A Practice for Everyday Life is a British design agency, yet it isn’t often that we’re prompted to consider what that might mean for our work and culture. Drawing geographical lines within the global design community seems increasingly irrelevant, in our networked world—people and practices are more mobile than ever, and it goes without saying that the internet has had a huge impact on the loosening of bonds between our work and the studio’s physical location.
APFEL works with clients all over the world, so whilst we are based in the UK, our designs don’t immediately feel tied to, or influenced by, that location. Britain’s rich graphic design heritage is undeniably an influence on what we do, but with a studio library stocked with as much Tschichold and Bayer as it is Birdsall or Hollis, we’re working from a much broader frame of reference. With that in mind, a programme like the UK-Russia Year of Culture 2014 is an interesting prompt and context in which to consider the impact of place on our practice. Looking back on APFEL’s work over its eleven-year history, there’s a certain intangible character within it that betrays the influence of our location, and that’s something worth exploring.
It’s been just over two years since I joined APFEL, coming to the studio from a background of design criticism rather than design practice. It’s a fascinating position to be in, when you’re more used to looking in from outside of the studio environment. The opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time embedded within its studio culture, actively participating in the production of projects, offers a more nuanced perspective on an agency’s body of work portfolio—and has shed light on the way that working processes and influences translate into a finished design.
Designers, when asked, often describe their influences in terms of the discipline’s history, of other cultural pursuits, or of the people and places they encounter. With such a wealth of information and stimuli at our fingertips, it’s easy to dismiss the impact of our immediate surroundings, but it’s the influence of place that interests me particularly here. For APFEL, that place is Bethnal Green, in London’s East End, where the studio has been based since it was founded in 2003.
Take a walk through the main streets and backstreets of this particular district, and its distinctive character reveals itself in snippets—idiosyncrasies that catch the eye, and create an understanding of the area that sits separate from any more practically-grounded description. Like much of East London, recent gentrification is evidenced by the slow emergence of buildings, businesses and ventures that sit alongside the established outposts of its original inhabitants. Pubs, betting shops, greasy spoon cafes and all the other East End stalwarts endure, interspersed with the shops, bars, workshops and studios of the area’s newer inhabitants. So far, so standard—it’s the same story in many other pockets of London, where regeneration has taken hold. What sets Bethnal Green apart is harder to pinpoint, something intangible in the mix, that somehow feels more personable.
It’s through this landscape and community that we all walk, every day—to, from and around the studio, tucked away on a side-street off Old Bethnal Green Road. These walks, and the people, places and things encountered on them, contribute to an everyday vernacular within the studio, punctuated by the bizarre, the memorable and the exceptional. The influence of that vernacular on the studio’s work is not immediately apparent in all but the most explicit of cases. Certain projects for clients in the immediate vicinity have, in the past, propelled us out on to the local streets with camera and notebook in hand, but for the most part, the influence is less direct and more subliminal.
There are many unexpected discoveries to be made in the neighbourhood. A ghost sign on the side of an old terrace that receives a sudden, sensitive restoration at the hands of local architects; or a shuttered and battered shop front, long assumed to be abandoned, that opens on odd evenings to reveal a small gallery, its clandestine occupants swigging beer from bottles on the pavement outside. On an unassuming residential side street a few seconds’ walk from the gates to our yard, a lone shop with a nondescript facade stocks a cornucopia of imported Mexican groceries, homewares and trinkets. Walk in the opposite direction, and on the corner of our block you’ll find a lone, slightly faded beauty parlour, outside which its jovial proprietors sit and sun themselves on garden chairs whenever we get a bright day. Last year, they commissioned a giant, lurid mural in spraypaint to adorn the side of their building, showing a cartoonish girl with flowing hair, Barbie-bright, practically glowing against the subdued brick of the former furniture workshops that surround it.
It’s easy to romanticise places like this, with their melting-pot character and bawdy East End charm, but the reality is that we move through it, like all its other occupants, not (to borrow from psychogeography) on some drifting dérive, but as a consequence of the everyday tasks demanded by work and life—journeys to visit clients or sites we’re working on, local errands, or the daily commute. The impression that we build of our surroundings comes about not consciously but subliminally, and manifests itself in the studio’s work in a similar way.
The notion that pedestrian movement through urban spaces can contribute to their character is one Michel de Certeau touches upon in The Practice of Everyday Life, the book from which our studio takes its name. His chapter ‘Walking in the City’ (from which I’ve borrowed the title of this piece), describes the ways in which cities take shape—not through the physical interventions of architects, urban planners or governments, but by the way in which their pedestrian inhabitants map out places by walking. The real practitioners or makers of a city, he argues, are those that experience and use it on a personal level. Walkers are the authors of a metropolitan identity in eternal flux, their viewpoints from ground level more valid and authentic than other more picturesque, panoramic or map-like views of the city.
Those impressions gained by walking could be seen to translate, in our own work, into subversions of an expected form, or hidden quirks that only reveal themselves on careful, repeated examination. Taking cues from the kind of vernacular objects and graphics you might encounter in everyday life, that sense of the everyday is harnessed, manipulated or taken as a point of departure. Wit appears, occasionally, too, more akin to a knowing look or aside than a pun or punchline. The combined experience of our surroundings—and the cumulative effect of places we’ve walked through and inhabited at various points in our lives—comes through less in direct references to its graphic language, than it does in the starting points chosen, material decisions made, and interventions imposed on something familiar.
As I’m writing this, we have just completed work on the design of an exhibition of large-scale public artworks to be held in Venice, alongside the 14th International Architecture Biennale—another stage on which place is an important factor. Held by Lisson Gallery, it’s titled Genius Loci, a name taken from the Roman term for guardian spirits who were believed to hold a protective power over a place. In more modern times, the meaning has shifted, with genius loci now used in reference to the intangible identity or atmosphere of a place, which becomes apparent to us through experiencing it. This seems an apt, if oblique, analogy to describe the influence that places can have on a practice in contemporary design; not manifesting directly, but insinuating themselves in a subtle way into the attitudes and approaches within everyday studio life.
This article was commissioned by KAK Magazine and the British Council on the occasion of the UK-Russia Year of Culture 2014. Written at A Practice for Everyday Life.