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STEP Inside Design
The Good Book

“It might be said that artists by nature long for a just and equitable world (as do people from all callings), and that this longing is what distinguishes humans from the animal kingdom, where power and might are the forces most in play and where, indeed, they most often win out,” notes Margaret Scarsdale in the foreword to Social Justice 2008, 12 Posters by Luba Lukova. “It might also be true that sometimes the harsh realities of human life make it look as if the ideal of justice in our society is a utopian dream. Yet progress towards social justice has only ever been possible because of those who would dare to dream, the “idealists”–those labeled “Quixotes” even–who have the courage to stand for what their hearts tell them is right and just.” Luba Lukova is one of those brave souls. Tackling some of today’s most complex, controversial topics, the 12 stunning posters showcased in Social Justice are both thought-provoking and inspiring. Each of the unbound posters comments on a single theme, such as health care, censorship, peace, immigration. As in all of Lukova’s work, the concepts are so arresting and powerful that the drawings emerge naturally, without unnecessary detail–every element of the story is already there. It’s art that connects with the viewer almost unconsciously, requiring no explanation. Content to let her images speak for themselves, this world-renowned artist leaves it up to the viewer to interpret and assign meaning. An added bonus, the inside of the case in which Social Justice is packaged is filled with hundreds of Lukova’s preliminary sketches. Based on its beauty alone, this portfolio is an essential part of any artist or designer’s collection. But the strong statements behind its striking imagery make it just as relevant for other audiences, particularly given the calls for social change we’ve been hearing in this election year.

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REDzine Cultural Journal (South Africa)
The Economy of Description
By Devin Purvis


Luba Lukova began her career by studying at the National Arts Academy in Sofia Bulgaria, where she trained in the great tradition of European poster design, one of the academy's most intellectual and demanding specialisations. Graduating in 1986 Luba soon left her home in Bulgaria to settle in the USA where the honest, evocative and undeniably human quality present in all her work soon saw the young artist begin to garner acclaim as she produced work for clients as significant and diverse as Sony Music, The Wall Street Journal, Harper/Collins, The New York Times, The Living Theatre and the American Institute for Graphic Arts. While certainly her own, Luba's work immediately evokes memories of the great European poster designers and their dedication to proclamation. Her indelibly rendered figures carry a visual and emotional punch that could only be achieved by someone truly dedicated to the great lost art, economy of description. Paring away the superficial, Luba Lukova revitalises the visual arts with her singularity of focus - her ability to transcend the clutter, to produce a work of true and intrinsic worth as she explores the plethora of themes offered up by the human condition. Shout it from the rooftops.

A Conversation with Luba Lukova

REDzine: Which had a more pivotal influence on your work, the US or life in Bulgaria?

Luba: I cannot separate the experiences in my life. I grew up in Bulgaria
and got my education there. Then I worked briefly at a theatre company in a small town before coming to the US. I've lived in New York for 15 years and all of the important moments in my professional life have happened here. My career wouldn't be the same if I hadn't come to the US. I loved New York from a first sight. Once I read about a famous opera singer who after visiting New York got so energized that he said there were vitamins in the air. I felt exactly the same way and I hope I won't lose that enthusiasm.

REDzine: Would you consider yourself linked to any European art ideologies in particular? If so could you expand upon this...

Luba: No, I am not connected to any ideology. But I am influenced by many ideas. The ancient Greeks thought us that the human is the measure of everything. I realized how truthful that is when I began working in the theater. The Greeks also gave us the lesson of simplicity, not only in art but also in the way we live. On a more personal level, growing up in Bulgaria during the oppression of the communist ideology made me think about the profound question of morals in art. Back then art and design were used by the regime to glorify the communist party. The most celebrated and successful artists of the time were merely slaves of the ideology. But this type of art was one big lie and from my very first years as an art student I knew that I didn't want to be a part of it. Living in the land of freedom for 15 years hasn't made the question of moral less important for me. Here it is your choice to take a project or to refuse it because you don’t believe its cause is right. They won’t send you to a gulag because you disagree with something. The problem is that we are drowned in so much commercialism and materialism that it becomes as dangerous as the gloomiest ideology. So, the quest for moral remains as important as ever.

REDzine: Could you point out any differences in approach that you may have noticed between commercial art in Eastern Europe and the west?

Luba: I hate the term "commercial art" and I've never been able to understand it. For me, if something is commercial it is not art. That was my belief when I was accepted to study poster design at the National Art Academy in Sofia. This specialty was considered the most intellectual one in the whole school. The training was vigorous and emphasized equally on drawing and painting skills and conceptual thinking. Unfortunately what we see today are designers and illustrators who are very narrowly specialised. The contemporary designers can’t draw. To me the drawing skills are crucial in creating memorable and emotional work.

REDzine: Your work seems to include only the essential elements and carry a very humanist style, could you explain as it certainly goes against the current tide.

Luba: I definitely want to be against that tide. I think being more human is what we need in every aspect of our lives. When I did my first theatre posters I realized that all the plays I had to read were basically about the same thing: human relationships. And yet the audience is never bored to watch these fables over and over again. Because people need to see themselves in art. So, it was very natural to me to use the human figure as my visual alphabet. This is also very challenging. I think that there is nothing more difficult than to draw people and to tell stories with the human form.

REDzine: What's your view on computers in art & design? A hindrance or a powerful new tool?

Luba: I like the computer and I use it my work. We live in a time of digital revolution and as designers we have to take advantage of that. The most important thing though is what we say and whether we are able to connect with the viewer. It doesn't matter if the work is done on the computer or not.

REDzine: Did you have any culture shock experiences moving from Bulgaria to America?

Luba: No, I don’t think I had. I loved being in America from the very first minute. I loved everything, the hard work, the people I met. I literally felt like a fish in the water. It was not easy at all to establish my studio here but I’ve always liked it.

REDzine: In your vision of an ideal world... what role would design play?

Luba: I wish for design of the future to make our life more simple and less overcrowded with unnecessary goods.

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Baltimore City Paper
Graphic Ambition
by Tim Hill


"Art has to move you and design does not, unless it's a good design for a bus," British painter David Hockney once said.

That's the old saw, anyway, for graphic design, an artistic profession that usually serves commerce. Get the consumer, the reader, the user, whomever, from opening paragraph to epilogue, from click to click, from impulse to purchase, effortlessly and elegantly. It's rarely the graphic designer's job to do anything more than inform, guide, or sell. Art is art, the thinking goes, and design is design.

Unless you're Luba Lukova, a Bulgarian-born, New York-based graphic artist whose striking and thoughtful editorial illustrations and off-Broadway posters are on display at Spur Design's Propaganda Gallery in Hampden. To her, the distinction is meaningless.

"Art is not a definition, it is an experience," Lukova says from her Long Island City studio. "If it moves you, to me it doesn't matter how they call it. If I want to move people and make them think, that means I am doing art. Art with a capital A."

She rails against graphic design's relegation to the back pages of art criticism and the profession's reputation as a lightweight calling--a reputation fulfilled by a preponderance of schools graduating design majors with two-year degrees. They're "drowning the profession in mediocrity," she says.

Good design, which strives for something more than decoration, is often more relevant than contemporary art, Lukova argues. Design has in the past, at least, played a more prominent role.

She points to her own experiences in communist Bulgaria, where she grew up and studied, as well as in other impoverished and struggling countries. Chinese artists in the nascent democratic movement, she observes by way of example, have produced a body of interesting and vigorous work. "Good design always comes from places where there are social changes," Lukova notes. "People use it to express themselves.

"I was in South Africa recently, and you see that they need design to open their eyes about AIDS, to improve the literacy. This is where design is necessary, not in societies that have everything, and when designers are just a group of people who have a good time all the time."

As a poster designer for a theater company in Sofia, Bulgaria, Lukova worked among artists, writers, and actors who practiced their crafts despite a regime that prohibited free expression. "A lot of people wanted to change that, and they did it through their work," she recalls, "but unfortunately the work was not public."

In that environment, Lukova adds, "people didn't make such a distinction between design and art, so I was influenced not so much by design but by art in general. Very stimulating for me was to work in the theater and be among writers and directors and to make design which equals their work somehow, or enhances their work."

Post-communism, Lukova visited New York in 1991, after attending a poster show in Colorado, and decided to stay. She continued to make theater posters advertising off-Broadway shows.

Her award-winning work is powerful, iconic, and distinct. It's deceivingly simple, the result of long hours spent turning a complex idea into a metaphorical design without oversimplifying it. In contrast to the multilayered and overwrought design prevalent in the United States, she works in as few colors as possible, often only black and red on white.

Figures with elongated limbs and bodies often morph into other objects, their wide-eyed faces humanizing or terrifying depending on the message. In a piece created for The New York Times to illustrate an article about music banned by totalitarian regimes, a wincing figure's fingers are nailed to a flute. A poster for a production of Romeo and Juliet shows praying hands pierced by a sword. Lukova's style, reminiscent all at once of Picasso, German Expressionism, and Medieval illuminated texts, serves her dual goals of simplicity and timelessness. Her best work is open-ended, ambiguous, and can stand on its own, unlike more conventional, airtight editorial illustration, whose job is to serve a text, ad, or event.

"No matter the scale of the work I do, it's first and always the idea and the emotion and the meaning I put into it," she says. And it matters little if the piece is called fine art or graphic design. "If you put enough seriousness in what you do, people always respond to it, so I don't mind so much how the art criticism will label my work."

Lukova doesn't relate to gallery-bound modern art and the critics who make their living in its midst, preferring design's immediacy and relevance.

"I'm not personally inspired by contemporary fine art," she says. "To me, it has become something for spoiled people, very existential, for people who are in love with themselves. They don't think about the audience, just making something provocative for the sake of being provocative, but without saying something that means something to more people. To me, that's an empty shell, even more empty than the most superficial design.

"Design is something that people see every day, so why not use that?" Lukova asks in the end. "Replace the emptiness of fine art with meaning, which can be so easily in contact with the audience, using the form of the design."