Design for art’s sake

An exhibition on the graphic design of the late Tony Arefin records a colourful journey from art to advertising

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Few images of Tony Arefin’s graphic design can be found on the internet. So it comes as quite a shock to see a large collection of his work for the first time, in one place, some elements of which were produced nearly 25 years ago. While the measure of a designer’s influence cannot be taken by an image search, the lack of pictures available of Arefin’s work (credited to him or not) is remarkable. But perhaps it’s not that surprising. Arefin died in 2000, aged 38, and so his body of work just missed the start of the cataloguing of graphic design online.

The scarcity of physical copies of Arefin’s designs perhaps suggests why so little of it has been photographed by collectors. Concentrating mainly on short-run catalogues and promotional material for the art world, only his magazine work saw any kind of mass production. For this reason, then, the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham should be praised for not only staging this first retrospective on Arefin, but for bringing so much of his output together from disparate sources. While both the title of the show and Arefin’s doubled-up studio name might suggest otherwise, there was only ever one man responsible for the work. Arefin & Arefin: The Graphic Design of Tony Arefin is an important exhibition for many reasons; not least for offering a chance to see first-hand the different forms, shapes and colours of the things he made.

Arefin was born in Pakistan in 1962 and, after some time in Bangladesh, he arrived with his family in London in 1974, essentially leaving behind the first of several identities he would establish for himself. By the late 1980s, Abed Mohammed Arefin (Tony was originally a nickname) wound up in the right circles to establish a design career within the British art world. Initially this came by various design assistant jobs on magazines and the staging of an exhibition of Neville Brody’s work for The Face at the Photographers’ Gallery. Soon after he was designing catalogues for many of the names who would go on to be identified as Young British Artists, not least for the Damien Hirst-curated Freeze exhibition that kicked everything off in 1988.

Ikon has given up a lot of space to the show and the tables of printed work, posters and two video pieces are arranged over three rooms in chronological order. Arefin watches over the first room, but even here the curators don’t let him give too much away: a large, close-up photograph of his left eye hangs over the first group of catalogues and books he created for artists such as Douglas Gordon and Simon Patterson.

Light, and stand back

For a gallery more accustomed to arranging art works, Ikon’s treatment of graphic design is equally reverent. In fact, if there’s a criticism of the displays, it’s that Arefin’s work is treated almost ‘as’ art. Quite understandably, visitors can’t leaf through the catalogues, but the plinths and distinct lack of any relevant caption information seem to want to present the work on its own terms, rather than as the outcome of various collaborative processes, the results representing this or that artist in printed form.

But perhaps that is partly the point. Arefin dramatically altered the way art was presented in Britain – stuffy, ornately designed catalogues simply reframed the art as it was, whereas Arefin seemed to want to impress his take on it, as a natural storyteller, whilst adding vibrant colourways, or exciting new typography. One good example of this is the catalogue he designed for Cornelia Parker’s Cold Dark Matter exhibition at the Chisenhale Gallery in 1991. Over a series of dynamic spreads, Parker’s exploding shed is shown first through a strip of small frames, then a full spread of a blown-up record player, building to the final bombed-out piece in the gallery at full bleed, its shrapnel hanging frozen in the space and casting menacing shadows on the walls. It’s as if Arefin lit the touch paper in the first place.

Change of direction

After looking extensively at his graphic design for institutions such as London’s Barbican, the ICA, and Serpentine Gallery, Glasgow’s Tramway and the Ikon itself (Arefin designed its identity), the show moves to his advertising campaigns and magazine work. For Arefin, this period represented another significant change in his life: a move to the US, and an exchange of the artistic world he had known for a much more commercial one, initially as creative director of ID magazine and, in 1997, as an art director at ad agency Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, and then Ogilvy & Mather in New York.

His work on campaigns for IBM’s Magic Box (the print work introduces the concept of a ‘server’ via illustrations by Paul Davis) and the company’s Lotus Notes desktop software also gets an airing; the vast wall graphic at the rear of the gallery is a version of his Superman campaign for the computing giant. There are several copies of ID on show, too, but of much more interest – typographically at least – are the open copies of the three other magazines he was working on concurrently: Art & Auction, Bomb, and Blind Spot. After this final display, retracing your steps back through Arefin’s life, you’re reacquainted with the exuberance of his early work.

Outside the exhibition, visitors can take a lift to the ground floor which has been taken over by the artist Martin Creed. His Work #409 features a four-piece choir singing a descending scale as the lift passes each floor (ascending on the way up). Pressing the button to call it, I received a small electric shock. But it was the one I got on the way in which stayed with me.

Arefin & Arefin: The Graphic Design of Tony Arefin is on at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham until November 4. The show catalogue features an essay by Emily King, with contributions from Rick Poynor and curator James Langdon (Ikon; £18). More details at