The Agenda / Global
A Practice for Everyday Life, a clever school extension, the revamped analogue Leica, an interview with Moshe Safdie and architecture as art.
design ––– UK
True to type
Aside from during vernissage week, the Venice Biennale largely takes place on the city’s fringes. That presents a challenge for its organisers, who need to ensure that the event can compete with La Serenissima’s almost infinite other charms in terms of attracting visitors. The most visible way for them to do so is to put up posters on walls, bridges and across the city’s water-taxi network. And if you visited Venice this year, you might have noticed pairs of wandering eyes following you around.
These graphics and their accompanying typography were the creations of A Practice for Everyday Life (Apfel), a London-based agency whose work is making waves far beyond Venice’s canals. Founded by Kirsty Carter and Emma Thomas in 2003, Apfel’s clients include Daunt Books, the Turner Prize and shoe-maker John Lobb. Its task when creating the identity for the biennale’s international art exhibition was to formulate a message that would encapsulate the theme of the event (“the Milk of Dreams”) while standing out among the crowds. It must have helped that Carter and Thomas have spent much of their careers designing posters for art exhibitions to be displayed on London’s busy Tube system.
“The joy of our creativity came through layout and the materiality of the object”
“We’ve always had to think about where posters will be placed and how they will work in those locations,” says Thomas at Apfel’s studio in London’s East End. “What we’ve learnt is to put artists at the forefront.” This way of working – staying true to a theme while creating something entirely new – has defined their practice ever since the two designers began collaborating as students at London’s Royal College of Art (rca) in the early 2000s. “We studied communication, art and design, which encompasses illustration, video and graphics,” Carter says. The rca’s television and film department, where Ridley Scott trained, had merged with the illustration department, which meant that Carter and Thomas enjoyed the diverse instruction of tutors such as film scholar AL Rees, illustrator Andrzej Klimowski and letterpress practitioner Alan Kitching.
“Our examiner was the head of design collective Tomato, which did the graphics for [electronic-music group] Underworld,” says Carter. But rather than go down the monotone route associated with the early internet era, the pair embraced the modernist revival – something that’s evident in their popular typefaces viewable in their online Apfel Type Foundry. The practice initially focused entirely on print but today it mostly works digitally. “When we first started, the studio’s drawers were full of print ephemera. We redesigned the Architects’ Journal in 2005 and that doesn’t even exist on paper any more,” says Thomas.
However, as with their work for the Venice Biennale, making tangible objects still gives the duo the most pleasure. “The joy of our creativity came through layout and the materiality of the object,” says Thomas. Apfel’s forthcoming work for cosmetics company Aesop showcases their skill at transposing type onto various objects. “Online it’s much more about layout,” says Thomas. “But either way, type is our real master.” If you have seen their work up close, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s the other way round.
cameras ––– germany
Ditch your DSLR or overhyped smartphone with its myriad photo settings because shooting on film is well and truly back. At least, that’s what German manufacturer Leica is betting on with the relaunch of its iconic M6 analogue film camera. The much-loved M6 made its debut in 1984. Leica went on to sell 175,000 of the model before ceasing production in 2002.
The camera is a masterful work of design. When it was first conceived, Leica’s in-house creative team decided to combine and streamline the chunkier silhouettes of the more traditional Leica M3 and M4 from the 1960s to produce a sleeker form. The result is a camera that, despite being designed in the 1980s, still feels contemporary today. As per Leica tradition, the new models will be handmade in Germany.
The company attributes the new demand for the M6 in part to a major resurgence in photographers seeking to switch to analogue and shoot on film. Some of the most iconic photographs ever created were taken on an M6: revered reportage and street photographers such as Bruce Davidson, William Klein and Nan Goldin have all championed the camera. Its appeal is simple: a sturdy build, pin-sharp lens and highly accurate focusing make it perfect for rough-and-ready shooting on the go. All of this, when combined with its compact size and quiet shutter, adds up to a perfect, discreet tool for documenting life on the streets of cities around the world.
print ––– global
Boston-based architect Moshe Safdie rose to prominence in 1967 after his first project, a cubic housing development called Habitat 67, took centre stage at Montréal’s World’s Fair exposition. His portfolio has expanded to include Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands hotel and the Jewel at Changi Airport. It’s a career he’s documented in his new book, If Walls Could Speak, published by Atlantic Books.
Architects typically publish books about their careers but yours is semi-autobiographical. Why?
I felt that after 50 years, I had some wisdom to share. I didn’t write it as a personal memoir and whatever I’ve included that is personal is in there because I thought it was relevant to my approach and how I evolved as an architect.
What do you hope readers will take away from it?
Most people say that they don’t know anything about architecture and so they feel uneasy about judging it. By writing a book that’s personal, I hope it shows people they can make decisions about architecture and their environment, helping them feel a sense of inner security.
Are there any tenets that are key to your work?
It’s fundamental to my philosophy that every time I draw something, I completely identify with the people who are going to use the building.
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Architecture as art
In the first phase of an architectural project, images of existing buildings, whose forms the architects think set useful visual benchmarks, will often make up part of presentations to stakeholders. The hope is that these architectural reference points will excite a client and show that the proposal is feasible. But the risk of turning to these works as precedents means that the final outcome can end up bearing the hallmarks of these structures that already exist. That begs the question: how can designers approach their work in a way that ensures it won’t be influenced by other projects?
Jacques Herzog, of Pritzker Prize winning studio Herzog & de Meuron, has a solution. Speaking to monocle at the opening of a new showroom that he co-designed for office furniture and interior design company Unifor in Milan, Herzog explains. “When I was a student in the 1970s, postmodernism became fashionable, and design and architecture was very much inspired by its focus on eclectic decoration,” he says.
It was a trend that he claims he wasn’t particularly drawn to. “I realised I had to somehow swim against the stream and find other elements for inspiration [beyond the work of other designers].”
For Herzog this has meant, across his more than 40-year career, not looking to architecture or design for inspiration but art.
“I have looked to art because it’s based on not knowing,” he says. “As an artist, you get up in the morning and no one tells you what to do, whereas as a designer, you’re much more confined by programmes. I trained myself to not have clear rules like an artist, finding solutions for a design conceptually, rather than prescriptively.”
This approach has seen him create buildings that are freer from architectural influences than many contemporaries. The result is evident in his portfolio, which has a varied range of styles (there’s certainly no obvious signature that defines all Herzog & de Meuron buildings). Others looking to emulate the practice’s success would be wise to also think like artists.
architecture ––– south africa
Set amid the vineyards of Stellenbosch, South Africa’s celebrated wine region, is Calling Academy, a non-profit school for children from low-income families. It has recently unveiled an extension courtesy of Cape Town-based design studio Salt Architects, comprising a new staff room, laboratory and an additional classroom, joined together by a perforated-concrete screen wall. “The glimpses of the adjacent landscape and the morning sun filtering in through the perforated walls make it a very special space,” says Gustav Roberts, director of Salt Architects.
The budget for the build was modest so Roberts and his team chose to make the most of simple and versatile materials such as concrete roof tiles and chipboard ceilings. They also had to be creative when it came to the school’s layout. “The main large space consists of a staff room and classroom that can be combined by opening a stacking divider to form a venue that can seat 100 people,” says Roberts.
The result is a project that innovatively blends indoor and outdoor space and can be reconfigured to meet the ever-changing needs of its users. It’s an approach that’s ideal for any school that wants to build flexibility into its curriculum.
Images: A Practice for Everyday Life, Thomas Adank, La Biennale di Venezia, Carol Sachs