Ask anyone where the home of graphic design is and they’ll likely point you in the direction of Switzerland, The Netherlands or Germany – at a push maybe France or the UK. These countries in particular have long-held, hard-won reputations for defining the way we create objects of use and communicate visually, laying down principles and methodologies for good design over the last century that still influence how we create work in the digital age. The Swiss nailed typography, the Germans made more functional objects than the world knew what to do with and the Dutch created design systems with a modular flavour, pushing the experimental nature of visual communication to its very limits.
Having design pedigree is all well and good, but we’ve got a soft spot for the young upstart, the latecomer to the party, the kind of people who make the best of things even though the odds are stacked against them. Which is really how we feel about Barcelona; the new kid on the design block that has nothing to lose and everything to prove.
Over the past few years the city has witnessed a surge in quality design with new studios and individual creatives arriving on the scene at an incredible rate. The prevalence of Barcelona-based international publications like Apartamento might have drawn attention to some of the creative talent on offer, but there are greater forces at work than a few magazines’ worldwide success. It has been said the ongoing political tensions in Spain, a lack of respect for commercial creativity and the absence of a formal design education system have all prevented Barcelona from hitting its creative stride until now. But in recent years things have changed, not least because Barcelona now has its own centre for design education, Elisava, an institution that’s produced an impressive list of alumni and provided teaching positions for many of its most reputable designers. Twenty years ago this wouldn’t have been the case.
So what is it exactly that’s drawn people to this coastal city to ply their creative trades? When we went to meet three of Barcelona’s brightest talents, one thing became abundantly clear; the designers of Barcelona don’t rate their own city’s creative output. Despite their insistence that it’s not as up-and-coming we’re led to believe, their protestations seem like false modesty. Each studio is producing work at the cutting edge of their discipline and operating in an environment of complete mutual respect. Although Two Points, Hey and Folch are keen not to exaggerate the quality of work they produce, nor the calibre of the community that they’re part of, ask each of them whether they respect any other Barcelona studios and they’re swift to respond. They enjoy the work of La Mosca, Lo Siento, Bendita Gloria, Mucho, Alex Trochut, Andreas Recquena, Josep Basora as well as PAR, Astrid Starvo, Mario Eskenazi and Klas Ernflo – an enormous number of practitioners all living and working in the same place.
And it’s not just within Spain that this talent is recognised. In February BCNxMCR, a show of five of Barcelona’s top talents, took place in Manchester, cementing Barcelona’s rise in the UK design community’s consciousness. All things considered, we’re confident that Barcelona’s star will continue to rise. Whether the people responsible for that will acknowledge it or not is another matter altogether.
Folch Studio began almost by accident. In 2005 Albert Folch was a freelancer with an ever-growing list of clients in the fashion, editorial and arts sectors. Certain that this roster would require his services on a more regular basis, he began amassing a select list of collaborators, growing and shrinking the studio dependending on the nature of his current projects. Seven years on the studio numbers five‚ having peaked at an impressive eight in 2009‚ but their intention is to remain small, allowing Albert to comfortably maintain a creative steer over the studio’s output.
This restriction on size is important to how the studio perceives itself. At the heart of everything they do is a belief in consistency. That’s not to say they practise a house style or only produce similar projects – far from it. By consistency they mean “dedicating the same efforts to projects of varying scale, relevance or field” which leads to Folch undertaking self-commissioned work and collaborative projects alongside their bread and butter commercial endeavours. “This approach allows us to work with uncommon subjects and is also our way to redefine our profile depending on the kind of work we want to do,” they say.
This self-directed way of working has led to Folch winning a number of hugely desirable projects, with their self-motivated approach appealing to some of the best clients imaginable. This ranges from defining the look and feel of Apartamento’s early issues (a look that endures), through art direction for high-end fashion labels Massimo Dutti and Mango, not to mention the branding of our favourite Catalonian videographers CANADA.
They’ve also recently branched out into erotica, self-publishing Odiseo, “an independent publication for adult entertainment appealing to the confident and intelligent man of today.” It manages to buck the online trend of easy-access hardcore imagery by rediscovering erotica’s heyday and throwing in some rigorous intellectual debate for good measure. Bare breasts or otherwise, Odiseo holds its own in a market inundated with new titles indistinguishable from their competitors by virtue of Folch’s considered design.
In spite of their varied practice and exceptional quality of work, the guys at Folch are hesitant to suggest that Barcelona has established itself as a centre of great design. “To us, asserting Barcelona’s rising stardom over The Netherlands or Switzerland seems a bit too much, but we do agree that Spanish design companies are enjoying more visibility than a few years ago.” What really draws them to the city is the lifestyle, the people and the food. “Our interests, tastes and personality are at least in part informed by the life we have in Barcelona. We have a natural proclivity for sunny weather, good food and friendly company. We’ll live here as long as work allows us.”
Hey are unusual in today’s multidisciplinary design landscape for their adherence to a consistent aesthetic. Bright colours, direct typography and tight geometry define their output, and their reputation has come to rest on this distinct visual language. Heavily influenced by Swiss design, Hey make use of the International Typographic Style throughout all of their work, keeping cleanliness, legibility and objectivity at the heart of everything they do, but modernising this established aesthetic with the inclusion of bright colours and vector illustration. “We always wanted to have our own style,” they say, “and we believe we have achieved it.”
Formed in 2007 by partners Verónica Fuerte and Tilman Solé, Hey began as a low-key affair, producing graphics for friends and the odd personal project. A year later they were joined by Ricardo Jorge and the trio began to undertake larger projects for cultural clients, publishing houses and NGOs. It wasn’t until they were approached by Monocle that the studio really started to make a name for itself, using their illustrative skills to add clarity to the publication’s densely-worded pages.
As Monocle’s dominance in the newsstands grew, so did Hey’s visibility, and since then the clients have kept on rolling in. It’s not just their aesthetic that makes the studio stand out from their competitors; their ability to handle both design and illustration duties in-house is rare among their contemporaries, allowing them a closer relationship with their clients and the development of their projects. Their working process is also unusual. Rather than collaboratively tackling each commission they “research and observe in a group to settle on ideas” before individually working up three different routes. “We always present several solutions to our clients. We are three in the studio and each one can resolve the same project in a formally different way. When you have a very marked style, the formal process is faster.”
Like Folch, Hey aren’t based in Barcelona for its up-and-coming reputation or the clients it affords. Working internationally means they don’t need the support of the city’s businesses to make a living, but they do like the people. “I think everyone who works at Hey can agree that Barcelona is a nice size and everything is easily accessible. We have the sea, good weather and loads of culture. There’s such a high quality of living.”
Two Points studio is as academic as it is commercial. Its founding members, Lupi Asensio and Martin Lorenz, are both in the middle of doctoral theses undertaken between teaching commitments and the day-to-day running of the studio. As a result of this academic practice their output is immensely aesthetically varied, each project the result of long phases of research, experimentation and conceptualisation. They say: “Designing doesn’t take us much time, and is merely the logical consequence of the phase before. If we understand the problem, we know how to answer the problem.” Working in this way lends itself naturally to publishing and arts projects, those that allow for longer periods of conceptual incubation, and as a result the majority of Two Points’ output are editorial and identities.
Their most recent publishing venture, Pretty Ugly received widespread acclaim for its representation of current New Aesthetic trends in graphic design, exploring contemporary practitioners’ willingness to abandon traditional notions of “good design” in favour of jarring typography, clashing colours and irregular grid systems. In spite of its success Martin and Lupi are anxious to stress that they’re not just interested in the way things look. “When we start working on a project we don’t start by defining the aesthetics we want to use, we start by defining the problem and then look for the solution with the tools we have.” In this way they hope not to repeat anything that has gone before them, borrowing subconsciously either from their own work or that of other designers.
Martin and Luppi’s willingness to be innovative comes from a comprehensive understanding of design history. They’ve completed an impressive amount of practical and academic study in numerous European cities; Martin at the University of Applied Sciences in Darmstadt and the KABK in Holland (where the two of them met) and Lupi at the University of Barcelona, the KABK and the University of Art and Design in Offenbach.
Given their knowledge of design history, Two Points are well-placed to comment on Barcelona’s status as a centre of world design, but they’re not convinced the city has what it takes. “It’s funny that you see Barcelona that way. We don’t. To us it’s a pretty conservative place when it comes to graphic design.” What keeps them there is the exact same thing as their contemporaries; the people, the food and the constant sunshine. “Barcelona is the most beautiful city we know. The sky is blue, the sun is shining and the winters are mild. Do you need any more reasons?”