With a great track record in music, events branding and designing high quality books, Form is celebrating 21 years as one of London's most vibrant studios
Who would be your ideal client? It's a question designers often ask themselves. Paula Benson and Paul West, founders of Form are no different. One day in 2010 Benson sat down, opened her notebook and gave it some thought. What she jotted down was: 'Rebrand NASA' and 'Virgin Media'. The next day there was an email in her inbox from Mischa Varmuza at Virgin Galactic asking if Form would like to work with them.
It's one of the best design industry anecdotes we've ever heard. Cosmic intervention, serendipity, total coincidence - call it what you will. But it's a story that chimes perfectly with the positive attitude that West and Benson exude whenever we talk to them. They love being designers and it shows in their work.
"We've always been about bringing personality to the work that we do and the companies we do it for. That hasn't changed at all," says West. "If anything it's magnified. We've always loved the idea of creating worlds for our clients, and that might be for a record campaign, it might be for a fashion brand, it might even be for a book for, say, Rotovision."
21 years of Form
On 2 January this year, Form celebrated 21 years in business. The week after the country raised a glass to Elizabeth II on her Diamond Jubilee, Form held its own commemoration at London's Blackall Studios, just around the corner from the studio's base in Shoreditch.
FormTwentyOne featured 21 pieces of work, one for each year it's been in business. There were stalls with iPad installations running interactive presentations about the work, display tables of behind-the-scenes material from the projects and forum discussions involving various people Form has worked with over the years. The exhibition coincided with the launch of the FormTwentyOne book, a beautifully printed limited-edition publication documenting all the items on show.
The Virgin Galactic job is one of the 21 projects being highlighted, and it's Benson's favourite. After all, how many studios get to design space tourism brochures? "It's one project where we realised that all our ideas about the future are happening now and that the future is here in a way," she reflects. "And also because it was just fantastic talking to the client, working with these images of space tourism. It was so exciting."
Other highlights from Form's 21 years include oodles of music industry projects - the studio has worked with everyone from East 17 to Everything But The Girl, and on to Pendulum, Elbow, Depeche Mode, Scritti Politti and Natalie Imbruglia. The pair have designed an amazing retro-futuristic website for record producer and songwriter Matt Rowe. However for West, the queens of pop and the best music design project honours go to Girls Aloud. Form's collaboration with the band covered a slew of releases and spanned several years in the mid-noughties.
"We were just constantly buzzing with ideas and obscure references. Polydor were pretty well open to anything we suggested and we just worked really well," West says. "We worked with amazing photographers - really, really brilliant photography - and the whole thing was just a superb project."
The Form repertoire has included a number of impressive book design projects as well. In 1991, it was hired to design the catalogue for Damien Hirst's first major exhibition, held at the ICA. The artist offered the pair a painting for £250 but they were skint and graciously turned down the offer. It's a good thing for the design world, because if they'd bought it Benson and West might have been able to retire by now on the resale proceeds. 10 years later they did a retrospective book with The Clash - a 320-page monster with US photographer Bob Gruen.
Sex, Pies and the Turner Prize
In 2008, Form were approached by Dorling Kindersley to art-direct and design Sex: How To Do Everything. Perhaps even dirtier was their own book Shelf Life, which featured bizarre packaging from around the world, such as Kräpp Toilet Paper. Shelf Life was shipped in a bright pink sweet wrapper.
It was Form's own collection of packaging that inspired the project, and self-initiated work like this has helped them keep fresh and learn by exploring new ventures. Benson explains: "We put it all together in a book, got a deal with Bloomsbury, launched it in Selfridges, put on an amazing exhibition in Selfridges and had a big party, and did our own press campaign as well. So we had coverage in all sorts of things, even the Daily Mail did a double-page spread!"
Having hit 21, their new passion is fashion. Form created quite a stir when it launched its own clothing brand UniForm in 1997 with T-shirts like 'Pie', 'Lard', 'Tek' and 'Design Wank'. The studio did its own publicity and it went well beyond press releases and a website. There was a guerilla marketing attack on the Turner Prize that year - 20 people walked around the Tate Gallery wearing 'Art Wank' T-shirts.
Fashion follows Form?
What Benson and West learned through UniForm and from their music industry clients is now being applied in their work for the fashion brand Lettuce. This too appears in FormTwentyOne.
"It's quite freaky because it's exactly the same kind of buzz, the same high, but it's for a very, very different industry, which actually does rub shoulders with music," says West. "We're actually working with four fashion brands at the moment and our only regret is that we want more. It's unlocked a hunger!"
While nothing has changed about the pair's approach to design, and the enthusiasm for the work is clearly still there, at 21 there's a maturity about Form that has grown through experience. According to Benson, they not only love doing beautiful work, they now like to measure the results and have proof that it matters - proof, like a 35 per cent upswing in sales for a client they recently rebranded.
And the future? Well, Form's next big project is for a hotel complex in Mexico and after our interview the pair will be talking to new prospective clients in the United States. Watch this space because Form is going global.
Hailing from Bridport in Dorset, Paul West graduated from the London College of Communication with a first-class degree and went on to work with Peter Saville Associates, Mark Farrow and freelanced for Vaughan Oliver before founding Form alongside Paula Benson. His main expertise is in art direction covering all aspects of Form's design work from the photography to identity in both print and digital.
Originally from Durham, Paula Benson studied design at Central St Martins and shortly after founding Form with Paul West won the Prince's Youth Business Trust's Best New Business award in 1991. She used it to buy the studio's first Mac. A strategic thinker, she's committed to Form and once turned down a job co-heading Apple's graphics team.
Lettuce Spring / Summer 2012 brochure
Form is becoming increasingly involved in fashion design, working on brands such as Lettuce
Form celebrated its 21st birthday with a retrospective exhibition at Blackhall Studios in Shoreditch, London
Graphic designs on display at the FormTwentyOne exhibition, which took place in June 2012