Emily King, 2003
Taken from "Chaumont 03" Catalog
The posters designed by Mathias Augustyniak and Michaël Amzalag of M/M Paris are not contained by their frames. They do not keep to the orthodox format of the singular emphatic image sitting neatly in a rectangular border. Instead they sprawl across expanses of paper, trailing type and image in a way that can look playful, or loopy, or naïve, or aggressive, or decorative, or sometimes even ugly. They can appear casual, but this is extremely misleading. Each graphic tic or slouch is a highly controlled element in the overall composition, the elegant rejection of graphic resolution being infinitely more challenging than the neat tying of visual threads. But for all their undeniable virtuosity, M/M’s designs play havoc with the lore of poster design. They grab the viewer’s attention, but they refuse to give much away. They talk loud, but insist on using a graphic dialect entirely their own. Until you get a rudimentary grip, they aren’t going to tell you anything. Where conventional advertising posters deliver, M/M’s designs make you work, relinquishing meaning bit by bit.
The largest body of M/M posters was designed for a small-town theatre in Lorient, Brittany. The town was mostly destroyed in the Second World War and has been rebuilt in a squat and architecturally undistinguished fashion. The first of the theatre advertisements was posted in 1996 and M/M liken it to a very big alien landing in the streets. Seven years on, the situation has changed entirely. Far from appearing extra-terrestrial, the theatre posters have become a local event. They are anticipated, engaged with, collected, even studied at neighbourhood art classes. M/M view the posters as a progressive project. Their visual metaphors for the plays become more complex, their typefaces less straightforward and their typography more expressive. They are pursuing an ongoing design adventure and they are taking their audience with them. For a long time Lorient’s inhabitants fought against the uniformity of their post-war surroundings by painting their houses pretty shades. Now M/M’s posters have joined these brightly coloured buildings as part of a communal effort to create a distinctive urban landscape.
The example of Lorient raises the possibility that you can communicate better by holding something back. It doesn’t fit with well-rehearsed graphic theories, but isn’t a wholly new idea. During the 1950s and 60s, Polish poster designers created images for local audiences most of which had little to do with an unequivocal graphic message. Instead they provoked, entertained and, above all, provided relief from the grim surroundings of a country that had not been allowed to emerge from wartime austerity. These posters weren’t selling anything, because there were no excesses to be sold off. In the guise of advertising a film or a play, they were in fact constructing the visual identity of Poland, image by image. Of course Lorient is not comparable to post-war Poland, but the idea of an identity derived through sophisticated graphic design is significant. If there is a single lesson to be learnt from both examples it is never underestimate your audience.
The notion of exceeding the boundaries does not just apply to M/M’s theatre posters, it describes everything they do. Since the mid 1990s Augustyniak and Amzalag have worked extensively in fashion and through their cumulative work in this field they have created something of a breach in the industry’s well-policed graphic codes. Initially employed by designers at the radical end of the spectrum such as Martine Sitbon and Yohji Yamamoto, more recently M/M have been taken on by some of the industry’s major players including Paris Vogue and Calvin Klein. The move between the marginal and the mainstream has not prompted the designers to temper their approach. Far from it. Although they always adopt the fashion brand on its own terms, they never leave it well alone, and this is all the more surprising when you are talking about big American companies or conservative publishing empires. They are playing a sustained game with fashion’s graphic outreach that simultaneously amplifies and accents well-established messages.
M/M’s most longstanding fashion relationship to date has been with Yohji Yamamoto. Between 1995 and 2000, they created a series of catalogues for the Japanese designer that can be read as a single loosely structured fantasy. The starting point of this story was a publication that emphasised Yamamoto’s celebrated association with austere monochromatic garments. Shot by David Sims in 1995, it shows Stella Tennant in a series of elegantly gauche poses attired in signature Yamamoto pieces and accessorised with enigmatic geometric props. This tale was developed over subsequent catalogues. In particular the props evolved to become, in the case of the Fall/Winter 1998/1999 catalogue shot by Ines Van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, almost threatening. Where Stella Tennant clutches mute black disks and steps through purposeless archways, Maggie Rizer appears to use a collection of unyielding and perspectivally odd furniture as the setting for a supernatural rite.
The M/M/Yamamoto formula mellowed over the years. In the last of the catalogues, Fall/Winter 2000/2001 shot by Craig McDean, Amber Valetta wraps herself in gently padded robes and obscures her celebrated features with flimsy paper masks. Unmistakably part of the same story, this chapter offers a postscript ending, the kind of conclusion that implies a review of the entire episode through older, wiser eyes. M/M marked the end of their collaboration with Yohji Yamamoto with a publication titled Rewind/Forward. Intercutting catalogues one with another, this small book encouraged a non-seasonal take on fashion, a view that is an anathema to an industry that is founded on six-monthly fresh starts.
Translated to big fashion companies, M/M’s approach involves distilling a brand to its very essence and then building an elaborate structure on top of what remains. In case of Calvin Klein this led to hand-drawn logos and scissor-hewn collages that could have been taken from a teenager’s bedroom wall. For Paris Vogue it implied a fundamental restructure and a typographic overhaul intended to remind readers that the Vogue’s global format, currently among the most conservative of all fashion graphics, began life as an adventurous work of design.
In each of these instances the thinking extends beyond the immediate fashion transaction, but it is not the case that M/M ignore the business of buying and selling. To the contrary, in a recent collaboration with photographers Van Lamsweerde and Matadin they explored one of the most disturbing aspects of the fashion trade: the commercial worth the model’s image. The conceit of the project is an alphabet constructed from photographs of 26 models, each one posing for the letter most associated with their professional name: D for Sophie Dahl, H for Hannelore, S for Stephanie Seymour and so on. Van Lamsweerde and Matadin created a set of fashion photographs and passed them on to M/M who cropped them into a form that communicates both girl and initial. The trick of achieving a successful portrait cum letter relies on an emphasis on the model’s marketable assets: her eyes, lips, hair and breasts.
In several of the characters the model’s features hover in the empty space that represents the typographic counter. This leads to pairs of disembodied lips that bring to mind the collages of Richard Hamilton, pictures that are composed of the sexual and mechanic emblems of 1950s consumer society. The reference is appropriate - the subject matter of both sets of images is that which is up for sale. Fanatical fashion aficionados have a ready knowledge of the value of the current crop of models. They can flick through magazines naming daily rates. With the advent of the model alphabet, the same girls become part of a parallel system, one that is accessible to all. The letters were used as signage for an exhibition of Van Lamsweerde’s work. Running through the galleries with a camera in her hand, the photographer demonstrated that they were legible, even at speed.
In the case of the Lorient theatre project the aim of extending beyond the frame to create meaning that is decipherable only in context appears admirable. It privileges the community and promotes the construction of a positive local identity. The objective of the model alphabet is more ambiguous. Of course no one was forced to have their picture taken, but even so the overarching structure of the project smacks of collective coercion. M/M’s tendency to stretch beyond the frame is subject to a number of metaphors, and it is no surprise that these comparisons are pleasant and disagreeable in equal measure. Descriptions that emphasise linking and interconnection are appealing and unequivocally approving. Those that suggest binding or seepage are darker and imply a certain measure of ambivalence. Growing is nice, creeping is nasty.
This brink between nice and nasty is a position that M/M occupy with great style. Their mastery of the territory is aptly demonstrated by their video for the Bjork single Hidden Place, a film co-directed with Van Lamsweerde and Matadin. For the length of the song, the camera tracks the unceasingly drip of the performer’s inner substance as it flows from her eyes to her mouth and into her nose. Appropriately enough Bjork’s creative overflow is mercurial, a reflective, multi-coloured liquid that from time to time gives rise a sketchy blossom of doodles across her cheek. The film is repetitive and mesmeric, but, however many times it is shown, the sight of fluid shooting up a nostril is enough to inspire a little wince. The stuff that emerges from Bjork’s facial orifices may be pretty, but the idea of bodily leakage is inescapably noxious.
M/M approach each of their ventures afresh, but no single project is entirely contained. Instead their designs overlap, one on top of another, to give the sense of a sustained visual outpouring that never once lapses into complacency or cliché. Maybe they share some of Bjork’s silvery substance. Whatever it is that they run on, it has given rise to an extraordinary and disarmingly fluent graphic idiom.