I abhor tchotchkes, and I don't allow myself to collect, because I know where it leads. My ideal house would be a modernist box; I can't think with clutter, and while I'm not currently living in my ideal environment I'm slowly working toward it.”

It is another story on the page and screen. Given the detail she demands, I wondered if Bantjes ever painted herself into corners. “There are times when I have spent many hours on something only to realize it's not working and I have to start over,” she admitted. “Starting over after a huge investment is very difficult to do, but it's imperative to learn how to do it.”

Bantjes’s work has earned her quite a following, but there are some in the design firmament who find her relentless ornamentation to be indicative of favoring style over content and prioritizing form for its own sake. It’s a criticism that ignites her ire: “I think I'm often misunderstood, but in those times when people get what I'm trying to do, or experience something exactly the way I wanted them to experience it, that is incredibly gratifying.”

In fact, in terms of contemporary graphic design graphic, she has assumed a leadership role among a young generation and sees herself both as part of a movement and an iconoclast. She is certainly part of the ornamental movement that swept across the design scene in the past 10 years. But as she put it, “I'm one of the few who a) practiced it with rigor and a true sense of form and attention to detail as opposed to pastiche and b) who took it into more interesting realms than the usual pretty decoration. In that I am still exploring the form and trying new things and constantly moving through ‘style.’ I think I'm somewhat of an iconoclast.”

As Pretty Pictures illustrates, Bantjes is hard to categorize stylistically, which makes it, she admitted, “very difficult for clients to choose me because they're never sure what they're going to get.” But, she said, “Having said that, my best work has always been for those who trusted me to do something new.”

Unlike her first monograph, I Wonder—a slimmer, incredibly elegant book with the cover reminiscent of a Persian manuscript—Pretty Pictures is a whale of a volume, crammed with her already crammed compositions, sketches, and process shots. She said students are her audience, which is the reason it for its extreme comprehensiveness. “I wanted it to be a tell-all. I wanted to have nothing left to say about any of this work from the past 10 years, to put it behind me and move on to new things,” she said, and added: “I'm sick to death of talking about myself and that body of work. I need something new.”

So Pretty Pictures, then, is an epitaph to that part of Bantjes career. “I hope there's more, new, different coming up,” she said. “But if not, I've said what I need to say.”