It’s Nice That

M/M (Paris) and the ongoing conversations that define its practice

On a rainy Paris morning, I met with Mathias Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag, the namesakes of renowned agency M/M (Paris), at their studio in the 10th, beside Canal Saint-Martin.

TV 70, photographed by Alessandro Furchino Capria
On a rainy Paris morning, I met with Mathias Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag, the namesakes of renowned agency M/M (Paris), at their studio in the 10th, beside Canal Saint-Martin. Greeted by Michael’s Siberian Husky called Indy, we settled at the table of their meeting room, adjacent to the studio, where individual workspaces line two walls, a long, communal table forms the main drag, and skylights, dappled with raindrops, illuminate the room.

Since its founding in 1992, M/M (Paris) has collaborated with the likes of Björk, including the book Björk: Archives, which accompanied the 2015 exhibition at MoMA; JW Anderson, embroidering crochet pieces on a canvas printed with a vintage photograph, which evokes a smartphone home screen, for his FW17 campaign; and have often collaborated with artists Pierre Huyghe, Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin, and Philippe Parreno. More recently, M/M (Paris) worked with Acne Studios on their campaign featuring Kordale and Kaleb and their four children, the first black LGBTQI family to star in a major fashion campaign.

As Mathias unravelled his fountain pen from its leather case, and began sketching the conversation, I asked about their collaboration with Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli, on his project and exhibition TV 70: Francesco Vezzoli guarda la Rai, at the Fondazione Prada, Milan: “We met Francesco a long time ago, but it was more a kind of social meeting, we navigated in the same world.” And Matthias and Michael are known for their ability to expertly navigate a variety of contexts, “We are operating at the crossover of many different media in our work, because of the nature of what we do.

“We are trained as graphic designers and our main interests are the building of images, signs, or alphabets, which can circulate very fast”, says Mathias. “We’ve always worked between different worlds – the world of art, the world of fashion, the world of music – and what makes those circulations possible is the media. And Francesco, in his work, is always obsessed with the media. For him, it’s a raw material, like stone or painting, it’s the core of his work.”

Vezzoli’s practice explores the power of contemporary popular culture, the power of fact and fiction in relation to our understanding of both ancient and contemporary history, and meta-collaborations that criss-cross between varieties of contexts and periods. He has worked in collage, installations, painting, printmaking and film. One particular project, Greed, was a social sculpture, an advert for an imaginary perfume that starred Natalie Portman and Michelle Williams, and was directed by Roman Polanski, with costumes designed by Miuccia Prada. It culminated in a star-studded launch at Rome’s Gagosian gallery in 2009, inspired by Italy’s radical Arte Povera movement of the 1960s, in which artists created ephemeral works that challenged the corporate status quo.

“Each time we saw each other we’d say ‘Hi,’ and then eventually, maybe two years ago, he phoned us: ‘I have a very dear project I would like to share with you, I can’t tell you on the phone what it is, but it is something I would love to tackle with you’”, Mathias recalls. “So we went to Milan, and we had a very exciting discussion over lunch. He presented us with this project he had in mind, an exhibition about Italian television, in the period when it was dedicated to culture, and by extension to politics, music and art. It was vibrant and vivid – where Italian thinkers, artists or politicians would express themselves. Francesco said: ‘I know you’re interested in signs and images,’ and furthermore, we were interested because television had a similar approach in France at that time [between 1968 and 1982]. It truly belonged to the state, and it was a way to engage in conversation with the public.”

Mathias continues: “The project was also interesting to us because of the Fondazione Prada. It recalls the freedom of approach that Centre Georges Pompidou had when it opened in 1977. It was more than just an art centre, a display place for pieces to become valuable. It was more than just entertaining the mass, it was truly a factory of ideas. A place where people could meet, share ideas, and then build the world.

“For instance, in early discussions we were recalling [the 1985 exhibition] Les Immatériaux, curated by philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, which was an example for our generation.” The exhibition re-cast Emmanuel Kant’s definition of aesthetics, which had characterised the preoccupations of art history since the 19th Century, and formed ‘a presentation of ideas,’ and a re-working of what exhibitions could be in the so-called postmodern moment. “It was a model of what an exhibition could be beyond the fact that it’s just a retrospective. [The exhibition is] the work, the space of the exhibition is the art in itself.”

The exhibition, a collaboration primarily between Vezzoli and Rai, Italy’s national broadcasting company, explores 1970s TV production, and conveys its influence as a driving force for social and political change. And as Mathias confirmed: “Francesco is an amazing historian, he knows Italian television by heart, he’s an expert. And beyond that, he sees things by association, and he can produce more meaning.”

Set across the grounds of the Fondazione Prada – a complex of buildings, which are contrasting in style, and each designed or adorned by architect Rem Koolhaas’ studio OMA – TV 70 opens in black and white, and slowly moves to Technicolour, through grey scale and shocking bursts of red, in both the programmes on show, and M/M’s exhibition design.

“Vezzoli was brilliant in the way that he applied us and our practice as sign-makers at the scale of the space – which has been an obsession of ours since we started working together,” Mathias remarks. “We thought: ‘OK, there is an alphabet that can be printed and displayed on the page,’ but we are now living in the 21st Century, you can go further than signage systems or way-finding. We have passed the forest of signs and symbols of the 19th Century, we can deliver meaning, feeling and sensation, with spatial design.”

Elaborating on their intention, he says: “You can encourage the viewer to be lost, recoup them and then re-project them in another space. This is where, because all the material we had to deal with [in TV 70] was completely immaterial, we had to give it a materiality.

“We applied the creative strategy that we have applied many times, where we say: ‘OK, let’s build a set of signs.’ Those signs could be produced in an alphabet for sure, and write the title of the show, but they are also designed in a way that they can be piled on top of each other, on a vertical or horizontal axis. With those signs you can build a space, one that is equal to, or enhances the television material displayed in the show.”

The letterforms are oversized and abstracted, and while they remain readable in form, due to their settings and monumental scale, they take on secondary roles: to be reminiscent of grandiose church architecture, nightclubs, or fittingly, TV sets. As a spectator, it almost feels like you’ve been shrunk back to child-scale, when your surroundings overwhelm, enthral and consume you. You’re invited to clamber onto and over the scattered letterforms, to be at the centre of the show, and outside of any reliable sense of time or space.

“Our aim was that entering the exhibition would be like entering a TV programme, and furthermore, like you are entering a portal, or a programme in it’s truest sense” says Mathias. “Time is the true material of the exhibition, we could compress it or elongate it, take the viewer from A to B, and then into another time zone through C, D and E. The spaces go from daylight to darkness, and the spectator feels like they are part of the exhibition, interacting, and not just by pressing a button. There is the quality of strolling through a garden, where they feel with nature, but everything is well-sequenced and designed, you feel like there is something going through you,” says Mathias.

“Another important ingredient is the use of art, and it is not an art show, rather, the art pieces were used as signage systems somehow. We reverted the hierarchy, so instead of having a graphic system that allows you to view art, the graphic system creates a space where art accommodates, or helps the viewer to watch television footage, providing time markers or a signage system” says Mathias. “We shifted the paradigm to create a work that is a complete cosmogony, of many different voices. It’s almost a cliché to say, but it’s like a polyphony.”

The exhibition covers the best part of Fondazione Prada’s vast grounds, splitting each room and stand-alone building thematically, and, by and large, chronologically. In gallery Nord, which represents the “professoral” period of Italian public service television, M/M (Paris)’s exhibition design is shaped entirely in black and white, with towering letterforms lining each wall. Mathias describes it as being: “Like a church, or a 1930s fascist building, where the weight of knowledge is impressed upon you”. He continues: “That had been the principle of television, when you had a lot of interviews with men talking to men, very ‘professoral,’ with big icons of Italian art.”

From here, the exhibition moves through a variety of spaces; in its physicality, as well as intellectually, periodically, thematically and emotionally. First is a long, dark, claustrophobic corridor that presents that present periods of trauma and socio-political turmoil, such as Italy’s ‘Years of Lead,’ which, spatially, behave “like a sting”; and second, a facsimile of a Milan gallery, which plants you in a readymade that reflects the familiar model of exhibitions for the period in question. The next space, Podium, shows the work of artist Carla Accardi, alongside TV clips about the feminist and civil rights movement in 1970s Italy. “The space, and deploying art within a system, was very much part of Accardi’s work. She was building a world to express an ideology. Her work is shown in relation to TV programmes about women’s lives, where they expressed their doubts, certainties and questions regarding their position in Italian society.”

It’s the first room of the exhibition to appear in vivid colour, covered floor to ceiling in red velvet. “The red curtain represents theatre and entertainment, and of course, it’s like a womb, where we all come from. The typographic elements of furniture are flattened out, designed to be like a landscape, or being in the mouth of a giant. The final part of the exhibition, the Sud gallery, was designed to be in between a nightclub and a house”, says Mathias. “It’s a series of spaces that are kind of plugged into each other. The scale is reduced to a more domestic one, and it stays public because it’s like a nightclub – not a discotheque. It’s in between night and day, and deals with the intimacy of the woman, men and women, it’s multiracial and gender fluid. For the time, the images were very daring.” The letterforms that form the structure and furniture of the space are patterned in the style of the holding screen for when programming would cease overnight. “Very crude, RGB colours, because that’s how electronic television worked, it would be dealing with the activation of those three colours. The grid was designed to align the electrons, not because it was cool,” recalls Mathias.

“We added the crosswords, which weren’t supposed to be there. And why? There were crossword magazines produced in the same period, which were a way of dealing with culture” Mathias remarks. “Crosswords were also the first game to be analysed by a writer or artist, where you have very simple rules. It’s a way of compressing time, of putting your intellect into a grid, and finding a solution. Crosswords are caught between knowledge and entertainment, and that’s the friction, that’s what television invented somehow.”

“We are extracting something from the past, and plugging it in to our carefully designed world, with a retro-future effect. It’s a principle that can be used in a book, where you go from full colour to black and white, to colour again. A movie, where you cut between scenes. Or a television, which cuts between programmes”, says Mathias. “It leads the viewer from one programme to another, and conceptually, they aren’t just in the position of a consumer, as they are today. You could watch TV from 10am ‘til 12pm, and feel enhanced, like you had learnt something.”

The book Televisione 70, which accompanies TV 70, embodies a similar approach to the aforementioned crossword puzzle, splicing knowledge and entertainment in its structure, texts and visual contents. A compendium of voices and perspectives – much like the exhibition and it’s contributing authors – there are texts by Vezzoli, M/M (Paris), and curator Cristiana Perrella; as well as essays by Nicolas Bourriaud, Umberto Eco and Marco Senaldi, among others. Likewise, the design of the book criss-crosses in its references, between French literary anthologies and Betamax. “We wanted the book to be a book,” says Mathias. “The exhibition was referring very much to the history of exhibitions, and in this context it was important for us that the television material remained immaterial, that you couldn’t really nail down the scale of the image. It was important that it stayed where it was supposed to stay, within the collective memory of the people. That was the beauty of television from this period, it was for the collective, it was free and it was very generous, and it was important that we maintained that. That’s why, rewinding to the book, it was important that the book be a true book. Although it criss-crosses between high and low culture, it has a book format, and it stays a book. A book that tells the story of television, or a book that tells the story of an exhibition that tells the story of television, with the tricks and tools one would deploy in a very classical book.”

The design draws upon reference anthologies, such as Bibliotheque de la Pléiade – a series of books first established in 1931 by Jacques Schiffrin as a way of providing the French public with complete, pocket editions of the work of classic authors – and it is based on the pocket format. “When you open the book, it falls into cinemascope, and if you turn it, the book becomes square, like a TV screen. The weight of it, and the sleeve, is almost like a Betamax. It was important that the book would proceed in the way that we would proceed through the space. It invites the same mix of voices, attracting many sources and conglomerating them together – and this artistic or intellectual approach, this strategy, it’s always present in our work.” He continues, “With our work you could say: ‘Oh, it’s beautiful, it’s very well-executed,’ but what we love is when it’s possible to connect a variety of references, influences and voices, which when you’re consuming it, or walking through it, develop a further, unexpected state.”

“We have been saying this since we started, because it was part of our obsession: ‘Our work is an ongoing conversation’. This is our relationship to people we’ve been collaborating with, and I say collaborating because it is a lot more than just working, even if we are working in a hardcore, industrial context. We shift it so it becomes a conversation, or we try to, it is never: ‘We have been told to do this,’or, ‘We are telling you to do that,’” says Mathias. “Some people understood us right away, because they could see a connection, while others, they liked what we were doing, but they didn’t understand that to arrive at that point, there was a necessary process. We’ve tried to work with people who want to escape that process, but it produces something that looks like our work, but without the gravity of it. One of the successes of the exhibition, is that it has truly been a conversation between people of good manner and conscience. Another, is it’s optimism. The exhibition goes beyond objects that can be sold, and rather, focusses on producing a moment. A generous moment, where you can access history and be part of a culture that produced an amazing set of materials. I think this ought to be the mission of a museum, to produce exhibitions that nourish the cultural surroundings.”

Returning to a focus on their own practice, Mathias says: “At the beginning of our career it was more complicated. The process of collaboration wasn’t so obvious, or accepted, in the world of design, it was more obvious in the world of art. What we wanted to do was to operate as artists in the world of design, which wasn’t expecting that approach. We’d say we were artists, but we had shifted our world of action or expertise outside of museum and gallery exhibitions. Our practice was a bit surprising at the beginning.”

All text originally published by It’s Nice That. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.

It’s Nice That

Eduardo Paolozzi: On a Singular Teacher and His Devil-May-Care Philosophy

“It’s the one with the red motorcycle outside” said David Queensberry as he gave directions to his west London home. The former head of ceramics at the Royal College of Art, and trustee of The Paolozzi Foundation had agreed to meet to reminisce on Paolozzi’s time as a tutor at the RCA…

Eduardo Paolozzi maquettes, photographed by Jamie Stoker
“It’s the one with the red motorcycle outside” said David Queensberry as he gave directions to his west London home. The former head of ceramics at the Royal College of Art, and Trustee of The Paolozzi Foundation had agreed to meet to reminisce on Paolozzi’s time as a tutor at the RCA, after we were introduced by Neil Parkinson, the college’s archivist.

His house is dotted with masterworks, from archive Paolozzi sculptures, to maquettes, ceramics and prints that adorn the walls of almost every room; as well as his own ceramics, and a vast collection of antique and contemporary pieces. When we returned to photograph his collection of Paolozzi’s work, there were recently returned pieces from the Whitechapel show, leant against sofa cushions, beside fruit bowls on the dining table and stacked behind a dolls house and pile of books.

As Aristotle the cat splayed himself prominently across an Eames footstool, we sat with cups of tea in Paolozzi mugs, and Queensberry started at the beginning. “It just so happened that Eduardo, who was a rather famous artist by then, was also one of my best friends. So I said to him, ‘What do you think about working for a bit at the college? It’s a nice environment, and you can do your own thing there’. He said yes, so he shipped up and started coming in. He had a glorious presence, some people found him rather difficult, other people, quite magical.”

In 1959, when David Queensberry was appointed head of ceramics at the RCA, the college had been through an overhaul of approach. “Since 1948, when Robert Darwin took over as rector, there was a drive to go back to its roots and be primarily concerned with design,” Queensberry explains. With his appointment came the decision that “this ought to change, the college’s approach to ceramics should be on a wider spectrum. From pre-Ice Age figurative sculpture, to mugs and high technology ceramics; as well as works that didn’t have any umbilical connection with a pot—objects, or artworks.” The design part Queensberry could handle. “I had great experience in the industry, but we were taking on these students who needed something else.” That’s where, and when, Eduardo Paolozzi came in.

“Eduardo wouldn’t give traditional advice. He wouldn’t say ‘Why does the handle on that cup have such a pedestrian angle?’ Instead he’d ask ‘Why do you need a handle on a cup at all? The Japanese don’t.’ He’d bring in portfolios full of the collage material he’d been working with, and hand it out to people. He could be very, very good for certain students, he was like a conjurer, he could pull a rabbit out of a hat.”

Paolozzi would invite students for dinner at the Meridiana, a now long gone Italian restaurant in South Kensington, where “he had given the guy all these sculptures for their terrace, in exchange for unlimited credit at the restaurant. We’d have a huge table, the students would be wined and dined, and sometimes things would go a bit wrong – he had quite a short attention span, and if he got bored with things, he’d leave abruptly.”

A regular guest at the Meridiana, was product designer Robin Levien, a former student and assistant of Paolozzi’s. Levien recalls: “He was one of my tutors, but tutor in an unconventional sense. We didn’t have formal meetings or tutorials, it was more that he was around. There was one occasion where Paolozzi told a student, ‘Come and see me at my studio at Dove House Street tomorrow’, she said ‘Fine, what time should I come?’ And he told her to arrive at 8am, probably quite provocatively to suggest she ought to be up early if she wants to be a serious artist. So she arrives at 8am, presses the buzzer and just as the door opens, three dwarves came out. When she arrived upstairs, nothing was said.”

“I always thought of Eduardo of a bit of an enigma, he’d be giving things away all the time, but it was surprisingly difficult to give him anything,” Levien continues. “It was a way of keeping everybody at a distance—it adds a performative quality to relationships—and it kept him in control” says Levien. “I got to know him reasonably well, because he was interested in my work. He offered to buy some a few weeks before my degree show, and I said: ‘Eduardo, OK, but I’d rather see how things go at the show before saying yes’. And unlike my BA show, I didn’t sell anything—it was all a bit academic, a bit cerebral—so afterwards I asked if he’d still be interested in buying my work, and Eduardo said: ‘No, too late.’ It was a great lesson about not looking a gift-horse in the mouth…”.

After graduating, Levien returned to the RCA to assist David Queensberry, who ran his ceramics business from the college. “I was still around a bit, and so was Eduardo, and on one day I came back from a job interview with Terrence Conran, which David had recommended me for, and was telling Eduardo about it. All he said was: ‘Another one of my failures’, which was really his sense of humour. Eduardo had taught Terrence at the Central, I suppose it was because he had gone into design and not art.”

“Eduardo would be in the interviews, as would some of the students. There was one occasion where, after the interviewee had left, he just remarked: ‘Evening class, not collected.’ It doesn’t get worse than that, does it? He was very sharp, very succinct”, recalls Levien. “He had a wicked streak too. There was one occasion when he bet a girl in my year £100 to streak around the Albert Hall, and that was a lot of money in the 70s. So half the ceramics department went down to the lobby, she took off her coat and ran, and when she came back to the double doors, he wouldn’t open them! He did give her the £100, though.”

That wicked streak ran through to his dealings with the art world, “When he had the Tate exhibition in 1971, which had probably been his biggest show to date, he suddenly became popular on another level”, says Levien. “The story goes that a couple of rich American women came to his studio—and a lot of the things he was doing at the time were tables with objects on top. He would make the works in wax and if someone wanted to buy one, it would be cast in bronze—and these women were gushing about how fabulous everything was, ‘We love it, it looks so great’ [said in a fittingly exaggeratedly gushy American accent], and then they got around to the price. I don’t remember the exact figures, it might have been something like, ‘it’s £10K’, at which point they said: ‘Oh dear, Eduardo, that’s a little more than we’d really want to spend’. So he took a couple of steps back, went at it, and kicked a lump of wax off the top of the work. ‘OK, that’ll be £8K’, he said. He might as well have just kicked them right up the backside.”

“He never really had a good relationship with an art dealer”, remarks Queensberry, “he was suspicious of them. Of course, it didn’t help him. He was prolific, and varied, there’s no obvious theme, and in a lot of ways, Eduardo’s work is difficult. He stood for something different. His work is alarming, the opposite to decorative”, he says. “A lot of work was left unsigned, and he was always giving it away – no good keeping it in the drawer forever.”

One such instance led to a strange incident involving the exhibition of a series of erotic collages, supposedly attributed to Paolozzi. “Francis Morland, who was a sort-of wannabe artist in the 50s, had latched on to Eduardo”, remembers Queensberry. “He was quite rich—his family ran a business that made sheepskin coats in the West Country—and he built a primitive foundry, in which he made primitive castings. He then went on to get heavily involved with drugs, spending eight years in prison in America when he was apprehended with a massive haul while sailing his yacht.”

“Then about two years ago, a London gallery held an exhibition of Paolozzi’s erotic art. And I, not only I, but a lot of us were pretty bloody sure that he didn’t do it. Not with a view to protecting him, but just on an analytical basis of what we knew he had done. I was Popzi’s best friend, somebody would’ve seen it, something, ‘Just a joke David’, anything. But there was nothing”, remarks Queensberry.

“We then started to analyse the work and were convinced that Francis Morland had done them. We knew that Eduardo had given him a lot of collage material he had used, so Morland would have had a lot of stuff. But the big issue was the signature, Eduardo would often leave his work unsigned. But we got them in the end, the auction houses wouldn’t take them and the gallery had to refund their sales, so we did succeed there.”

Paolozzi had a knack for attracting eclectic groups of people. “He had a way – he was not a social climber at all, people found him rather interesting. He seemed from another world, and he was hugely likeable”, remembers Queensberry. “He was curiously childlike, in a way” says Levien. “Life was entertaining and amusing with Eduardo, he had a fantastic group of people around him, and he’d invite you along to parties. He’d take the role of entertainer, and whether it was all totally genuine or there was an element of bullshit there I don’t know. But I’d forgive him that. You make allowances – never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

Nicole Fahri met Paolozzi when she was casting her first sculpture work at the RCA’s foundry. “He came around next to me and we started chatting. He invited me to his studio, then he came to see me at home, and little by little, we became very close friends”, she recalls, as we settled down to talk in her studio, which is sheltered among the trees at the far end of her garden.

Fahri had been taking classes with the sculptor Jean Gibson, who taught her how to cast: “She was very much about theory, and when she didn’t like something, if I thought it was not bad, I would bring it home to show Eduardo. By then he was coming for lunch or dinner, and he was very encouraging. Eduardo would teach you to decide for yourself whether your work is good or not. He would say that you are the better judge, and no one could tell you that what you are doing is crap”, she says. “Eduardo taught me how to see, how to concentrate and discover things.”

When Fahri met her husband, the playwright David Hare, she stopped making work for a year: “Eduardo kept saying, ‘Love doesn’t suit your art’, and he decided to come once a week to my studio. He suggested I stop working in clay to get ‘a new buzz’, and I will never forget the day he taught me how to sculpt with wax. He would sit at one end of the table, and I at the other, and for six months we would work. At the end, I went back to clay, which was what he wanted, for me to go back to working.”

It was difficult for Paolozzi to be around people who weren’t excited by life, “Many times, when after dinner had ended he was not enjoying the conversation, he would stand up and say, ‘Who is taking me home?’ He would break the party, that was it. But that was Eduardo, he could be the way he wanted to be, I didn’t care,” Fahri smiles.

“If he really liked you he wouldn’t let you go, but a lot of people who he met throughout his life did not stand the test of time. He would fall in love quickly, and then you had to keep him interested—in what you were doing, or what you were saying—otherwise he would get bored. He couldn’t stand small talk.”

“With me, there were no problems. He’d sit at the end of the table, taking the whole side, so jolly and happy”, Fahri recalls. “When David and I got married, he was my witness. My father had died and he said, ‘I will be your Dad’. He really was like a father, he’d come to my house with his friends and I would cook for him, my home was open to him. We became a big family, because Eduardo was gregarious. He liked people to meet, he always enjoyed big parties and his friends becoming friends.”

Fahri’s home is testament to that, with Paolozzi’s presence felt around every corner. From works lining the walls, to small casts of animals from Noah’s Ark as bookends, and giant feet as doorstops; massive pink ceramic hats sit under side-boards, notes and photographs are slotted into frames and prints are racked up in the downstairs loo and run along the staircase.

“We would celebrate his birthday in our garden. I’d take out all the plaster works that he’d given me, put them out in the garden and we would have a party” says Fahri. “And he was interested in everything, theatre, design, music. The house became like a salon, it was so joyful, a beautiful life. I have a friend who is a flutist, they would play music, and Eduardo would be sat at the end of the table. The king of the party.”

Everything about Paolozzi was larger than life, “He had a big voice and big hands, he’d embrace you and kiss you on the mouth,” Fahri remembers. “Everything about him, his appetite, everything, was charismatic. People who are so open to the world, so giving, of course you are drawn to them. You go towards them, because they open your life, they open your world. It’s a great gift that he had, to be giving all the time. The whole of himself, his knowledge.”

July, 2017

All text originally published by All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.

It’s Nice That

An Exercise in Style: Interviewing John Morgan

As we ascend the stairs from his subterranean studio, our conversation turns to the subject of design writers. “Are there any? And if there are, why?” A point of contention is, if they do exist, “can [they] write about a subject other than design in an interesting way…

By Jack Davison
As we ascend the stairs from his subterranean studio, our conversation turns to the subject of design writers. “Are there any? And if there are, why?” A point of contention is, if they do exist, “can [they] write about a subject other than design in an interesting way, and is there not someone else who could do it better?” This emphasis on quality is an important one, and something that defines the often indefinable work of John Morgan Studio.

Founded in 2000, the studio has and continues to work with renowned artists, architects and cultural institutions including Four Corners Books, David Chipperfield Architects, Art Review and Tate Britain. A recent project is Pierre’s, the inaugural issue of New York’s The Artist’s Institute magazine. The principle of The Magazine is to take each season at the institute as a point of departure for journalism, fiction, interviews and visual projects to be developed around the work of the exhibiting artist. This season it’s Pierre Huyghe and the issue features topics including science fiction and philosophy, alongside fake adverts designed by John’s newly formed and slightly fictitious London/New York agency Vault Six. Another recent project was their review of the signage and way-finding at Tate Britain. The studio designed a new display typeface; a scheme for the templates of maps, menus, banners and posters; captions, maps and threshold dates cast in metal and sign-painted onto the walls and floor. In the synopsis of the project the process was described as “reducing the presence of signs and promotional material to an ‘essential only’ state… the requirements for a gallery like this [mean] the signage could be less present and more dignified”.

As well as his design practice, John has run projects at a number of design schools over the last 15 years, and the recent history of art education is something of a concern. “It shouldn’t be a transactional relationship” he says, “it’s an issue for tutors and students, and the worst educational model. Survival of the fittest is fine, but not in an education environment. Those who will do well, the people who have the confidence to reach out, will thrive, but they always will. It’s people who come to London, go into college once a week and then back off to bedsit land god knows where, what’s their experience?”

We’ve crossed the street from the studio and sat for lunch at a brasserie close-by. “It’s a nice way to eat, although it’s a faux interior, the element of nostalgia tricks you” John says. “They did certain things very well at the turn of the century – the theatre of it all, the settings and the tablecloths.” In a way, such details are a visualisation of the references and intentions of the people who run the brasserie, and how they want to communicate with their audience. On that subject John says “My real audience is the author or artist I’m working with, and myself. To try to second guess anything else often ends in tears. Like the focus group for a film, a real auteur wouldn’t care and has a focus group ever improved a film? Unlikely.”

“Anyway, books aren’t products, it’s a different territory.” Describing his work with Four Corners Books he says: “sometimes you’re a cinematographer, sometimes a director and then all that falls in between. For most of the Familiars series the artist has chosen the book, so it means something to them and that can be conveyed very subtly or in a more overt way. Sometimes we make a fully integrated object and in other instances the artist will produce photographic or illustrative plates.” Although they don’t often commission illustration, “I think I have a phobia of it because there is such a specific voice”, John says. “When you get something back you have to work with that and it can be far from what you had in mind. I love the illustrations in The New Yorker, there they work perfectly well. With photography you can direct a lot more, and the evidence of the hand is a little less present.”

The question of style is an important one, and in his work John aims more for a sense of atmosphere, for want of a better word. In a conversation with eye magazine’s editor John Walters he described it as “a problematic and woolly word, but it’s the best description of what I aim for in my work. It’s the sensation you find when you walk into a building or space and it changes the way you feel… It’s hard to define what gives a book atmosphere, because it can be found in unexpected places, and many books by attentive designers lack it, but you know it when you see it or feel it.”

At this point our conversation shifts, “without being too self-reflective” John says, “I like the idea of you writing this under the construct of this situation, it’s more fun. Ideally just do the whole thing without even mentioning graphic design directly. Do the whole thing about food – who wants to read about graphic design anyway? I’d rather be reading a novel or something, the more literary this can be the better.” So I ask him what he is reading, “Michel Houellebecq, everything by him. People say he’s a misogynist but I don’t see it that way, a misanthrope maybe – but not that either. In Submission the character is an academic who takes on religion as more of a lifestyle choice than one of faith, like people who send their kids to a Church of England school because it’s the better option, this professor works in a Muslim school because the pay and lifestyle is better for him. Houellebecq is so brutally honest, it’s horrific. I’m also reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, best described as a love story. The author records her life, falling for a transgender artist, her pregnancy and the shifts in their own bodies as well as the relationship itself. Both Nelson and Houellebecq are equally uncompromising in their own way.”

Maggie Nelson also wrote the text for Carolee’s, the forthcoming issue of the magazine of The Artist’s Institute (with Carolee Schneemann and published later this year), designed by John Morgan studio. I ask him whether he sees himself continuing to focus on publishing, or to look more to expanding on projects such as the branding of the city of Llubijana: “working with architects, they have a much greater control of space and influence than we do, but still not the impact you’d imagine, for that you probably need to get into politics or government. And as a designer you can only make a very slight imprint, I think I will continue to work with small gestures” Although, whether he’ll stick to that is another matter: “I have this relationship with fashion where sometimes I think it’s the most beautiful thing in the world and sometimes I think it’s ridiculous. And it’s totally okay to think the opposite one day to the next, we are made up of compound sensibilities.”

July, 2016

All text originally published by All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.