Paul White & Company

For 25 years, Paul White’s Me Company has been relentlessly asking the same question: what does the future look like?

For 25 years, Paul White has been Me Company and, pretty much, vice versa. But if the name sounds egocentric, it was intended as anything but. Like so many of his contemporaries, White began his design career in the 1980s music scene, but putting his name to his sleeve designs was something he felt extremely uncomfortable about. Instead, White preferred to operate under a range of pseudonyms, even occasionally using chemical formulae as his sign-off. So when it came time to set up his own studio, Paul White Associates was never in the running. “I despised the idea of it,” he tells me in the north London studio that has been Me Company’s unassuming home since the beginning. In Stefan Bucher’s book All Access: The Making of Thirty Extraordinary Graphic Designers, White goes further, claiming that “I would have consigned my body to a 1,000 feet plummet into freezing water before using Paul White and Associates as a name”.

Why such virulence? White denies that it was a reaction to the likes of Peter Saville who were operating under similar monikers at the time. Instead, he says, he wanted something that commented on identity and the growing world of branding, something that was ironic, playful and, yes, even a bit stupid. Long before Adbusters or No Logo, designers in the early 80s were already responding to the growing power of branding and the concerns it raised. In 1986, Ian Anderson set up The Designers Republic in Sheffield which relentlessly plundered and poked at the world of logos: a year earlier White launched Me Company with his own logo sampling the Playboy bunny, a mirror image of the 3M logo and interlocking McDonald’s arches. White admits that, at times, the jokey name has made him cringe but never regrets adopting it.

White knew from an early age that he wanted to be a graphic designer. In fact, he told a presumably somewhat bewildered cousin that it was his intention when he was only “eight or nine”. “I was always as interested in the visual representation of a band as I wasin their musical output,” he says.

After leaving West Sussex College of Design, White moved to London in 1981 and, after a few months, set himself up under another determinedly complex pseudonym, Re.Republican Highlife, working for a variety of music clients including independent label Some Bizarre (whose early successes included Soft Cell). A short period at The Clinic, a design studio he helped set up at Virgin, convinced White that the mainstream wasn’t for him. White left to continue freelance work for the likes of Mute until founding the record label One Little Indian with Sue Churchill and Derrick Birkett, of anarchist punk band Flux of Pink Indians.

White had been helping Flux, sitting in on recording sessions and designing an album sleeve for them (Uncarved Block) when some friends of Churchill and Birkett from Iceland got in touch. They wanted to record a single and wondered if the two could help. The friends were The Sugarcubes and the single Birthday. Churchill, Birkett and White decided to set up a label to put out their friends’ song. Churchill, who had been working at the manufacturing company Mayking Records, would look after production, Birkett would handle management and studio production and White would be in charge of the label’s visual output.

Rather than putting his own name on the sleeves, White set up Me Company to be One Little Indian’s design arm. Although One Little Indian had modest success with Birthday and The Sugarcubes’subsequent album, Life’s Too Good, it was not exactly a passport to untold riches. White says that “Setting up an independent record label is about leaping from one financial crisis to another. You’re constantly forking out money on recording sessions, packaging, print. It’s always a struggle.”

However, financial frustrations were offset by the pleasures of working with friends on projects which afforded him great creative freedom. With little money to spend with record shops on promotion for its releases, design became a very important weapon for One Little Indian. The Sugarcubes album, for example, was released in six different colourways in order to encourage shops to rack it more prominently by featuring all six options. As with the dance labels at the time, the idea was to link the label’s releases visually so that buyers, having enjoyed one release, may trust the label enough to buy another from a different artist – it was branding in other words, White says.

One artist, however, changed One Little Indian from struggling minor player to a multi-million selling label. In 1993, The Sugarcubes’ lead singer went solo to release an album under her first name: Björk. Over the next decade, White responded to Björk’s desire for constant reinvention and visual daring to create a series of the most memorable sleeves of recent times (as well as a beautiful music video for Hunter). Technically innovative, breathtakingly beautiful and rooted always in the singer’s character and music, Björk’s back catalogue remains one of the most visually arresting of any artist.

“That ‘chameleon’ thing is just who she is,” White says of the singer. “All we were ever doing was feeding off it and working in a similar way. It was always about keeping it moving. She was very, very closely involved in the visuals when she was able to be but there’d always be something in the song that gave you the answer in terms of where everything needed to go. The music is her and she is the music, those ideas feed all the other things she is doing so it’s easy to take inspiration from.”

White cites covers for Bachelorette, Yoga and Hyperballad as being among his favourites but it is the whole body of work produced for Björk that he is, justifiably, proud of. “There are lots of things going on [in the covers] that were real achievements – whether creative or technical – and which represented something at the time that was a cultural achievement,” he claims.

But White no longer works in music. “I’d exhausted it,” he says. “As I got older and other opportunities came up, I felt more and more awkward working with bands who were getting younger and younger. The aesthetics that they would find interesting would be stuff we’d already revived in the 70s and maybe used bits of again in the 80s. To be presented with it again in the 90s, well I just couldn’t do it.”

White, like David James who we featured in April and so many designers of a similar period, was fortunate to be able to work for a music industry that offered designers incredible chances to produce culturally resonant work with a significant degree of freedom. Where will today’s young designers find similar opportunities? “I can’t think of anything,” he says, candidly. “You could make a living in music then, not now.”

White also cites working for the music industry as important in providing him with a valuable grounding for his future career. “You’d be constantly jumping from one artist to another and that was a really good discipline – to go from one vernacular that you had developed for a particular artist, to another one, without allowing one to pollute the other, is something you didn’t come out of art school with but was very good to learn,” he says.

As Me Company, White’s work has always been identified with a very hi-tech aesthetic. But, in the beginning at least, the work had never been near a computer screen. “Certainly now there’s a very strong technical aspect to the work but for a long time we were doing stuff by hand – it just looked like computers were doing it.” In that respect, the ideas and techniques behind White’s work draw comparison with other near contemporaries, 8vo, whose daring early typographic experimentation was pain­stakingly achieved using traditional paste-up.

“I was obsessed with the visual representation of technology – playing around with sampling using traditional methods and photocopiers,” White says. “I was very influenced by anything that was trying to suggest future technologies.”

Such designers were effectively imagining a computer-driven visual future long before computers themselves had the ability to realise their ideas. When he finally got his hands on a computer, he says, he marvelled at what it could do, but was equally frustrated by what it couldn’t. And this from machines that represented a huge investment – £14,000 for his first PC, with a licence for the SoftImage software that was essential then coming in at a further £12,000. A video card cost £6,000.

Even now that the computers are powerful enough to deliver almost anything, White is frustrated by the way in which he sees thembeing used.  “There are a lot of photo–CG ‘hybridisations’ going on,” he says. “But nobody’s doing anything really good. Most of it is really boring and obvious – let’s retouch that thing to the point where it doesn’t exist anymore. There’s so much more you can do.”

White’s work has been driven by a constant desire to explore just how much ‘more you can do’. To represent his ideas of modernity, to visualise the future. He was, he has said, enthralled by the possibilities of 3D rendering and would spend hours playing with surface and light when such things first became possible in the studio.

Me Company now works almost as an image lab rather than a graphic design firm. “I don’t know what the term ‘graphic design’ means anymore,” he says. “Everything has moved into so many different directions, it’s so much broader. We prefer the even older term of ‘commercial artist’, it just makes more sense. Our work has connections to graphics but is way away from it.” His three staff have backgrounds as writers and sculptors, their artistic sensibilities being far more important to White than their

technical prowess. Much of their time is spent on R&D, experimenting with new ideas on imagemaking which may eventually lead into commercial projects but which also have value in and of themselves. “We do a lot of visual research – exploring ideas and letting them evolve. With the hands series, for example [which subscribers can enjoy in our Monograph this month] the early forms were very simple but we’ve been playing with the idea for six years. We’re always exploring ideas or ways of working. We try not to be too guarded or precious with it – this stuff goes up on the website because it’s the work we’re doing at the time.”

With work for fashion and beauty brands as well as sportswear and a variety of upscale magazine commissions, Me Company has found an unusual niche in which to operate and innovate. The work, White says, “comes from all over place, we never really know who will ring up and we’re never really sure what they are thinking we can do for them. They usually show me something we havedone before and say ‘we like this and this which is why we are talking to you’. When we worked with Longchamp they’d had an image of ours, which they’d torn out of Numero, on their pinboard for three years before calling us. The images go out there like a bug and things come back in a fairly ad hoc way.”

White’s single-minded pursuit of what he believes represents the modern and the futuristic means that his work does not always chime with the tastes of magazine editors or commissioners. “If you look at magazines at the moment, nothing has a ‘technical’ look about it, everything is shot to be very immediate – a reportage feel with ideas that are often regurgitated. There is nothing modern in the sense of moving things forward. That is a bit frustrating for us,” he admits.

For some, the fact that Me Company’s work is so obviously computer-derived is a problem. In Bucher’s book White claims that his work “irritates the hell out of critics”. “We will always get that two-dimensional reaction if people don’t look at the ideas contained within the work,” he tells me.

In the current visual climate, with the retro and the handmade so much to the fore, Me Company’s work certainly stands apart. “We spend a lot of time on the fringe of different movements doing our own thing,” White says. That ‘thing’ is about marrying modernity, technology and art. Trends come and go, but  White is only looking one way – forward.

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