Tony Brook is clearly knackered. The 520-page monograph of his studio Spin produced by Unit Editions, the publishing imprint he co-runs with Adrian Shaughnessy, is just weeks away from publication and his pride is cut with obvious exhaustion.
“It’s been hard,” he admits. “Every time I think about it this pain starts to come in the centre of my forehead. I know that it’s got to be brilliant. If you’re not having to dig deeper and it isn’t hurting then you’re doing it wrong. It’s been there all the time and I’ve been staring it out all the way, not backing off from it.
“I am not used to lugging around 20 years of Spin studio with me and thinking about it all the time, everywhere. That’s a different level of absorption. I think I have probably been a complete space cadet as far as everyone else is concerned for the past year and a half, because you kind of have to be.”
Spin: 360° documents the studio’s 20-year history and includes texts by Paula Scher, Rick Poynor, Stefan Sagmeister, Wim Crouwel and Steven Heller as well as interviews with Tony and co-founder Patricia Finegan. But it also aims to redefine what a contemporary design monograph can be, with Tony and his team keen to create an honest three dimensional portrait of one of the best studios around.
“The seeds of all that started off with the Wim Crouwel exhibition when we could talk to him about his influences, about the magazines and the art that he liked. Pushing that idea further and making a contemporary monograph that includes all the interests and the inspirations seemed to be a really good way of looking at it.
“So we started thinking who should that be about and we realised it’s a bit of an experiment and something we needed to feel our way into. So the conversation came round to, ‘Why don’t we look at Spin as the first subject?’”
Tony says he was told to “butt out” of the editorial, which he duly did but he obviously played a key role in selecting which work would make the cut (the 80 projects are arranged alphabetically by client name in the book).
“I could have done 1,000 pages easily. It’s amazing the amount of work you create in 20 years,” he says. “The curatorial aspect of it was a series of conversations between all of us – Does this survive ok? Is that still interesting?
“With your own work those decisions are more difficult because you’re remembering the background to things and that colours the way you see them. We haven’t put everything in, and some great things didn’t make it but it’s not meant to be the end. It’s not a tombstone, it’s meant to be a living, breathing studio showing the work it feels is relevant to design today and tries to create a picture of what it’s like in that studio, a genuine effort to communicate what we’re about.
“We often say it would be lovely if every piece of work went out of the studio with a caption explaining all the thinking and ideas behind it. So it’s telling the stories of the commissioning, of the thinking, of the background to things so you get a much better insight into how things were designed and why they were designed in that way. I really hope those are things people will get a lot out of.”
Design-wise Tony used Dada Grotesk throughout “(lovely and clean but it has this slight eccentricity”) and he set himself a couple of simple rules, including showing work at a size you could actually read and understand what it’s about.
"I think I have probably been a complete space cadet as far as everyone else is concerned for the past year and a half, because you kind of have to be."Tony Brook
“I made that the number one priority that everything would be of a decent size because I find it very frustrating in other books when they used little thumbnail images. In fact we had to redesign the book after going through it once because the editorial work was just too small and I wanted it bigger.”
For the cover they’ve used sheets from a flipchart which is the starting point for every studio discussion, brief and brainstorming session. They found they very first mention of the book and used that sheet along with early scribbles about what it might look like, reprinted on both the front and the back.
“These lines and marks are the immediacy of us working and in the end it had to be that. There wasn’t really anything else it could be, but we didn’t start there. You never do. You start with a big block of granite and begin chipping away at it thinking about what you might do. Logic drove it to that point where that is the beginning of everything we do.”
There were that things Tony realised about his design approach or certain ideas that crystallised in his mind over the months in which the book dominated his life. Firstly he realised how important opinion is to his creative thinking: “The idea of making something that has no opinion is a complete anathema to me. If it has no opinion it’s dead”
For an essay about his early life Tony found a Christmas decoration he made at school aged seven – a square divided into red and yellow triangular halves – and he believes it shows his opinion was pretty much fully formed back then. “The first piece of design I did, the compressed thinking that was involved in it was probably the basis of everything going on.”
He also realised how the studio’s self-initiated projects “completely changed the way the studio developed,” as they led to very different kinds of commissions, and perusing two decades’ worth of work also helped Tony see how he shifted towards much more conceptual design work. “I wanted reasons,” he says, “I wanted intelligent thought as well as that emotional bit that you can’t quantify. That developed over time but the most difficult thing is to start listening to yourself and start responding to the picture you’re creating of yourself.”
He continues: “If anything I am a humanist when it comes to design. I think it’s a social undertaking and I think we try to connect with people and entertain them – if we’re not doing that then it seems to me we’re not really doing anything.”
But he admits that as much as you can tell people how a project came together and show them the results, there is always a bit of the creative process that’s nigh on impossible to explain.
“There’s a gap that’s your subconscious that makes a connection that you can’t quite get a hold of. So it’s not purely rational but even saying that is really important because I think some people think there is a recipe or something. Explaining the process only helps so much; it can’t transform someone’s life as a designer but it can give them a clue to what it’s like.”
"Explaining the process only helps so much; it can’t transform someone’s life as a designer but it can give them a clue to what it’s like."Tony Brook
With 2,000 copies being printed it’s clearly meant as a niche title but still the £85 cover price has raised some eyebrows. Tony is unapologetic. “It’s the most ambitious editorially by far,” he says. “The page count is massive, we have two special colours, it’s cold glued so the production values are really fantastic. It took more than a year to make and the sheer amount of editorial slog in terms of contributors is way beyond anything we might normally have considered. I think anyone who buys it will think they’ve got good value.”
And the project doesn’t begin and end with the book – Unit Editions is planning a website, exhibitions, talks and even Spotify playlists to help build up this 360 degree picture. The thread that links it all together is the honesty of the portrait they are painting of Spin.
“It’s what I would want of someone else and it’s what I imagine someone else would want of me and the studio,” Tony says. “I’ve been as honest as I can be with every part.
“I tend to throw things over my shoulder and carry on, so the idea of looking back was strange to me and I felt slightly anxious about it, but I actually really enjoyed it. I hope that when people read it that it might make some kind of difference to them in some way and I don’t think that could happen if I wasn’t being honest. People can tell.”