Work in Progress, Europa

Europa is a design studio formed this year by four RCA graduates. Here, we track the first stages of their debut Tate commission

EUROPA: At the initial meeting, Will Gompertz (director of Tate Media), Louise Ramsay (head of the print & design studio) and Pete Gomori (marketing officer) talked us through the content and mood of the upcoming Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group show, and we discussed Tate’s overall identity. They provided us with the copy, the Tate typeface and an ‘image selection’ which consisted of lo-res images of five paintings that they felt had the potential to work well as a poster.

The image choice was a careful consider­ation, as there was not a very famous individual painting to choose, and the fact that it was a group show meant that any one image had to be somehow representative of a group of painters.

We were shown marketing research that illustrated the extent to which a successful exhibition poster can impact on visitor numbers. We were then told who the targeted demo­graphic was for this show – these people were our primary audience. They were expected to be ‘abc1 adults’, 45–65, with a strong female bias, would know a little about art, attend galleries regularly and were likely to be Independent/ Times readers and bbc watchers. Will, Louise and Pete explained that the Tate brand should convey a forward-looking gallery, and although our demographic were relatively old this did not rule out a contemporary design or a fresh take on the brand elements at our disposal.

Prior to the initial meeting we had researched the Camden Town Group, and on the day looked at relevant paintings in Tate’s collection. We talked about the ‘domestic scale’ of the paintings, their humble and everyday subject matter – often depicting scenes of London life, and their post-impressionist painterly execution. In a very British way, they seemed to depict the modern city in a manner that was not idealised or made aggressive in the way often seen in other contemporary European paintings.

In the meeting we discussed the strong London theme of the exhibition, and agreed that this could provide inspiration for our image choice and design direction. The vibrant depictions of early twentieth century London could be a good selling point for an exhibition of relatively less well-known painters.

LOUISE RAMSAY: As this was our first project with Europa, we talked at length not only about the exhibition and brief but also about working with the Tate identity and the sign-off process.

It’s an exciting move for us, to give such a big show to a young studio. I felt it was important to convey that no matter who the designer is, whether new graduates such as themselves or designers who have worked with Tate for some years, you sometimes get it right first time and sometimes need to get the drawing board out again. However, between us we have years of experience in marketing exhibitions, so see working with our design partners as a collaboration in which we provide a concise brief then support through the process.

I gave Europa a selection of past exhibition-related material – I wanted them to look at these, critique them and use their thoughts as a basis for taking our brand forward and doing something new.

Europa showed a very intelligent and considered approach to the work. Not only had they done some background research on the subject before our meeting, but came across as genuinely interested and enthusiastic about what they learned. It was good to know that they were obviously thinking about the project in depth, so I’m really looking forward to seeing the work they come up with. Whenever I brief someone for the first time on a Tate project, I feel a renewed enthusiasm for the brand and an excitement at what shape it will take in their hands.

On the day of the presentation, I’m really pleased to see that they’ve used every image we suggested and to hear that they have a favourite.

EUROPA: Charles Ginner’s Victoria Embankment Gardens (1912) was one of the more colourful and graphically painted of the five images. One initial approach was to reflect Ginner’s bold swirls, thick paint and vibrant colours in large, colourful typography using the palette existing within the picture.

LOUISE RAMSAY: 1 – The bold use of colours from the painting’s palette is eye-catching and it’s a confident start; the bolder version of the typeface sits well with the strong brushstrokes of the painting. Unfortunately legibility is a problem here and it also seems such a shame to cover this image so heavily, particularly the Houses of Parliament which clearly sets the work in London. I think there is a childlike quality to this which may alienate some visitors from the older demographic who have previous knowledge of the Group.

2 – This is fine but I want to see something a little stronger if we go with this work.

EUROPA: Exploring and experimenting with Tate’s strong typographic style, we developed a bespoke brush version of the Tate typeface. We initially felt that this could give the poster a subtle but interesting uniqueness, reflecting the bold and thickly applied brush strokes – a key technique of Post-Impressionism used by many of the Camden Town Group painters. This simple graphic idea could add a visual playfulness, and we liked the way in which this process of customising the typeface adds another layer of meaning to the typography. The words communicate something specific to this exhibition in their form as well as their readable content.

LOUISE RAMSAY: I love it when designers do something different with the typeface and it is something that we very much encourage. On this occasion, however, their brushstroke version has lost the round edges of the original typeface – something which I feel lends a contemporary feel to the work. I’ve suggested that Europa keep this font in their bag of tricks as it might be right for a future project.

EUROPA: Ginner’s Piccadilly Circus  (1912) was strong because of its subject matter. The Camden Group’s paintings were often of everyday London scenes in the 1910s and this was commercially a big draw for the show. Therefore Ginner’s image of 1910s Piccadilly Circus – an icon of London – seemed like a good choice initially. We proposed to photograph the painting in front of its own subject, creating an image in which Ginner’s picture collided with our own contemporary Piccadilly. This idea worked with the specific nature of this London-centric show, and we felt the resulting image would provoke historical comparisons that many people would enjoy when looking round the exhibition.

After working with the painting for some time we concluded that the Ginner’s image was very busy and therefore not iconic or immediate enough in its composition to function effectively as a poster. Our photographic treatment, whilst conceptually interesting only served to add another unwelcome layer of complexity.

LOUISE RAMSAY: Europa expressed concerns over this image at the presentation. It was originally a front runner for the show due to its subject matter, however despite this I feel that the style of this painting that doesn’t say ‘modern’ in the way that some of the other works very much do.

It is such a busy piece to work with that we asked if they had tried a version of this, or any of the art works, with the text taken off the image, which they hadn’t. Interestingly this was because it wasn’t something that was done on any of the posters that I gave them to take away – it was much more of a trend when the Tate identity was first introduced. The text over the image is completely illegible. This painting has gone from a front- to a non-runner.

I like the fact that they explored an interesting concept, such as placing the poster in a real-life situation and photographing it. Sadly it’s already too fussy an image for this treatment; our image and message need to be clear and bold.

EUROPA: In many ways these two were the paintings we felt least inclined to use on the poster, despite the fact that they were both painted by Walter Sickert – the most well-known of the Camden Town Group. Neither of them were obviously in London, and both were rather dark and foreboding. Playing on the title and the nature of the show, we began to divide up the various pieces of information and create small typographic ‘groups’ from them. Playing with the information in this way gave us a basis from which to create some unusual compositions and hierarchies.

LOUISE RAMSAY: We showed Europa other design work that has been done with Sickert’s paintings, including work both by Tate and other art galleries, none of which leap off the page at you – mainly due to their muted palette. I think these would both be very challenging for them to work with. Ennui (1914) is a beautiful work, however perhaps its title evokes the wrong response as a marketing design and, although The Camden Town Murder (1908) image would be an attraction on the Jack the Ripper tour (great use of red type!), I don’t believe it is going to pull in a large audience.

EUROPA: As this would be an exhibition of paintings that varied in style, we thought that it might be interesting to include all the paintings in one composition. This seemed like a good alternative solution as it was more of a reflection the different artists that would have paintings in the show, and it created a poster quite unlike anything we had seen Tate Britain produce previously.

LOUISE RAMSAY: Illustrating more than one work on a poster is something that we often try for group shows but it is incredibly hard to execute effectively. There are, however, times I’ve seen this done really effectively – on the V&A’s wonderful Modernism poster last year, for example, and for Tate’s Robert Frank show in 2005. On the practical side, this would be hard to translate into newspaper advertising; the fluorescent green won’t reproduce well out of four colour so the poster will lose its impact, plus the images will become small and the ad generally illegible.

EUROPA: Malcolm Drummond’s 19 Fitzroy Street (1913–14) was our preferred image. We were interested in the meta elements at play in the image – the painting shows three Camden Town Group painters James Manson, Spencer Gore and Charles Ginner in contemplation, surrounded by their paintings. It communicated the notion of a group show in a more succinct way than our previous idea (8). We looked at several typographic treatments; one using a graphic representation of an easel to frame the information. The Camden Group preferred to use easels to ‘hang’ their paintings at informal group shows at 19 Fitzroy street, as is depicted in this painting. We eventually settled on a simpler composition of three main horizontal bars of text, echoing the three figures within the image (11). This was our favoured design, and happily it was unanimously approved at the meeting pending a final approval by the director of Tate Britain, however Will was confident that this was a formality, so we went away happy that everyone had agreed on the same design.

LOUISE RAMSAY: I really love this image and the tight cropping they’ve used on our preferred version. I immediately want to step in to the group, see what they’re looking at and listen in to their conversation. They look like modern young men in their studio, deeply involved in their work. The underlining of the text is working well for emphasis. It’s a modern poster illustrating modern artists of their time, as it should be.

We have asked for some new versions of this design – we’d like to see the words ‘Modern Painters’ underlined as this is the main title of the show and the point we want to emphasise – Camden Town Group is not well-known to many people. The use of uppercase is also work­ing better; this is a big show for Tate Britain, and the titling needs convey this.

In terms of hierarchy of messages, the sub­title ‘Camden Town Group’ is being treated with as much weight as the title throughout, so we need to look at this for the next round.

Back at the studio after a few days holiday, I have a meeting with Will to discuss the presentation and where we are with it. Before this, as with each exhibition, I’ve shown the designs to my team to get their feedback – they are all always reliably opinionated and their feedback always invaluable! Reviewing some marketing copy that Mary has highlighted from the Tate What’s On Guide she edits, Victoria Embankment seems the boldest, most modern and therefore most relevant of the works. Exhibition designs are most successful when the image and design combine to convey the content of the show in every way; its intellectual content, the art works themselves and the overall feel of the exhibition.

I discussed this with Will and we decided this was a good point to call Stephen Deuchar, the director of Tate Britain, to gain his advice and thoughts. He too was drawn to the Victoria Embankment images as being engaging and representative of the post-impressionist movement of the time.

This is a point we sometimes come to – a little like your head is ruling your heart but, more often than not, at the end of the process the journey has taken you to a great and satisfying end. Sometimes there is a ‘Eureka!’ moment from the first presentation, but as you revisit the brief and step back to ensure it has been answered in its entirety, the design you have fallen for may not be the right thing for the marketing of the show.

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EUROPA: Late Friday 3 November the studio received a phone call. Louise let us know that after further discussion, Tate had decided that Ginner’s Victoria Embankment would be the best image for the poster. They argued that in its painterly style it would appeal more to the targeted demographic than Drummond’s. So it’s back to the drawing board this week…

LOUISE RAMSAY: I called Robert at Europa today to explain how our thoughts had progressed. He rightly questioned our reasoning. In theory, 19 Fitzroy St ticked so many boxes, so I understand why they had every confidence in that image seelection and design. I’m looking forward, however, to the next steps when they take on and focus on that single image. It’s a position we often put our designers in from the very beginning (Ophelia was always the one and only choice for our Millais show) so I’m pleased to have the chance to work with them on Route 2…



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