Clients from Frieze to Rizzoli come to the graphic designer for her storytelling skills. And she delivers bestsellers.
Frith Kerr’s west London home is packed with books that span genres and decades. On the shelves in her studio you can find copies of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a 1960 translation of ancient poetry by Rolfe Humphries, 1986’s Hollywood Husbands by Jackie Collins and Cocaine Nights by JG Ballard, from 1996. For those who know Kerr, it’s not at all surprising.
“As a teenager, I didn’t listen to music – I just read and read because I was interested in exploring other worlds,” she tells monocle. But rather than pursuing writing after she completed her studies – as her passion for literature might suggest – the graphic designer took a different tack. “I wanted to find a place where I could explore and build worlds for people. And it seemed to me that art school would allow that to happen.”
Born in Surrey, she moved to London in her teens, studied graphic design at Camberwell College of Arts and then completed a master’s degree in communication design at the Royal College of Art. “The books that I loved, and still love, are built on a foundation where you go on a journey and make a connection,” she says. “And design is about looking outward and connecting with other disciplines and industries. That was true when I started art school and it’s true working as a designer now.”
Upon graduation, Kerr immediately struck out on her own, establishing the studio Kerr Nobel with a classmate in 1997, before setting up Studio Frith. Her approach has stayed the same: like the books she read in her youth, Kerr looks to make connections on behalf of the clients whose story she is telling. Today that includes fashion designer Anya Hindmarch, Tuscany’s Hotel Il Pellicano, publisher Rizzoli and the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
To build worlds for these brands and people, Kerr goes through an intensive research process. “It’s about going in deep and exploring the subject matter,” she says. “Doing the research and building a really solid foundation and depth of understanding allows us to go further creatively.”
“Designers care about the future. I feel like that’s what designers can do: we create the future, and we can change how people feel about the future”
This means that Kerr gets to know her clients inside out – and the subject matter that they’re interested in. For her work for Roksanda, this meant unearthing the Serbian fashion designer’s passion for architecture and using it to design bags made from materials at builders’ merchants. For Frieze Art Fair, it meant getting on the ground at its location on Randall’s Island in New York and birdwatching – this led Studio Frith to develop an advertising strategy that used these birds as a metaphor for people flying into the art fair. From this level of detail, it’s clear that Kerr cares about authenticity. “As designers it’s important to communicate that care,” she says. “You do that with the materials you use, your tone of voice. Every detail of what we do communicates that you are taking care. That’s not explicit but it’s something that people feel.”
That consideration doesn’t just come with material choices. Kerr says that it also comes with the job. And, as expected, she uses books to explain her thoughts to monocle. “As designers, we care about the future,” says Kerr. “One of my favourite authors, Rebecca Solnit, has written a wonderful book called A Field Guide to Getting Lost, where she talks about creating work that frees up your future. And I really feel like that’s what designers can do for people: we create the future and we can change how people feel about that future.”
“Designers can change how people feel. That’s the most important lesson that I’ve learned – and what I hope to continue to do.”
1973: Born in Surrey.
1992: Begins studies in Graphic Design at Camberwell College of Arts.
1997: Establishes Kerr Nobel after graduating.
2007: Works with Design Museum on an exhibition about Gio Ponti
2009: Establishes Studio Frith.
2014: Works with Frieze Art Fair.
2022: Clients include Perfumer H and The Drawing Center.