“Technology with a soul in it”: A chat with Universal Everything founder Matt Pyke
We visit Matt’s studio and discuss finding collaborators over AIM, designing for 30-metre-high screens, and staying as far away from London as possible.
When Matt Pyke gets in the back of a taxi and the obligatory “What do you do for a living?” conversation ensues, he simply says he’s a designer. But that’s not really true. Design may be where he started but today he runs the enigma that is Universal Everything, a revered digital art and design studio that works with brands including Hyundai and IBM, and creates pieces for exhibitions at the Barbican and MoMA. “The easiest thing to say is ‘Do you know the screens in Blade Runner?’ ‘Well I make videos for those sorts of screens,’” Matt says. Pinning down what it is that the studio does is hard: it’s part research and development facility, part commercial design powerhouse, part innovative technology practice and somehow all of these things at once.
It’s a question so hard to answer that it recently formed the basis of a gargantuan 240mm × 338mm, 384-page book designed by Spin’s Tony Brook and Claudia Klat, published by Unit Editions. What is Universal Everything? its title asks, 15 years after Matt set up shop and changed the face of digital design. That’s a bold claim, I know, but hear me out.
Universal Everything’s work is anything but small scale. Earlier this year, the studio produced a piece for South Korean luxury department store The Hyundai, which saw a reel of creatures, each representing the high-end consumer products on sale within the store, walking across a 30-metre-high screen that wraps itself around one corner of the building. Take a minute to imagine the people you think created this work: they’re probably outgoing, you say, working at their desks which double as treadmills in a studio that’s all glass and break-out spaces and beanbags. Universal Everything couldn’t be further from this cringe-inducing stereotype. Endearingly at odds with its all-encompassing moniker, Universal Everything is actually just one man in a shed in Sheffield.
Matt grew up a creative child, drawing from the age of two or three, and in 1991 he headed to Portsmouth College of Art to undertake a course in technical illustration. Here he completed several typography-based projects which, in combination with his upbringing on skateboarding and graffiti, led him to Croydon School of Art’s graphic design bachelor’s. “I intentionally chose Croydon because it was known for being commercially orientated,” he tells Adrian Shaughnessy in a conversation featured in What is Universal Everything?. “I always admired St Martins and the trendier art schools, but I didn’t have the confidence to apply there.”
While Croydon gave Matt the vocational education he (and his parents) wanted, it was his younger brother’s career in music that had the biggest impact. Simon Pyke had been writing music in his bedroom since the age of 13, and as he began to release tracks a few years later through a record shop in Soho, Matt became his unofficial creative. It was around this time that Matt began to work for The Designers Republic, a then-cult studio based in Sheffield – where he worked for nearly a decade, in a city he still calls home.
On why he chose to remain away from London, Matt says: “Well actually, I studied in London thinking, ‘I’m gonna work in London,’ but then I got a job with The Designers Republic and worked there for eight years. During that time I got settled – got married, had kids, bought a house, all that stuff. And it’s a super nice chilled city. It’s right next to the Peak District and not far from London. So that’s why I stayed.” It’s an unassuming and laidback answer, a cadence I quickly came to expect from Matt as our chat continued.
Matt’s decision to run Universal Everything from a shed-cum-workshop at the end of his garden has, of course, shaped how the studio functions. “I started off just as a freelance graphic designer in 2004, and started getting more inquiries to do things that I didn’t know how to do,” he explains. “And instead of me saying no, I thought, ‘I’ll say yes and drop myself right in it.’ Then I ended up looking online for really interesting 3D animators or programmers or whatever.” And because his research was online, the people he found were all over the world – in Germany or San Francisco or Japan.
“Basically, if I had tried to start the studio two years before, my broadband wouldn’t have been quick enough.”Matt Pyke
He would reach out to them via iChat or AIM – “this was before Skype and FaceTime and Slack and all that stuff” – and he soon amassed a “global network of collaborators”, an “agile team of freelancers” ready to take on any brief that came his way, long before any of these words were commonplace within the design world. “I think if I had been based in London, I probably would have just collaborated with the people I knew nearby and they may not necessarily have been the best in the world to do that thing,” Matt explains. “But I was able to collaborate with the exact skills I needed.”
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What is Universal Everything?
“It’s funny. When I first started, I used to say ‘we’ because it sounded bigger.”Matt Pyke
Beyond this, it’s a decision that simply helps to keep down costs. “You don’t have to do the crap corporate work, which is lovely,” he continues. “So it’s partly that as well – it’s not like we have to like feed a huge financial machine or anything. It helps us retain some sort of independence.” I ask who that “we” is: “It’s funny. When I first started, I used to say ‘we’ because it sounded bigger,” he jokes. Ironically, the name Universal Everything was chosen so that Matt could compensate for the fact that he was just one man in a shed in Sheffield with the biggest name possible. At the time of our interview, however, Universal Everything comprises seven full-timers and up to 30 people who they work with on a regular basis. “But it all depends on the project, right? Every project we get is so randomly different that we can’t really have any permanent team because we get such diverse projects, we need a different formation every single time,” he says.
GalleryThe Peak District and Matt Pyke’s studio
While this approach was near unheard of in 2004, giving Matt the ability to create work that other studios couldn’t, he explains that the timing of Universal Everything’s launch was paramount to its success. “Basically, if I had tried to start the studio two years before, my broadband wouldn’t have been quick enough.” There was no Facebook, no YouTube, but the internet was just getting fast enough to transfer files and video chat. Having been at The Designers Republic for a while at that point, he was wanting to experiment more, to push what he was doing in graphic design and make it move.
“I was trying to figure out how to animate what we were doing,” Matt explains. “I kind of made a music video by mistake. I’d been designing these records for this German electronic group called Funkstorung and they wanted us to make a music video. So I did it all in Photoshop by hand-making every single frame and then just edited all these still images together in Final Cut Pro in sync with the beats – I didn’t even know After Effects existed. It came out and it was pretty nuts because it was nothing like your smooth Flash videos. I guess, with that, I was definitely seeing the potential of merging graphic design and moving image more.” In turn, Universal Everything grew out of the sweet spot of creativity and technology – a true product of that time in the internet’s history in both its set-up and output.
GalleryMatt Pyke in his studio
Following suit, the majority of Universal Everything’s work is screen-based. Installed or projected everywhere from Hong Kong to New York to Milan, these works bring the bare bones of buildings to life through compelling and often mesmerising motion design. In 2015, for example, the studio collaborated with over 20 animation studios around the world to create a “living mural” on the Sydney Opera House. A monumental commission requiring technical prowess to complete, the final product was the antithesis of big tech, comprised solely of traditional, hand-drawn cell-animation techniques.
In another work, initially shown as part of the Barbican’s AI: More Than Human exhibition in August 2019, Universal Everything created a digital mirror entitled Future You. Upon standing in front of the screen you are presented with “a unique reflection of your potential, synthetic self”. Starting as a primitive form, it learns from your movement, adapting and morphing to eventually suggest an agile, superior version of you. These forms are created anew each time someone steps in front of the screen, resulting in 47,000 possible variations. While somewhat dystopian when considered in isolation, Future You is a piece that prompts interaction. Spend a few minutes by the piece in an exhibition and you’ll quickly see visitors jumping, swinging their arms, dancing and laughing. It manages to make you forget, for a minute, that everyone is watching and simply enjoy yourself.
”It’s not just abstract – a moving image or abstract technology – it’s technology that has a soul in it.“Matt Pyke
It’s this combination of technology and humanity which seems to make Universal Everything’s work resonate. And it rings true in almost all of the studio’s projects. Take a look back at the history of art and science and you see instances again and again of practitioners attempting to capture or recreate the human form and human movement. Whether it’s Leonardo da Vinci’s detailed anatomical drawings or Boston Dynamics’ backflipping robot Atlas, we see recreating ourselves as a means of understanding ourselves. And, despite its often pixel-based form, Universal Everything’s projects feel like a continuation of these ideas through animated walking cycles, face tracking or motion-capture technology.
“I think the reason why that is particularly distinctive of what we do is that it’s something that people relate to,” Matt says. “It’s not just abstract – a moving image or abstract technology – it’s technology that has a soul in it. If you can see the person or the people or the crowd in the work, any member of the public can perceive the humanity in it.”
A quick look at the “selected commissions” section of Universal Everything’s website is something to behold. It features Apple, Chanel, Google, IBM, Hyundai, MTV, Nike, Warp Records, Zaha Hadid Architects – even Coldplay. What’s interesting, however, is that these commissions don’t function within the usual client-agency relationship – they are much more collaborative and last for many years. In 2014, Matt produced Walking City, a video referencing the utopian visions of 1960s architecture practice Archigram through a slowly evolving video sculpture.
The following year, the studio was commissioned by Hyundai to create Running Man, an expression of Resource Circulation, the automotive company’s eco-friendly production process – from steel to car to steel, which was shown in Times Square, Piccadilly Circus and Sejong Hyundai Motorgallery. Mirroring the visual language of Walking City, Running Man was commissioned directly off the back of the original piece. This relationship has continued over the years, as the company brought on Universal Everything to help it reinvent itself, looking at the brand over a ten-year plan. “They’re somewhere in between an artistic patron and sort of research collaborator,” Matt says.
GalleryMatt Pyke in his studio
Projects such as this one have instilled a strong ethos in Matt, a belief in the importance of self-initiated work. “It’s basically a way of making things before the brief comes in,” he says. If the studio wants to explore the potential of a technology or a subject, it will start making it and put it out there, whether through an exhibition or simply online. “And then a client will see it, or a museum will see it and say, ‘Can we show this at this new show?’ or ‘Can we commission you to adapt this and develop it further?’ It’s a way of planting seeds out there to see what they attract.” It’s a proven fact that like attracts like in the design industry – make something with kinetic type and you’ll inevitably be asked to do that again and again. But Matt sees it as something much grander: “You almost have to invent the type of dream work you want to do. And once people see you’re working in that space, it will attract people who don’t need to have a leap of imagination to realise that you’re thinking about that kind of work.”
“You almost have to invent the type of dream work you want to do."Matt Pyke
Naturally, our conversation now turns to what that next phase of “dream work” might be for the studio. “We’ve been doing a lot of stuff to do with the potential of how screens will change in the future,” Matt responds. “Imagine if any object or surface of any scale could become a screen, you know, like the road or the side of a building or the side of an aeroplane or your jewellery or whatever. What would that screen be showing? If it’s not advertising, then how could that screen work, whether it’s useful information like road markings that animate, for example, or whether it’s more expressive personalised stuff if it was on a screen on a T-shirt.” These are all ideas which have sprung out of Matt’s fascination with futurism, “how things are inevitably going to happen” as broadband gets faster, video services get cheaper and more flexible, making moving images easier to make and share. “Trying to guess the future,” he says, “that’s really interesting.”
On a more imminent timeline, Matt’s exploring the potential of technology to impact our wellbeing. It all stemmed from a call with Chelsea and Westminster Children’s Hospital in which a doctor explained how multi-sensory experiences – like Universal Everything’s – could translate really well into a healthcare environment. “It suddenly made me think about how much more you can contribute to the world and people's health rather than just entertaining people’s visions and things,” Matt explains.
He then met with several doctors at the hospital. “They were talking about how they’ve measured the effects of these experiences on patients, whether it’s children or adults, and how it essentially makes people less anxious and calms them down,” he continues. “And it distracts them in a way that they’re fully absorbed in the interaction on a screen or on the ceiling meaning they’re easier to treat. And if they are easier to treat, then they recover more quickly and leave the hospital more quickly.” This understanding that there was a tangible scientific basis behind the benefits of his work beyond just “decoration” struck a chord. So much so that Matt is currently planning to launch a new studio, called Everyone Forever, whose sole focus will be on this kind of design: “You could call it beneficial experience design.”
“I've been through all sorts of [investment] opportunities in the past and they completely turned me off in the sense that it made me realise how much I enjoy my independence.”Matt Pyke
Matt sees the potential impacts of this studio going beyond even just the healthcare sector, like curing people of their fear of flying by using virtual reality, for example. But, for now, it’s early doors. “We’re working on a lot of prototypes we’re getting made at the moment,” he says. “There are some apps, for example – things that the tech companies would never make, but which everybody needs. It feels like we’ve got a load of stuff that’s half-finished at the moment, so we need a name, but it’s definitely happening.”
With this in mind, where does Matt see Universal Everything in ten years, I ask him. “Definitely still around,” he begins. “I've been through all sorts of [investment] opportunities in the past and they completely turned me off in the sense that it made me realise how much I enjoy my independence.” So, the theory now? To create a studio environment that he wants to work in until he’s 80 years old, “like in the way Matisse or Philip Johnson” did. Rather than expanding and expanding, Matt likens Universal Everything to a band: it can get bigger – play better venues, record in swankier studios – but its members will remain the same. As he puts it: “I’d just rather be in a position to have a studio that I look forward to working in any hour of the day for the rest of my life.”
Matt Pyke in his studio, photographed by Tori Ferenc
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.