Form2015-cropped-photo-by-spiros-politis

Regulars / Very Nice Valentine's

First Dates for those who create: London agency Form on their working relationship

To celebrate Valentine’s Day this weekend, throughout the week we’re talking to creative partnerships (some of which also happen to be romantic ones) about working together and still feeling those little butterflies after years of doing so. First up, we chat to Paul West and Paula Benson, the couple who founded London-based design agency Form together 25 years ago.

Paula Benson, Form co-founder, founder of FilmandFurniture.com

How did you meet?

We met through mutual friends: When I was studying graphic design at St Martin’s my friend Lou from the same course was going out with Iain from LCP (now LCC) where Paul was also studying, and we all hung out together. Paul and I used to stay up late talking about design, art and music and our friendship was cemented on the dance floor of the Fridge in Brixton in the late 80s. Paul was working on the design of a Cocteau Twins album and I was rather impressed. A few years later when he had to move out of his house share, he rented a room in my flat and the friendship blossomed into something a great deal more! We set up Form in 1991.

How did you know you could work together?

We had a similar vision, similar tastes and both had boundless energy. It was obvious to me that Paul was a brilliant and gifted designer. He had an amazing background having worked with Peter Saville, Vaughan Oliver and Mark Farrow, but he also had a great sense of humour and a bit of anarchy about him, which I liked. I felt I had skills that could compliment his and had wanted to run my own business. The truth is we didn’t know it would work, we were young and ambitious and just threw ourselves into it. As we celebrate 25 years of Form this year, I think we can safely say it worked.

What’s been your favourite project you’ve worked on together?

We’ve worked on no less than 4,926 projects together, so this is a really tough one. Rather nostalgically and with rose tinted glasses, I would probably pick one of the first music projects we worked on – The Independent 20 series (some corking compilations of early 90s indie bands). We loved inviting lots of young and interesting photographers in to meet us, and we’d go through their portfolios choosing simply great pictures we thought would be appropriate for the covers. We were both working purely from gut reaction without having to justify or post-rationalise our decisions. The client simply trusted our vision. More recently, the Abbey Road Studios rebrand was a wonderful project to work on together.

What makes your creative relationship special?

We’re partners in life and business but that doesn’t mean to say we’re as thick as thieves with our ideas and creative solutions. In fact part of Form’s longevity is because we don’t always agree, so every piece we work on has been questioned and dissected before it’s even been unleashed to the client. Whilst we’re both designers and we both run the business, Paul is more free thinking and I have a bit more of a ‘strategy head’ so we compliment each other. What makes the creative relationship particularly special is that when one of us is talking about something, or verbally describing an idea, we know we’ll both have the same visual in our heads. As we’re both quite impatient that saves a whole lot of describing and sketching time. Because we’re also together a lot, we can be liberal about when we get creative with ideas – it might be when we’re standing at a gig, out walking the dog, on top of a No.38 bus or when on holiday. I sometimes wonder how a partnership can work if the bulk of work has to be confined to a normal working day.

What’s the best thing about Paul?

After 25 years of working together, Paul’s knowledge and references still amaze me. He has a cornucopia of ideas and thoughts he can draw on at any time like an inbuilt visual and aural library covering art, film and music. We were watching the 1950s film Invasion of the Body Snatchers at Soho House the other night – a film we have never seen together or spoken about, and just as the curator was about to give the opening talk, Paul leant over to me and whispered in my ear: “This is a metaphor for the Cold War and the McCarthy Witch Hunts,” just in time for the curator to open with the exact same words. I loved the fact he’d stored that knowledge away for so many years and never had a need to share it. There is still so much I don’t know about what’s stored in that brain, but it’s mainly interesting stuff and that keeps life interesting. 

What’s the worst thing about Paul?

Very little patience. And like a true Taurus – bull-headed with a temper.

What does your future together look like?

I realise at this moment how strong the Orange mobile phone adverts were; whenever I hear the phrase “what does the future look like”, I want to say “Orange.” In our case I think we can safely say the future will be multi-coloured and multi-faceted. We both continue to work closely together with Form projects which is how we spend most of our time and also now have our own autonomous projects. Paul is developing his talents as an artist and I am enjoying developing the website Film and Furniture – it’s a lovingly curated resource directing you where to find the décor, art and furniture you spot in your favourite films. 

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Form: Abbey Road project

Paul West, Form co-founder

How did you meet?

We had originally met at a mutual friends house, but met properly at the Brixton Fridge on an acid house night back in the late 80s. So you could say our relationship was fused in music and a undercover culture – one of the things that still binds us today.

How did you know you could work together?

I had moved out of my digs in Wimbledon and became Paula’s flatmate in 1990 (we ended up buying the flat together after we became a couple). We would stay up all night listening to music and talking about anything and everything and I think this synergy was the melting pot for our later decision to set up the studio. At that time, I was working at 3A (now Farrow Design) and as much as I loved working there, I had reached a stage where I wanted a new challenge. I was doing a spot of freelancing and as Paula had just finished working freelance, I asked her one night if she fancied working together – she agreed and we started planning. We started Form on 2 January 1991 and realised we were both good at PR and arranging meetings. Our big break came when we had a meeting with Tom Watkins (a music manager and towering force of nature) who sat us down, told us about a raft of bands he was managing and told us he wanted us to be his design agency. We didn’t really stop working from that moment.

What’s been your favourite project you’ve worked on together?

There have been too many to pinpoint “the one”. In the early 90s we were working with loads of bands around the BritPop era, so evening life was really focussed around Camden at the Bar Fly and the Good Mixer – that was a favourite moment in time. More recently working on Latitude Festival in 2014 and Abbey Road in 2015 were great moments as we had taken a huge decision to downsize to the two of us, and these were indicator projects that we hadn’t lost any energy after two decades of Form.

What’s been your favourite project you’ve worked on together?

It’s easy to communicate ideas with each other because we’ve got very similar reference points and humour. I think we both have a respectfully subversive way of looking at the world and we like the same films, music, architecture, furniture, artists – and we’ve managed to combine our different strengths into running a creative business. We’ve pushed ourselves relentlessly over the years to ‘make things happen’ from setting up an urbanware clothing label to exhibitions, events, designing and publishing Shelf Life (a book on packaging via Bloomsbury) to visiting Japan and Mexico where we were sponsored to give a three-city ‘tour’ of workshops and lectures in Guadalajara, Monterrey and Mexico City. A shared reason for this drive is realising that life is about seeing opportunities when they come your way, combined with the fact that we share the excitement of making things happen.

What’s the best thing about Paula?

Paula has sharp business acumen which she combines with a culturally-savvy know how – she instinctively knows what feels right which is a very powerful combination of talents. With her new project Film and Furniture she’s teaching herself everything – from marketplace functionality to affiliate schemes and partnership opportunities – she’s an incredibly tenacious person.

What’s the worst thing about Paula?

By Paula’s own admission she can be a control freak and doesn’t suffer fools gladly!

What does your future together look like?

The future is all about developing Form, which is 25 this year and we are really proud of this achievement. Since 2013 we have taken Form back to the two of us, as we have new ventures to pursue alongside the company, but very much with the Form spirit. Paula’s Film and Furniture site is growing fast and she’s gearing up for the next stage in its development. I’ve been devoting more time to developing my art leanings. The paintings, charcoals and print editions I’m producing are selling well, which I am really over the moon about. It took me a while to be able to “think” of myself as an artist as I was first and foremost known as a designer. I know now I can be both, and refuse to see why there should be any conflict anyway. I recently launched a new series of leaf etchings called Silent Voices and launched them at the Harrogate International art fair last November which pushed me, but was a superb experience and a real moment to remember. Paula and I driving to Yorkshire and staying with friends, then driving to and from the exhibition, and knowing that the whole opportunity was something that we had created in our own right. It then struck me that it was a natural extension of the Form spirit that Paula and I have lived our lives by, creating new ventures on our own terms.