As M/M (Paris), Michaël Amzalag and Mathias Augustyniak changed the face of French graphic design. As they celebrate their 20th anniversary, a major new monograph compiles the pair’s distinctive work. Is what they do design? Is it illustration? Or has M/M gone beyond such labels?
Publishers will tell you that ‘star' designer monographs no longer sell. Brody, Carson and Sagmeister may have shifted books in their thousands but changing tastes and a lack of suitable contemporary subjects have caused a rethink. If there was one design studio still ripe to be ‘done' it would probably be M/M (Paris). And done they have been in Emily King's M to M of M/M (Paris), published by Thames & Hudson and resplendent with more than 1,000 images spread over 528, 35 by 26cm pages.
Few design studios possess the back catalogue to warrant such treatment but M/M, which marks its twentieth anniversary this year, is no ordinary studio. Michaël Amzalag and Mathias Augustyniak met on the latter's first day at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in 1989 and have been working together virtually ever since. They complemented and completed one another - as Amzalag describes it in the book "we were polar opposites: him the country boy of Polish descent and me the Parisian Sephardic Jew; the seductive blond guy that all the girls were attracted to versus the dark-haired gay intellectual". Amzalag had become seduced by the Apple Mac and the possibilities of technology while Augustyniak preferred drawing. "It was as if he could play the instruments I couldn't play and vice versa. So it was a perfect match," Amzalag says. The pair were determined not to work for anyone else and so decided to work together which, after Augustyniak had been to the RCA and Amzalag, expelled from college, had briefly worked on Paris-based music magazine Les Inrockuptibles, they did.
But while Augustyniak's contemporaries at the RCA, who included Paul Neale and Andy Stevens of Graphic Thought Facility, Jonathan Barnbrook and Anthony Burrill, graduated into an established ecosystem of independent graphic design studios in the UK, there were few such peers for M/M to emulate. French graphic design at the time was largely dominated by, at one extreme, the corporate mainstream and, at the other, the descendants of the radical group Grapus whose ethos dominated at Les Arts Déco. Amzalag and Augustyniak rejected the Grapus doctrine which they say dictated that anything ‘commercial', even a record sleeve, was worthless, despising their tutors' demands that they devote themselves to making, for example, anti-Apartheid posters that were destined never to be seen outside design festivals. Instead they followed a path that was much more familiar across the Channel. As M to M reveals, their clients encompassed what we may think of as the ‘usual suspects' for many a small, young, independent studio - music, the cultural sector, art and fashion, which still make up the bulk of M/M's client-base today. But for early-90s France this was something unusual. In beating an independent path between, on the one hand, the mainstream branding and packaging houses and, on the other, the doctrinaire approach of Grapus, M/M inspired a generation of French graphic designers. Indeed, much of the vibrancy of the current French graphic scene can be attributed to their example.
Some may think it a shame that Amzalag and Augustyniak have chosen not to utilise their obvious talents and intelligence in the Grapus-authorised service of ‘design for the public good' rather than fashion and the arts, but they are not alone in finding within those sectors the opportunities for creative fulfilment. And not for them the struggles of packaging for the high street or devising brand identities for demanding corporate clients. M/M have not just rejected the traditional landscape of much commercial graphic design, they have rejected the very idea of design as a service. From the outside, the impression is that they work not to please others but ultimately to please themselves. Which is not to say that theirs is a selfish or egotistical practice: the book is full of tributes from long-term collaborators who genuinely seem to have enjoyed the experience of working with the studio and the "intense conversations" that involves. These are presented as partnerships of equals. But such collaborations depend on the clients' interests coinciding with theirs. Each project is a vehicle for their ideas and, it appears, is of interest only as long as it remains so. Compare this approach to, for example, GTF who designed the M to M book. GTF's design of M to M is reserved and respectful of the work. Their role is so discreet as to be almost invisible. You wonder what a book on GTF designed by M/M would look like.
≈ WHY GRAPHIC DESIGN? ≈
So if M/M's work is really about self-expression rather than using design to solve communication problems, why be graphic designers at all? They articulated their reasons clearly in an interview with the Design Museum: "We chose graphic design not just for the sake of being graphic designers. It was some kind of social commitment, a way to earn a living and also to disseminate our ideas," they said. "The activities related to graphic design are very suitable for us. We enjoy the thinking process, but we prefer that it be related to form and that ideas have tangible results. Also, we don't create things out of the blue; we want to form a relationship with someone. But, as such, graphic design doesn't excite us more than any other media, than film or books for example."
Graphic design is a conduit, a way of getting their work out there, while its media are the environments in which their work sits best. M/M have flirted with presenting their work in a gallery context, as in their 2006 show at the Haunch of Venison in London, but the translation hasn't always been successful. Whereas, for example, their fashion work can be daring or at least meaningful in the context of a magazine where it is jostling up against its peers, in a gallery the work can lose its edge and become just another pretty picture. Besides, as Emily King alludes to in the book, what need have M/M for a gallery when the whole world is their exhibition space?
M/M also break the accepted norms of design practice in that they frequently re-use elements of work in other projects. A fragment of a drawing originally created for a fashion ad may reappear on a magazine cover. Images are reworked and re-presented. The proceeds of their first paying job were put towards buying a camera with which they began to create an archive of imagery which regularly appears in their work, establishing a continuum rather than approaching each project with a blank sheet of paper.
And their relationship with other people's photography is another area in which they break with convention. If M/M have a trademark style it is in the gorgeous, modern-baroque hand-drawn type and imagery which overlays photography in so much of their work. In the context of fashion, this is subversive, shocking even.
Graphic design's role in fashion before M/M had been marginal. That's not so say that graphic designers had no involvement: the likes of David James and Peter Saville had highly influential roles at, respectively, Prada and Yohji Yamamoto - James is still Prada's creative director. But these roles had not involved much ‘graphic design' as it has traditionally been thought of. There hasn't really been a place for graphic design in the promotion of fashion at the highest level because any communication or message about the brand or collection - a message that more and more seems to consist of ‘look at this bag. You want it, don't you?' - has always been delivered by the image.
M/M have made the hand of the graphic designer far more evident. In their fashion campaigns, they have apparently succeeded in attaining equal billing with the photographer. Previously, the image in fashion was sacrosanct, the graphic designer's role reduced almost to artfully placing a logo. In M/M's campaigns for Balenciaga, Calvin Klein and Yohji Yamamoto, their drawings mingle with the photographs. This, presumably, would have been tough for some photographers to take, though not M/M's regular collaborators Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. Interviewed in the book, Matadin says "One of the reasons we like to work with Mathias and Michaël is that we like their input in our pictures". Van Lamsweerde adds: "A lot of people say ‘M/M, they're the ones that draw on pictures' and for them it's too much." But, she says, the M/M "layer" on top of one of her and Matadin's photographs is what "pushes it into [being] iconic".
≈ CALVIN'S BIRO ≈
M/M's work is itself iconic, in that it is consistent and identifiable, which can cause clashes. Rather than being in the service of the brands that utilise it, their work can seem to be in conflict with them. Take their campaign for Calvin Klein, for example, where M/M's drawings sit atop a fairly standard set of images. Their doodling around the CK logo was intended to make the multinational appear more human - as if Calvin himself had got his Biro out - but it also feels as though it is commenting on the impermeable facade of luxury. The temptation is to suggest that M/M are cheekily subverting the world of high fashion but let's remember where the real power lies here. If Calvin Klein are indulging M/M for a season or so it is because they see the M/M style as the key to unlocking a desired demographic, a Trojan Horse into the hearts, minds and purses of consumers.
But that appears to be fine for M/M because, as clients come and go, their work continues. It's an evolving project, self-generated, self-referential, self-absorbed perhaps? Take their editorial work for Paris Vogue, Arena Homme Plus and Interview. Three different magazines with different readerships and yet M/M's work for all three is formally similar. For Paris Vogue it succeeded temporarily in breaking down some of the magazine's stuffiness and for Interview it shook up what had become a quite stale formula. It suited the magazines to temporarily try on M/M's clothes and it suited M/M to have another high-profile vehicle for their work.
In a way M/M operate more like illustrators than graphic designers. With some variations, they do their beautifully-crafted thing, each project adding to the archive. And those projects may no longer be limited to graphics. M/M have explored furniture, clothing, even a fragrance. Is what they do ‘graphic design'? It defies such straightforward categorisation. That may frustrate, even anger, some of their peers. I can just imagine the reaction to some of their projects from commenters on the CR website, for example. But I doubt M/M would care. What they do may sometimes be illustration, sometimes typography, sometimes product design, sometimes even art but the common factor is that it is always recognisably their work. It doesn't really matter what we call it. And they appear to have built a happy and successful life doing it.
Graphic designers are becoming increasingly concerned about the devaluing of their profession. Perhaps M/M foresaw this problem. They are determined to be treated as equals, not impassive service-providers for hire. They are aware of their worth and have a long-term strategic view of their place in the world. In the book, Emily King quotes Michaël Amzalag's description of the qualities needed by a modern graphic designer: "To survive and be competitive with machines, a contemporary graphic designer has to be an author, a thinker, a poet, a journalist, a philosopher." That description may sound pretentious to some but it summarises M/M's ambitions rather well. And even if their practice, rooted in fashion and art, exists on too rarefied a plane to provide a template for most young designers, their attitude, independence and sense of the value of what they can bring to any project may be an inspiration to all.
With thanks to Peter Saville. M/M (Paris) The Carpetalogue is at Gallery Libby Sellers, London W1 until December 15. See libbysellers.com for details. M to M of M/M (Paris) by Emily King is published by Thames & Hudson; £42