TO UNDERSTAND THE GRAPHIC design studio M/M (Paris), founded 20 years ago by Mathias Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag, think not about creating a layout, but instead about a swan—specifically, a cygnet designed by the duo that became the logo for the singer Björk, which was then rendered by Augustyniak as a lacy drawing for the cover of her album Vespertine. Soon established as a rubric for Björk's overall output, the swan made its next appearance on the red carpet at the 2001 Oscars, in the form of a Marjan Pejoski design, which became one of the most controversial dresses in modern memory. In the same year, Augustyniak's photo of the photographer Inez van Lamsweerde shooting Björk in that dress was then "recycled" by M/M (Paris), as it often does, into a poster for another client, Théâtre de Lorient, an avant-garde company in Brittany, to advertise a play by Marguerite Duras—no relation to Björk or her dress whatsoever except on the level of metaphor. We've come a long way from Photoshop.
Photos: Graphic Reality
Such an interventionist, interdisciplinary approach—shown authoritatively in a new monograph M to M of M/M (Paris), edited by curator Emily King—is counter-intuitive to the practice we now call "branding." Rather, M/M (Paris) aims to interrupt, fracture or completely subvert conventions. "What makes the world interesting is contradiction and contrast," explains Augustyniak. These confrontations are evident in its collaborations with musicians (Björk, Madonna, Kanye West), artists and curators (Hans Ulrich Obrist, Philippe Parreno), restaurateurs (Thierry Costes) and fashion houses. In ads for Stella McCartney, Balenciaga or Givenchy, or in magazines like French Vogue, A Man About Town and a short-lived reimagining of Interview, Amzalag and Augustyniak typically start by producing beautiful photographs, then vandalize their own creations with elaborate drawings and cutouts.
One of their best-known projects, for example, is The Alphabet, a typographical experiment where they cut around black-and-white photos of supermodels, stripping them of their identity, transforming them into a literal alphabet, which they have sold as posters. Un-signed, unnumbered and, like many of their posters, forever 250 euros apiece, The Alphabet is what first brought a young Riccardo Tisci into their office in 2001, looking to buy. (Four years later, when he was appointed creative director of Givenchy, he called the duo, and they've worked together on and off ever since.) M/M (Paris)'s other surrealist and nonrepresentational posters were at first controversial, but have since become highly sought-after objects.
For M/M (Paris)'s collaborators—"client" is not really the mot juste—the pair's process is just as important as its results. They don't follow briefs, they "start a conversation," says Augustyniak, and hope to arrive at a mutually agreed-upon problem, which they will then endeavor to solve. Sometimes, as Nicolas Ghesquière noted in an interview in M to M, the solution does not come quickly. "They make very specific choices, and they take the time to do things properly... Their world is like a labyrinth, and there's always a new path." At other times, like when they did the artwork for Madonna's American Life album, it's very direct. "Our call with her lasted like six minutes and 35 seconds," Amzalag recalls. Whatever the span, "it's never a routine working with them," says Obrist, who has hired M/M (Paris) to design more than 30 books, many of which function as multipurpose objects. "They're always looking for different rules of the game," he continues, "an unexpectedness that goes far beyond graphic design." Adds van Lamsweerde, who, with Vinoodh Matadin, is one of their most frequent collaborators, "Their inspiration and approach comes from a very different angle than most art directors. They never come with fully comped layouts, but rather tell a story to inspire you." It's anything but logical, but then, "if you just want a service," says Augustyniak, doodling compulsively in M/M (Paris)'s resolutely unglamorous office near the Gare d L'Est, "a machine is very good for that."
ALTHOUGH THE TWO HAVE BEEN constant companions since meeting at art school in 1989, Augustyniak and Amzalag couldn't seem more different. Where Augustyniak is lanky, with the flyaway hair and a round-about conversational style, Amzalag is compact, drily ironic and gets crisply to the point. Augustyniak lives on the Left Bank, Amzalag the Right, having spent his entire life in the same working-class neighborhood where their office is now. "I'm the family man," says Augustyniak, with three kids. "And I'm the gay one," Amzalag laughs. Their division of labor is hard to define—Augustyniak draws and takes pictures; Amzalag is strong in research and technology—and talking to them harks back to graduate school semiotics seminars. The duo is informed by the traditions of Swiss-style graphic purism and the agitprop of the design collective Grapus, but fully embrace pop culture and the digital world. When they first hung their shingle in 1992 (producing record sleeves and soon undertaking the branding of Yohji Yamamoto's just-debuted Y's line), graphic design was an almost arbitrary choice. "We had an intuition that we were living in a world of signs, icons, symbols, and the only way to propagate ideas through the media was to learn how to produce them. We consider signs not as flat surface elements, but a world that we want to inhabit and construct ourselves," says Augustyniak.
Unsurprisingly then, M/M (Paris) spends a lot of time on the bridge between two- and three-dimensionality. They transformed the typeface they created for Björk's Medulla album (they do a new one for each) into jewelry for the CD cover and, with the artist Gabriela Fridriksdottir, a public sculpture outside of Reykjavik. Their interior design collaboration with India Mahdavi for Paris's Thoumieux hotel and its two restaurants also started with a typeface, which then grew into a motif that showed up in furniture, lighting and brass hardware. According to Thierry Costes, the hotel's owner, who first hired them for the cafe Etienne Marcel in 2000, "They speak the language of romantic poetry, but they're pragmatic and know how to deliver." (In fact, M/M (Paris) is now supervising all of Costes's new projects, including the upcoming makeover of the Bastille landmark, Café Français.) They have created a perfume, M/MInk, with Byredo; started a book publishing imprint; and curated a fashion archive for the art collector Dakis Joannou. Their dream project now is to design and build a freestanding playhouse where a recurring character in their work, a pixelated robot creature called The Agent—who has shown up on paper and been realized into a lamp, a candle and balloons—could live out its days.
For all the esoteric conversation and defiance of categories, there is also a simple and straightforward appeal to what M/M (Paris) makes. Take their work for Kanye West's album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. West came to them with five George Condo paintings he had commissioned as the base images for the cover. "Kanye realized so smartly that the new signs of richness and power aren't big cars, sexy girls and gold," says Augustyniak, "but cultural awareness and buying art." Knowing that the physicality of recorded music is disappearing, and bored with simply designing another CD cover, Amzalag recalls, "We said to Kanye, now that we have the collision between George Condo and you and us, why don't we make something luxurious, like the ultimate Hermès?" Thus were born five silk twill scarves with hand-rolled edges. West had already dipped his toe into the world of fashion design, so this was not such a big stretch for him. But did it upset Condo to have his paintings treated in a manner that some fine artists might consider defilement twice over? "He loved them," says Amzalag. "His wife bought 20."