When it comes to creating ground-breaking design, Kanardo is sure to take the most original and risky approach. Mark Penfold meets the French design team making its mark on Lyon and the world.
Former journalist François Verdet and his card-carrying press photographer partner Christelle Chambre have history. As the creative brains behind Kanardo, they now work together, producing work that is visually exciting and possesses both depth and humour.
Indeed, it's interesting to speculate to what degree their previous occupations primed them to inject their current graphic work with such meaning, or at least to search out creative projects that already carry a story. Whatever the cause, from fake road signs to a custom paint job on a 1970s Ford Ranchero, everything these guys do feels conceptual and looks amazing. But, perhaps most importantly, they're not afraid to instill their work with bags of character.
"Kanardo is more than a commercial entity for us," Verdet explains. "It's the coming-into-existence of our own state of mind, in all its profundity." Profundity is a difficult term for graphic design: its close proximity to the quicksand of cheesiness is enough to scare the most earnest designer. But for some, that risk only adds to its value.
"We're hardworking, inquisitive, and always in search of new experiences. We learn by doing," says Verdet. These people are willing to have a go, to face the possibility of failure, but thereby gain access to higher ground.
Verdet and Chambre produce exciting and intelligent work, but it's as a focal point for collaborations that their design studio, Kanardo, seems to have found something of a metier. Bringing together talent and giving it the freedom to produce work that might just turn out to be significant, they give the collected talent a stab at the profound, without staking their reputation on it.
"For a long time we thought our own creative process ought to be right at the forefront of all our projects," says Verdet, echoing a common sentiment among creative professionals. The need to tighten every nut yourself is an understandable flaw among creatives.
But Verdet believes Kanardo has overcome this challenge. "We now see ourselves more as stage managers for other people's work, and we usually try to choose the projects that reflect our own creative ideas." This is surely a recipe for something very special.
Take the Panos Fake Road Signs project (see box below), a textbook example of Kanardo's style that drew high-profile collaborations from artists around the world. The experience has inspired the duo to plan another ambitious urban project.
Verdet hopes to create a range of enormous sculptures and place them in parks or public squares. "The theme is 'national heroes'," he explains, "people who have made a name in history. But only they will be fake figures." The brilliance of this idea is stellar. It just needs someone to pick it up and run with it.
The majority of Kanardo's bread-andbutter clients are from the press. Verdet is in charge of artistic supervision and page construction for "magazines orientated around mountain themes and winter sports." Chambre spends much of her time as a news photographer. "Afterwards, we accept or refuse - other proposals," they say.
Enthusiasm for derision
Though Verdet and Chambre have a shared history in the media, they first met while flipping burgers to pay for their studies. A decade later and Kanardo still displays the same characteristic "enthusiasm for derision" that originally brought the two students together over a sizzling hot plate.
Kanardo has a "forthright and blunt" take on the world, which Verdet and Chambre refuse to polish for commercial consumption. They are far more willing to see the elegance of an existing situation rather than contrive one. "We'd rather go with a photo that is technically imperfect but loaded with emotion," says Verdet.
"We've always appreciated photography," he continues, displaying a talent for understatement. But under pressure he admits that, "to be honest, it's a real addiction." True to form, this habit has a populist nature: everyone can take a photograph. "It's a really popular way of expressing oneself."
All photography, regardless of the standard, can come in for some praise, Verdet believes. "Even a family reunion sitting around a table for greatgrandmother's birthday. Every single photo, even the most banal, is a necessary account of society - how we lived, the way we dressed, what the rapport between family members was like." It all counts.
"We are fundamentally curious about everything," says Verdet. "We not only scrutinise the latest New York trends, but also a box of dishwasher powder on the shelf in a supermarket." This is how you seal in the freshness - by taking the world as you find it, and appreciating it.
In keeping with this enviable freestyle philosophy, the dynamic duo like to keep their working relationship as fluid as possible. "On a day-to-day basis the creative process is just as much individual as it is collective," says Verdet. "If one of us has an idea, he or she can either consult the other, or start to work alone."
This approach extends to commissioning, too. "We are just as much at ease as artistic directors for the press, capable of an objective vision regarding the contents of a magazine, as we are in the role of graphic designers in charge of the actual creation process." The modus operandi is dictated by the job in hand. It's that simple.
This may seem like a reasonable way to go about things, but it isn't ordered enough for some. As a result, Kanardo attracts a certain type of customer: "If someone gets in contact with us, it is rarely a matter of coincidence," Verdet admits. "They know about our work and want that style."
The doodling process is an essential element of what Kanardo's work is all about. "It's often from these initial squiggles that ideas for future projects are born," says Verdet. "But we don't really use pen and ink." The development may be digital, but the origin is analog.
"We write our ideas down so that we don't forget them, and then let the project take shape in our own heads. Then, very quickly, we either reach for the mouse or grab a camera." Speed is of the essence; the computer is their sketchpad.
"I work a lot by letting an idea flow its course," Verdet explains. "It's like a drop of water that trickles down a window and doesn't follow a set path, but forks out or separates in two. The first drop of an idea is always enriched by the things I see or hear."
If you're going to fly by the seat of your pants then you need good reactions and sharp instincts to pull it off, and a striking feature of the Kanardo portfolio is its strong use of colour, the choice of which, Verdet says, is always instinctive.
"We do have a favourite palette though, where the main colours are C20M0Y0K0, C0M23Y0K0, C30M0Y98K0 and C0M55Y98K0." So it's been developing in the background, just not on a conscious level. "I also love light grey," he concludes.
Whether producing fliers for hip club nights or documenting graffiti from around the world, Kanardo maintains a powerful engagement with both the world and with the local scene: "Lyon has been like a animal waking up from hibernation," says Verdet. "Things are now starting to move. This is positive."
Maintaining that attitude means commercial projects must be interspersed with as much 'art' as possible. "This allows us more breathing space, but also ground on which to test our ideas," says Verdet. Feed those ideas back in at the commercial end and everyone's happy. Well, almost.
"With most commercial work, creativity is at a mere ten or 20 per cent," says Verdet. "The client wants us to sell a product. They don't care about pretty pictures!" The trick, as Kanardo clearly demonstrates, is to maintain your attitude - even in the face of rampant commercialism.