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.


Design Duo Soft Baroque on Materiality and Making Miniatures

Soft Baroque, a studio for furniture that serves and surpasses its function, was founded in 2013 after co-founders Saša Štucin and Nicholas Gardner graduated from London’s Royal College of Art, in Visual Communication and Furniture Design respectively…

Armchair, by Soft Baroque
Soft Baroque, a studio for furniture that serves and surpasses its function, was founded in 2013 after co-founders Saša Štucin and Nicholas Gardner graduated from London’s Royal College of Art, in Visual Communication and Furniture Design respectively. They describe their work as “future practical… sort of a contradiction. We are interested in modern luxury and inflated versions of reality, but without abandoning consumer logic or pragmatism”. The pair have previously shown at London, Milan and New York design weeks, the Swiss Institute in New York and Christies in London, as well as being designers in residence at Villa Lena in Tuscany, and they are currently developing a commission from Bloomberg, as well as preparing for an upcoming exhibition at Design Miami/Basel. In short, they have a lot going on.


Soft Baroque’s first collaboration took the form of a miniature of Villa Malaparte, the peach, staircase-dominated house on the island of Capri which played a prominent role in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film Le Mépris. “Our friend was getting married, and we knew she loved the film, and I was really obsessed with the building,” Štucin says, recalling the decision to create a miniature of it as a wedding gift to her. “Nicholas had a studio at the time, and I’d always been obsessed with architecture, but thought it would be too big for me to do. This idea of miniaturisation was so convenient, and [the model] still served a function in the domestic environment – we made it with a marble top and our friend now uses it as a coffee table in her house.”

The idea of recreating buildings or architectural details in miniature has been around since the 1800s, when craftsmen would use the practice to show off their skills in processes such as marquetry. It continues to play a part in Soft Baroque’s work. “We have a few buildings on our list, but we just need to find a purpose,” says Gardner. “We always try to connect the materials with how we produce it, the idea behind it and the function – all of these things need to align. The Villa Malaparte was less aligned because it was just building and furniture, we almost needed another play to make it more of a story that made sense.” But the Villa Malaparte miniature was the project that triggered their working together, and on which they began working out how their backgrounds in graphic design and photography, furniture and architecture could be applied collectively.

Creative Process

Soft Baroque’s work combines materials and forms that already exist, which are then reapplied for more conceptual purposes. “We try to find materials, processes and shapes to fit the idea,” Gardner says. “We like the idea of our objects participating under the same capitalist rules that govern everything else; people buy something because they need the function of it, but they also want to appreciate the aesthetic. Even though our work mostly goes into galleries, we still think about these consumer paradigms as a fake set of rules, in a way. Like designers rather than artists.” This position the pair occupies between art and design, which in itself has become more of a recognised place in recent years, sets up questions about the limitations of each discipline. “In some ways you can get away with so much more in design because the critical level is not as vigorous. But on the other hand, to make something hold together and function can be so much more complex.”

The pair’s focus on a level playing field between form and function, process and outcome means that work that they consider to be too indulgent –whether through overwhelming focus on process, or an excess of images – doesn’t really stand up. “I had this problem with graphic design and photography too”, says Štucin, “where I thought, ‘guys, we have too many images anyway, let’s stop. Let’s try to find a way to re-appropriate what already exists, because what’s the point of making more?’ It could be seen as negative and non-progressive but I was looking at things and thinking, ‘why can’t we find new ways to use what we have?’”

Design Miami/Basel

Soft Baroque’s exhibition at Design Miami/Basel this year is unfurling in collaboration with Copenhagen-based gallery Etage Projects, in its Curio booth. The focus of Curio is on immersive experiences, in which the artist takes care of the whole shape of the space, and Soft Baroque are developing something that will do exactly that. They have been looking into ways to blend the definitions of soft and hard materials. “The materiality of the objects and textiles will be the same. The point is to merge the two,” says Štucin. They will produce a series of furniture and wall pieces made of rosewood veneer, granite and stainless steel – objects that “play with digitising the decorative aspect of a material, and divorcing it a little from its function,” Gardner says. “They will be formal, high-quality pieces of furniture, but distorted, no longer working entirely with the constraints of the physical realm.”

April, 2016

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.

It’s Nice That

The Legacy of War: Giles Duley Photographs the Lives and the Horrors of Conflict

“Wars don’t end when a treaty is signed, for the people affected, the legacy continues” Giles says. “Whether that be through contamination of land mines, lasting physical injuries, the psychological damage; or in the case of refugees, the loss of homes, livelihoods and culture, war leaves a legacy decades after the last shot was fired…

By Giles Duley
For the past decade Giles Duley has been photographing the impact of war on civilians, and since starting the project Legacy of War, which is in part a collaboration with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, he has worked in Lebanon, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Northern Ireland and Gaza; and most recently in Jordan, Greece, Macedonia, Germany and Finland. “Wars don’t end when a treaty is signed, for the people affected, the legacy continues” Giles says. “Whether that be through contamination of land mines, lasting physical injuries, the psychological damage; or in the case of refugees, the loss of homes, livelihoods and culture, war leaves a legacy decades after the last shot was fired.”

Ironically, after years of planning and having secured funding, Legacy of War had to be put on hold when Giles was injured in Afghanistan. The accident left him a triple amputee and doubtful that he’d be able to continue with the project. Four years later, the project is well under way and coming at a time when the impact of war is in acute visibility. He hopes to shift the way that war is talked about: “The figures are staggering and hard to comprehend, likewise the scenes of boats and crowds of refugees at borders can be overwhelming. Of course that side has to be shown, we have to understand the scale of this crisis, but we must also humanise.”

Giles describes the lasting impression on visiting different countries as being one of commonality; that a land mine survivor in Angola will speak of their experience in the same terms as a survivor in Cambodia, highlighting the importance of “focussing on the themes that are universal”. Giles records the everyday moments known by us all such as “cooking, a mother brushing her child’s hair, a father holding his daughter’s hand.” He says: “In situations that we find hard to comprehend, these simple moments can help us relate.”

Legacy of War began with Giles travelling to Lesvos, where he witnessed boat after boat of traumatised refugees and migrants reaching the Greek island’s beaches. In his first week over 40,000 people arrived, “It’s really hard to explain or comprehend what I saw there,” he says, “The phrase I heard time after time was ‘Shefna el mot bi oyouna’ – ‘We saw death with our own eyes’ – and you could see that, the shock of that journey.”

As well as his photographs, Giles is keeping a diary of his experiences which he publishes on the Legacy of War site. Unlike much of the reporting on events in Lesvos, and more broadly, Giles’ writing isn’t focussed on abstract facts and statistics but on the lives of those he is meeting. One story in particular is that of Ammar and Wafaa, a couple from Hama, Syria on the frontline of the civil war. Giles writes: “The war had put an end to their studies, [in economics and marketing respectively] it had put an end to normal life. Ammar attempted to open a small grocery store, Wafaa volunteered with a local charity helping the many displaced Syrians within the country. They had wanted to stay, but the situation was growing worse by the day.”

Ammar and Wafaa left first via a mini bus to Beirut from where they flew to Turkey. “From this point their lives were in the hands of the smugglers,” Giles described. “‘The smugglers treated us like animals,’ Wafaa recalled, ‘They referred to people as goods. They beat people and forced them onto overcrowded boats. They forced people to blow up the boats and push them out to sea. It was like slavery and you could not say or do anything.’ On arriving Wafaa and Ammar’s boat was greeted by a team of volunteers… There [were] screams, tears; the panic and shock in the faces of those arriving [was] palpable. Many collapse, babies blue from hypothermia, others in shock.”

Giles goes on to tell of what happened for Wafaa and Ammar after they landed, in a moment of respite and hope a room was found for the couple and the next morning they continued their journey – their goal being Germany. They have since arrived safely, and described their hope that in the future their children will grow up in a safe place, “with no violence. We don’t want them to grow up with the smell of blood in the air,” explained Ammar.

In Legacy of War, Giles has established a much-needed platform for understanding the ongoing refugee crisis in terms of the lives of individuals, what they are fleeing and why. The sense of scale is very much there, but from the perspective of lived experience rather than via statistics or newspaper chatter. Giles says: “I know my work won’t change the world, but I hope I can at least act as a witness and share the stories of those I meet – at a time when there is a lot of fear, misunderstanding and misinformation; empathy has never felt more vital.”

January, 2016

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


An Interview with Brita Fernandez-Schmidt

When Brita Fernandez Schmidt first got the call from Women for Women, she had read founder Zainab Salbi’s autobiography a couple of years prior and hoped that she’d at least get to meet the author she so admired…

Brita Fernandez-Schmidt, by Holly Whittaker
When Brita Fernandez-Schmidt first got the call from Women for Women, she had read founder Zainab Salbi’s autobiography a couple of years prior and hoped that she’d at least get to meet the author she so admired. Now, having been with the charity for close to a decade, Brita is thriving as Executive Director, inspiring and energising the women around her – from the women the charity works so hard to support, to her team and her two daughters.

Here, Brita speaks with us about leadership, independence and inspiring change.

Q: Tell me about Women for Women?

It’s an organisation that was set up about 23 years ago, by Zainab Salbi. She’s Iraqi, and when she was 19 she moved to America, where she learnt about the Holocaust and the Never Again movement, which had been censored in Iraq. At the same time, she was reading about and watching coverage of the genocide in Bosnia.

She knew what it was like to grow up in a country impacted by conflict, and how you feel like the world has forgotten you. She thought that women in Bosnia must feel abandoned, and she wanted to do something, to go and tell them “the world has not forgotten you”.

She went to Sarajevo, travelling with a press pass because it was under siege and you could only enter on a special plane. Zainab told women there that when she returned to America, she would find women who would write to them and support them. She would create human connections, across divides and across borders. And she did, she went back to America and found 30 American women to sponsor 30 Bosnian women. They wrote letters and gave money, and she went back to Bosnia to deliver them, and that’s really how Women for Women was created.

As the war ended, it was clear that in order to help women rebuild their lives and allow them to be part of the rebuilding of the country, they needed support. That’s when, and how, we developed what is now called the Life Skills Training Programme, which is a year long programme with four key outcomes. The first is that women are well, we teach them about health and give them practical information about how to look after themselves; the second is that they know their rights, we encourage them to be decision makers and have their voices heard; the third is that they need and can form safety nets and networks, which we achieve through bringing women together in classes of 25, breaking their isolation and creating a space to form lifelong friendships; and the fourth is about finding and sustaining an income. We teach practical skills that enable them to set up a business, join or establish associations or co-ops, find a job or a placement. For example, in Rwanda—where I’m going with my daughters and a group of our donors in July—we are working with the Marriott Hotel, who have employed women from our programme who have trained to work in the hospitality sector.

We don’t talk about what we do as charity, it’s about creating human connections and solidarity, it’s an investment. We want to make sure that the women we work with aren’t dependent on the help they receive from Women for Women, and that our achievement is providing them with knowledge.

Q: That’s what’s so interesting about Women for Women, often charitable infrastructures can lead to a state of dependency, but Women for Women focusses on giving women agency.

That’s exactly right, and it’s not an easy thing to do, it’s not easy for any of us. I fundamentally believe that you can’t empower someone else, you can only empower yourself, but what you can do is provide a support network.

I have all sorts of things that help me to constantly develop myself, and with knowledge you have the opportunity to stretch your boundaries, to empower yourself. And that’s really what Women for Women does, we require commitment from the women who enrol on our programme, they have to attend regular sessions and be engaged. We even make them sign a social contract, of course it’s not legally binding but it’s a way of encouraging them to commit.

Q: Requiring that level of commitment, it shows respect for the women involved.

Exactly, we all have agency. Our approach is:“It’s your decision, if you want to do this, this is what we can offer you, this is our goal.” I think that’s really important.

In return, we ensure that we respond to their needs and achievements. We offer additional business training and mentoring for women who are particularly entrepreneurial, and they will often go on to employ lots of other women from their community. We also have focus groups of women who have graduated from our programme, who speak with us about what they are coming up against, and how we can help.

Q: Tell me about the #sheinspiresme movement?

We came up with it because so many of the stories we hear are so hard and so upsetting, and yet these women are so positive and inspiring. It’s always been about how they move from being victims to surviving and being active citizens, that positivity is key for us.
It opens up the potential for change, if you’re always downtrodden it can seem impossible; and it gives us the opportunity to celebrate women all over the world.

Q: You have an MA in women’s studies from Sussex University, when was it that you knew that this is the work you wanted to do?

I’m actually writing a book at the moment, which is really exciting. I’ve been thinking about this, looking back and reflecting on how when you look back, you rewrite your own history to make sense of where you are now and where you want to go.

My version of my history is this: When I was 13, we moved to Venezuela from Germany, where it had never occurred to me that I had any disadvantages as a girl. Both my parents are teachers, we are a middle class family, very academic, and moving to Venezuela was a total shock. I’d never seen poverty in that way, and I continued to see how women are disproportionately affected by that poverty, I didn’t have the language for it at that time but I just knew that there was a problem. I think I must have been born with a strong sense of justice, I didn’t see the same level of outrage in other people.

My parents wanted me to study in Europe, which I did but I enrolled in Latin American studies. It didn’t work out very well, many of the teachers couldn’t speak Spanish and the way it was taught felt kind of imperialistic. I changed to literature and in my second year I met an amazing professor—you know how there are people in your life who have just influenced you so much—Elaine Jordan, she is incredible. She was teaching a feminist literary criticism course and I remember thinking “This is it!” I took the course and I suddenly felt like I had a language for all these things I’d been observing, thinking and feeling. I loved it so much, so I went on to do an MA in women’s studies and then I just found my way.

It had always been my passion, my drive, to work in women’s equality in countries where it’s even more challenging, because you also have poverty. Gender inequality affects us all, but when it’s interlaced with poverty and war it has another dimension.

Q: How have you approached writing the book?

I don’t think that having the confidence to write a book is something that just comes to you, it’s a journey. There’ll be a lot of stories from my life, but it’s not an autobiography. It’s focussed on my work, the power of inspiration, how we can follow that and find our authentic selves. I’m interested in leadership, questioning our contemporary understanding of it, and considering innovative ways of running teams that embrace the standards of an organisation. The way we’ve grown reflects what we stand for, we work on partnerships rather than marketing, people come to us with ideas and we say yes to them.

I think the current approach to leadership is quite masculine, it’s restrictive to everyone and not very inspiring. It’s not sustainable, and the more I become aware of it, the more I want to say “Stop! Let’s see if this actually works for us, because if it doesn’t, let’s change it.”

June, 2017

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

It’s Nice That

“I Always Try to Have Some Logic to the Job, to the Work”: An Interview with Letterpress Legend Alan Kitching

In Alan Kitching’s hands, “the typography workshop is a complex and subtle instrument: his brushes, paint and easel; his film set; his orchestra,” according to John Walters, who interviewed the designer about his life and letterpress for a beautiful new book…

Spread from Alan Kitching – A Life in Letterpress, by John Walters
In Alan Kitching’s hands, “the typography workshop is a complex and subtle instrument: his brushes, paint and easel; his film set; his orchestra,” according to John Walters, the author of Alan Kitching: A Life in Letterpress

Alan Kitching was born in Darlington, County Durham in 1940. He had acquired a love of printing, drawing and painting whilst at school and by the mid-1950s when he started looking for work, knew that the heavy industry dominating Darlington wasn’t for him. The local employment office told Kitching about a local jobbing printer, so he went with his art teacher and a small portfolio and on the day after his 15th birthday started a six-year apprenticeship as a compositor. It was there that he first encountered modern design through magazines such as Printing Review and British Printer, and became aware of figures such as Jan Tschichold, who influenced his early experiments. But it was while teaching at Watford College of Technology, where Kitching worked with graphic designer Anthony Froshaug, that he developed and found form for his interest in the art and meaning of typographic work.

The book, Alan Kitching: A Life in Letterpress came about when Kitching’s late wife Celia Stothard – a designer, writer and singer at the Chelsea Arts Club – wrote a piece on their work for John Randle’s Matrix, a chronicle of fine printing and the book arts, in 2004. “We were tampering around, thinking of doing this book ourselves and it never got anywhere, and then she got ill,” Kitching says. “When Celia died I asked my assistant Jon Kielty if he’d help me do a book on her life, Celia Sings, and we put it together in about six months. Simon Esterson came in as art director, and Jon did the day to day. When that came out, I think Laurence [King] saw it, he got in touch and the book that we’ve got now was kind of resurrected.”

Kitching wanted to keep the team who had worked on Celia Sings, and brought in John Walters as author, who started interviewing Kitching in 2012. “He would come over every week in the morning, we’d have coffee and the machine on and I’d just talk to him about the history of the whole thing.”

Kitching started Omnific studio with Martin Lee and Derek Birdsall, who he had met through Anthony Froshaug, in the late 1970s. They worked from a studio in Covent Garden, then still surrounded by typesetters and other service people, until rents shot up and they moved out to a toy factory in Islington. By this time some foundries were starting to sell off their type, and Omnific bought up a press and installed it at their new studio: “All this type was selling off cheap, cheap-ish, and it was the last chance to get this stuff. So we bought it all and I continued printing there for around three years until I decided I wanted to leave. I didn’t really know what I was going to do but I wanted to buy the press and the type and go and print somewhere”, Kitching says. “I didn’t want to be a jobbing printer but I wanted to start out on my own. It was a very precarious thing to do because we were successful, well-established, and I was taking a backwards step, it was a bit of a leap in the dark.”

In the late 1980s the atmosphere around printing “didn’t really exist”, but Birdsall had started as a professor of graphics at the Royal College of Art and convinced Kitching to teach in the letterpress studio one day a week. “I didn’t want to do it, but eventually I gave in so we went. In a way it was great, because they had all the printing gear. It soon came under threat from the rector though, who wanted to get rid of it all – take the college into the 21st Century. But the students saved it.”

Alongside technician Mick Perry, Kitching had started a series of workshops: “I didn’t tell anybody about it, just printed the posters and went round all the departments. Come the following Thursday I go in and there are students waiting and that’s how it started. It got talked about, we kept it high profile, got a piece in Baseline and Creative Review. If the students hadn’t turned up and kept it going, it would have died. Now we can see that letterpress and computers can sit well together.” While the workshops were gaining notoriety, Kitching’s name and that of the letterpress process got around, “other people got interested and now it’s the buzz word,” he says. Kitching maintained a relationship with the college until 2006, and while there he had also been running his own workshop, The Typographic Workshop in Clerkenwell. “And I was never interested in printing, the first thing I’d say when I came into the studio in the morning was ‘I’m not interested in letterpress printing, I’m interested in what you can do with this stuff.’ All this obsolete technology, what can we do new with it now.”

This had been a consideration in Kitching’s commercial work, for clients such as The Guardian for whom he did typographic work that crossed over between the limitations of text and image. “When we were at Omnific the type was very much separate and not treated as one with the image, as it was in the work at The Guardian and for the Dazed & Confused cover from around 2000. I’d always been interested in the imagery of things but it has taken quite a few years to establish that.”

Now based between two studios in Kennington, where he moved with Celia Stothard in the 1990s, Kitching continues both his commercial and personal practice. An example of his poster work includes the poster Rainforest: “It’s written in Portuguese, because they speak Portuguese in Brazil and it has the word running through the forest. Descending from the sky, through the trees, the rain and the earth, all melding together. I always try to have some logic to the job, to the work. That is really what I find interesting.”

March, 2016

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

AIGA Eye on Design

Unit Editions Pushes and Preserves Graphic Design by Publishing Books That Go Against the Mainstream

With books on the likes of FHK Henrion, Lance Wyman and Total Design, as well as graphic stamps, corporate manuals and punk records under its belt, Unit Editions has established itself as the go-to for cultivated and rigorous publishing on design…

Unit Editions
With books on the likes of FHK Henrion, Lance Wyman and Total Design, as well as graphic stamps, corporate manuals and punk records under its belt, Unit Editions has established itself as the go-to for cultivated and rigorous publishing on design. Formed in 2010 by Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy, both graphic designers who were equally disillusioned by the mechanisms of the mainstream, Unit Editions would become the proof of what can be achieved when you do things differently.

On the release of Impact, a double-edition focussed on historic magazine covers, we caught up with Adrian Shaughnessy to talk collaboration, compromise, context and Paula Scher’s opinions on social media.

Q: How did you start publishing as Unit Editions?

Unit Editions came out of a frustration that I shared with my publishing partner Tony Brook. We’d both worked with mainstream publishers on books about design, and we felt that there must be a better way than this traditional model. So we pooled our skills with the intention of setting up an independent publishing imprint, which would enable us to take ownership of the entire publishing process. In other words, we would be our own clients and publish the books we wanted to see in print, and do them in the way we wanted to. Setting up Unit Editions also tied in with something that I’m personally interested in – how graphic designers can go beyond service-based design work and become originators of self-directed projects.

Q: Would you say that Unit Editions is focused on an audience of designers, rather than design fans or the wider public?

It’s definitely qualitative over quantitative. There are books that we publish that we know will have a specific audience, and even when we know that audience is small, that’s OK with us. Setting up Unit Editions made me think a lot about the work I used to do with record companies. My favorite labels were the ones that had a single minded integrity. There was a type of music they wanted to send out into the world and they wouldn’t release anything that wasn’t part of that ethos. We wanted to have that purity of purpose for Unit Editions. We would never publish a book we didn’t believe in.

Q: Manuals 1 is an interesting example of a book that seems like it’d have a small audience, but it flew off the shelves.

Manuals 1’s success was unexpected. I think it struck a chord because it stands as a counter-blast to the ongoing digitization of design. Brand manuals are now PDFs: the whole process of implementing a brand identity has become templated – you don’t have to think too much, just follow the rules. But in the pre-digital era, you had to follow a printed manual. This required a level of interpretation that has been removed from the digital implementation process. The printed manuals themselves are miracle of compressed information – they are actually wonderful examples of information design.

Q: Could you tell me about the Archive Series?

So far we’ve published two in the series, Graphic Stamps and Action Time Vision. People approach us with their personal collections, and we are also discovering archives that have wonderful collections of graphic artefacts. So the Archive Series is a platform to capture and acknowledge the role of archives – and personal collections – in contemporary graphic design. Action Time Vision, for example, is Tony’s collection of 7” punk singles. Graphic Stamps is the personal collections of Blair Thompson and Iain Follett, two acknowledged collectors – and scholars! – of postage stamps from a graphic design perspective.

Archives and personal collections are also vital for our philosophy of always showing objects. We try never to show flat, cropped images. In order to really understand a graphic artifact, how it looks and feels, you need to see the object. This means getting hold of actual specimens and expertly photographing them, and not relying on scans. Nearly everything in our books is photographed. And if there is a crease or tear in the original, it stays in.

Q: You often publish books that consider graphic design in its expanded field, how do you think it’s shifting?

I think the discipline of graphic design now is really complex. We’re having this conversation a lot at the Royal College of Art, where I teach, about what graphic design is, what it can be, and investigating new ways of shaping the practice. And in a way Unit Editions is putting that into effect. I’m interested in the idea of publishing as an artistic practice. For me, rather than being a mechanistic process, it’s much closer to curation. A lot of publishing activities can be seen as curating, and by curating a book you are considering how to join and combine each element. Designers are natural curators.

Q: The same could be said for the designer as writer, where you’re seeking a balance between complexity and clarity.

Clarity is what we aim for in design and text. Most of our books are historical, and when we’re working with historical material we apply two criteria: the design is always contemporary, and we have to feel that the subject matter has contemporary relevance. Two examples would be our books on FHK Henrion and Ken Garland. Ken is in his 80s and Henrion died in the 1980s, but they are absolutely relevant to designers today. They were both mavericks, Ken still is, and both are absolute blueprints for a certain sort of designer’s practice today.

Q: You’ve published a lot on and around Total Design, why do you think they are so influential?

Total Design for us is a brilliant example of a mid-20th century, forward-thinking and visionary design group – who, thanks to their multidisciplinary approach, are ‘totally’ relevant today. They were graphic designers, furniture designers, exhibition designers… a model for the contemporary scene. Their work has the visual fire to make them completely compelling, they were super-intelligent, and probably the first European multidisciplinary studio. They were interested in art and culture and politics and so on, but they had fights and fallings out, yet even that is instructive.

Q: How about your and Tony Brook’s working relationship?

We sometimes disagree on details but never on fundamentals. Fundamentally we agree that books have to have integrity. Tony looks after the visuals and I look after text. It’s a good functioning relationship. We collaborate most closely on the initial concept, the framing of the subject, and the format. Those conversations are always multi-layered, everything is connected – and that goes back to the idea of publishing as a creative practice, you can’t ignore any aspect of the process.

Q: What projects are you working on at the moment?

Our next books are Impact 1.0 and Impact 2.0, these are two books on design magazine covers. Impact 1.0 starts in 1923, and comes up to the 1970s. Impact 2.0 starts in the seventies and comes bang up to date. Almost by default the books have emerged as a timeline of the most innovative, fluid and attention-grabbing graphic design. It’s a fantastic history lesson in the stylistic twists of graphic design from the past (nearly) 100 years. But ultimately it’s a celebration – a homage – to the role of printed design journals in the evolution of graphic design. It’s also timely: design journals are under such pressure now, and this is a way of showing what they did and why they matter.

The biggest thing we’re working on currently is a Paula Scher monograph. The book is subject-led and congregates around her big projects, which are mostly identity projects. One of the things that emerges really strongly with Paula is how often she sees opportunities that her clients fail to see to make something bigger and better than their initial expectations. Hearing her talk about that process is great, I often hear designers say “Oh I have a great idea but it got rejected”, but she doesn’t think like that – she is very politically skilled when it comes to dealing with clients of all kinds, committees, powerful individuals, public bodies, and she doesn’t get sidetracked easily. Time and again, she turns a modest brief into a multilayered project. Paula is un-stereotypical. She’s ultra contemporary but also has a wonderful grasp of history. She’s also very funny – she dismisses Facebook as being “the new suburbia”. She has opinions and she’s not afraid to say what she thinks.

November, 2016

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