Russian Revolution: Alexi Tylevich

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Designer Alexei Tylevich is originally from another part of the world, but he wishes people wouldn't keep bringing that up. "I've paid my dues here in terms of being the outsider. I know what's going on here, and don't have a clue what's happening there." 'There' is the former Soviet Union, a country he left in 1989 for the U.S., along with his parents and sister. The then-17-year-old Tylevich was a tabula rasa of sorts, by American standards at least. His mind had not been influenced by Star Wars, U.S. soap operas, or Michael Jackson. He marvelled at American TV shows, which were nothing like what he'd seen on the tube growing up. Especially puzzling to him were the people who appeared on his set, "conditioned to always be ready to be on camera. It was a mystery to me - it still is - how people can be so influenced by television." Nor could Tylevich comprehend why these ugly 3-D logos were tumbling across the screen prior to almost every television show.

Enrolled in a Minsk art school at 14, his head was filled with painters like Lissitzky and Malevich; filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky; and writers like Daniil Kharms, an obscure Russian author whose absurd stories were preserved only in underground manuscripts. Kharms' writings are characterized by coincidences, sudden disjunctions, non sequitur endings, and stripped-down narrative. Those techniques and sensibilities were to have a profound influence on Tylevich's later designs. "I was completely immersed in literature, film and painting at the time," he says with a grin, "safely sheltered from those bad, polluted, corrosive, evil mass media that I am so happy splashing about in these days."

At the Minneapolis College of Art & Design (MCAD) where Tylevich enrolled soon after his arrival on U.S. shores, he had his first encounter with a Macintosh. It led him to abandon the fine-art path, and to throw himself into a manic exploration of pixels and how to manipulate them. "I immediately saw the computer as a creative tool," recalls Tylevich, "one I could finally use to do what I had in mind, being in control of the whole process. There are no limits to polygons."

While at MCAD in 1993, his school organized the International Symposium on Electronic Art, and Tylevich got to design the poster and the introductory video. He was hardly seen for three months, preferring the company of a Silicon Graphics Indigo 2 and a pile of Unix manuals. The night before the opening, he emerged from his creative exile with Dead Air: Mind Over Matter, one of the few computer-generated shorts at the time that combined high production values with independent subject matter. "Sort of an indie way of 3-D filmmaking," Tylevich grins. The international audience was suitably wowed.

After graduation and a stint at San Francisco-based animation and special effects house Xaos (see page 46), he went to work at ad agency Hunt/Adkins/Thorburn in Minneapolis. There, he received a call from Channel One in Los Angeles: How would Tylevich like to be the art director of a daily news show for eight million students? It would fall on him to design and produce the on-air graphics. He took the job. His work inspired ID magazine to write that his graphics were "arguably more influential than MTV when it comes to shaping teenagers' impressions and expectations about design."

His fame grew beyond U.S. borders. "In Tylevich's work, images, type and sound become one unique, unified whole that is impossible to unravel, says Paul Postma, partner and co-founder of Koeweiden Postma Associates, the Amsterdam-based design studio. "It's like a painter who intuitively squeezes his tubes onto the canvas and starts mixing the colors; the end result is that the original colors are impossible to trace. Tylevich's work is like that: one big organic confluence of light and dark images, sharp and out-of-focus images, and most of all, images that are there and those that are merely suggested."

After two years on the Channel One job, Tylevich grew restless. Being equipped with a beeper that could go off 24 hours a day was no picnic. "It was a non-stop monster," he recalls. "For a news story, you had three hours to come up with something before the piece aired. There was a lot of leeway with what you could get away with stylistically, but there were a lot of limitations and stumbling blocks also." Chief among them: "You couldn't make any sort of a statement, only present sterilized information. Everything needed to be factually correct and sanitized when it came to graphics. Sometimes, factcheckers would look over my shoulder as I designed. For me, coming from the censorious climate of the Soviet Union, that was just too bizarre." But the experience informed his work, and led him to become a bit of a media connoisseur. "At Channel One, I learned how the news is made," he says. "What they show and what they don't - how the propaganda machine really works.'

At the end of 1997, barely 25 years old, he left Channel One and went to Italy to give a one-month workshop at Fabrica, Benetton's prestigious creative lab headed by Oliviero Toscani. Then, inevitably, Tylevich opened his own studio,in Los Angeles, where he applies his skills to all manner of things: creative direction for television commercials, computer animation and graphics, plus print, Web, font and interface design. Clients include Sega (via Goodby Silverstein & Partners), DKNY, and Max Studio.

Part of what draws them is Tylevich's versatility and creative range. A sample: He's directed live-action identities for Scandinavian TV3/Viasat Network through Three Ring Circus; designed a stunning poster (now on exhibit in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) for the SCI-Arc lecture series; and, with architectural collaborators from L.A.'s Design Office, submitted a plan for an 'art clock' to be placed on a building facade in Yokohama, Japan (the local City Council has the project under review).

Other noteworthy pieces of work are his bumpers and show leaders for DEN (Digital Entertainment Network). DEN works on the assumption that despite the targeted offerings of cable TV, there are still sizable but underserved demographic groups - and that the Internet is the way to reach and hook them. For instance, DEN makes drama series like Tales from the Eastside for Latino youth, Redemption High for Christian teens, and Chang Gang for Asian Americans. Offered on the Web, in streaming-media episodes of six minutes, DEN's goal is to replace television as we know it.

Tylevich, who optimizes his motion design for the Web by using four frames per second, sees the impermanence of the Internet as its most interesting feature; it implies a kind of self-immolation and rebirth that appeals to him. Number one, he says, "I don't want to be judged by the work I've done so far" - so if the always-changing Internet erases or renders inaccessible his online work, that's OK by him. And besides, "Design is a neurotic experience," Tylevich believes. "Projects are random, you can't predict what the future will bring. The truth of the process is that you can't control it, so you might as well embrace more chaos. The process is change, so your identity is fluid. Every project is an opportunity for me to shift my own boundaries."

Some industry observers are rooting on the sideline. "He brings a European sensibility to the American marketplace, and he has also found a smart way of dealing with the cash-crazy culture there," comments legendary London designer Peter Saville. "Alexei has this healthy European sensibility. You can see his history in his work. My only concern would be whether he can grow enough in Southern California. It is such a desperate culture, the last sunset at the end of the world... Inspiration and motivation can only come from yourself there. He will have to manage his talents very carefully."

Still driving the same '92 Honda Accord he left Minneapolis with five years ago, Tylevich now focuses much of his effort on his recently renamed company, PerishableGoods. The name encapsulates his take on our pop culture society. "Perishable is the word for the business I am in. As a designer, you communicate the state of the ideas of that moment. You borrow your influences from everywhere. Everything is immediately consumed; all emotions are ingredients for a brand to adopt, to sell product. Now, the biggest rebellion is to create your own subculture."

He's quick to acknowledge that these days, even rebellion is part of the establishment, co-opted by big business looking to sell to young people. And yet ... "I try to get a grip on this culture: not to hide myself in the fringes, but to find new forms within the existing structures. What I want to do is contribute to our constantly changing idea of reality, all the time adding my own particular grain of salt."

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