The question, “Art or design?”, is a perplexing mystery and omnipresent controversy. The debate has raged on for years: it’s a complex and rather convoluted argument, as both designers and artists create their own visual interpretations using the skills and knowledge sets they have. Their reasons and motivations for engaging in those artistic acts, however, are where the questions lie.
To try and shed more light on the discussion, we’ve rounded up and showcased ten design agencies whose work we love. Their projects often blur the line between art and design, as per the above argument, with both disciplines blended in beauty, purpose and craftsmanship.
Each of the studios brings something different to the table. Those featured include a Sydney Opera House light show, an experimental other-worldly short film and free-spirited graphic design by the previous winners of European Design Agency of the year.
So, without further ado, here are 10 design studios every Highsnobiety reader should know:
In the context of the work produced by his studio, Universal Everything, Matt Pyke’s evolution is impressive. The agency started out making album sleeves from the confines of a wooden shed in his garden but now works with cutting-edge technology such as motion capture, generative software and large-format screens and projections.
Last year, Universal Everything turned the Sydney Opera House into an artist’s canvas, as seen in the below video. With Living Mural, the studio spectacularly reimagined the iconic Australian attraction, with a diverse series of vibrant, hand-drawn sequences. Exploring and responding to the bold forms of the building, the mesmerizing light show epitomizes everything the studio strives for.
The studio’s desire to uncover new forms and aesthetic ideas produces profound experiences; often blurring the line between the art world and the commercial world of brands. Projects have been commissioned by the likes of Chanel, Audi and Apple, and exhibited in galleries such as MoMA, The V&A and The Barbican Centre.
Parade further highlights a desire to investigate new ideas. Inspired by bioengineering and the Grotesque art movement, the unique 360 degree, floor-to-ceiling screen projected a series of strange and wonderful characters moving to their own beat. The same can be said of Universal Everything: as digital artists, their output is ahead of the rest.
Canadian studio Vallée Duhamel makes work that you want to grab and lick. It’s “eye candy” but with creative vision, direction and purpose.
Mind-boggling videos marry lo-fi objects with high-end production techniques, and their elaborate photo shoots and still-life work ooze slickness. It’s a dynamism that can only be attributed to a meticulous sense of art direction, with their level of precision so far securing business with Reebok, Hermès, MTV, Coca-Cola and The New York Times Magazine, among others.
A Very Short Film, below, opens a window into a strange and whimsical dimension that has a surreal, Salvador Dalí-feel to it. Bright colors and abstract shapes keep you entranced, and when it ends you can’t help but feel slightly disappointed.
Interestingly, the studio doesn’t consider its work to be either art or design. “It’s advertising,” explains Eve Duhamel, one half of the innovative duo. “But could advertising be art in today’s context?”.
That’s a question for another day, though, and as long as Vallée Duhamel continues its experimental approach, it can position itself however it chooses.
As all honest artists will admit, levels of inspiration and motivation often fluctuate over time. When there’s yin, there’s yang, and it’s this relationship that interests Rob Gonzalez of London studio, Sawdust. “The human condition is such that motivation peaks and dips just like a wave, and we need both in order to function,” he says. “No peaks without dips.”
As part of the 2016 OFFF book, Archetype – a collection of work from over 100 practicing artists and designers – Sawdust used an extract from a now-famous inspirational letter by artist Sol LeWitt. In 1965, during a period of self-doubt and creative block, fellow artist Eva Hesse received a letter from close friend LeWitt. Emotional and stirring, his words have since exhilarated artists the world over.
Another stand-out project from Sawdust was for Coca-Cola. Invited to reinterpret the brands iconic bottle in their signature style, Sawdust’s poster is displayed at the High Museum of Art. The work is also showcased inside a limited-edition book highlighting the rich history of the Coca-Cola bottle, called Kiss the Past Hello.
As we all know, the record label and art publishing worlds have undergone a massive transformation in recent years due to technology and the economy. Books, magazines and records play a massive part in many people’s lives, though, and although content has migrated to other platforms, space has now opened up for different types of media consumption.
In response to this transition, OK-RM art directed the Future Artefacts fair. Responsible for its graphic identity, the visuals on show consisted of a communication eco-system that projected a dynamic and evolving visual mantra.
Founded in 2008 by Oliver Knight & Rory McGrath, OK-RM view design as a conversation. Their art direction aims to engage clients and associates in a process that not only communicates who they are, but also clarifies what they are. A collaborative practice, the studio engages in ongoing partnerships with artists, curators, editors, architects, designers and institutions.
Recent commissions include visual identities for Manus x Machina (The Met, New York), the British Pavilion in Venice, Under the Same Sun (Guggenheim, New York) and the inaugural show at the new Design Museum in London, Fear and Love.
When album artwork comes into conversation, one record label in particular almost always springs to mind: Factory Records. Eternally embedded in pop culture, art designer Peter Saville’s shape-shifting, minimalistic and colorful compositions accompanied some of the most influential records of the ’80s and ’90s.
It’s this synthesis of art and music that interests Méthode, a young Parisian studio that likes to navigate between “vintage and contemporary graphic design.” The studio takes constant inspiration from music of the past and present, as well as architecture, fashion, contemporary art and joint travels. Another influence is The Memphis Group, an association of Italian designers and architects who challenged the idea that products have to follow conventional shapes, colors, textures and patterns. Méthode continue to evolve this philosophy.
Aside from the proverbial cat, curiosity has never really done anyone any harm, especially when it comes to creative pursuits. Opening doors and connecting new dots with old ones is often a consequence of an enthusiastic and passionate approach. This shines through in Méthode’s work, resulting in an original and progressive style that perfectly blends formality and playfulness.
For Maxime and Romain, creators of Les Graphiquants, everything began when they met at the Ecole Nationale Supériure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. They found themselves under the tutorage of Pierre Bernard and François Miehe, two of the founders of Grapus, a design collective born out of the famous May ’68 student revolts.
Without setting out for a career in graphic design, they were encouraged to adopt a free-spirited and organic approach to their work. “They involved us in a kind of teaching with no rules and no techniques; only feelings. Studying graphic design then was evidence of the possibility of a free and borderless education,” explains Maxime.
This, coupled with the quality and diversity of the technical equipment at their fingertips, allowed experimentation across many different mediums, ultimately providing them with “the greatest playground in the world.”
When looking at Les Graphiquants work, the duo’s liberated education shines through. Specimen is a geometrical, brutal and poetical series that offers a new interpretation to everyday, common perceptions.
The enigmatic designs have a real grandeur of expression with depth translated through both texture and tone. It’s no surprise the studio has previously won European Design Agency of the year.
Jimbo Barbu is a one-man band, designing, art directing and illustrating everything himself. Colorful and graphic imagery blends perfectly with his masculine and bold typographic choices. Always impactful, there’s a cool and seductive sophistication to his work.
Founded in 2014, his portfolio is jam-packed with a huge set of stunning designs that have graced the pages of international design publication such as Kiblind. His eye-catching poster work is typically dark and moody, often emulating the music advertised. Regardless of whether he’s working on editorial, branding or visual identity, he always leaves his stamp.
The above image is taken from a section of his portfolio called “Pot-Pourri.” Roughly translated as “referring to any collection of miscellaneous or diverse items,” Pot Pourri includes personal work, as well as unclassifiable strays and labors of love. Jimbo hopes these images will inspire future collaborators, as he sees them as the “real mood and spirit” of his studio.
Deutsche and Japaner
Four heads are better than one, particularly when it comes to creative studio Deutsche & Japaner. According to one of those heads, Moritz Firchow, the studio engages in a holistic approach to work that allows them to “roam with open eyes and care for forms and functions of all kinds.”
The German studio is known for multifaceted work that stretches across art direction, branding, editorial, exhibition artwork and web design, as well as various other disciplines including interiors and scenography. In 2013, it produced type design and a broad range of merchandise for Jay Z’s Magna Carter World Tour.
Equally fascinated by the arts and product design, they “try to develop as much freedom as possible within the frame of a clients needs.” In terms of the artwork for Fabian Römer’s record Kalenderblätter, a monochrome design complements a distinctly DIY feel. Nuanced and restrained, the artwork takes torn images and reworks them into abstract collages representative of every song on the album.
During the mid 20th century, Switzerland became embedded in graphic design history with the emergence of the International Typographic Style, also known as Swiss Style. Grids and asymmetrical layouts with the combination of typography and photography were stressed as a new means of visual communication. Posters emerged as some of the most effective and influential works.
Founded by Thuy-An Hoang and Xavier Erni in 2010, Neo Neo is a design studio based in Geneva. As you’d expect, being Swiss designers, the pair feel the influence of the famed approach developed in their country. However, like any good graphic designer should, they bring to it their own contemporary interpretation.
La Bâtie is a Geneva-based festival featuring cultural events, concerts, dance and art shows. Neo Neo was tasked with creating an identity for the festival that included posters, booklets, tote-bags, apparel and signage.
“We wanted to create lightness and absurdity. It was a simple idea but we thought let’s cover it with toothpaste, make it fresh. We wanted nonsense to be the concept,” explains Xavier. “We wanted those big toothpaste traces to be a fresh pop culture emblem, covering some cheap pictures disproportionately.”
As David McFarline, one of the two Creative Directors of Commission, points out, the fundamental difference between art and design is simple: constraints. “I don’t think we, as designers, could work without them. Art, on the other hand, should be free to be anything.”
Inspired by “What’s possible within these constraints”, Commission is involved with all sorts of interesting projects. A keen fan of menswear, the studio recently worked on the brand identity of “Institute”, a team headed up by long-time Kanye West and Beyoncé collaborator, Nate Brown (see his work in the below video).
Brown’s secretive organization is involved in everything from set-design to directing live shows, in both music and fashion. The idea behind the identity is based on a key card – it’s an anonymous object that can grant you access to all sorts of hidden places.
As well as rebranding DKNY, another stand out project is Music From Memory. Allowing the team to fulfill an ambition most graphic designers have to design a record sleeve, rather than just creating a logo or artwork, they wanted to create a look and feel for the label.
Having only formed two years ago, it’s no surprise Commission was considered “ones to watch” by industry tastemakers.
- Words: Tom Giddins
- Lead image: Méthode