Meetings: A Practice for Everyday Life


Set up to “explore the potential of graphic design as a meaningful process of cultural production” and to “find new ways of communicating content” the design studio A Practice for Everyday Life caught our eye with their latest work for the catalogues of Tate Modern’s Hockney exhibition.

Founded in 2003 after Kirsty Carter and Emma Thomas graduated from their MA course at the Royal College of Art, the studio has gone on to work with everyone from Penguin Random House to the V&A and Goldfrapp. With a growing team based in Bethnal Green, East London, we sat down to talk Hockney, inspiration, and what the future holds.

As the fastest selling show in Tate’s history it must feel amazing to have created the accompanying books for the exhibition. How did the project originally come about?

We’ve worked with Tate many times in the past—they approached us last summer to design the Hockney catalogue and we were delighted to be asked. He’s one of our favourite artists and it’s been a dream of ours to design a book for him for a long time.

With over 200 images spanning so much of Hockney’s work and life how do you go about getting started on a project as large as this?

Our starting point came from images of Hockney himself—he’s such a distinctive character and in his portraits you can see the energy that lies within him. We wanted that to play an important role within the publication, so we put a young Hockney on the back cover and in the first pages of the book, and a more recent portrait between the plates section and the main essays. We already had in mind exactly what portraits we wanted to use, even before we were given any images from the Tate for our first presentation.

Did you take inspiration from any of Hockney’s work when considering the design for the books?

Our objective was to create something that felt appropriate and had an affinity with Hockney’s work, without being too directly referential. The work he’s created over six decades is so diverse, both in terms of media, scale and visual approach, that it felt wrong to draw directly from any one ‘period’ in his oeuvre. Instead, we wanted to capture some of the same spirit within the design that is visible throughout Hockney’s work.

Is the distinction between the hard cover and soft cover editions of the book important to you? Did each present different challenges or opportunities for design?

Both editions are the same on the inside, so the covers offered us an opportunity to experiment with designs which might differentiate between the two, and make the most of the materials used for each. For the hardcover, we proposed a type-only cover, which was quite a bold choice; it’s very unusual for such a high-profile catalogue not to feature an image of a work on its cover, and this is usually something that a publisher will insist on. In this case, thankfully, everyone fell in love with it and we were able to make it happen. The hardcover edition also allowed us to add a couple of interesting additional details, such as the turquoise endpapers and head and tail bands.  

Could you tell us a little more about the final typefaces? Apparently you were influenced by Stephenson Blake’s grotesques from the 1800s . . .

The typefaces used in the book are Bureau Grot Compressed and Fakt. Bureau Grot Compressed is a typeface based on Stephenson Blake grotesques from the 1800s, and is used for all the titles and on the hardcover design. It felt appropriate to celebrate Hockney’s largest exhibition to date with a typeface made by one of England’s most prestigious foundries. The typeface feels so English to us, and with Stephenson Blake having been based in Sheffield, the connection to Hockney’s home county of Yorkshire made it an even more appropriate choice.

Fakt, which was used for the body copy of the publication, is a recently-designed typeface by Thomas Thiemich. It’s a functional, humanist typeface that revisits archetypal sans serifs of earlier decades: Miedinger and Hoffmann's Neue Haas Grotesk / Helvetica (the 1950s) and Renner's Futura (the 1920s). It combines the best of both the grotesque and geometric sans serif traditions.

What are your favorite Hockney images?

There are so many—it’s impossible to pick just one! We do have a particular fondness for the pairing of the image on the cover of the softback book and the first work that appears inside the catalogue. The former is one of Hockney’s very well-known early works depicting a scene in California with a swimming pool, then the following image is from one of his most recent series of paintings. We like the idea that the book announces itself with a classic Californian Hockney painting on the cover, and then the next image you see when you open the book is a much more recent depiction of a similar subject.

What do you feel is the most important aspect of design for exhibition books like this?

It always depends on the artist, and the content and the context of each book—there’s no single approach that will be successful across the board. In the case of exhibition catalogues and artists’ monographs such as this, the goal is to design a book that captures the spirit of the artist and their work, though the way in which that is achieved can vary a lot from project to project.

Who or what are your inspirations when working? Do your influences change with each project or are there a few key influences that always seem to stick?

We always try to approach every project on its own terms, so our research and reference points will change from project to project, depending on what the subject matter is and what we feel is right for the job. We are surrounded by material and historical references throughout our everyday lives, so our reference points are things that we have come into contact with—ideas, textures, surfaces, materials or products—and they all influence how you design. We’re also all collectors, in one way or another, and that tends to feed into our work in interesting ways. We keep a lot of the materials, books and ephemera we've found with us in the studio.

What projects are you excited to work on next?

At the moment, we’re working on the exhibition design and catalogue for the Barbican Centre’s forthcoming retrospective of Jean-Michel Basquiat, which opens this September. We’re also about to finish working on a new publication for Faye Toogood, which will launch in mid March and accompanies her first solo exhibition in the US, at Friedman Benda in New York.