Franska revolutionen är en ren formsak
Dennis Dahlqvist, translated from the swedish by the author.

The French duo Mathias Augustyniak and Michaël Amzalag (M/M) are without a doubt the most interesting graphic designers in the world today. Their latest Björk video, "Hidden Place," with its sublime special effects – tear-like drops that crawl around the pop star’s face – along with the new Björk book, which appeared in storefronts of the bookshops of London, Paris, New York and Stockholm last fall – have made the French design duo extremely well-known in the world of design.

But this is certainly no overnight success story. By the middle of the 1990’s M/M’s career had already begun to take off. Their brash designs in the music industry – the rock magazine Les Inrockuptibles and a series of CD covers – attracted new, larger clients from the trend-sensitive world of fashion. Now M/M’s résumé is a veritable who’s who of the fashion world: APC, Balenciaga, Callaghan, Jeremy Scott, Jil Sander, Louis Vuitton, Martine Sitbon, Yohji Yamamoto.

A few years ago M/M were discovered even by the art world. At the Venice Biennale in 1999 they designed a wall mural for Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s film 'About' – psychotic film credits of sorts which actually crawled up the walls. A year later, their catalog for the newly renovated Centre Pompidou was even more hair-raising. Aside from their combination of art, design, and architecture (in like measure), they even included print form: catalogs, newspapers, and exhibition invitations which had been gathering dust in the museum’s basement – a brazen move which suggested that graphic design is often just as interesting as art.

Recently a large exhibition at ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) opened where M/M prove their point and accordingly wiped the floor with their old partners. The 'proper' artists – Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno, and the architect François Roche – have, frankly, an extremely difficult time holding their own against the brilliant graphic designers. While M/M are making a clean sweep of ICA, they’ve also begun to renovate French Vogue completely, the fashion world’s most prestigious magazine. Not bad for two graphic designers who started their careers in 1992 by bickering with each other in a cubbyhole at their father's dentist office and scaring the patients half to death.

But M/M are no loud-mouthed quasi-rebels. The secret to their extraordinary success is rather an impressive traditional knowledge of both graphic design and related artistic genres – a prerequisite which, along with their background in the music industry, makes it possible for them to “sample” sources all the way from the French symbolist Gustave Moreau and the pop artist Richard Hamilton, to their latest Björk and Balenciaga campaigns.

The graphic designers’ 'toolbox' contains elements at least as paradoxically opposed. From old-fashioned fountain pens (they even leave in the ink blots) and traditional oil colors to extremely modern, prefab computer graphics. Snapshots that they take themselves are woven together with extremely professional photographs taken by the world’s best fashion photographers such as Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin.

Even though M/M don’t have a uniform style or total design concept which is 'forced upon' all clients, the duo’s work is nonetheless always recognized by the thoroughly worked-through ideas and the schizophrenic attitude which governs the duo’s form. M/M are certainly extremely good at 'adapting themselves' to their extremely diverse range of clients, who come from the worlds of music, culture, and fashion, to name just a few. Yet while the desires and needs of the customer are respected, all jobs contain a central assertion, or thesis, from the graphic designers themselves.

Just like all of the great individualists in the field – from Paul Rand to Neville Brody – M/M don't consider graphic design some sort of superficial glaze, varnish, or lacquer, which is supposed to increase sales returns, but rather as one of the fundamental cornerstones of the relation of a company or institution to the world around them — a fact which occasionally presents a problem with potential clients.

The Centre Dramatique de Bretagne in Lorient – a small local theater which ordered a new design program in 1996, was a significantly sharper collaborator. Before M/M got to work with the usual printed matter – stationery, invitation cards, and posters – the theater building was rendered more inviting with large, festive streamers across the façade. When the building – the most tangible visual symbol for the city’s inhabitants – was redesigned, each new play was 'staged' over the whole city before it had even had its premiere.

The now well-known series of the gigantic theater posters for CDDB in Lorient is just as 'entertaining' as Hamilton’s classic pop collage, 'Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing,' from 1956, or Guy Debord’s 'The Society of the Spectacle': A kind of macabre photo journal from a consumer society run amok, where culture is being reduced to a commodity.

On the poster for 'Wolfgang Mozart’s Suite & Fugue', a fairly beat-up stereo system was prominently featured, which had on it the clearly displayed logos: 'Denon' and 'Yamaha.' Arthur Nauzyciel’s piece, 'Le Voyage de Seth,' is illustrated with a snapshot from a giant flea market which peddles authentic oriental 'flying' carpets. The poster for Stig Dagerman’s 'Our Need for Consolation' is endowed with a distressed young man (yours truly) photographed in front of the cluttered storefront of the kitschy souvenir shop outside the Hotel Sheraton in Stockholm.

Despite the fact that M/M have designed an idiosyncratic, challenging typeface for every new theater production, they are in no way 'fontfreaks': they rather create a new font when it is actually needed. For example, Pasqua – a whole new alphabet made from firearms which they dedicated to a former minister of police: Charles Pasqua. Or their Alphabet of Beauty – with letters constructed from cut-up models from various sorts of fashion reportage – a bizarre supermodel parade in V-Magazine last spring.

These days M/M are the darlings of the fashion world, and can thus massacre whomever they want – a position achieved via innovative campaigns with many important fashion houses. Long before the widespread design boom – with Wallpaper in the lead – Jil Sander’s neo-minimalist garments were presented with modernist furniture by the French designer Jean Prouvé. A tactic which elevated the profile of the clothing by supplying it with a historical and aesthetic reference point, while at the same time 'unmasking' precisely that which makes fashionable clothing so coveted: its context.

M/M’s orientation to the fashion world is refreshingly contradictory. The graphic designers are not satisfied simply with producing 'surplus value' for the customer, but also try to show how the system – the production of belief (Pierre Bourdieu) which surrounds a fashion designer’s trademark – functions. Instead of simply constructing cool, trendy campaigns, they deconstruct the world of fashion (the field), where various actors – photographers, photo models, stylists, graphic designers and fashion editors collectively 'produce' valuable fashion.

Yet for one to be able to call the system into question (without being questioned oneself), one must be able to control large parts of the field. When M/M began working with Yohji Yamamoto’s catalogs they didn’t have much control, but rather simply had to see that everything came together smoothly. In 1996, for example, they created a concept – The Artist And His Muse – where the star photographer Paolo Roversi got to depict his favorite model, Guinevere van Seenus, in various environments from art history. This was a weaker variant of Jil Sander's Prouvé catalog where the duo compensated the customer with extravagant flourishes in form.

After the success with 'The Artist And His Muse' – which has a Polaroid picture on the cover – the Yamamoto catalogs always contain small well-calculated surprises: imaginative bindings, laden with meaning, various types of paper and special print which spell-bind the reader and make the catalogs coveted collector’s items. The big conceptual break-through came a few years later however, when M/M started working with Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin – two photographers who share the designers’ ambivalent orientation towards the fashion world.

Together, this dynamic duo of duos began creating a kind of deconstructive account which showed how fashion pictures are constructed from collective dreams and fantasies, where the models play the leading role. In the 1998 catalog, they simply reduced one of the world’s highest paid models, Maggie Rizer, to a doll who lived in a little box. By exaggerating Rizer’s role – a stereotype of the sweet, innocuous woman – they called the system into question. It is quite simply impossible for the consumers to identify with the famous icon and her fictitious life. No one is so stupid as to dream of a life in a little box from Toys’R’Us.

M/M have shown that good graphic design both can and should address the same social and political issues as does the best contemporary art, even if the clients are multinational corporations! But despite the fact that the duo now exhibits at galleries and art shows, they have no ambitions of becoming artists. Instead of simply gathering dust at a museum of modern art, they want to continue to work as graphic designers in commercial networks – a context where one can communicate with a significantly larger public than in the elitist world of art.

M/M form as well as interrogate their age – our late-capitalist society, where schizophrenia has become a kind of normal condition – in at least the same superb way that the most prominent artists put the age do. Their portrait of Björk on the back side of “Wardrobe” is precisely as ambiguous as Richard Hamilton’s sick self-portrait (Oil on Cibachrome on Canvas) from 1990. Only a “lunatic” would paint green tears on a photograph of Björk with oil colors and then mount the whole shebang on canvas.

The psychopathological doodlings which spread out and cover Björk on both the concert placards and the CD cover, remind one of the symbolist Gustave Moreau’s manic ornamentation. The grotesque idea of decapitating the supermodel Christy Turlington – whose head hangs in the air right above her – in Balenciaga’s ads is clearly derived from Moreau’s 'Apparition' from 1876, where Salome recoils from John The Baptist’s floating head. A grisly painting from a chaotic epoch where the consumer society – just as during the IT boom and the new economy – was in one of its most aggressive phases.

But worst of all is no doubt the 'evil eye' – the eternal companion of the psychotic paranoiac – which runs down Björk’s cheek in the video for 'Hidden Place' and clings to the face of the Spring Balenciaga model. In today’s incalculable, immeasurable control society, a persecution complex should, in other words, be viewed not as a pathology but as a civic duty.