In 1992, the year of Pentagram’s 20th anniversary, founding partner Colin Forbes wrote a piece detailing the design firm’s purposefully unique structure. The piece noted how it’s common for design firms to have one or two partners at its helm, but Pentagram presented a way of doing things differently. The founders purposefully set themselves the biggest challenge: “to run what we believe is an excellent design-driven firm into a second generation,” Forbes wrote.
Despite the future clearly in mind from the beginning, the addition of a new Pentagram partner is news that only breaks every so often — until this year. Pentagram’s London office have already announced the addition of two new partners and today announce its third: Astrid Stavro.
Trieste-born Astrid Stavro is a multifaceted designer and co-founder of design studio Atlas, working across wayfinding to identity designs, although she’s always had a consistent eye on print. The daughter of a longstanding line of book publishers, Astrid grew up with graphic design not as a career option but more as a toy, explaining how letterpress blocks were her legos.
A love of books embedded in her life, she moved to America to study English and Philosophy at Boston University. Upon returning to her family’s then home of Madrid, a friend showed her Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine “and that was the end of philosophy for me”. She then started her design education here in London at Central Saint Martins, before heading to the Royal College of Art where her relationship with Pentagram began.
“The first time I walked into Needham Road was to interview John McConnell [a former Pentagram Partner from 1974 to 2005] for my dissertation at the Royal College of Art,” Astrid tells It’s Nice That. Pentagram had always been a reference for Astrid, although, as she points out, “it’s impossible not to bump into Pentagram at some point.” But, “beyond the quality and longevity of the work,” she says, “the operating principles and unique way in which the business is run has always attracted me.”
“There’s a small coincidence that I personally like: I’m as old (or young) as Pentagram.”
Once she’d graduated, and began climbing the graphic design ranks herself, the designer met several more partners while on projects, or through the Alliance Graphique Internationale, and “in time we became friends” she says. “There are other funny connections, such as the fact that former Pentagram partner Fernando Gutierrez co-founded Grafica with my husband Pablo Martin, long before we co-founded Atlas. Pablo and I laugh about it. The two business partners he’s had have become Pentagram partners. Last not least there’s a small coincidence that I personally like: I’m as old (or young) as Pentagram.”
Astrid’s naturally close relationship with Pentagram partners already meant the proposition of becoming a partner was quite relaxed. It was while having dinner with London-based partner Marina Willer, she thinks they were having chicken and quinoa, that the question was posed — and Astrid choked. “What!” she shouts reenacting the moment. “What are you talking about! It just never, ever, crossed my mind.”
Joining the world’s most famous design firm is undoubtedly a huge honour but it’s one Astrid doesn’t greet with nervousness. The designer sees it almost like a third chance in her career, a rare opportunity to start again, again. The change won’t be drastic, as she states “One of the reasons for joining Pentagram is to keep on doing the work that I do,” but what those visual communicated ideas may look like, or who they will be speaking to, has the opportunity to reach a much larger remit. “I see it as a place where I can grow and learn as a designer, a place to be challenged and inspired,” she says, going on to note how she looks forward to working with a range of partners, hoping to be “able to work collaboratively across teams,” and the approach of leading her own team but under a larger umbrella. “Having said this, it wasn’t an easy decision to make,” she admits. “I think it’s important to have the courage to embrace challenge. Without risk there’s no change and without change there’s no growth. How many chances in life do we get to make a fresh start?”
Astrid’s work will undoubtedly nestle in with the consistent Pentagram output, as “a concept-led, classic graphic designer,” she explains on what she’ll bring to the design firm. “Graphic design is at the core of what Pentagram is. Besides that, there’s my sparkly Mediterranean personality!”
If you’ve ever read an interview with her, seen Astrid do a talk, or been lucky enough to have been taught by her at the Royal College of Art, that personality will be self-evident. She speaks about design, and in turn the industry, with character that most of her peers seem to have lost once they reach a certain point. The designer can joke about how at Central Saint Martins she mostly ate fish and chips and drank lager, but will then switch to describing the most minute details of a typeface, or be voicing her opinions in writing pieces debating the role of a female graphic designer. “If I only do graphic design I get super bored,” she laughs.
It’s this approachable attitude which Astrid brings to Pentagram and her work is an embodiment of it. The recruitment of industrial designer Jon Marshall and graphic designer Sascha Lobe, alongside that of Astrid herself, is a means of introducing a new generation and future for the firm beyond what it is known as today. Still, Astrid is only the second female partner at its London office. The fact that it’s taken this long for Pentagram to put just one foot forward in portraying a diverse reflection of the industry, is a point of contention for most.
In her already influential position, Astrid has consistently been vocal on female representation in graphic design and knows that now she’ll be a go-to voice to continue the discussion. Although agreeing that we’re in a period where larger steps have been taken to better diversify the design industry than ever before, “It’s also true that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” she says on the topic. “I have been vocal about this subject before and will continue to be. It’s not true that there’s a lack of women in graphic design. I know many tremendously talented female designers. What is perhaps true is that they are not in powerful or influential positions and are thus less visible,” continues the designer. “The fact that you single me out as the ‘second female partner at Pentagram’s London office’ speaks for itself. I am a designer, not a female designer.”