“To know Paris is to know a great deal,” Henry Miller once said. With its wide boulevards and romantic architecture, Paris has long been a centre of art, fashion and gastronomy, but beyond its famed museums, its boutiques and its fabled cafe culture is an overlooked and thriving independent graphic design scene. The French design championed on It’s Nice That is consistently strong, progressive and sits slightly at odds with the city’s conservative reputation, so we decided to dig a little deeper and take a look at Paris through the eyes of some of its designers.
Whether it’s the relationship between cultural and commercial design, or how the city’s rich cultural history can be both a blessing and a curse, we spoke to three independent studios about everything from gentrification to the rise of artist-run spaces, and the ups and downs of creative life in the French capital.
Leslie David, an indefatigable graphic designer, art director and illustrator hailing from the south of France, has built an enviable client list since setting up her own studio in Paris in 2009. Not only has she worked with brands like A.P.C. and Kitsuné, as well as fledgling clients like New York beauty start-up Glossier, she has also introduced her work to the city itself, designing the identity for new Parisian restaurants like Brasserie Barbès. We asked her to tell us about life and work in Paris in her own words.
“I think the beauty of Paris has a quite subtle influence on me. That’s something I realise every once in a while when I’m in a cab. Here a lot of everyday life places are very ornamented: boulangeries, pharmacies, buildings, cafés… I’m super interested in ornaments and patterns and architectural details, but I can’t really say that’s part of French graphic design. Things are so global now, I don’t think there is a Parisian style.
French people might have this reputation for working less than Americans but it’s not true, at least for designers, believe me. My team works from 10-7 but I arrive earlier usually and I try to leave earlier because I’ve got a kid. Then I work from home once my daughter is in bed. It can be long days but it depends what we’re working on. It’s part of freelance life and actually even my friends who have senior positions in big companies also work at night. Everybody complains about it but the days are too short and you can’t fit everything in, so you’re kind of obliged to do that.
“Things are so global now, I don’t think there is a Parisian style.”
I’ve got a studio in a place I’m sharing with friends. It’s like a big apartment and I’ve got a room with my team, but there’s a lot more shared space in Paris now, like co-working spaces where you rent a desk for a day. I’ve never been to this kind of place because I’ve had my office for years, but it seems to work for people. When you’re freelance and when you work from home it’s super hard to make connections. I also read something recently that said half of the freelance graphic designers in Paris are not paid the minimum wage.
Every time a cafe or restaurant or anything opens in a popular district, there are always people talking about gentrification. It doesn’t bother me. I think it’s super normal. I read something the other day that people complaining about gentrification are actually complaining about the “Bobo-isation of Paris”. Bobo [bourgeois bohemian] is a term we use for people who have a certain lifestyle. This paper was actually saying everybody in their 30s in Paris is a Bobo now. So the “Bobo-isation of Paris” doesn’t mean anything, just that part of the population is getting older and they have other expectations.
We also have less money than our parents so we need to find solutions to still live and work in the city. We bought a flat two years ago in an area in Paris near Barbès, which has a big African community but it’s super mixed now. I understand why people complain, because the area is changing but that’s life. It’s always in movement and it’s always changing – it’s a city, it’s normal to evolve. The French love to complain, it’s a fact.”
For Alice Gavin of Groupe CCC, a two-person studio she runs with fellow designer Valentin Bigel in Montmartre, finding inventive ways to work around the city’s constraints has spurred the design duo on. Part of the grassroots art and design scene in Paris, several years ago Alice and Valentin changed the name of their studio from Clap Clap Club to Groupe CCC to accommodate the continued stream of collaborations that have grown out of the artist-run space they started with illustrator Louise Duneton, 22 Rue Muller.
In addition to the work they do with the artist-run space that doubles as their studio, they have worked with Centre Pompidou, designed identities and websites for art collectives and last year worked on a book for Douglas Coupland’s residency at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris. While it can be a struggle, once you establish yourself as a designer in Paris, according to Alice there is a certain security perhaps not shared in other cities.
“Paris is such an expensive and conservative city. You have to find disruptive ways to make a room for your own projects. That’s quite exciting. At first I was in London and Valentin was in Paris and we were working together long distance. The main difference was, in London if you’re young and you’re just starting you can still make your projects visible. Even huge campaigns can be done by young graphic designers. In Paris it’s very hierarchic and it can take such a long time to prove the value of your work, or to prove that even if you’re young that your work can have value. It wasn’t part of our plan but the artist-run space 22 Rue Muller we started with our friend Louise Duneton – she’s an illustrator and has been a friend since school – helped us get around that.
“Paris is such an expensive and conservative city. You have to find disruptive ways to make a room for your own projects.”
As a studio, we collaborate with a lot of artists, which is just the way it’s happened. Valentin and I didn’t have specific types of projects in mind when we started Groupe CCC. We were looking for a workspace and we found this one, which has a gallery space at the front and a studio at the back. That’s how 22 Rue Muller started and also how we’ve met so many people.
We absolutely love Paris but there are loads of constraints.There’s something in French design that separates commercial design from design for cultural or non-profit projects, and from what we’ve seen so far, that distinction seems less radical in other countries. We talk about this a lot with other designers. Maybe there’s a tradition of good design that is cultural and commercial design that is not intellectual enough.
I also think it’s because in France a lot of graphic design is elitist in a way. It’s something too specific and too disconnected from the rest of the art scene or the city, which is completely absurd. It’s such a shame because we have amazing design studios, but you have to wait until you have been working for 20, 25 years to have commercial success. I think that’s something to work on in the future, to make things a bit less tight.
In Paris it takes a long time to establish yourself but once you have a solid base then you have the tools to continue. In the end it’s hard in both London and Paris but I think it’s more secure in Paris and more challenging in a way. I think it’s related to the dynamics of the city, because London changes so much and it goes so fast in terms of trends, which is exciting and frightening as well. Paris doesn’t change so much and you have to be creative to find ways to show your work and find people.”
Since starting his studio in 2007, designer and art director Côme de Bouchony has shown himself to be equally comfortable working on print and digital projects, branding, identities and editorial design, which he says can be more unusual in the divided world of French design. A born and bred Parisian, he echoed Alice’s points about the gap between cultural and commercial design in Paris, the culture of small studios, and weighed in on how French youth are pushing back against the weight of the historic capital.
“I think design is more of an industry in London or New York and maybe the atmosphere is a little bit slower in Paris. Sometimes that can be a nice thing and sometimes I wish things were bigger. Paris can feel like a village. You meet people at openings and you meet other studios or other designers. There are a lot of really small studios, like one or two people, and from what I’ve seen there are bigger structures in other cities.
There’s also a big gap between design studios working in the cultural sector and in the commercial field, which is a bit of a shame. Maybe it’s the clients, maybe they want to see a big studio and feel they have a big company in front of them. I think in London maybe a brand could have trust in a smaller studio.
“We already have a big history, and I think people want to shake that.”
Côme de Bouchony
Most of us are more like “artisans” as we say in French, because a lot of design is so specialised. Some studios specialise in type design, some other studios do more books, some do more identities. Since I started my studio I’ve tried to do all kinds of different work and I try to position myself as someone who can work on different projects not only print, not only digital. One day it’s a book, one day it’s an identity, one day it’s a website, and I really think that’s the more interesting way to work.
I mostly work on cultural projects but I’d love to do some more commercial work, but when you do one kind of work like books or exhibition posters it’s hard for people to understand you could also work on packaging or graphics for a TV channel. I’ve noticed that more studios in London succeed in doing both.
I was born in Paris, my father is a painter and my mother worked in a publishing company so art and design were always there. Paris is a great city for art, it always has been – all the museums, galleries, it’s of use, and it all influenced me to decide to become a designer and to work to on art projects.
On one hand it’s a great thing to have all of this history in Paris and sometimes it can be too heavy. As a designer it’s interesting to deal with that, whether you embrace it or not. It’s a special time for art and fashion in Paris right now. There are a lot of new brands, and a lot of new places to go, small galleries, artist-run spaces that didn’t exist five or ten years ago. Maybe it’s because for a while people in Paris were complaining about the night life and the art world, and decided to take things and to create something new. Maybe you have to fight a bit more to create new things. We already have a big history, and I think people want to shake that.”