portraits by a SKETCH ARTIST, the OCR FONT, PAOLO ROVERSI, DAVID SIMS
and INEZ VAN LAMSWEERDE & VINOODH MATADIN
interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
Everyone agrees the duo M/M — MICHAEL AMZALAG and MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — are France’s most talented graphic designers, famous for their Yohji Yamamoto catalogs, Balenciaga, Calvin Klein, Stella McCartney and Givenchy ads, their collaborations with artists like Björk, Pierre Huyghe or Philippe Parreno, their unique typefaces, their posters, their exhibitions, or the design of the very magazine you’re reading right now. They also have the reputation of being intellectual and uncompromising, transcending the standard relationship between an agency and its clients. Yet, they do not have a cure-all formula that they apply to their commissions. For each client, including the most well-known fashion houses, MATHIAS and MICHAEL analyze and research product history, creating specific solutions, while adding dimensions that bring visual design to a higher level of aesthetic representation. Working with them is an intellectual challenge and a creative experiment that pushes the limits beyond those established by the products or objects themselves. A crucial element of their methodology rests in their way of making connections — from Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters to Cassandre’s graphics, from surrealism to Roland Barthes’ semiology, from French structuralism to Lacanian jokes or from comics to conceptual art.
OLIVIER ZAHM — An airport is a kind of non-place, one that we only pass through. The sociologist Marc Augé said that non-places are poetic. Airports sustain a constant flux of people, but individuals stay in them only for the shortest possible time. And yet, here we are, conducting our interview in the middle of JFK airport.
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — It’s strange to me that airports have now become work places, instead of places of passage, places to wander around. They’ve really changed.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I have childhood memories of being at Orly airport — of seeing all the planes, and the people who came from all over the world.
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — Train stations are also fascinating. When we taught in Lausanne, we gave an assignment to our students: take a sum of money and produce a magazine of more than five copies using only what you find at the train station: the copy machine, the photo booth, the bookstand that sells pencils, etc. Now train stations are like shopping malls, there’s no space left to get bored. We used to like them because it was just a place we didn’t fill up our time in; they were empty places. So doing an interview at an airport is unusual — taking time out with a friend here, instead of in a coffee shop in town. Arriving today, we ran into someone we worked with yesterday, who is going to fly out on the plane just before ours. She wondered what we were doing here so early. We’re usually always so late. We told her that we were doing an interview and
she said, “Oh yeah, that’s such an artist thing!”
OLIVIER ZAHM — Time is so filled up now. There’s no free time, no waste. Even in art galleries. Don’t you feel the sterility of galleries nowadays?
MICHAEL AMZALAG — I don’t think it’s sterility, it’s more the effect of having to put your ass in gear all the time. Going so fast that there’s little time left.
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — There are no more preliminaries…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is that what putting your ass in gear means? No more preliminaries?
MICHAEL AMZALAG — Exactly. You open the door, you go in, you come out, and it’s over.
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — It’s like the problem we have with the critiques we sometimes get. They say we make things that are unreadable. But it’s not true. When we work on the design of a product, an object, a magazine, or the organization of a time sequence, we lay groundwork. There are often several layers in our projects that require extra effort. You have to enter it, and digest it, in order to get to the heart of it, for the experience to be the most satisfying. It’s still a process of consumption, but like it is in a really good restaurant: before you get to the very heart of the meal, there’s a path you have to take.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you have a systematic method or do you propose a new approach each time?
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — It’s a mix, like it is for two tennis players who know each other very well and have therefore developed strategies. There’s a crafty side to it. You pretend to limp to mislead your opponent. So inevitably, there’s a tactic, but it’s more a method with which one is sensitive to the other. But concerning content, I don’t think you can really talk about method.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Like a strategy to spread ideas?
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — Exactly. And experience makes us more and more alert to it. This is what we developed in order to leave room to question processes and to be constantly searching.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When I saw Vision Tenace, your last exhibition at Beaubourg, with the series of poster reproductions, I thought, yes, there really is an M/M style.
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — Instead of “style,” I prefer to say that we have a “language.” As in a good book or a good movie — you know within the first few seconds that it’s a whole world and that you’re in that world. It’s more than just a style; there’s a narrative.
MICHAEL AMZALAG — It’s not so much that we have a style, but that often others don’t have much of one. The poverty of signs around us is such that as soon as you offer ones that are a bit more considered, complex, and “formalized,” it arouses attention. And when you connect these things to each other, you can say that it does in fact produce a style. But the 32 posters in Vision Tenace have many styles, things that contradict each other, that repeat each other, that ignore each other. But it’s true that taken all together an image takes shape, which is for us the very idea of an exhibition.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was it your intention that the exhibition could and should be seen as a whole?
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — Yes. We wanted to show that we try to articulate a visual language, even though the show is just a small part of our total production. We tried to demonstrate that the signs we’ve formed and polished over the years have been articulated, and that a grammar has been developed in the process.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What are the components of this language?
MICHAEL AMZALAG — If I were speaking like a press release, I’d say “a mix of the Apollonian and the Dionysian”…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Apollonian being order, and Dionysian, disorder?
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — It’s not only that one establishes order and the other disorder, or that one of us draws and the other doesn’t. Both of us draw; the two approaches are drawn, in the sense that to draw is to look at the world, and to have an understanding, to comprehend it, and give it a visual transcription.
OLIVIER ZAHM — …handmade.
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — Not necessarily.
MICHAEL AMZALAG — Nowadays, the handmade is seen to be a mark, a style, or a signature, but it’s also something that has been forgotten and neglected. Artists seem to be drawing less and less.
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — For example, we just made a series of portraits for the catalogue we’re making on Il Tiempo del Postino, the “opera” by Philippe Parreno and Hans Ulrich Obrist in which they invited several artists to participate. We intentionally made classically drawn portraits of the artists. The results are unsettling because drawing is a medium people don’t really trust anymore — they don’t know how to approach it. An average drawing is less acceptable than a bad photograph today, even though it’s an expression that is effective and powerful.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Does this discomfort also stem from the fact that you started introducing your “art” into your design proposals?
MICHAEL AMZALAG — It wasn’t suddenly. We’ve been doing it for some time. Since the beginning, really.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Could I say that in a way you work like artists, constantly experimenting with your own medium?
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — Yes, it’s more subjective. We state a point of view.
MICHAEL AMZALAG — We reiterate it in every aspect of a project, though — in the concept of an object, in the details of typographical choice, in everything in fact. We always come back to the same thing: the profession we chose has been undefined until recently, and so for us it’s in flux, in constant evolution. We spend all our time redefining it, and expanding the boundaries of what we’re doing. That’s why, even after twenty years of working, it’s still so enjoyable.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you’re not tired of it?
MICHAEL AMZALAG — Not at all. The pleasure of it is that I don’t know what I know or what I’m going to do next. We experiment, by working on a film, a set, an exhibition, on objects, or in fashion advertising. We explore areas and try to go as far as possible with them. The dominant definition of graphic design doesn’t require you to do this. You deliver the message and become
as transparent as possible. But, for us, such a definition is obsolete.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why?
MICHAEL AMZALAG — Because this way of thinking was developed when mass media was emerging, when corporations and multinational entities were arising, and when the first visual-identity programs were being created for huge broadcasters, big media, airlines, etc. The world was being restructured on a global level, but in a very schematic, highly rationalized way. Modernist thinking was all about dreaming of a perfectly efficient world. This schema completely exploded a long time ago. The transparency or the neutrality of form today is something that doesn’t let you exist, let alone become noticed. Now we look back with nostalgia at the signs produced by corporations. They’re still beautiful but they’ve become slightly kitschy. They remind us of a bygone age. The Lufthansa logo behind you, the stork in a circle set against an orange background, it’s the idea of Europe in the 1970s.
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — Basically, it’s become folklore. It no longer means modernity, it means old Europe: the Lufthansa logo only says “Germany equals a stork.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — But the nostalgia or kitsch of these rather naïve signs is still sweeter and more enjoyable to look at than the new high-tech logos, like the one for the tgv.
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — The tgv chromed snail is a retarded concept. It’s over-produced. The main problem is that it’s no longer a voice that speaks to you; it’s a compression of voices that’s become unbearable. It’s a conglomerate of biases that aren’t put together by someone with a clear vision, but by a formless group that generates empty signs, and that’s the worst way of making something.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So I guess that makes you the “couturiers” of graphic design, opening up the preconceived boundaries of the profession.
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — It’s about our expertise. It took time to set up our workshop, the kind that exists in every home, where one sets out their saws, pots of paint, and production tools. Once we developed effective production tools in the domain of pure graphic design, we were able to explore other territories like film, theater sets or even music videos. We told ourselves, for example, that films are series of signs and images. From this point of view, we can make films. But the filter through which we’re going to make the film is about signs and language. I approach a theater set in the same way — in this domain we really aren’t experts.
MICHAEL AMZALAG — It’s this notion of field — in French, le champ — that’s a pain in the ass… It’s not that we’re going from one area to another. It’s not that we’re trying to blur
the boundaries between them, either.
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — We constructed our point of view. It’s like Duchamp’s piece, Étant Donnés, which we often use as an example. The idea behind this piece was that there is a “big thing” you’re supposed to look at, but only in the way that is proposed by the piece itself. The artistic device is such that you have to look through a hole. Our point of departure is, of course, that the world interests us. But to look at the world properly, it’s best to have a point of view to interact with it. All the tools that allow you to do so are enabling. Drawing is part of it; it isn’t just a manual expression, it’s a two-dimensional articulation of thought. I think that a well-written text can be a form of drawing. This is why the writer Henri Michaux was such a great draftsman. He drew both in the usual sense and in the sense that his texts could resemble drawings.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You also started to approach and work with artists, like Björk and Philippe Parreno…
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — It’s more that they come to see us. We never set out to establish our legitimacy in the art world. We’re clear about who we are and what we’re doing.
We have a valid position. After all, it’s not up to us to say that what we’re doing is art or not. We’re not waiting for people to legitimize us. It’s precisely because we have a point of view that other people who have a point of view are interested in us. We never thought we had to go and meet artists so that they can legitimize what we’re doing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you don’t work with artists to legitimize your work and try to get artistic credibility?
MICHAEL AMZALAG — Artists come to see us, because they don’t necessarily know how to give form to some ideas. So we helped them investigate an area that they had left aside:
the area of form. After all, if a story is going to be told, it has to have a vehicle. We work on form, and find it more appropriate not to do that directly from the field of art. For me, it was really very clear and also very intuitive that I didn’t want to study fine art.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The two of you met at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, right?
MICHAEL AMZALAG — Yes, but we weren’t in the same year. We didn’t take the same classes or do the same things. We crossed paths and decided right after graduation that we would work together, and not work for anyone else. We didn’t want to do internships — not that we didn’t want professional experience.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why didn’t you want to go to art school like Les Beaux Arts in Paris?
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — We were convinced that everything that came out of art schools was null and void. We decided to study the applied arts because in the back of our minds, we wanted to develop an artistic activity that could be applied to the world, whether you call it “art” or not. For us, the most horrible image of an art school was a grimy-looking student making things that had no chance of existing in the world. It’s not just a craft thing either, like an adorable macramé… I was attracted to the post-’68 ideology of freedom and infinite possibilities. Looking at the recent history of art, it was obvious to me that the art world, the galleries and museums were not necessarily the best places to envisage new ways of creating.
MICHAEL AMZALAG — I couldn’t imagine myself declaring, a priori, that I’m an artist, and suddenly decide that from now on I’ll be making art. I think in some way creative production has to pass certain tests and withstand the test of time before it can be called “art!” That may sound reactionary. But for me it’s very visceral.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The idea of art school in a kind of radical autonomy, outside the world, is also beautiful…
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — But it is a lie, because sanctuary without constraints doesn’t really exist. The art world is actually crammed with constraints, mechanisms, and strategies.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It was a risk to choose to study decorative arts, because it’s less prestigious than art school. Since the beginning, you wanted to achieve a true artistic status?
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — It was certainly a risk. When I think about it, it’s as if we gave ourselves the challenge to climb a mountain and decided to go up the treacherous north face, taking the most complicated route.
MICHAEL AMZALAG — In some ways, we were each other’s art school.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You didn’t know that you were going to find yourself working in fashion.
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — Let’s just say we didn’t have preconceived notions. Fashion is an entirely valid field, and has always fascinated me. I’ve always loved clothes. I’ve always thought that clothing was important, that it came out of thought, even though reason isn’t its predominant quality. In fashion, things are done in a more intuitive way. At the same time, I think that fashion is a dense, intellectually complex world. In school it was complicated to say you were interested in fashion. Fashion was seen as something superficial, frivolous, dumb, stupid, and linked to consumerism. At the time, fashion wasn’t synonymous with culture.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Now, after almost 20 years, your work is shown in museums, and so you appear to be artists. Is that creating difficulties to be seen as artists?
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — There’s still resistance and suspicion about the road that we took. “Why did they choose the north face? What’s their agenda?” Common sense says we should have taken another route.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was there resistance to the idea that designers could be considered artists?
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — Yes, perhaps. For some people it’s a kind of an encroachment on claimed territory. It’s like doing karate but stating that your goal is not to do karate, but to drive a scooter.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Actually, you’re both karatekas and magicians, playing with sign and forms.
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — Which takes us back to what Michael was saying about the definition of an artist. At what point does one claim to be an artist? To a certain extent, the position is difficult to define, it’s a position that artists from the ‘90s tried to address. It’s partly linked to the transgression of territories, to the dissolution of identity, and to the possibility of escaping the preserved domain of galleries and museums. For all of the things that emerged in the 1990s, things didn’t always end well. The problems and questions remain open.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Would you say that your work is somewhat political — if the word “political” still means something today? Your approach of the client’s requests question the nature of those demands.
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — There is certainly a component in our work which has political meaning, an awareness that we’re part of social group. Whatever form, object, or image we design will inevitably have an impact on this group. That’s the starting point of politics: taking the risk of interacting with a community. We are articulating visual messages that implicate others and the most important thing is that these ideas make sense to the community.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Basically, designers and art directors are expected to just be part of the marketing strategy.
MICHAEL AMZALAG — Except we only answer questions that are acceptable to us. If our field of observation is the world, questions deemed valid are given valid answers, or we provide answers that allow a question to become valid, if, for example, we think the question was poorly formulated to begin with. This is what makes us different from just offering a graphic “service.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you allow yourselves to redefine the work that clients ask of you.
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — That’s it. If the other party is sensitive enough, and if we can reformulate the question coherently, something relevant can evolve. In that sense, there’s certainly a political dimension in the way we work. Our creative work is part of a mass-market and capitalist economy, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take a position on capitalism. We’re not producing for the sake of producing, or producing just to produce more.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I saw your sculpture, Sucette, the poster stand, at Beaubourg, and your Tree of Signs in Iceland. Your explorations take different forms, but often end up as sculptures, not paintings.
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — We haven’t made paintings. Naturally, we’re more sculptors, in the sense that our productions create a visual tension. Since these forms are made of signs, and because these signs are in three dimensions, they dialogue with the space around them, they become sculptures. The artist Carsten Höller said that we make “2-d sculptures”. With all the ambiguity it implies, I thought that was a good way of describing our work.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Sculptures were originally ideological artworks placed in public spaces. Is producing them what brought you back to public space?
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — Yes. We took a path away from public space, and now it seems like we’re coming back to it. When we began, our idea was to work with the social context, and to alter reality only through media — through a newspaper, a poster, a letterhead,
or a catalogue…
OLIVIER ZAHM — … by altering the media itself?
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — Right. We like to incorporate differents dimensions and layers into our designs. The visual objects we create are able to assimilate extra dimensions that will harmoniously co-exist with the initial model.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A word or two about Paris, perhaps?
MICHAEL AMZALAG — To end on a gloomy note, in anticipation of the coming recession! The weather here in New York is good. It’s warm. We’re going to Paris where it’s gray and raining, even though it’s mid-June…
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — … and where everything will become small again. We’ll get into our carriage and put on our powdered wigs. That’s always my impression of going back to Paris.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Elein [Fleiss, co-creator of Purple] always said to me, “Olivier, we have to leave Paris.” What we’re feeling now is nothing new. At the same time, Paris isn’t a negligible city. And we’re used to it, right?
MATHIAS AUGUSTYNIAK — We’re used to it, but, at the same time, it is getting harder. Paris has everything it needs to be a magnificent, magical city. But it’s become suffocating. There must be other possibilities.
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