Their CV might include design work for ethical investment companies and a bespoke book for a king, but they're still just uni mates at heart, as Beren Neale finds out
Established 11 years ago, Sheffield-based design studio dust has worked in a broad range of media, from embroidered book designs to installations, theatre set design and typography. Tellingly, the studio's three core members are old friends from university who met some 15 years ago, went their separate ways and then came back together to create dust. "From the very first time we started producing things as a group and influencing one another, it was very much the three of us against the world," explains founder Patrick Walker, "and that's been a strong defining factor of where we are now."
Walker met Alun Cocks and Pamela Bowman at Leeds Metropolitan University in the mid '90s, where they were all studying graphic art and design. He recalls it as not being a traditional communications course, with particular focus on craft and authorial practice (the voice of the artist taking centre stage), and soon the trio formed a tight-knit group. "We were spread across three consecutive years, with myself in the middle and Alun and Pam either side," says Walker.
With the course over, they shared post-graduate prospects of potential book design and concept art - and the arduous reality of finding work. Cocks took shifts as a night porter - "to ensure the public had access to frozen foods at all times" - a hotel auditor and in print management at a postcard maker. Bowman, meanwhile, found a job at the Central Lettering Record with typographers and designers Phil Baines and Catherine Dixon; and Walker began teaching various degree courses and worked for Sheffield studio Eg.G (which evolved into Corporation Pop).
In 2000, dust was set up in Walker's attic in Sheffield, although the studio is now based in the caretaker's area at the top of an old manufacturing building (with a Mac room, dark room and another room filled with a letterpress and inky floors). "I'd already seen what we could do together and it felt like something worth refining and pursuing," Walker reflects.
Soon, the studio was working in a range of mediums for a range of clients. When Central Illustration Agency (CIA) started representing dust, the projects broadened further and a steady team of collaborators came on board, including designer and illustrator Mick Marston and photographer Clive Egginton. Asked to name their favourite projects so far, Cocks offers the Unloud books, produced for British artist Duncan Higgins, "simply because of the process and craft involved in creating the multiple parts, and also the subject matter that inspired them." The project took its cue from Higgins' completion of a Nesta-funded fellowship in Solovki, north-western Russia, in which he created 1,600 10x7.5cm paintings and photographs, exhibited along with film footage of conversations in Russian translated into English. "We used the notion of 'what is left when the words and meaning are lost' as the basis of the three printed booklets we produced, which were hand-stitched into screen-printed covers, and then all housed in a bespoke screen-printed box with an accompanying film," explains Cocks.
Bringing the project out of the studio, they also produced a number of similarly themed supporting elements to coincide with the launch event at the South Bank in London. "We made a lead cast of a skull that was referenced in the film," says Cocks, "and three panoramic projections were developed to be displayed on the external face of the South Bank building." All three agree that it's the room for this physical response to a brief, and the depth of production that they enjoy the most, "especially when you look back at the work some time later," Cocks enthuses, "and appreciate the level of input that goes into the work, from the original thinking down to mixing ink."
For Bowman, the most interesting work for dust has been the self-initiated pieces rather than client jobs. A quick trawl through the studio's online archive helps her recall a particular favourite: Bitter Water was a set of prints about the bittersweet history of chocolate and the beliefs of the people of ancient Mexico. "The subject of the illustrations had been brewing in the studio with Patrick and Alun for some time - the extremities of indulgence, from chocolate to ritual sacrifice," she explains.
As a lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, Bowman's studio time occurs "on my laptop at home, in the evenings, on weekends and through the summer." It was while burning the midnight oil that she came across a translation of a 15th century poem by ancient Mexican poet The Hungry Coyote, "which complimented their illustrations of well-known, mass produced chocolates." This resulted in a set of silkscreen and letterpress prints, presented in a brown paper bag with a two-colour silk-screened dust signature.
For the last year they've been working with the ethical investment company Benchmark Holdings to develop trieSM: "It's a global initiative that defines better practice by environment, ethics, and economics," says Walker. They're all geared up to unveil trieSM to the public later this year. "So alongside a healthy dose of music and artworks, I would expect this to be of particular focus for us," he adds.
That isn't all. "We've always got a few projects on the go," says Cocks, "and right now that includes artwork for the Royal Mail Yearbook 2011," (letterpress typography with incorporating illustrations), "and a set of publications for artist Joanne Lee called the Pam Flett Press." Further nosing reveals they have another book to design for the Sheffield artist Pete McKee in the pipeline, their third collaboration with him in as many years. Then, of course, there's the book they made for a king.
Previous emir and current king of Bahrain, Shaikh Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa, approached M&C Saatchi to create a book for him, with dust then commissioned in light of its work on a John Harper book set.
"We got the call asking if we were interested," recalls Cocks. "We went for a meeting and, even more than is usually the case, the conditions were mountainous." With tight deadlines and lavish production requests, dust went into it like any other project. Well, almost.
"Parts had to be done in London, parts in Leeds and parts in Sheffield - the details of which would fill a lot of column space," Cocks says. "A book binder said to us: 'You're asking me to make a suit for a king - in a day!'" Needless to say, the king was extremely pleased with the outcome.