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In Print: design gone wild 

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Starting out as a graphic designer in the early 90s, Colin Metcalf was wowed by Raygun, the David Carson-designed cultural magazine that exploded the staid graphic arts scene of the day. It defied traditional design logic: layouts and typefaces looked like they'd been run through a blender and poured onto the page. Metcalf had never seen anything like it, and it opened his eyes, he says, to the radical notion that there wasn't any "right" graphic way to get your ideas across.

Some ten years later Metcalf and his former college roommate Kevin Grady are hoping to have a similar effect on the "aesthetic poverty" they see eating away at contemporary visual culture. With Gum, the magazine they founded in 2002, they think they've created an antidote to the mindless development and ubiquitous advertising that litter the urban landscape. "We want to be able to look at cultural phenomena in a light fashion," says Metcalf. "People need to feel good about what they're looking at."

Metcalf, who grew up in suburban LaGrange Park, graduated from the University of Colorado in 1988 and, after a year in London, moved to Chicago to work as a freelance designer. In 1996 he and some friends founded the Low-Res digital film festival, which later became Resfest, and Res magazine, a publication devoted to the digital filmmaking scene. The partners sold what was by then the Res Media Group in 2000, at the peak of the new-economy boom, and Metcalf decided to move to New York and stay on as the design director of the magazine. But just a year later, shaken by September 11, he took a trip to New Mexico and rethought his decision. "I walked around the desert talking to myself like an idiot," he says. "I wasn't on drugs. I wish I were--it would have been more fun."

In January 2002, he decided to leave Res. He and Grady, who lives in Boston, had long talked about doing a project that reflected their own interests; the terrorist attacks sealed the deal. "It became apparent how tenuous everything is," he says. "If you're going to do something, it's best to get on with it."

Metcalf had some money from the sale of Res, and after a bit of brainstorming he and Grady, the former design director for an ad agency, began work on Gum. "We complement each other perfectly," says Metcalf. "My style is ultrabaroque, with an excess of detail; he likes to strip everything down."

They financed the first issue entirely out of pocket; instead of starting small and gradually attracting a following, they decided they needed high production values right from the get-go. "The kind of vision we had for this was elaborate to begin with," says Metcalf, "and the only way we had to execute that was to go for broke."

Metcalf moved back to Chicago at the end of that year. The first issue of Gum hit the streets in January 2003 with a $20 price tag and distribution support from Gingko Press, publisher of titles by David Carson and Marshall McLuhan. Visually rambunctious and borderline incoherent, the pocket-size, bubble-gum-colored volume was full of offbeat articles and eclectic work by emerging and established designers and artists: a photo essay on the weird pageantry of college football by Chicago photographer Jeanne Hilary, a comic-book-style interview with design guru Chip Kidd, a glossy photo spread of work by expat German artist Bavaglio, whose medium is pancake batter.

Complete with trading cards celebrating the publishers and their cohorts, Gum seems at times like the ultimate inside joke for graphic design geeks. But "people respond to that strange eclecticism," Metcalf says. "You're like, 'Where's the thread?' But somehow there is a thread. The sensibility's the thread." All 5,000 copies of the first issue had sold by the end of last year.

Initially Metcalf and Grady planned to publish twice a year, but that idea was quickly shelved as they realized that it was going to take longer than they expected to duplicate--or surpass--the expansive scope of the debut. They now plan to put out an issue annually. In the meantime, they're developing other Gum-related events: touring art exhibits, short-film screenings, and multimedia projects associated with gumweb.com. To help pay the bills, they got a sponsorship from Puma, which also sponsors Res. Several of the shoe company's ads appear in the second issue of Gum, and the publishers are "actively pursuing" additional sponsors with the hope that they can eventually cover overhead and personal salaries. The project is a long way from being profitable, but Metcalf says he doesn't mind. "I hope to be one little building block of vitality in this city," he says. "This is just one more very conscious and directed effort to make something that is special, that isn't stamped from the same cut of cloth."

The new Gum, packaged in a cardboard box that doubles as a gum ball dispenser, includes an interview with Ray Bradbury, a tribute to Mr. Rogers, a View-Master disk, and a packet of puma-shaped gummy candy; it should be available in stores by April 23. Metcalf, Hilary, and local design firm Tanagram Partners are hosting a launch party from 6 to 9 on Wednesday, April 21, at Sonotheque, 1444 W. Chicago. E-mail colin@gumweb.com for more information.

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