Astrid Stavro: A very bookish designer

Having originally studied literature, it’s no surprise that Astrid Stavro’s work principally concerns the printed page. Gavin Lucas meets her

Astrid Stavro grew up dreaming of being a journalist and writer. After a childhood in Madrid, she went to Boston University in the US to study liter­ature and philosophy. “I guess this ‘inquisitive’ approach still informs my work and the processes behind it,” she explains. “A large part of my child­hood was spent reading the classics of literature, everything from Borges to Paul Auster to Aldous Huxley to Raymond Carver to John Berger. All these authors have been my first and best teachers and this is why I now love to write about design.”

It was as a teenager holidaying in Mallorca in the late 80s that Stavro was first seduced by graphic design. She visited a friend who “had every single issue of Fabien Baron’s Interview magazine”, Stavro recalls of the moment. “I remember looking at those spreads and thinking how beautiful they were – I had never seen anything like Interview before. My friend, a Londoner, told me that what I was looking at was called ‘graphic design’.”

Interview magazine not only awakened a love of graphic design in Stavro, but helped her to land her first design job in a small three-person studio in Madrid when she returned from Boston. “I heard they were looking for designers and I turned up saying something like: ‘I don’t have a portfolio but I learn really fast’,” she recalls. “I happened to be carrying an issue of Interview under my arm because, coincidentally, one of the few newsagents that sold it in Madrid at the time was in Puerta de Alcalá, just around the corner from this studio. They were very curious about the magazine and I guess it was a good thing because I got the job. To cut a long story short, I ended up moving to London to do a BA at Central Saint Martins a couple of years later and that was my first formal training as a designer.”

Later, doing her MA at the Royal College of Art in London, Stavro continued to nurture her passion for books. “My dissertation was on book covers through the work of Irene von Treskow [the illus­trator and Anglican minister who was once an art director at Saatchi & Saatchi], Andrezj Klimowski (my former rca tutor and source of great inspiration) and John McConnell’s covers for Faber & Faber.”

After the RCA, Stavro set up her own studio in Barcelona. Perhaps unsurprisingly, her first job was book-related: a commission to design the cover of a novel by Spanish writer Carlos Ruiz Zafón. “To date, that was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had,” Stavro recalls. “I was fresh out of the rca and working for a mainstream publishing company was a major shock. After the tenth rejected book cover proposal, I was still struggling to under­stand what they meant by ‘this is too beautiful, it has to be much more commer­cial’. I couldn’t figure out if by commercial they simply meant ugly. When I eventually understood what the term commercial meant I asked the client to please give me less commercial briefs. They did and I still work for them.”

For Stavro, this first commission brought home sharply the differences between art books that are made as beautiful objects, and books published by commercial publishers who want to keep production costs down and follow the formulae that tend to maximise profits: “I quickly learnt the difference between ‘haute-couture’ books and ‘prêt-à-porter’ books,” she says. “Interestingly, I now find designing prêt-à-porter books incredibly challenging – and it is definitely one of the places where design is most needed.”

Now the output of Studio Astrid Stavro reveals not only her passion for books and editorial layout but also the fact that her design approach is informed by a northern European design sensibility – she readily cites the likes of Josef Müller-Brockman, Jan Tschichold, Wim Crouwel, Alan Fletcher and Otl Aicher among her influences. The work catalogued on the studio’s website includes whole series of book covers, exhibi­tion catalogues and an abundance of editorial design projects – all of which display confident, bold use of typography which, combined with clean, easily navigable layouts, conspire to give each project a strong graphic identity.

Stavro’s approach stands out in the Barcelona design landscape, not least because of a particular, Catalonian school of graphic design which frustrates Stavro for being “well done, but there’s no edge, no courage”. So does Stavro, an Italian-born, Madrid-raised, UK-educated designer, feel that she’s an outsider, that she’s stepping on the toes of local Catalan designers, poaching the good clients? “After living here for about five years, I now realise that kind of conservative design approach is perfect for a particular kind of client. The client will get exactly what they asked for, nothing more, nothing less,” she believes. “The brief will be answered with no further complications, the designer will deliver the goods, hands will be shaken, an invoice will be sent. A lot of clients here [in Barcelona] are deeply conservative and prefer the safe, classic option before daring to try something new which will automatically feel dangerous and threatening,” she claims.

Of course Stavro has some conservative clients too and has come to regard the delicate process of cajoling and persuading a client that a particular solution is the right one as part of her job as a designer. “I love a challenging brief where I feel there is space for creating something new and interesting,” she says. “I am extremely passionate about what I do and will always defend what I believe in – it’s part of what makes me tick. We have no fixed formula – we try to be versatile, to adapt to new circumstances as they come. We like to grow with clients and for clients to grow with us. In this sense, establishing solid relationships is crucial.

I don’t like to answer a brief and move on to the next thing, but prefer to build up a lasting, creative and trusting relationship. A client plays a very important part in graphic design,” she says.

As does establishing a reputation among your peers. One of the pieces of work that first brought Stavro to wider attention was a college project. In 2005, Stavro and fellow rca student Birgit Pfisterer created the Grid It! series of notepads which replicated the grids of various well-known designers as lined notepaper. The pads appeared in almost all the design press. Since then, the output from Stavro’s studio has also been a consistent presence in awards shows such as d&ad, the Art Directors Club of New York, Spain’s own Laus awards, and also in cr’s Annual – the studio’s art direction of book La Librería de los Escritores (the first in a series) appeared in the 2009 Annual.

Clearly Stavro takes entering such awards very seriously. “We enter awards not so much to win them but to form part of the book (though of course winning is good for the ego). It is a way of being sure we are doing good work. We like to play the game and for our peers to see, and hopefully appreciate, the work we’re doing,” she says. “From a teamwork point of view, awards create a sense of belonging, especially for young designers. But, of course, awards are not absolutes. You need to enter in order to win and a lot of great designs are never entered or win any awards. Awards are fun but should not be taken too seriously. I like to think of them as weather charts: visual indicators of the kind of work created every year,” she says.

In common with most designers, Stavro also has several self-initiated projects on the go. Most of these are undertaken with her partner, the designer Pablo Martín, under the moniker El Palace – a reference to the couple’s nickname for the 18th century house they live in next door to Studio Astrid Stavro in Barcelona’s charming Gothic area. One such project is a forthcoming series of publications entitled Light Medium Bold, which will be, she says, “a monograph on unique and interesting topics which may vary from a tribute to a specific designer to a typeface or artistic movement. The aim is to share, stimulate, inspire and transmit.” The first issue is due out in September this year. Stavro is also working on getting a set of Art of the Grid bookshelves produced.

“Extracurricular projects form part of my life,” Stavro maintains. “I’m constan­­­­­tly working and having fun developing new projects and ideas from things that inspire, motivate or concern me. I guess it is partly because I keep on questioning what I do, how I do it, and why I do it. It is not a choice, it is more of a necessity. The main problem is that a day is never long enough to fit in all the things I’d like to do.”

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