April 1, 2006
S,M,L,XL – 1995
A big book that revived the monograph and redefined the role of graphic design.
Before S,M,L,XL some of us hadn’t heard of Rem Koolhaas. Even fewer of us knew of Bruce Mau (and those who did probably thought he was Hawaiian). We’d never seen a monograph that included porn, film stills, or High Renaissance paintings—nor one of such…epic proportions. It was a novel on crack, a dictionary on taxonomic speed. But it changed our notion of the monograph, as well as our perception of the role of graphic design.
S,M,L,XL was also remarkable for giving a graphic designer coauthorship. Koolhaas and Mau were both catapulted into design stardom, getting raves from Time magazine, but it was Mau who used the stage to promote graphic design as active engagement with the world. To a generation of designers, the book became a symbol for the potential beyond making things look cool (like David Carson).
S,M,L,XL may have helped reinvigorate the idea of collaboration, but really it was the first book to be called a doorstop. At more than 1,300 pages, it featured an almost infinite cornucopia of data relating to one firm’s work (so much that we still haven’t parsed it all). Koolhaas and Mau’s strategy of reverse editing—constantly expanding the data pool instead of whittling it down—was an utterly shocking, artfully rogue idea. They removed the curtain to reveal OMA’s world of work with intelligence and nuance (nuance!). We’ve not been so lucky since.
Selling more than 100,000 copies to date, S,M,L,XL ushered in the age of the hyperextended monograph—books bursting with coffee receipts, vacation snaps, confused diagrams, and well, heaps of TMI (“too much information”). Today it seems everyone thinks they can make their own. What was an original act of ego-contextualizing-architecture-within-a-palimpsest-of-culture is now a formula. Certainly we can all recall a monograph within the past couple of years where we wished they’d just gotten to the point and not made us walk through the laundry room to get there.
As with all seminal acts, S,M,L,XL has become a verb. We’d like to think it could name the act of absolute reinvention that overturns our assumptions about architecture, design, and the capabilities of established—even “old”—technologies. Eleven years ago that meant a book about architecture. In eleven more years who knows what that will mean.