A Practice for Everyday Life has a studied approach to graphic design. Its co-founders explain why they aren’t shy about taking on challenging projects
Studio Life visits APFEL - watch our documentary film in the gallery at the bottom of the page
As names go, APFEL – short for A Practice for Everyday Life – is an unusual title for a design studio. But it’s a statement steeped in meaning for founders Kirsty Carter and Emma Thomas, who set the studio up eight years ago. The moniker comes from The Practice of Everyday Life, a book by Michel De Certeau. The phrase represents the essence of what the studio is all about – an analytical, academic approach to design. It’s about researching a brief and responding to it in an almost anthropological way.
“We are really interested in writing and research, as well as designing. That sort of forms the foundation and basis of some of our work, and we just really enjoyed this text,” explains Thomas. “We found so many affinities within it with the way we were working as well.”
Carter continues: “He writes about everyday rituals and how they influence behaviour. It’s a psychology book really and I think that’s what we draw a lot into our work – observations and understandings of who we’re designing for, rather than having a particular visual style.”
The pair met while studying at the Royal College of Art and, after completing some projects here and there with various cultural and arts bodies they were in contact with, decided to found the studio. The rest, as they say, is history. With the help of a couple of start-up grants and loans, a lot of hard work and dedication, and a continuing flow of clients in the creative arena, they’re now working for some of the biggest galleries and museums in Britain and abroad.
The last major show APFEL worked on was held at London's Victoria & Albert Museum. Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 saw the studio working alongside architectural practice Carmody Groarke, which constructed the interior of the exhibition space. APFEL designed neon signage and floor-to-ceiling imagery, as well as information plaques for each section of the show and captions for all the exhibits. The studio also laid out the exhibition catalogue sold in the V&A shop, and a double vinyl LP sleeve – a collection of music by bands with a ‘postmodern’ style was released to coincide with the event.
Closing in mid-January, it was an impressive showcase of postmodern art, architecture, graphic design, film, fashion and so forth. It was also an exciting project for Carter, Thomas and their team of five designers. APFEL’s work often has a clean and considered look and feel: you might not call it modernist, but the garishness of postmodernism is miles away from its design work. A show on modernism would be easy in comparison.
“Everyone’s grand assumption on postmodernism is, ‘Wow, what an ugly subject.’ And it’s like, well, actually there’s some beauty in that show and we thought about it more like, ‘Wow, we shouldn’t be shy about working on something like this.’ It would be more of a challenge than doing what every designer’s dreaming to do. But we knew we’d be quite critical – it’s quite critical this show – so it was up for kind of harsh criticism, which it got.”
The studio also collaborated with Carmody Groarke on Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life – an exhibition at the Wellcome Trust; and on Drawing Fashion at the Design Museum. APFEL’s next project with the practice is the Bauhaus: Art as Life show at The Barbican in north London. There have been a few Bauhaus exhibitions in recent years, so part of the studio’s aim has been to expand on, rather than replicate, what has gone before.
“I think what’s important is that we don’t dwell too much on the archetypal object-in-a-case and try and bring these things to life,” explains Carter. “So the methods of display are large contextual images and big graphics to create a backdrop. Joseph Albers [leader of the Bauhaus movement] designed a lot of beautiful fonts that we could have used, but we didn’t want to do a re-enactment,” she says. “We’ve chosen to use a typeface they described as their workhorse – it was what they used on the letterpress. In 1999 Erik Spiekermann asked Christian Schwartz to draw a revival of S&G’s Grotesk, updating the family for contemporary typographic needs without sacrificing its spirit and warmth. The name ‘FF Bau’ is an homage to the most noted users of the original.”
Another top architectural firm that the studio has worked with is David Chipperfield, which designed The Hepworth Wakefield gallery in west Yorkshire. Housing a collection of Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures, it’s the biggest purpose-built gallery to open in the UK for years. APFEL designed a typeface and identity for the museum, and did the internal signage. It was important for the studio to work in sympathy with both the building and its space, and Hepworth’s artwork, which is light and elegant.
“We thought about the way we were going to use [the design work] on the materials, to integrate it into the building,” says Thomas. “So we used the surfaces and printed directly onto them, or carved it out, to use the fabric of the building in a sculptural way rather than just adding on more signs; more objects. It was really to integrate the design work into the architecture, inside and outside.”
In the beginning, APFEL created identities and laid out exhibition catalogues for smaller galleries. Today it’s seeing its typography produced at a massive scale on structures that will long outlive the studio. Meanwhile, its design work is appearing at massive sizes as part of major cultural events. The studio has participated a great deal in the trend that has seen galleries and museums take on slicker, more corporate-style branding, helping boost their visitor numbers.
The next phase for Carter and Thomas is to take A Practice for Everyday Life beyond the realms of the arts and culture sector. The studio has already delivered a brand identity and entire design ethos to publisher Daunt Books, and in 2005 APFEL successfully redesigned The Architects Journal (which greased the wheels with potential collaborators in its exhibition work). Now the pair would like to work for fashion brands and in luxury retail, hotels and restaurants.
But it isn’t so much a case of wanting to take things to a new level: rather, Carter and Thomas want to apply the APFEL approach in new markets. The trouble is, even if you are capable of managing the brief and the workload, it can be hard to win the trust of clients. To shift how the studio is perceived, they have redesigned the APFEL website. They have also art-directed case studies, presenting certain projects with a little more visual variety than in the past.
The art world isn’t awash with money, but APFEL’s new goals aren’t driven by the studio’s bank balance. Carter and Thomas are hungry to break new ground and believe they have a design approach that delivers. “Working a luxury retailer, hotel or restaurant isn't a financial thing. It’s actually a challenge as well,” Carter says. “Perhaps we’ve saturated ourselves. We’ve worked with all the museums and galleries that we’ve wanted to work for. After eight years we need new challenges. And we’ve always wanted to do the brand identity for a restaurant or a hotel.”
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990
Inspired by Blade Runner, among other things, APFEL designed the graphics and signage throughout the Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 exhibition at the V&A museum
Postmodernism exhibition catalogue
APFEL laid out the Postmodernism exhibition catalogue in a style sympathetic to the signage, using an Émigré font
The Hepworth Wakefield
The Hepworth Wakefield is one of the UK’s most ambitious purpose-built art museums. APFEL created its brand identity and designed its visitor guides
The Hepworth Wakefield
The studio created a custom font for The Hepworth Wakefield and APFEL's work has already become a memorial to the artist
Performa is a performing arts biennale celebrated in New York. APFEL first worked on the event’s identity in 2005 and has revamped it three times since, tweaking the identity and creating a simple shape to represent each new iteration of the show
The redesign of the APFEL site has been a major studio project. Key work is presented as case studies, showing the skills involved
Modern Art Oxford
Some of APFEL’s latest work has been for Modern Art Oxford. This latest stationery design work features deconstructed type