Kirsty Carter and Emma Thomas, co-founders of A Practice for Everyday Life, joined us at YCN on the 21st August to share insights into what makes their London-based design studio tick.
How many of us can honestly say that we've sandblasted a logo onto the side of a concrete building? Or, for that matter, that we've kerned the type of said logo using only a genie lift and a workman's dedicated assistance?
Kirsty and Emma certainly can, and they had plenty more stories to share too including how A Practice for Everyday Life (APFEL) began in earnest. Whilst students at the Royal College of Art, the beginnings of their creative partnership took shape, and what would become the studio had its start.
After outlining their early days, they described a central tenet they've adhered to all along: that studied research of the subject at hand is of great importance to delivering truly innovative work.
Fast forward nine years, and they found themselves tackling one of their most high profile projects - Bauhaus: Art as Life - last year's retrospective exhibition at the Barbican. They described this as possibly the most intimidating brief they've ever received - both the designer's holy grail, and a massively complex challenge to "get it right."
The members of Bauhaus famously tore up many grammatical and design-related rule books, whilst simultaneously re-writing them as they saw fit. In turn, APFEL admitted their decision to throw some of those very Bauhuas rules out of the window entirely. This came out of the desire to avoid a solution that looked in anyway like a parody or pastiche of the movement. So, in avoiding the more famous Bauhaus typefaces and motifs, they incorporated and assimilated different elements to produce a truly unique exhibition.
They then spoke of their work with artist Linder Sterling earlier this year, for the Femme/Objet exhibition in the Musée d'Art Moderne. Kirsty and Emma both stressed again the importance of a grounding in research before embarking on a project. And for this project, a perfect contribution to this research was received from Linder herself; one package of roses, and another of '70s porn. The stage for a memorable exhibition was set.
Next they described their work on Dirt - their exhibition graphics for the Wellcome Trust. Not many of us would think to combine flocking powder with dirt from vacuum bags, or even to cover the entire entrance wall with a combination of the two. In this case, developing the concept was just as crucial a step, as convincing the curator that it would be a logistic success, as well as aesthetically pleasing.
The Hepworth Wakefield was next up; the UK's largest purpose-built museum outside of London demanded an equally ambitious response from the studio, as mentioned earlier. It was, after all, the first time they had experimented with sandblasting, as a technique for leaving their mark. They admitted that such a comprehensive branding project as Hepworth would normally go to a larger branding consultancy. Yet, it was clear from the slides displayed that any doubters were proved emphatically wrong.
As another example of their thoughtful approach, they explained Art on the Underground, a pocket book of famous quotations "to enhance everyone's experience of travelling on the tube together." Their work for Tristram Shandy followed, continuing this vein of accomplished and meticulously-researched book design. Not exactly a straightforward read, they took the unique language of interventions that defines this book, and amplified it to great visual effect.
Harking back to the pioneering Design Research Unit - behind the National Railway logo, no less - they displayed the practice's design manifesto, and so moved on to outline their own principles as a studio.
One very important quality they emphasised was a playful approach, without which their ambitious and innovative results may not have pushed boundaries quite as far. Equally important to this, they mentioned their intentional lack of a specific, regimented house style, whilst holding up their process of thinking as being very pronounced; you see stories emerge from their work, the closer you look.
Throughout their talk, they emphasised how their versatility, inventiveness, and readiness to recycle and reuse materials and props for their exhibition work has been more than an asset in achieving outstanding results. For one, their work on the V&A's Postmodernism exhibition wouldn't have been as arresting an experience, if they hadn't thought to reuse expensive neon and lightboxes from the previous show. Experience of small budgets for exhibition work has taught them this over the years, and they were keen to impart the need to be as inventive and resourceful as possible.
In the Q&A session, they also admitted that prospective clients - and their design needs - have to be of interest to them as a studio, otherwise the project is unlikely to go ahead; that intriguing problems and personal rapport are crucial ingredients, which have successfully driven so much of their client work to date.
Details of our final Summer of Learning talk can be found here, with news of our Autumn Member Event series shortly to be unveiled too. YCN Members can apply for free places at events, with Super Members given priority on seats. Not yet a member? Join here.
Written by Chris Berry. Photography by Spencer Wilton.
Location:72 Rivington Street,
London, EC2A 3AY,
Start:21st August, 2013 at 6:30pm
End:21st August, 2013 at 8:00pm