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Features / Graphic Design

An Exercise in Style: Interviewing graphic design star John Morgan

Photography:

Jack Davison

As we ascend the stairs from his subterranean studio, our conversation turns to the subject of design writers. “Are there any? And if there are, why?” A point of contention is, if they do exist, “can [they] write about a subject other than design in an interesting way, and is there not someone else who could do it better?” This emphasis on quality is an important one, and something that defines the often indefinable work of John Morgan Studio.

Founded in 2000, the studio has and continues to work with renowned artists, architects and cultural institutions including Four Corners Books, David Chipperfield Architects, Art Review and Tate Britain. A recent project is Pierre’s, the inaugural issue of New York’s The Artist’s Institute magazine. The principle of The Magazine is to take each season at the institute as a point of departure for journalism, fiction, interviews and visual projects to be developed around the work of the exhibiting artist. This season it’s Pierre Huyghe and the issue features topics including science fiction and philosophy, alongside fake adverts designed by John’s newly formed and slightly fictitious London/NewYork agency Vault Six. Another recent project was their review of the signage and wayfinding at Tate Britain. The studio designed a new display typeface; a scheme for the templates of maps, menus, banners and posters; captions, maps and threshold dates cast in metal and sign-painted onto the walls and floor. In the synopsis of the project the process was described as “reducing the presence of signs and promotional material to an ‘essential only’ state…. the requirements for a gallery like this [mean] the signage could be less present and more dignified”.

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As well as his design practice, John has run projects at a number of design schools over the last 15 years, and the recent history of art education is something of a concern. “It shouldn’t be a transactional relationship” he says, “it’s an issue for tutors and students, and the worst educational model. Survival of the fittest is fine, but not in an education environment. Those who will do well, the people who have the confidence to reach out, will thrive, but they always will. It’s people who come to London, go into college once a week and then back off to bedsit land god knows where, what’s their experience?”

“Survival of the fittest is fine, but not in an education environment. Those who will do well, the people who have the confidence to reach out, will thrive, but they always will.”

John Morgan

We’ve crossed the street from the studio and sat for lunch at a brasserie close-by. “It’s a nice way to eat, although it’s a faux interior, the element of nostalgia tricks you” John says. “They did certain things very well at the turn of the century – the theatre of it all, the settings and the tablecloths.” In a way, such details are a visualisation of the references and intentions of the people who run the brasserie, and how they want to communicate with their audience. On that subject John says “My real audience is the author or artist I’m working with, and myself. To try to second guess anything else often ends in tears. Like the focus group for a film, a real auteur wouldn’t care and has a focus group ever improved a film? Unlikely.”

“Anyway, books aren’t products, it’s a different territory.” Describing his work with Four Corners Books he says: “sometimes you’re a cinematographer, sometimes a director and then all that falls in between. For most of the Familiars series the artist has chosen the book, so it means something to them and that can be conveyed very subtly or in a more overt way. Sometimes we make a fully integrated object and in other instances the artist will produce photographic or illustrative plates.” Although they don’t often commission illustration, “I think I have a phobia of it because there is such a specific voice”, John says. “When you get something back you have to work with that and it can be far from what you had in mind. I love the illustrations in The New Yorker, there they work perfectly well. With photography you can direct a lot more, and the evidence of the hand is a little less present.”

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The question of style is an important one, and in his work John aims more for a sense of atmosphere, for want of a better word. In a conversation with eye magazine’s editor John Walters he described it as “a problematic and woolly word, but it’s the best description of what I aim for in my work. It’s the sensation you find when you walk into a building or space and it changes the way you feel… It’s hard to define what gives a book atmosphere, because it can be found in unexpected places, and many books by attentive designers lack it, but you know it when you see it or feel it.”

At this point our conversation shifts, “without being too self-reflective” John says, “I like the idea of you writing this under the construct of this situation, it’s more fun. Ideally just do the whole thing without even mentioning graphic design directly. Do the whole thing about food – who wants to read about graphic design anyway? I’d rather be reading a novel or something, the more literary this can be the better.” So I ask him what he is reading, “Michel Houellebecq, everything by him. People say he’s a misogynist but I don’t see it that way, a misanthrope maybe – but not that either. In Submission the character is an academic who takes on religion as more of a lifestyle choice than one of faith, like people who send their kids to a Church of England school because it’s the better option, this professor works in a Muslim school because the pay and lifestyle is better for him. Houellebecq is so brutally honest, it’s horrific. I’m also reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, best described as a love story. The author records her life, falling for a transgender artist, her pregnancy and the shifts in their own bodies as well as the relationship itself. Both Nelson and Houellebecq are equally uncompromising in their own way.”

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Maggie Nelson also wrote the text for Carolee’s, the forthcoming issue of the magazine of The Artist’s Institute (with Carolee Schneemann and published later this year), designed by John Morgan studio. I ask him whether he sees himself continuing to focus on publishing, or to look more to expanding on projects such as the branding of the city of Llubijana: “working with architects, they have a much greater control of space and influence than we do, but still not the impact you’d imagine, for that you probably need to get into politics or government. And as a designer you can only make a very slight imprint, I think I will continue to work with small gestures” Although, whether he’ll stick to that is another matter: “I have this relationship with fashion where sometimes I think it’s the most beautiful thing in the world and sometimes I think it’s ridiculous. And it’s totally okay to think the opposite one day to the next, we are made up of compound sensibilities.”

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