M/M Paris

Mathias Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag, the prolific design duo, celebrate their 20th anniversary. A new book examines their unique fusion of graphic design, art, music and fashion.

In France the graphic arts have a history of transcending pure utility of communication and trespassing into the realm of the expressive visual arts. André Mellerio, a critic from the pioneering period of Lautrec and Chéret, stated in his influential text La Lithographie en Couleurs (1898) that “any method or process which an artist develops to express himself, is for that very reason legitimate.” This statement is equally applicable to M/M (Paris), the collaboration-based design partnership that re-invigorated French graphic design in the 1990s and whose influence over the course of the intervening two decades has been felt globally. This influence is celebrated in M to M of M/M (Paris), which presents an in-depth overview of 20 years of design practice by the company’s two founders, Mathias Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag.

Established in 1992, M/M (Paris) is associated with a diverse range of cultural industries, including music, fashion, visual art, film, graphic design, interiors and furniture. Augustyniak explains: “We wanted to avoid the signature effect, instead of having the ‘I’ we invented the ‘we’.” Featured are collaborations with internationally recognised figures such as influential musicians Étienne Daho, Björk and Mirwais; fashion designers Yohji Yamamoto and Stella McCartney; curators Hans Ulrich Obrist and Nicolas Bourriaud; visual artists Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno and Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin; the magazines Vogue Paris and Italia and many others. M/M affirms “our work is about expressing the idea of a dialogue. We transfer elements from fashion to music to art and back again, and keep using different media.” The creative partnerships that M/M has developed are likened by Augustyniak to “a zone of exchange” and this versatile approach has informed its work to date.

Mathias Augustyniak met Michael Amzalag on his first day at École des Arts Decoratifs Paris in 1988. Although attracted by this school’s conceptual underpinning of design within social engagement, Augustyniak saw it as a stop-gap before attending the Royal College of Art in London. Their friendship was cemented during sessions of frenzied photocopying using a Canon CLC500 and, although it would be another four years before they became a business partnership, they recognised immediately from their shared passionate interests that they could work with one another. In a dialogue with Emily King, Amzalag reflects: “The odds that we would become friends were zero; nevertheless everything each one of us did was instantly pleasing to the other … We felt like Marr and Morrissey.” In the intervening period, Amzalag had dropped out of college to work for the French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles, a publication that Amzalag asserts was “completely influenced by England”. Indeed, the transformation of the music industry within a post-punk environment, with its DIY ethos and the deconstructive influences of Hip Hop, provided the soundtrack to major cultural shifts across all art forms. The questioning of authority and the resultant blurring of the line between high and low culture energised a new generation of artists and designers. It should be no surprise, then, that M/M embraced an ethos that would enable it to move between seemingly different art worlds. In a 1998 interview with Lionel Bovier, the pair articulated this as having “the opportunity of utilising the various communication networks simultaneously; the very specialised ones, as well as those of the general public. We can vary the form of our intervention continually: sometimes it is a single image, sometimes a contribution to fashion magazines, sometimes a conference, sometimes a worldwide poster campaign.”

Fittingly, music was the first of these within which the duo established their practice. Bolstered by government funding to promote French music, a raft of new design companies emerged, establishing a look that would become known as The French Touch. As the creative force behind the visual content of Les Inrockuptibles, M/M’s punk/grunge aesthetic challenged the limited expectations of the older graphic design establishment, which had been dominated by the Grapus group. The raw energy of the deconstruction and re-assemblage of its illustrations and photography seemed to represent the frustrations that the company felt. Augustyniak asserts: “I think we knew that teaming up would be a way to replace Grapus. Not because they were our enemy, but because it was necessary.” M/M’s subversive methodology attracted like-minded artists and photographers Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. Subsequent to this connection, an association with the prolific artist and musician Björk was initiated. Designed with van Lamsweerde & Matadin, M/M’s expressive appropriations semi-obscured the visual re-presentations of the celebrated artist’s portrait on the early projects Volumen and Vespertine. The phrase “dessin dans l’image” or “drawing in the picture” was derived from the pair’s preference for interfering with the photograph’s composition. This act of defacement embodied and enhanced Björk’s ability to alternate between the media of music, visual art and film, reiterating and underpinning M/M’s fundamental ethos. Talking to the editor, Björk reaffirms this: “For me, there is an emotional connection between the image and the song. There are not two isolated things.” Another cause and effect of M/M’s design aesthetic mocks the music industry’s perception of the recording artist’s manufactured persona. In M to M of M/M (Paris), Benjamin Biolay, a talented singer, musician and long term M/M collaborator, reflects on the working partnership between the two: “If you are going to use a photograph, you have to be careful, it has to be designed by someone like Mathias and Michael. The company wanted another picture – but I didn’t want that and neither did (M/M). Between us we never have conflicts over choices.”

A natural progression led M/M to its first major commission for the innovative Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto in 1998. Created in conjunction with Lamsweerde & Matadin, the advertising campaign created a visual narrative, shooting the model Stella Tennant in a quasi-theatrical setting. Through this, viewers are enticed into reading the visual cues to construct their own story, thus engaging on a much deeper level than with pure documentation. In M to M of M/M (Paris), Nicolas Ghesquière, Head Designer for Balenciaga, comments: “I was fascinated by the way that they transformed very familiar objects into extraordinary and surrealistic things – their world is like a labyrinth – and there’s always a new path. You don’t know where you are going, but it takes you to another world.”

M/M takes collaboration to a new level in its engagement with contemporary visual artists. Not content to be mere technicians, the duo’s role can extend to full participation in the act of creation. This can be most readily seen in Malaga, an artist book produced with Liam Gillick. In Malaga, the titles of various Gillick works have been designed in the manner of record covers. His texts have been translated graphically like illuminated manuscripts. The book is printed in letterpress and multiple silkscreens, and presented as a compilation of 17 folders encased in a laser cut box designed by Gillick to allow M/M’s artwork to peep through. There is a play around authorship, interpretation and communion. It seems no accident that the artists M/M chooses to work with have found themselves placed within the definition of Relational Art. Nicolas Bourriaud first used the phrase in 1996, in the M/M-designed catalogue for the exhibition Traffic, which he had also curated. He later developed a philosophical understanding of the approach to making art in his 1998 book Esthétique relationnelle. Artists placed under this heading included Gillick, Philippe Parreno, Carsten Höller, Sarah Morris, Douglas Gordon and Pierre Huyghe. According to Bourriaud, Relational Art encompasses: “A set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.” This attitude resonates with a statement by Augustyniak in a transcribed conversation with the book’s editor, Emily King: “To see drawing as an emotional expression is wrong … That’s why I was drawn to graphic design. I needed to be within public life, inserted in reality, and not just sitting by the crying rivers of Romanticism.”

Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno searched for the “reality” of a football icon in their 1996 film Zidane: A 21stCentury Portrait. Their 90-minute work tracks every moment of Zinedine Zidane’s “performance” on the pitch during one football match. M/M provided the opening and closing graphics; the credits and subtitles that convey Zidane’s inner dialogue. These inserts provide a textural layer that imbeds itself within the filmic experience. Parreno and Pierre Huyghe initiated a project in which Japanese Manga character Annlee was “liberated” from impending obscurity to have her identity reconfigured through a range of media by artists such as Henri Barande, François Curlet, Liam Gillick, Melik Ohanian, Richard Phillips, Joe Scanlan, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Anna Lena Vaney. According to Huyghe, M/M came up with the project title No Ghost Just a Shell and offered its own reading of the avatar’s personality in the form of posters and wallpaper. Again, the breadth of collaboration within the project is revealing, as is its focus on identity, branding and authenticity.

Parreno and Huyghe contribute to the monograph through essays and interviews. What emerges from these texts is the importance of building strong relationships and trust. M/M is able to connect in a manner that fosters friendship. As in its approach to design, the company breaks the normative relationships of power and, in this case, the traditional form of the business model. In his contribution, Nicolas Bourriaud makes the same point in relation to M/M’s work on the art magazine Documents sur l’art (1992-2000). Describing his first experience of working with the duo he comments: “It was an intellectual approach, a trust in their ability to transform the magazine with us … It wasn’t a case of us writing a brief and waiting for the designer to respond, it was more a collective mode of operating.” Bourriaud’s faith in M/M is evident in his decision to allow it free rein when coming up with a “corporate identity” for the Palais de Tokyo, where he was Director between 1999 and 2006. At the point of initial contact, the Palais project was emergent and unresolved. Rather than try to impose “look” in a branding exercise: “The choice was made to create an economical, ecological and ‘light’ identity, which would be only based on a simple typeface derived from generic computer-screen bitmap fonts, into which was added a series of characters and pictograms. This font was provided to all services at the Palais, allowing all communication tools to be generated from the inside, with no set rules or corporate guidelines.” This freedom to reconfigure the message suited the ethos of the gallery perfectly whilst at the same time providing a coherent visual experience for the public. The Tokyo Palace font is now available as a free download from M/M’s website, extending its use without losing its original adaptability.

M/M’s creation of fonts and text schemata provides an aspect of its production that possibly encapsulates the pair’s overriding obsessions. Each grapheme should hold in its form the broader meanings of the context within which it is to be applied. Its work on the film posters of Sarah Morris, such as Los Angeles and Robert Towne, may be a case in point. The text characters are woven with images that disrupt the larger scene on which they have been placed. The text is not easy to read and has to be studied to reveal its meaning. This resonates with Morris’s filmic constructions, in which images are treated as threads in a tapestry, weaving between one another to create a whole that is greater than its parts. Others reveal psychosis-like symptoms as when photographs by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin are dismembered, disembowelled and regurgitated into alphabets such as the Alphamen. It is in the self-conscious manipulation of text, image and public expectations that M/M’s contribution to graphic design can be seen within the long history of French innovation.

M to M M/M (Paris) is edited by Emily King, with a foreword by Hans Ulrich Obrist, and published by Thames & Hudson. www.mmparis.com.

Angela Darby