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Founded in 1992 by Mathias Augustyniak and Michaël Amzalag, M/M (Paris) is behind some of the most iconic designs in fashion, music, and art of the past three decades. Whether you know it or not, if you follow Balenciaga or Björk, you’ve seen their work. But just because they’re behind the scenes doesn’t mean they’re quiet. The duo is known for boundary-pushing creations that don’t let graphic design and their own identity fade into the background.
While today we might take for granted the blurry boundaries between art, music, fashion, architecture, and film, such cross-pollination was not so common when M/M got started — and, perhaps, in fact we have them to thank. M/M’s worked alongside musicians like Ye, designers such as Jonathan Anderson, Jil Sander, and Stella McCartney, artists like Pierre Huyghe and Sarah Morris, and crafted exhibitions that range from those of their own work (for example, at their first retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in 2008 to a more recent survey in Shanghai) and those of others, such as the landmark Francesco Vezzoli–curated exhibition on Italy’s RAI TV station at Fondazione Prada (2017). Besides exhibitions, artwork, video, and campaigns, they’ve expanded their world-building into publishing, creative directing magazines including French Vogue (2001–3), Arena Homme+ (2007–9) and Interview (2009).
And while they’ve hardly shied away from online work (at the invitation of curator Hans Ulrich Obrist they spoke at the Digital, Life, Design conference all the way back in 2007), in this metaverse era they haven’t stopped producing tightly crafted books, and are even the subject of them themselves, including a 2012 monograph from Thames & Hudson and a forthcoming reflection on their hundreds of unique typefaces.
Drew Zeiba: Let’s start with the basics. Tell me about what the alphabet means to you.
Mathias Augustyniak: The alphabetical practice has been very important since day one. Was it intuitive or was it a decision that we made? Maybe we don’t remember anymore, but the typographical approach has been there since the beginning. When we started, we were looking at different ways of doing typography. There were some project we did documenting French typography that has been forgotten. Such as a record that we did for a French singer, where we photographed the letter on the front of the facade of some shops that were left over from the ’50s or ’60s.
The difference with other designers that are working on typefaces is they often have a foundry attached. We decided not to release our typeface. We were using those typographical creations a bit like painters in the 17th century, 18th century until the 20th century, who were putting together their own pigments to paint their own pictures. This was a way to make our production more personal.
Michaël Amzalag: Type is language. It’s the basic, the fundamental of what we are dealing with. Our position was not rejecting everything that came from Modernism, but making sure that we would be able to build a whole language. Type is such an element ideological container and such a strong signifier whichever way you use it. We didn’t want only to restrict ourself to use alphabet or typeface that had been developed by others. We wanted to create our own language.
You began working together since you were students at the École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs. 30 years later, how has your collaboration developed?
Augustyniak: I think it’s been the continuation of how we met in college. We bumped into each other. It was a provocation to bump into each other. Then it was a way, it was always based on the conversation. We just have this constant back and forth, this ping pong match. We keep bouncing onto one another, which then we applied also to the way we’ve been working [with clients]. That was this thing that we set up and maybe invented or formalized in a radical way: a working relationship based on the idea of a conversation. This kind of collaborative process. Now you hear about this “collaborative process” all the time. The idea was really to be at the same level of conversation with whoever we will be working with.
There was never an idea of us being above or below. It was always just very thoughtful, creative conversation. That has been also the way we try to develop our working relationships. It’s both confrontation and then production at the same time. Just arguing or discussing for the sake of discussing or arguing, or just conversing infinitely. At one point, the idea is to find the path, the way that leads you somewhere is not just about saying, “Okay, I want to go right. No, left.” It’s a kind of way-finding, finding out how to integrate contradiction or integrate agreement or friction and this buildup over time the tension in the work.
How did your fashion connection come about? How has it evolved?
Amzalag: The connection to fashion arrived quite early. We started in ’92 and in ’94 we already started working with designers such as Yohji Yamamoto. And all this happened through connection that we made at art school and also because of our own personal interest with that moment in fashion. In the 80s it was the era of the designers as designers; it was not the era of brands. Super groups didn’t exist. Luxury was an ugly word, so it was a completely different landscape where the designers in France were called a créateur. They were a whole generation of people that had brought a completely different relationship to fashion, and that was something that was very much culturally impactful for our generation.
So, having looked at the work of Yohji Yamamoto with Nick Knight and Peter Saville in the late ’80s, we were super excited to get into that history in the ’90s. And through the connections that we made at school, we managed to step in and to be able to carry out the projects and conversations.
Augustyniak: Also, because it was not yet an industry we had room to explore. Maybe the generation before, the big world of cultural activity was music. For our generation, if you wanted to creatively have an impact on this idea of integrating culture on a larger scope, then fashion was the right one, because it was not yet conformed as an industry. So there was room for people like us to create a space where we could invent a visual dialogue between the person that was creating clothes, and then people they were buying clothes—and at least they were appreciating clothes, the public.
We were interested in fashion, because we thought it’s a way to communicate and it’s a way to engage a conversation. Wearing a piece of clothing is a kind of initial gesture or a way of talking to someone without using words. Fashion was a bourgeoning activity that was not yet overflowed by money or overflowed by logic.
Another platform you work with is the exhibition. And I’m thinking about the exhibitions of your own work, but also the exhibitions you design. What’s it like going from the page or screen or album cover to 3D space? What was it like opening up that dimension?
Augustyniak: If you look at our work, there is always this thing where it goes from two dimensional to three dimensional. We’re trying to initiate a relationship to the world. You know? Creating a world. This is ambitious, or almost completely mad, or completely why the hell would you want to create a world as there is already one? But first it was more to say, Let’s create a space in which we can invite people to share an experience and then go back with a shifted perception of reality.
Alongside the typography or images that we were creating we had this kind of exhibition practice where we, again, like we very methodically we build up display elements that we’re helping to deploy a world. We put together a series of images or signs so that when someone visits the space they will get an experience, or they will get a message, they will get an emotion.
Your practice evolved alongside the web in a lot of ways. As this technology’s evolved, design and publishing have had to adapt and change. Even in just the past few years we’ve seen big shifts. What’s it been like working with these developments?
Augustyniak: The good thing is it makes signs and typography even more useful than before because when you go through all this digital media, the things that don’t get completely crushed are signs. Even though they get completely deformed or they get crushed through like X number of filters, they still have a strength. That’s something we didn’t expect that it’ll happen, but it did actually comfort us in some sense that where we were right in some parts where we were saying [early on] that the typography or signs or sign-making would be at the core [of design] still in the year 2020, like already imagine the year 2020 was very complex. But we were not too sure that that kind of sign-making would still be at the forefront of the cultural exchange. Sign making or producing symbols is still a vivid question today.
Amzalag: To sum up everything that Mathias was saying, the big topic is identity.
Can you say a little more of what you mean by identity?
Amzalag: Identity is how you define and project how you want to appear. Design is the container of identities. From corporate identity to personal identities. And now today there’s the cliché of everyone being their own brand, blah, blah, blah.
Augustyniak: But the thing is, it would be very difficult today to do what we did. Imagining where we came from and what we went through, if now we were to just arrive and say, “Okay, we have to start from scratch again to exist,” it would be extremely difficult. Somehow between intuition and conviction and also the fact that we keep being curious and we try to listen and hear and read and explore, we’ve been able to keep slowly building, shifting, refining.