What happens when you are working with
clients who are as broke as you are? “You eat
potatoes and sell your car.”
If you are a graphic designer, the worst thing you can tell a client is that
you are an artist. If you’re an artist, the worst thing you can tell a
gallery owner is that you make a living as a graphic designer. The only way you can
get away with practicing both professions is to be dead. Poster designers of
yesteryear are often called artists—Alphonse Mucha, A.M. Cassandre, Lucian Bernhard,
Herbert Matter, El Lissitzky, and Paul Rand among them. Today, chances are even Milton Glaser
would hesitate before claiming to be an artist, his most artistic endeavors classified as
That’s probably why, when three French conceptual artists/designers got together in 1997 to create a graphic design collective, they chose for their studio a name as unemotional and clinical as possible. Calling themselves Labomatic, they insinuated that their approach would be as rigorous and methodical as that of lab technicians. For good measure, they even threw in a ™ after the name.
They didn’t fool anyone.
Their early CD covers, for the Verve record label in particular www.vervemusicgroup.com, and their museum posters and catalogues for the Musé d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, all had what can best be described as a painterly quality, with lyrical type treatments and a baroque esthetic reminiscent of the ’70s Fluxus movement. Their design projects for corporate clients, like a CD-ROM for a division of the petrochemical giant Elf, a Web site for the communication firm Cegetel, or a brochure for Hewlett-Packard, betrayed their artistic sensibility as well: They used riotous colors, reminiscent of the painting style of the Nabis (Bonnard and Vuillard), and a pictorial vocabulary of drips, splashes, and squiggles that suggested abstract expressionism. As if to temper their more exuberant impulses, they borrowed the typographical mannerism of the American and British designers they admired, notably April Greiman and Neville Brody.
Try as they might, though, there was nothing mainstream about them. The members of Labomatic™ were heavily invested in the underground art scene, and it showed.
Before forming the studio, Frédéric Bortolotti, a writer, editor, and art director, had launched Bulldozer, an offbeat graphic design magazine inspired by Émigré that was, until its demise in 2000, a forum for underground artists; P. Nicolas Ledoux, an architect, musician, and conceptual artist had created in the 1980s Out of Nowhere, a now-defunct publication dedicated to “industrial” music, art, and literature, and was making avant-garde installations; Pascal Béjean, a former fashion designer, was the only trained graphic designer.
“Right from the start, we wanted to function as a collective in order to erase the individual approach,” says Bortolotti. “We wanted to take a stand against the star system.” Proving that expressing a difference of opinion is not incompatible with collaboration, both Béjean and Ledoux instantly disagree. “I would not mind being famous,” says Béjean, “The only reason I am part of the collective is because I don’t like to work alone!” Ledoux’s disagreement is more nuanced: “I am a private person,” he says. “My life and my work are two different things.”
Challenging every statement and hashing out every assumption is what the Labomatics call “variable geometry,” a triangular form of dialogue in which they each take turns having the last word. The fact that they eventually come to a consensus is a minor miracle — and a measure of how dedicated they are to putting their work before their egos. Still, they could not hide their independence of spirit when they launched the studio. As a result, the assignments came trickling in; clients, wary of what they perceived to be a fastidious approach, kept asking them, “So, are you artists or graphic designers?”
One project in particular stands out as symptomatic of this predicament. For an identity program commissioned by The Association Française d'Action Artistique, a government organization that promotes French culture abroad, they devised a complicated process to generate a patchwork of variegated visuals as playful as a schizophrenic quilt, the very antithesis of a design system. Called “generation/s 2001,” their proposal was patterned after the principles of open-source software popularized on the Internet.
To put an end to what they perceived as a conflict between two worlds, the group decided in 2000 to officially sever their connection with “art” by creating a separate legal entity, UltraLab™, through which they would channel their more experimental work. Functioning like a small independent film production house, Ultralab™ today generates projects in various fields “at the frontier of art, science and communication.”
Paradoxically, this deliberate amputation only emphasizes the collective’s uneasy double allegiance. Unlike a growing number of graphic designers today who attempt to bridge the gap between art and commerce by embracing an entrepreneurial attitude and practicing graphic design under an “authorial” label, the Labomatics belabored the fracture. Instead of emulating an authorial formula spearheaded by Rudy VanderLans, whom they admire, or the British group Tomato, also a role model for them, they preferred to accentuate the age-old split.
For Hans-Ulrich Obrist, curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and a Labomatic™ client, their attitude can be explained as a desire to “exist in more than one context, a growing trend among artists today who throw bridges across disciplines while remaining experts in their own particular field.”
That is why, instead of attempting to create a seamless practice Bortolotti, Ledoux and Béjean chose to approach graphic design as only contemporary artists would, using the same intellectual criteria used to judge art or literature. This strategy has paid off for the talented M/M Paris duo (Mathias Augustyniak and Michaël Amzalag) who have been able to impose their turbulent esthetic and have a demiurgic cachet that often transcends their clients. Similarly, Labomatic™ has, at long last, secured a very special niche: Today, the firm has the reputation of being cool but not hip. The designers’ work is recognizable because it doesn’t fit into any category that can be named. Sometimes it’s beautiful, sometimes not. It can be sophisticated or, on the contrary, pedestrian. Only one thing is sure: The design is always original.
The Labomatics’ Web site for the radio station of Arte, the premiere European cultural TV broadcaster, is a bold composition of color fields, its throbbing palette of reds, ochres, and purples making no concession to a more effete sensibility; their identity program and poster series for the avant-garde theater Nanterre-Amandiers feature provocative photographs from a stock house that specializes in discarded snapshots found on sidewalks; their design solution for promoting an exhibition called “Urgent Painting” for Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris is to show a series of blurred images of the paintings zooming, full speed, past the lens. And deserving the name of “conceptual artifacts” are the unusual pieces they have designed to promote the various shows at the trendy Magda Danysz gallery, a contemporary art omphalos located across the street from the famous Bibliothèque Nationale François-Mitterand.
Like the visual language they have adopted, the Labomatics are the product of the “sampling” culture. Their work is the result of the re-mixing of their various talents, with edgy photography, abstract forms, saturated colors, and fashionably-unfashionable typography sharing the page with obscure cultural references, ironic pastiches, and alarming non sequiturs. Influenced by pop culture as well as by the more rarefied art scene, they belong to neither worlds, a status they celebrate: “What we wanted to avoid was the irresistible spiral of growth,” says Bortolotti. “It goes this way: You make a little more money, you work a little more, you make a little more money, you work a little more. So you hire people, and the next thing you know you have to find even more work in order to pay the salaries of the people you have hired.”
Operating on a small scale from their no-frill studio at the back of a sunny courtyard in the Bohemian 20th arrondissement — and working with clients who are often as broke and as cutting-edge as they are — is the source of pride. “You eat potatoes and you sell your car,” says Béjean. “And little by little you get used to having less, and it’s great.”
“Or you marry a rich woman,” quips Frédéric Bortolotti. Having emerged from editorial backgrounds, the founding members of Labomatic™ are never at a loss for words. Bortolotti, the most opinionated spokesperson for the group, concedes that he has an explanation for everything, a talent he capitalizes on when presenting work to clients. The firm’s proposals read like manifestos, or like a series of philosophical musings, the whole thing peppered with quotes (from Paul Klee, Indiana Jones, or William Gibson), inside jokes (calling misshapen shapes “Dformes™”), and clever apartés — sardonic use of corporate jargon.
Long-winded by U.S. standards, the designers’ rationales do not always do justice to the quality of the thinking. Case in point, their brilliant identity program for ENSAD, France’s top design school, which was rejected as “too provocative.” One wishes the Labomatics had done without the elaborate whys and wherefores and instead focused on the essential element itself: A refinement of their “generation/s 2001” proposal, the component was a sophisticated software that would have allowed every teacher and student to use their own artwork to create original documents, letters, posters, invitations, brochures, and leaflets while at the same time conforming to a dynamic and truly interactive ENSAD brand.
“Société Anonyme®,” an Ultralab™ experimental project, seems to show that the firm’s conceptual irony does not always engage the targeted audience. To question the value of logotypes, the Labomatics had asked a number of graphic designers to create logos for so-called clients, never disclosing that the assignment was fictional. Each designer was given the name of a reasonably well-known artist to work on (among them Matthew Barney, Francis Picabia, Japanese artist Icon Tada, or American painter John Currin). Unaware of the scheme — and clueless about the art scene — the commissioned designers had produced mundane logos more suitable for pharmaceutical multinationals or specialty gourmet products than for avant-garde artists. Labomatic™ should have gotten some publicity for the project, but the operation failed to raise eyebrows, even from the people who should have been insulted.
“We were half-hoping to be sued,” Bortolotti remarks. But with self-promotion not one of their talents, the Labomatic™ members are doomed to remain somewhat anonymous. This ontological stance is one they are comfortable with. “We have adopted a theoretical approach and have done our best to stick to it,” adds Bortolotti. “We are able to stay with our principles and still feed a number of people. So, as far as we are concerned, it’s a success story.”