The Ghost In The Machine

His editorial designs continue to inspire, provoke and outrage om equal measure, such is the influence of the inimitable Mike Meire

Just over three years ago the redesign of Berlin-based independent culture magazine 032c caused a stir in the magazine world. What had previously been a smart, modernist magazine featuring swathes of white space and small monochrome headlines in Helvetica and Garamond was transformed overnight. The Summer 2007 issue (shown, facing page) had a bright red cover, artificially stretched Helvetica and Times at shouting scales, clashing reds and greens and a section on green paper. I picked up on the change on my magCulture blog, the CR Blog talked of the ‘New Ugly’ and designer Michael Bierut attacked the redesign on Design Observer, asking of the stretched type, “Dear God in heaven: at long last, is nothing sacred?” In the comments of all these blogs this wasn’t just a magazine story, this was a story of beauty vs the ugly, Europe vs the USA, even the UK vs Germany. The arguments raged in what was perhaps one of the last big comment-fests on design blogs before the rise of Twitter: I can only imagine the reaction the redesign would get on Twitter today.

The man behind the reinvention of 032c is art director Mike Meiré, who is at first glance a strange object for such ire. A slight 46-year old with longish fair hair, Meiré is soft spoken but assertively confident and generous in what he says. I met him at his Cologne studio, the Factory, as he was planning the finishing touches to the first monograph of his work.

The Factory is an impressive environment. Occupying a large part of a derelict industrial space, it features a huge double-height entrance with offices running either side. On arrival, Meiré takes me on a tour of this space which houses his company Meiré und Meiré (his brother Marc is the financial partner). On a mezzanine level to one side is the magazine design team while elsewhere there are dedicated offices for accounts teams, architects (they design and build temporary structures for exhibitions and trade fairs), web developers and brand specialists. There’s also a studio for Meiré to practice his painting and ceramics work. But it’s that big space that is the centre of the Meiré world.

To describe it as an achingly stylish, white room makes it sound minimal and sleek, which it is not. The whitewashed walls show signs of previous installations, the furniture is a random mix of mended old chairs, painted trestle tables and artist-designed tabletops. This is live-work cool as seen in Apartamento or on TheSelby.com. A palette of boxes containing the latest issue of the Meiré-designed Brand Eins magazine sits askew to one side, while the mixed tables are covered in neat selections from Meiré’s archive in preparation for production of the book. On the floor is a run of page proofs showing some of the many editorial projects that Meiré has been involved in: Apart, Econy, Brand Eins, Kid’s Wear, Arch+ and 032c.

Meiré is hugely passionate about what he does, and blurs all lines between the art and design sides of his work. As we walk around the tables, he points out furniture he has adapted and painted as often as he highlights examples of his print design. This passion is infectious, and you quickly understand how his clients come to follow his ideas. We take the stairs up to the mezzanine level and find magazine designer Tim Geisen working on issue 20 of 032c – he has some print outs of text in four narrow columns without any hyphenation. Meiré points approvingly at the resulting rivers through the paragraphs.

Meiré has been designing magazines since the early 80s when he launched music/culture magazine Apart with his brother and friend Robert Haller while studying design in Cologne. For the first issues he could afford to reinvent the design each time, but by the seventh his studio was up and running and reality dawned. “I liked David Bowie very much so I’d wanted to change the magazine identity like he changed himself,” says Meiré. “But later when we started the company I was more aware of the need to be efficient and introduced a more fixed structure.” This balance between structure and change is key to understanding Meiré, and is what makes him so suited to magazine design.

Apart allowed Meiré to develop a working studio, and he was lucky to discover in Andreas Dornbracht a willing supporter as the studio moved into brand work. A German bathroom equipment supplier, Dornbracht has been a long-term client who has allowed Meiré to combine his art and design across all media. As Meiré tells it, he tested the new client from the go, persuading him to break the company name in two to make a better logo shape.

“I said, imagine … you make beautiful products, and they come off a production line, and a little golden hammer with your logo prints your name on the product. But your logo doesn’t fit on that hammer.” Meiré often talks like this, using stories to illustrate points and persuade you of his ideas. Hearing him do so alongside his hand movements and sound effects is compelling. “I knew if he allowed me to take that step then we could go somewhere else together. And he did, so I said, right now you have the most beautifully designed products but the communication is terrible.” He identified the need for context. “If you put a product alone in a blank space, only people who are educated see its beauty. Normally you miss it. So you have to add another beautiful thing to create an architectural or cultural context for the product.”

The architectural content was a relatively simple project, a matter of setting the products (basins, taps, showers etc) in more modern and dramatic settings, but the cultural context proved a tougher challenge.

This was the late 90s, and Meiré had been spending time in London working with Peter Saville on the Apartment project in Mayfair. This 60s pastiche live-work bachelor space was a base from which the two worked together on branding for the likes of Jil Sander and Smart, and Meiré learnt much from the experience. “I admired how Peter could meditate for hours on the distance between a headline and copy. But I can’t do that, I have to feed a company, I need 20 projects on the go and an efficient approach to shaping them.” He also met Nick Knight and Juergen Teller, who were to figure in the cultural contextualisation of Dornbracht.

At first this centred around Statements, a series of magazines that changed form every issue, like the early Apart but more dramatic in their range. These were customer magazines of the extreme variety, with creative contributors being invited to reflect the product. Andreas Dornbracht didn’t think he could afford the type of contributors proposed, but Meiré was ready with an answer – give them carte blanche to research the bathroom and be creative. “The only thing was use the client product not a competitor’s.”

The first Statements featured a close up shoot of water on skin by Nick Knight, which comfortably presented a cultural context (the credit explained ‘Knight’s clients include Yohji Yamamoto, Christian Dior ….’). A piece about artist Hadrian Piggot’s bathroom-inspired work provided a higher context, but it was Juergen Teller’s shots of a naked Annie Morton cavorting with a shower hose that caused the next test of the client-designer relationship. Initially these images were deemed too explicit by the client, but Meiré turned the problem into a success, again using his skills at creating a narrative.

“We persuaded Dornbracht to produce the issue as a newspaper, so it was throwaway – if someone didn’t like it they could trash it,” he says. The next step was to place the images in a context by hanging them in a gallery-like private space at a bathroom fittings trade fair and hiring an actor to be a ‘gallery guide’. Suddenly the context was clear – this was art. Everyone wanted a copy of the Statements newspaper; the project was off the ground.

From there, Statements continued to attract high-quality contributors, the ring-bound second issue featuring images by Inez van Lamsweerde and Pierre et Giles alongside art by Rachel Whiteread. Later issues came in the form of a VHS tape of video art with work from Douglas Gordon, a cushion-bound book and even a gallery event. “We made a narrative that was projected onto the product – this world, you can discover it with this product. The brand became associated with design.” Meiré’s relationship with Dornbracht has grown closer yet as he has begun to create his own art projects.

Meanwhile, more traditional editorial projects continued. Econy was a business magazine for the new generation of business people, designed with a tight typographic palette – Univers and Times – on a rigid grid. I put it to Meiré that such tight design is at odds with the looser way he talks about creativity. “Yes, but it works because I love to be the poltergeist in the machine,” he says. “I set up grids, then I knock the corners” – he shoves the corner of the table we’re sat at – “so they’re just broken.” He compares it to the perforated corner on yoghurt cartons – his designs are supposed to break.

With Econy, this was done through photography. Not only did he commission non-business photographers like Wolfgang Tillmans, but the often uncomfortable placement of their images on the page was the part that broke the structure. Econy remains a great recent example of editorial design and art direction, despite only running for two and a half years before closing down.

From its ashes rose another economics title, Brand Eins, for which Meiré took a similarly structured design approach, this time using just a single weight of Sabon and introducing subtle visual references to the internet and technology.

The magazine is best known for its front covers featuring the name in lower case on a white panel above stylised concept designs that present the theme of the issue. These have become monthly icons – Meiré talks of them as being like iPad app icons in their simplicity, and refers to one example that is strikingly simple but powerful. The cover for the theme ‘Ended’ featured only that word, a choice made in the knowledge that for a number of readers who had experienced the demise of Econy this would have emotional impact. “To understand the importance of something ending you have to feel the end. And this is what I tried to do with that cover. People were shocked – it can’t be possible, not again!”

Some might see such self-reference as indulgent, but Meiré sees his approach – and I agree with him – as more genuine than most. “Too many magazines today are just design and styling, empty formats for advertising. They are too perfect, technically immaculate, but for me they are not of our time. You must also share some emotion.”

Which brings us back to 032c. Editor Joerg Koch approached him about the redesign just as a major art project Meiré was developing for Dornbracht was reaching fruition. The Farm was an ambitious reinvention of the kitchen, an extraordinary combination of humour and serious critique, the antithesis of the slick modern family room. A transformation of an old rural kitchen for today, it was a free standing shed-like structure that housed random furniture, shambolic cooking arrangements and live pigs.

This provocative statement against prevailing interior design clichés is echoed in Meiré’s designs for 032c. “Today, anyone can buy incredible design and fashion to make themselves look cool and fashionable. And it’s the same in magazines – there are so many that look good but their content is just PR stuff. 032c has great content and needed to stand apart from this ‘good taste’ and get people’s attention, make them go ‘ooh what is this?’”

It took Meiré and Koch just 30 minutes to agree the direction of the redesign. Koch recalls he thought Meiré was disappointed. “Mike wanted to explain his direction, but I just said let’s do it – I could already feel the energy from him. The design of 032c has always happened by talking and referencing atmospheres, ideas, architecture, music and art. He seemed the perfect counterpart for that process.”

Meiré and Geisen spent three months on the first issue, working late nights, drinking too much, and checking pornography for colour references. “I remember Peter Saville buying things under the counter, and I thought this is an idea. How should a culture magazine look if it is a bit ‘under the counter’. It got called the ‘new ugly’, but ugly was never, ever in my mind. I wanted to create a doubt in people’s minds about what is beautiful.”

The problem now of course is what to do next. How far do you go? The design of 032c has continued to develop issue by issue, but even in the context of that magazine there appears to be limits – I left Meiré and Geisen wondering how Koch would react to those rivers in the columns of text.

Mike Meiré: Editorial Design – These Days is published by Birkhaüser in December. See meireundmeire.de

 

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