The topless woman in the leather bodysuit was whipping the man next to her, but almost nobody paid attention. It was last month's party for Madonna's "Sex" book, and the crowd, like a fist, crushed in on the event's motley trinity: Madonna, photographer Steven Meisel and art director Fabien Baron.
It's no surprise that Madonna was the star at her own party-nor that Meisel, her house photographer, shared the spotlight. But graphic designers are not supposed to rank with Material Girls when it comes to candlepower. Yet there was Baron, a man known merely for what he can do with an ad layout or a magazine's look, getting mobbed like a pop star. This is, of course, the age of the star. Models are stars. The president-elect's daughter's cat is a star. But designers, like divinities, traditionally make themselves invisible. Clearly, a corner has been turned.
Baron, 33, who left school at 17 to work in a Paris design studio, is suddenly everywhere--producing coldly sexual ads for Calvin Klein, designing Harper's Bazaar, whipping up perfume boxes for Issey Miyake. And, of course, there's "Sex." You may not know his name, but he's probably got ten your attention. His current ad campaign for Calvin Klein, actually one of his tamer efforts, features topless rapper Marky Mark in jeans and briefs, with equally topless model Kate Moss draped all over him. It's not very arousing, but like most of Baron's work it pulls you in while it holds you off. You're being teased, but you don't know why or over what.
Baron himself seems somewhat mystified by what he does, or at least unable to articulate his vision. Asked to characterize his work, he waxes vague. "Simplicity," he says. "Boldness. Directness. Like a stop sign. Very grabby." Very. In contrast to his speech, Barons work has an icy clarity. Scraping away graphic clutter, he likes to fill a page with one striking picture, or a few lines of type with the letters jumbled or rearranged like a dyslexic eye chart. It's a style that's won him awards, imitators and, since 1986, art-director jobs at GQ, New York Woman, Italian Vogue and Interview. This year, as the fashion-magazine wars were heating up, Harper's Bazaar turned to Baron for a total graphic makeover. Here was a genuine coup: Baron remodeling the very magazine once designed by Alexey Brodovitch, one of the century greatest graphic artists and t cites as his biggest influence.
Baron watchers read his success in a host of ways. They talk about his willingness to cannibalize the work of his legendary predecessors and the ease with which he navigates the worlds of advertising, magazines, retailing and book design. Some just say he plain steals. But the key to Baron's emergence as a respected designer, a famous respected designer, is the luck of his timing. He arrived on the scene right at the time people were waking up to design. "Fifteen years ago if you heard the word 'graphics,' you thought it meant print," says Leo Lerman, former editor of Vanity Fair and a ranking creative spirit at Conde Nast for decades. "The general public knew nothing about great designers. But now we live in a highly visual time, and people are much more aware of the whole idea of design."
Today's top art directors have the hip cachet and impact of record producers. When Baron talks about the Madonna book, he doesn't talk about designing a book, he talks about making an "objet"--a piece of art. The results of such thinking have produced magazines of unparalleled artistry (and artiness). And, as Details magazine editor James Truman points out, "The effects have not been entirely beneficial. Quite often a magazine's design will defeat the content."
Ingrid Sischy knows all about that. The editor of Interview, she hired Baron two years ago to make over her magazine, only to fire him because his graphics were dominating the magazine. Nevertheless, Sischy argues that the increased prominence of designers like Baron is not merely inevitable but desirable as well. "Graphic design is the missing link between form and content. How we receive information is responsible for how we understand it. We have to pay attention to the people who are packaging it for us."
Baron is at the forefront of those people. What he offers is intangible. But it's also real, as real as the difference between eating a piece of pie served on disposable plastic and eating one on a china plate. The pie tastes the same, but the experience is different. In today's image-hungry climate, Baron teaches us to keep our eyes on the plate.