An interview with M/M by Tomoaki Shimmizu
+81 magazine, vol. 5, 1998

French graphic designers/art directors M/M got their start within French music industry. Music afficionado Michael Amzalag is also a DJ, and Mathias Augustyniak combines his London influences with a strong independent direction. The two maintain their extremely flexible stance with clients in a variety of genres. This attitude keeping them one step apart from graphic designers in industry-leading England, the two are currently the object of much attention worldwide. Jil Sander, Martine Sitbon and Yohji Yamamoto catalogues and campaigns, record sleeves for Pierre Henry remix project or Mathieu Boogaerts amongst others, are all part of their work. With the duo's habit of taking on new things, one could say that they mark a bright and innovative spirit in the midst of France's apparent conservativism.

TS First, I'd like to ask you both for a brief profile.

MA I was trained at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. I began helping out with the rock/cultural magazine Les Inrockuptibles by chance, and ended up taking on the entire art direction and redesigning the magazine. That happened between 1989 and 1990, around the same time that I met Mathias, while being still at school. We soon decided to work together sooner or later, and to set up our own studio. After that, Mathias went to the Royal College of Art in London, to practice his skills and developp his ideas in a post-graduate course. When he came back in 1991, as I had left the magazine, we founded M/M.

MA We'd kept in touch between London and Paris, but when I got back to Paris we were surprised to realize how similar our designs were. It was true synchronicity.

TS How were you able to get away from European tradition and the apprentice system and start doing graphic design for yourselves?

MA In the early 1990s, graphic design just happened to have gone entirely outside - to England, of course, and also to Japan, Germany and America - so we could get away without studying under a famous French designer. We were able to start our own history. We were in an incredibly free position, but we couldn't just do anything. As we moved ahead, we were thinking quite hard about what things everyone would enjoy.

TS How do the two of you work together?

MA It's exactly like being in a boat - when one of us tires, the other takes over the oars, then sometimes we paddle together. We always talk over everything and make decisions together. We don't decide things one-sidedly.

MA We use the computer at the last stage to make work go smoothly, in order to assemble all the differents elements that are parts of our ideas. But our "analog" work, like thinking about what we're doing before we use the computer is more important than anything else.

TS You've gained some major clients like Jil Sander and Yohji Yamamoto, haven't you.

MA Yes we did. It's hard work that demands a lot of energy, but we enjoy our position, as "visual interpreters" for a designer or brand. It is quite challenging to have to keep everybody's interest over the seasons, trying to do different things every time. It's hard. We have to keep a fresh point of view through the time.

MA With Jil Sander and Yohji Yamamoto, we have to start a revolution every six months. Two times each, which makes for four times a year (laughs)!

MA We can't just create one system and repeat the same thing every day. Fashion pictures may look avant-garde at a time, but six months later they can look horribly old if they're not strong enough. That's why we always have to be extremely hard with ourselves.

MA We've got the chance to work with people who are strong individuals, like Yohji Yamamoto or Jil Sander. People like that can leads us in differents and extremes directions.

MA Yohji or Jil have very strong personalities, and it happen that through the work we've been doing for quite a while now, we learned a lot and get to know them much better. And through the time they understand better and better our position. This situation allows us to sow certain seeds, so to some extent we're free. This is how work goes smoothly.

TS In your work it becomes necessary to create/construct images. How do you go about doing this?

MA The image develops as we meet time after time with our clients. You could say that that person's individuality influences us. We have to build different approach for each one of them, whether they are Martine Sitbon, Jil Sander, Yohji Yamamoto, a contemporary art curator or a theater director. So I think it's natural that each piece work becomes an interpretation of their personality, there is often a part of it in which we take on the client's individuality too.

TS You do a lot of work with Marc Ascoli (art director and Martine Sitbon's partner), don't you?

MA That's right. He's an amazing person.

MA He has moments of explosive energy. He doesn't just work automatically or mechanically, one reason he's so full of humanity. He's able to respond with flexibility to his work. For us he is a bit like our grand dad in the fashion world!

TS You've also been working a lot lately with lnez van Lamsweerde lately.

MA She's another person with a very strong perspective. She doesn't work mechanically too, but listens to the opinions of others and discusses things over in collaborative projects.

MA We're both people with strong personalities, so in this sense we're not flexible, but at the same time we never collide. For instance in the previous Yohji Yamamoto catalogue, Inez has the idea of the girl acting as doll, so we developp the idea to the point of making a box for this doll. In the newest catalogue, every page is a collaboration between lnez, Vinoodh, myself and Mathias. First we watched the Yohji show together, then we exchanged opinions on what should be done and came up with this idea of this strange magical territory beyond the boundaries of reality, where scale and light are reversed as in a "camera obscura".

TS It feels as though right now French graphic design isn't exactly flowering. What do you think about this?

MA That's still true, but then thinking about conditions in England right now, I'm satisfied to be a designer in Paris. The situation here is completely different than what's happening in England. There, designers often work only within specific genres. We work in so many areas, from fashion and music to contemporary art museum and theater, that we have the freedom to come and go within a variety of genres. We can use ideas that comes from fashion into art-related work, for example. We can do this because we work in France; in England, we wouldn't be able to. If we were in England, i don't think we'd be doing graphic design. I'm not interested in it. There are too many designers, and it feels like there's nothing new to do. I've never thought that I wanted to work as a designer in England.

MA Say I'm in London for a week. I can meet a lot of graphic artists, look at a lot of books and magazines and go to graphic art exhibits over and over again. It gets very soon overwhelming and not very inspiring.

MA Graphic art in England is so bound into fine areas like typography, design printing and new colors, there's nothing global about it. That's why it's so satisfying to work in France. I had fantasies about England when I was a student, of course, but once I'd gone to England and seen how it really is I'm happy to be in France.

MA In England, nothing is more important than coming up with new styles.

MA Of course we create styles too, but first we take care to find a new perspective or direction for ourselves. This is one place where we differ from people like Tomato for instance. When you look at an ad for Adidas or Coca Cola or a CD jacket for Underworld, you know right away that it's a Tomato piece of work. For us, the interesting thing is to stay unexpected. For example, this poster for a play has a completely different mood from our other work. We also did this collage. We'd like to work by responding flexibly to our clients. We use photographs that we've shot ourselves, thinking of the object of the image as we take them. With typography, we use pre-existing fonts or create our own depending on the job. The font in the catalogues for Gallery 213 is one that we designed ourselves exclusively for this project.

MA Did you go to the exhibition of Japanese artists held at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts called "Donaiyanen". The catalogue for the exhibition was a complete copy of of one we'd done for an exhibition of young Scandinavian artists. The division of pages and use of colored paper on the pages before and after an artist's photograph, even the size was the same. There's some thing strange going on there. It'll be a good joke if the catalogues for all the exhibitions that introduce young artists turn out the same way.

MA We also worked on the catalogue for the 1998 Berlin Bienniale, and arranged both artist introductions and the guide to the city itself in alphabetical order. We worked on this system itself.

TS That goes beyond the range of a graphic designer, doesn't it.  Would you say it's closer to being an organizer?

MA (laughs) I don't really understand the definition of "graphic artist" as a profession.

MA We don't just do covers and typography. We take everything from those abilities to a sense of direction and bring together what we're doing.

MA Actually, when I was younger I wanted to grow up to be a "recreational engineer"(laughs).

MA I wanted to be a "flies hunter".

MA We're graphic artists, and through this, what we get to do is meeting fascinating people. And since we do this and earn a living I'm satisfied. To put it in extreme words, this job allows us to meet everyone from the very rich to the very poor, from people with means to people without. It's fascinating.

TS It's a change of topic, but you have a strong connection to music. Your career started with a rock magazine. What is happening now with eDEN, the house music magazine you make?

MA We decided purposely to stop the magazine in 1994. It was the first French magazine to deal with house music and club culture. It started as an underground alternative to the established music press, as a spontaneous expression of what we were living in these moments. At the time, the media didn't pay any attention to the now so-called 'electronic culture', so we made it for ourselves. Now that magazines and radio talk about house and Daft Punk can sell two million albums, there is no more reasons to continue it..

TS Do you still have an interest in house music?

MA I'm interested in it, but listen as well to other genres now. I'm also a DJ. I don't have any regular nights, but I've been playing all around in Paris (Le Queen, Le Rex Club, Le Privilege, Le Bataclan, ...) and had for two years my own weekly radio show on RadioFG, the parisian house/techno FM radio station. I've stop this now because it took me too much time to organise, but I still give them monthly a one hour mix called "Aspirine Mix". It is a good résumé of what I'm listening, an eclectic mixture of new wave, disco, breakbeat, rock, electro, psychedelia, whatever. My next engagement as a DJ is in New York, for the opening night party of Inez' exhibition at Matthew Marks Gallery.

TS You do a lot of work on record and CD jackets too, don't you.

MA As we started in the music industry we did a lot, but now we're much more selective: the only reason we do a sleeve is that we actually enjoy the music.. Recently we've worked for the French hard house act Impulsion and for Mathieu Boogaerts. Mathieu Boogaerts seems to be even more popular in Japan than in France.

TS Is there any group you particularly like right now?

MA There's a French duo called The Micronauts that I like. They're going to be BIG!!! They blend a unique mixture of electro energy and extreme sounds. Their sound is very strong. They have already remixed The Chemical Brothers, Underworld and The Strike Boys! Shall I put it on for you? It is their forthcoming 12" single, and will not be released probably until march or april.

TS It's a bit like 1980s new wave and elevator pop, isn't it.

MA It is called "The Jag" and I love the way it sounds. It is like disco with a disease, kind of nauseous but extremely addictive when you get into it. I play it everywhere, even if it is only 104bpm, and always get mad reactions from the crowd! This guys have released a brilliant compilation of the early electro stuff of the late Celluloid label, for which we did the sleeve. It has 1980s hip hop, Grandmixer DST and KONK on it. Why It Is Fresh? is a good album name, isn't it.

TS Do you have any plans for the future?

MA I don't really know. I can't see the future. It wouldn't be much fun to keep going on like this forever. I guess I want to be free to do as I like, and to be a fool like I am now (laughs). If it ever stops being fun I'll quit this job. If it gets hard to keep going. With this job, there are things to be wildly glad about at each turn; if I stop feeling this way then there's no meaning, and I'm just doing the same thing over and over again. Actually, one thing I'd like to do in the near future is go to Japan.

MA We haven't been to Japan yet.

MA I don't want to go as a tourist, but want to try living in the country.I went to England, and learned very well that it's best to see things with your own eyes.