Arty in the Park

Graphic Thought Facility’s work for the Frieze Art Fair has helped establish the event on the international arts calendar.

Later this month the Frieze Art Fair will take up its four day residency in the south east corner of London’s Regent’s Park. Sandwiched between the tennis courts and the Avenue Gardens, the international art fair has, at a mere four years young, quickly become an established focal point for the art community. This year, the celebrated structure housing the fair has been designed by a new architect (Canadian Jamie Fobert takes over from David Adjaye’s three-year stint) but the invitations, press ads, yearbooks – the entire marketing campaign – has once again been handled by Graphic Thought Facility, who designed the original identity and on-going signage system for the first event back in 2003.

“The thing with the fair for us, as the graphic designers, is to try and find a way of moving it on each year, of keeping people interested,” says GTF’s Paul Neale. “It was fine in the first year, people didn’t have huge expectations of it, but it proved such a hit that both last year and this have been more difficult for Frieze to move it on. This is obviously something that graphics can help to do.”

GTF were approached to work on the fair by Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp, the publishing directors of Frieze magazine, after the designers had previously created the identity for Counter Editions, an art prints venture that Slotover was involved in. While creating museum and gallery signage was already something that GTF was renowned for, working on a flexible system for a four day art fair would turn out to be a different proposition entirely. “From a signage point of view,” Neale explains, “it’s actually a wayfinding exercise. I think it was probably the first significant wayfinding problem that we’d had to address.”

The signage and the fair’s logotype (stencilled lettering based on designer Julian Morey’s Jakarta) have remained constant since the fair’s inception, although the wayfinding system is so designed that it can be easily changed to accommodate the different galleries that exhibit each year. The name of the visiting gallery is simply printed onto a vinyl sticker (set in Bembo Schoolbook) that is then applied to a silkscreened grey cardboard “flag” sign. These signs, which are positioned on the corner of each stall in the fair, are therefore incredibly cheap to produce. With 150 galleries on site, each of the signs also features one of six fluorescent colours to help visitors orientate themselves. The economical use of colour means they stand out – but are by no means domineering – amid the fair’s muslin ceiling and the neutral colours of the walls and flooring.

“One of the things that’s wonderful about the Frieze fair is its temporary nature,” says Neale. “This thing arrives, goes up and comes down in the space of three weeks and that’s quite a nice thing to feed off – striking a balance between something really smart in a gallery language but that, at the same time, feels really temporary. Also, it all has to be really flexible as the floor plan can change right up to the last moment.” While the essence of this tried and tested system stays the same each year, the marketing components that support each fair are reinvented every time.

“We got to a marque quite quickly,” Neale explains of the design and art direction process. “It was resolved in itself, which is fine, but life gets breathed into an identity through the marketing applications, rather than asking the logo itself to sing and dance.” Unusually for an art fair client, GTF decided to use photography to fill the space on the invites and press ads. “None of the international fairs at that time seemed to use imagery within their marketing material,” says Neale. “Mainly because it’s hard to – there’s lots of politics involved, the organisers need to keep a lot of galleries happy – but if you go down the generic art imagery route, it’s a well-mined world of clichés. The one thing that Frieze had got, however, was the location – being in the park.”

There was also, Neale recalls, reasonable concern in the first years of the fair that if GTF were to use imagery in the marketing material, it should be “understood as design not art”. So the focus on the unique location of the fair drove the design from the very start and also emphasised the expectant build-up to the fair, the photography suggesting that something big was about to happen. For the press ads and invitations for the inaugural event, GTF photographed Regent’s Park at different times of the day, over several months, featuring a selection of the notable London landmarks that could be seen from the grounds.

“In year two people knew that the fair was going up again so we played with the idea of this alien structure appearing in the middle of the park,” Neale continues. “We stayed with photography and moved it on by employing Angela Moore to shoot it. It was quite odd – it looked like things were landing on the site. It’s the fair coming to town.” Last year GTF went back to doing the photography themselves and went to the wildlife in the park for their inspiration, using close-up imagery of a squirrel, a hedgehog, a swan, a goose, a ladybird and a caterpillar on the marketing material. “We had some really nice pigeon pictures as well,” says Neale, “but people really don’t think pigeons are nice. The squirrels were cute and very easygoing but we did have to cheat with the caterpillars. We couldn’t find any so we had to ship two in from Gunnersbury park, complete with their own leaves.”   So for 2006’s promotional work, GTF went from micro to macro and enlisted the help of a unique photography team – Rory Watson and Patrick McCloy of aerial photography company, HighSpy. “We did a survey of the park with a model helicopter which is kitted out with a hi-res digital camera,” Neale explains of the three day shoot during a particularly cold January. While Watson flies the helicopter – a Heliball 323 – McCloy works the camera which has a live video feed to a computer screen. As the helicopter only flies about 20 metres up, the set of eight new images produced retain a discernably human scale (one shows someone enjoying a wintry picnic, another takes a birds eye view of a bridge, for example). Unlike GTF’s other Frieze shoots, health and safety was a major issue here – the job became, says Neale, “a big production number” – but the images obtained from the fly-past were well worth the effort.

As for next year’s event, Neale says that the team already has some ideas and that the long gestation period is good for them. While much of their work for the fair remains fixed because it does the job so well (the wayfaring system and the identity), GTF has subtly managed to establish a mutable image-based identity for the fair: one that’s based on the unique environment within which the fair takes place. “It’s a great venue and the fair has now really established itself,” Neale concludes. “But it’s funny – the fine art world is, graphically speaking, very conservative for a business that is so much about creativity. Of course, it’s about investment, too, but in terms of general expectations of what the graphics should be within that world, it’s working within really tight parameters. Which is why it’s nice to do the Frieze fair as it goes on. We can play with people’s expectations.”

The Frieze Art Fair takes place between 12 and 15 October in London’s Regent’s Park. For a list of participating galleries, tickets and visitor information, visit


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