On the release of their long-awaited monograph, the two co-founders of iconic studio M/M (Paris) reflect on their body of work and intellectual process
If one studio could be said to capture the spirit of late-20th century visual design culture, M/M (Paris) is it. Two decades after its founding, a hefty monograph – designed by Graphic Thought Facility, published by Thames & Hudson and written by curator Emily King – has been released, not just as an archive of its vast repertoire but as a testament to the creatives’ influence.
“We’ve been working on this for around 10 years,” begins Mathias Augustyniak, one half of M/M, who co-founded the studio with fellow art school graduate Michael Amzalag. “Emily and GTS came up with the name together: M to M of M/M (Paris). They saw our work as a world and transferred the idea of the A to Z of London. They thought: okay, start the book with Michael, end with Mathias, and in between, [have] all the things we have embraced. It took us a lot of time to arrive at that point.”
Since the very start of M/M (Paris), the studio’s body of work has been developed from a principle that is followed in every project it undertakes. “We believe that culture should infiltrate every part of society,” Augustyniak explains. “The assumption we made was that by using the medium and tools of a graphic designer – basically signs and images – we could disseminate, through every kind of media, our ideas.”
He continues: “At the start of M/M, we built up this kind of toolbox that we’ve been using now for more than 20 years. It’s a programmatic plan, which we thought was better carried out with the combination of two personalities that could complement each other.”
With its trademark method of using free forms within strictly controlled compositions, and a penchant for post-punk aesthetics combined with a respect for the Swiss school of graphic design, M/M’s work straddles the music, fashion and art worlds. The studio’s long-standing creative clients and collaborators include fashion designers Yohji Yamamoto, Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga and Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy; musicians such as Björk, Madonna, The Micronauts and Kanye West; and artists including Sarah Morris, Philippe Parreno, Pierre Huyghe and more.
“What excites us in what we do is more the people we work with than the brief we are given,” says Amzalag. “To use Björk as an example, we are dealing with such an exceptional person who is very generous and very creative, and that’s the kind of relationship we value, with any artist or photographer. We’ve been lucky enough to be able to find people who can engage in those kinds of conversations, which is very different and a lot more exciting than just looking at a brief.
“Usually, when we get a precise brief sent to us, we start by questioning every element of it; most briefs are badly formulated, with preconceived ideas about what you’re supposed to create. For us, it’s about flipping these ideas, finding ground and creating space.”
The idea of partnership is crucial to how M/M works. “Two people are stronger than one, but as soon as you try and start to rationalise that fact, it doesn’t work any more,” Augustyniak continues. “The idea is to keep the polyphony of the voice. It’s a bit like two tennis players who know each other extremely well, and so the more they go on with their work relationship, the more impact they have.”
After meeting with another powerhouse duo – photographers Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin – in the late 90s, M/M embarked on its most important collaboration to date. “Both Michael and I had noticed their work in magazines before, and were very interested in the way they were using photography,” Augustyniak reflects. “They were using photography as a tool, not just as a means of expression.”
‘The Alphabet’ was one of their first joint projects – a series of 26 faces representing each letter of the alphabet, with the ‘typeface’ originally published in V magazine. “The combination of them and us was very productive, because we started to produce images that had four authors instead of just one. Somehow, using their photography world, they did the same thing we did within the design world. They created a toolbox that enabled other people to produce images with them,” Augustyniak continues.
“They go one step further, because the images we created together aren’t just capturing reality, they’re capturing a reality that has been built in front of us; we were building realities that we were recording with a camera.”
In such a prolific and diverse portfolio – from Vogue covers and Balenciaga invitations to a bronze tree planted in Iceland, and Thoumieux chandeliers – what makes an M/M piece distinctly recognisable? “Of course there is this handwriting-style approach, or a kind of free-structural approach that’s common,” Amzalag muses. “And after looking at all these images, there is something that does come out as signature, as a language of M/M. I think basically for us, M/M is a place where we can produce experiences, either through commissions, among ourselves or through invitations extended to other people. It’s all about making this experience – not so much of a fantasy, as such – take some kind of root in reality; more like finding ways to produce or reproduce reality. That’s what’s at the core of every project, transcribed differently in each case.”
“We want to keep a personal voice, even if we’re dealing with mass media,” Augustyniak adds. “Whatever scale we’re working on, it’s important for us to attract a person on a one-to-one level. It’s like what a pop group does, playing in front of a huge crowd and still keeping that one-to-one relationship with the people in the audience. We cultivated a freehand language, let’s say, that will not have any author apart from the fact that it’s created by M/M (Paris) in neutral and mutual co-operation.
“It’s a contradiction, but at the same time this concept really helped us to anchor our work in the world,” he concludes. That’s why we waited so long to have a monograph – we want the reader to say, ‘Oh, I remember this, and I don’t remember it was in that year, but it’s still there and it still had an influence in the visual, art, cultural world today’.”
Limited-edition multi-format packages in custom die-cut sleeves, sealed with a sticker, including 12-inches, CDs and DVDs for Björk
Biophilia Ultimate Art Edition
A lacquered and engraved oak hinged-lid case for Björk’s Biophilia Ultimate Art Edition, including 10 chrome-plated tuning forks
Balenciaga’s 2002 Spring/Summer invitation card, with after-campaign photography by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, featuring model Christy Turlington
Arena Homme+ issues 28 and 29 feature photography by Juergen Teller and drawings by M/M: the studio art directed the magazine between 2007 and 2009, and its use of idiosyncratic type choices and organic free-form illustrations was at the centre of ‘The New Ugly’ debate around editorial design that was taking place at the time