The French Design Duo Discuss Internet Culture, Flower Power, and Creative Collaboration
The illustrious curator Hans Ulrich Obrist once described French art director duo Michael Amzalag and and Mathias Augustyniak as “connecting the art world to every aspect of modern society.” Best known as M/M, the pair has marked a turning point in communication. Over the years, they have built genre-defying bridges between creative fields. Today, they are thought to have brought graphic design out of the shadows and elevated to it to an art form.
It took them a solid dose of courage: Upon graduating from Paris’ École des Arts Décoratifs, they decided not to intern nor assist anyone. Instead, they plunged headfirst and launched their own agency at a place and time when start-ups were quasi impossible to start: Paris, the early 90s.
In 1992, M/M Paris saw the day. Rapidly, their cheeky, iconoclastic approach brought their client list to unsuspected heights: Yohji Yamamoto and Jil Sander were amongst their first contracts. Madonna, Bjork, French Vogue, Purple magazine, to name a few, rapidly followed. Several exhibitions have since celebrated their creativity, ranging from Paris’ Palais de Tokyo to London’s Haunch of Venison.
Flaunt met the eternal teens in their studio north of Paris, and talked about fame, Internet culture, and their first ever retrospective book M to M of M/M (Paris)—out from Rizzoli this month—whilst sipping on green tea and doodling in unison.
Trends pass by so fast, ultra trendy magazines can become has-beens in the space of a year, yet you have worked through many generations of style. What aspect of your work stands the test of time?
Michael: We never did graphic design for the sake of graphic design. Those magazines you talk about are by people who make one thing, have one concept, which they try to market endlessly. We produced a toolbox that allows us to produce an array of different things. That’s the difference—we have something that allows us to create what we want to create. Concretely speaking, this includes 50 alphabets we invented, a bank of images, a team of people that work here, a studio. This toolbox never ceases to grow.
Has your fame affected the way people see you, the type of commissions you get?
Michael: Of course, some people first heard of us via newspaper articles on the release of our book last year. But you know what the funny thing is? All the interviews in France tend to focus on this notion of success, fame, and very little on the actual work we do. Le Monde, Libération, seemed only interested in our public image. On the other hand, interviews by foreign press are much interested in the nature of our work.
This way of looking at everything through a class-based prism is very French. You are either a revolutionary or an aristocrat, and either an aristocrat pestering against revolutionaries or vice-versa. It’s a caricature, and a tiring one too.
You chose never to intern for anyone. Right after graduating, you formed your own business. Why? And could this still be possible today?
Mathias: We were never interns because we had a precise idea of what we wanted to make. No studio or agency did what we wanted to do. Intuitively, we found ourselves at the crossroads of many different worlds. We wanted to create bridges between all these worlds.
But indeed, society was totally different, and so was the state of the economy. A model had been put into place after the war, and when we graduated it was difficult to just set up your own little business. The idea of a start-up simply didn’t exist.
Your career path is paved with fruitful collaborations with musicians. How does that process work exactly—do you view it as a consulting job, a creative collaboration?
Michael: When the Beatles produced an album without their usual producer Phil Spector, it just sounded like a bad Beatles album. Working with a musician should be a true collaboration.
Take the case of French singer Benjamin Biolay. When he came to see us, he didn’t have a mediatic incarnation, he just didn’t exist in the media. We created an image that looked both like him and like us. We took him into our world to bring him even closer to who he is, resulting in him being able to exist in the media alone.
We know how to ‘highlight’ people, like Martin Scorsese knows how to highlight Robert de Niro, and Robert de Niro remains himself but is also someone totally unique with Scorsese. People always remain true to themselves.
How do you work? Do you still work by hand, sketch, doodle?
Mathias: We think things through and realize good ideas need a long time to develop, to mature. Everything is still done by hand, organically. We cannot mechanize and industrialize what we do. If you want to use the metaphor of a rock band, we create our own instruments, we play with them, and we find a way of recording the sound we create.
Since you first began designing, there has been an enormous digital boom, and today, Internet culture and the Tumblr aesthetic has trickled into magazines. Is this something you can relate to?
Michael: There is no such thing as an Internet aesthetic. There are modes of communication that are grafted from other modes of communication that already existed. The 90s are the new 70s. We grew up with a longing for “Flower Power,” and this admiration of the Internet’s early days reminds many people of their childhood, a sort of lost paradise. I suppose anything reminiscent of your childhood always seems prettier.
The trouble is, people watch endless streams of images and info without ever knowing where they are from; no one wonders about the context, the history. They trigger a distant memory that no one really remembers nor cares to remember.
In the end, these images say very little, they trigger a lukewarm contemplation. If there is a new aesthetic, it is the aesthetic of boredom.
Mathias: The stronger and more personal an image, the more chance it will outlive the others. To me, the saddest aspect of all this Internet culture is to see all these people-working non-stop on blogs and online magazines, and I always wonder, “Who pays them? How do they make a living?” All this time spent, and still no stable economy has been restored.
You have worked with a large number of magazines. What is the recipe for success when, say, re-launching a magazine like you did for Interview?
Michael: I arrived at French cultural magazines Les Inrockuptibles at an early age, when magazines formed communities, and defined an epoch’s taste. I still like this idea of press being a cultural point of reference.
For Interview and the work we did with Glenn O’Brian, we were all equally involved with each aspect of the magazine. It only works if each party is as interested by the full project, in all its aspects. We can’t simply be in charge of laying out images. As a group, we decided not to do a fashion magazine but a magazine in fashion.
Do you sense a hierarchy, a snobbism between, say, contemporary art project, like you’ve done at the Palais de Tokyo and fashion projects?
Matthias: Fashion is fascinating but the issue is that the way it is talked and written about is often pointless and badly researched. There is a real void in the domain. Of course it’s not an easy topic, as magazines are now run by their advertisers, but I often find that texts in the local press are pretty empty.
Do you have a dream project?
Michael: I don’t know, build a town? We don’t have a dream client, because the dream client is never where you expect to find them.
How about areas you haven’t focused on yet—cars, gastronomy?
Matthias: Gastronomy more than cars. Cars don’t interest me that much. Given the opportunity, I’d rather make a boat. But food, why not. I’d be interested in exploring the connection between taste and shape in gastronomy.
Any tips, advice, words of wisdom for Flaunt readers?
Michael: Go see our exhibition in Pasadena. And learn how to make French toast.