Total Worship.The Vaux Identity

The idea of Vaux as an ‘unfinished project’ emerged very early on in the development. Initially a comment on the nature of our spiritual journey, it very soon became applicable to the creative process. Deadlines and life-styles rendered most output a sketch or work in progress. Time poverty heavily shaped Vaux’s appearance and is responsible for ‘incompleteness’ becoming so much part of the Vaux DNA. The Identity is no exception, it too, is an exercise in ‘unfinishedness’. In fact, Vaux doesn’t really have a visual identity, not in the classic sense. What exists are a few key structural elements and a robust theoretical framework. More a blueprint for an identity, than a fully implemented graphic system.

Master plan
Before looking at individual elements of the Identity, it would be helpful to explain part of the original Vaux vision. As Identity and founding vision are inseparable, both are heavily informed by ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ (the ‘Total work of Art’)- a debunked concept originating from composer Richard Wagner, disseminated through the Bauhaus and popularised in the architecture of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, amongst others. When interpreted through architecture, the ‘Total work of Art’ can extend from spoons to cities, including every object in between. Taking ‘over a space and subjecting every detail, every surface to an over-arching vision’ (M.Wigley). In the 1970’s, designer, Massimo Vignelli actually applied this to a church, St Peter’s in Manhattan. Working under the dictum ‘design is one’, everything from letterhead to organ was considered.

Throughout the 20th century, the ‘Total work of Art’ permeated most design disciplines. Graphic design very quickly absorbed the concept where it became the dominant ideology, particularly in the creation of identities. Historically, It’s the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ identities that tend to define the decades. For instance: Wim Crouwel’s Stedelijk Museum in the Sixties, Otl Aicher’s Munich Olympics in the Seventies, Gert Dumbar’s PTT in the Eighties and North’s RAC in the nineties- The latter, applied to everything, from membership cards to Air-ships. It’s a ‘way of seeing’ that has been extraordinarily significant, yet equally, not without critics. The Wagner connection should be enough to raise fascist alarm bells. The Nazi party understood the power of totalizing visual identities only too well.

Vaux is an experiment in ‘Total Worship’. I winced when we used the term ‘Worship Architects’, yet, I’ve not found a better description. What happens if you get a group of artists and organise their talent towards creating sacred spaces. Spaces that are conducive to experiencing ‘Numinous’- What the architect Tado Ando describes as places ‘to reclaim yourself’. Or, what composer John Tavener might describe as, a place to experience the ‘Divine voice’. When viewed like this, Gesamtkunstwerk becomes less totalitarian and more akin to Shaker or Zen models of production. With the former, everything has spiritual content, a kind of ‘explosive design’ that permeates your whole lifestyle. The latter with the Tea Room, an ‘implosive design’ where every object within the space undergoes a rigorous selection process and through the ceremony boundaries between art and life are abolished. Vaux was intended to work within similar traditions, creating immersive environments, where every detail would be considered. Spaces built from surface, idea, sound, word, image and woven together to create a seamless whole- A place where a flyer is no different from a Liturgy, or 35mm Slide from a prayer. All are important, all constitute the whole act of worship.

Logo (skein).
The Vaux logo was developed long before the first service and was really a statement of intent. A 24 point height manifesto. We needed a strong visual language, partly as we wanted to challenge the lame idea that worship was just about songs. Yet also, we wanted something that could colonise and occupy media spaces. We even Beta tested it in ‘Dazed and Confused’. As a form it’s more emotional than rational, basically, a very abstract ‘V’, although, the light/dark heart has proved uncannily accurate. As the ‘Dirt’ season began to develop, the love and doubt aspects of the marque soon became very apparent. As Matthew Fox says: ‘Listen to your images’.

Interestingly enough, If we were building an identity now, a logo wouldn’t be on the agenda. Not because Naomi Klein says so but because logo’s have become fatigued and should really be consigned to the Twentieth century. There are far more interesting ways to express your values than just reducing them down to one solitary mark. It was 1998 and The Designer’s Republic were endgaming with Logo’s everywhere- we just wanted to join the conversation.

Flyers are one of the few ‘concrete’ objects Vaux have made. Conceived as visual manifestos, each one turned out to be different- snapshots of where the aesthetic and theological thinking was at the time. The ‘Black Flyer’ is probably the ideal, as it sits well alongside other elements within the system. An exercise in reduction, It’s economy of language and form act as bench-marks for the proto-identity. Stripping any ornamentation, reducing, yet not reducing the poetry. I think we got it right here.

Equally, I think the A6 postcard is the perfect format for something like Vaux. A generic paper size that carries very warm associations. In a our standardised world, much identity building revolves around appropriation. Settle on certain elements and use them more than anyone else, to the point where you gain ownership of a font, a colour or a format. Owning something as ubiquitous as as a A6 postcard becomes a bit of a holy grail.

Typography was always going to be important to Vaux particularly in terms of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’. It’s just one of those things you’ve got to get right. Yet choice of font is as important as how you use it. Mark Holt from 8vo, always insists their font choices were determined by circumstance and not aesthetics. They only owned AG Buch or Unica at the time, so that’s what they used. This may be true, yet it tends to deny the effect of medium on the message. Whether you like it or not, fonts carry huge historical baggage. For instance, choosing san-serif places you within a very particular design discourse. Vaux’s choice of range-left Helvetica was a very conscious decision to align with the Swiss movement. From Weingart to Maholy-Nagy, you’re ‘In tradition’, an unbroken line of secular Saints way back to Bauhaus.

There was also the very practical consideration of how to bring together Vaux’s extraordinary disparate output. The problem of packaging: dance, design, music, liturgy, performance etc… There needed to be a clear consistent visual voice that could encompass the phenomenal ecleticism. Helvetica’s neutrality (now days debatable) lent itself perfectly to the job- the font should not overshadow the work. It’s the classic argument behind ‘Objective typography’, aesthetic is subordinate to information. ‘An unadorned typographical form serving purely the needs of communication’. (J.Müller-Brockmann)

Tone of Voice.
This is something stolen from marketing, for which I am ashamed, as marketing is the natural predator of design. Never-the-less, Tone of Voice exists as an important element of any identity. It is the new logo- A powerful vehicle for expressing any organisms essence, as it tends to encompass both language and medium. Not just what vernacular do you assume (a kind of ‘VauxSpeakTM’) but also, how does the ‘voice’ of the media either enhance or destroy your message. I think it gets close to one of Vaux’s core critiques of the Church. It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.

Everything about the ‘Total work of Art’ centres on detail. ‘God is in the detail’. Christianity’s not broken, it’s articulation is. Vaux is, first and foremost, a collective attempt to re-articulate Christianity back to ourselves. We play in Babel’s ground zero. A highly codified world where surface and style have become languages in there own right. Redefining Tone of Voice in such a way leads to some interesting possibilities, particularly in regards to physical spaces. For want of a better word, these spaces can be branded. Yet not by plastering a logo on every surface. It’s the idea that you could enter the ‘New Forms’ worship venue at Greenbelt or St Peter’s Church in Vauxhall and still know you were in Vaux territory. Just by the way the space is organised, the type of music playing or particular use of language in liturgy.

Your identity is no longer represented by a solitary marque, but by a key set of signifiers. Signifiers that exist across a diverse range of media. It’s picking up on Vignelli’s interpretation of a faith-space and expanding it to include other building-blocks, such as Music, prayer, Darkness or ideas. Non-space.

Some would argue that Christianity already exists as a powerful Brand. A 2000 year old Transnational with a reputation as notorious as Nike or Nestlé and a marque as instantly recognisable as the swastika or Mickey mouse’s ears. For years the Church has been struggling with the problems of brand fatigue and inertia. In some respects, its way ahead of the likes of Nike, who for the first time, is having to undergo a process of ‘inculturation’ by implementing the ‘Energy Series’ projects- Black-op’s briefs, designed to re-engage with a culture that it has essentially lost touch with. Equally, the term “Swooshification” moved into it’s internal lexicon. As a result of the acknowledgement that their beloved ‘tick’ had become over used, an order went out to restrict it’s use. With Christianity, it’s a moot point as to wether the cross as identity is fatigued or not. Vaux took the position that it was. Although in terms of image-wars, the ever-shifting cultural sands may render the cross meaningful once again.

There was a time when Vaux toyed with the idea of ‘Church as brand’, a repugnant and attractive concept, all at the same time. It’s one of those ‘difficult’ ideas in the same way Toscani’s Benetton ‘death row’ images are ‘difficult’. Where the power of the piece comes through the moral ambiguity of placing documentary photography in an Advertising context. ‘Church as brand’ lives in the same territory. It sets up a tension that makes you feel uncomfortable. Yet ultimately, it’s an unsatisfying critique. Like most post-modern posturing, it’s an idea that can only go so far. A one trick pony that leads to a dead end.

In conclusion, design is an amazingly powerful language. Predominantly Vaux uses it in two ways: as cultural critique and metaphysical language. It’s about encouraging the view of graphic design as a trojan horse. A function of it’s unique position within culture, as it is the very language that transmits culture. It is also about starting to explore design’s potential to convey the spiritual. We create because we were created and what we make can ‘resonate with the prototype.’

There are powerful arguments either way as to whether churches should engage in identity building and branding. My hunch is that they shouldn’t. Not if you view it as a technique or tool. Alpha is a brilliant example of identity as blunt instrument. Pete Ward said it all with his “McDonaldization” quote. The real problem with Alpha is not their scary aesthetic, it’s their MO. The identity is deployed in the service of a rabid marketing agenda. Yet People are tired of being sold stuff. We live in a complex web of lies and half-truths. And as a result, we all have evolved highly sensitive detectors to ‘second-agendas’ and spin. This is why Vaux dropped the idea of the Great commission. Identity and branding are seen as a language in their own right. A vernacular of resistance where design becomes a creative expression and a cultural critique.

Afterall, this space is not for sale.

Words by Anonymous Workers.
Anonymous Workers are a group of cultural practitioners exploring the relationship between design and spirituality.