INTERVIEW WITH LAURENT FETIS – Designed.rs

You have started early on while you were still in school. One of your first commission works was a logo for the Parisian radio station Radio fg. At this time you have also decided to switch from architecture to design. Why and how did this happen?
While studying architecture I discovered quite quickly that I was not very good for that and I think I would have been a very bad architect if I continued to do this, so I decided to switch to something else. At the same time I was more interested in objects and details. I did a kind of competition to go to an arts and crafts school “Art Déco” in Paris and then I started… I was already doing stuff before I was doing architecture when I was younger. I was doing illustrations for concert posters by hand where I was living at the time. Later at Art Déco I have learned to improve in a more professional way and I did not lose my instinct from the early years but it did become more organized and professional.

So you felt more comfortable doing graphic design?
The thing is, I have always, despite this discipline seen this as something a bit less important for art. At a certain time while at Art Déco, I understood the potential and that if I was already doing this, it wasn’t innocent. It was because this way of working was permitting me to different kinds of actors and different disciplines. If I was doing graphic design I could work with an architect and do stuff for him and in a certain way still be involved in architecture. I could also work with a product designer and change disciplines. I also have the chance to meet different kinds of people such as art dealers or ancient art collectors that I initially wouldn’t have expected to meet. It’s quite fun meeting these kinds of different people.

So how do you feel your work has changed over time, once you’ve chosen to put architecture behind and go into design?

I have never really done architecture, I was just studying it. It wasn’t really a job – I’ve been far into the studies but I haven’t really done anything connected to architecture.

What was the thing that really inspired you to go into design?
At one point I think I was influenced by English graphic design, and especially by the work of gtf (Graphic Thought Facility) and fuel. It was a really particular generation of English graphic designers that inspired me because they were doing something that was visually as strong as art. It was not just art put as an ornament, it was in itself a creation with an intelligent approach.

How was the French scene when you started out?

It is a little pretentious to say, but honestly from what I remember it was horrible [laughter].
It was really, really horrible.

So was this a rebellious kind of thing where you wanted to take things in your own hands?
I was absolutely not paying attention to the French scene. I was more focused on what I was starting to discover – like the approach of American artists. We were working also with designers in the same area during this period, this was at the end of the 90-ies – there were artists like Paul Mccarthy, Mike Kelley in California. I was really touched by their art and they were also working with a super interesting designer like Jeffrey Kelly. All this new wave from california which is more connected to the cranbrook Academy. This influenced me a lot and also the work of Martin Kippenberger who also did books, as well as most of the English scene, but also people I’ve met in France like m/m. At this this point we were chatting a lot, and I did an internship at their atélier in Paris. It was quite cool to understand how to deal with personal creation and business as well, because if you want to continue you have to understand the market and it’s exactly the same for artists. It took me some time to understand that everything is a bit like a business too, it’s not so innocent like it seems on the outside. When you create something really special, your creation isn’t like business, but your activity is a bit like it.

Did you manage to integrate this into your own work and the French scene in general by incorporating design and its commercial aspects?

The commercial aspect in a certain way is the initial deal. People come to you because they want to sell something to other people, it’s pretty much for that. It’s not for letting you having a vision. You could say you have a vision and such, but at the end, the final point is that everyone wants to sell something.

During this year’s belgrade design week, there has been a lot of talk about the communication and relationship with clients. You mentioned you don’t have much trouble with your clients, or is this just luck? Did you ever have to say no to a client? What’s your approach?

Concerning the clients, in fact the thing this is that when I first meet them and I get briefed about the project I see when something will not work. If they want me to do something that I’m unable to do, they should work with somebody else. For example, sometimes people come to me wanting me to do exactly the same thing that I’ve done for someone else, so I kindly explain that it’s impossible. I also know that if I do that there is a possibility of them going to someone else and ask them to rip-off the stuff I’ve done because they absolutely need it and have no other idea for something else. Generally, I’m lucky because I explain to my clients what should be done, especially because I also choose what I want to work on. My job is also to drive the client and explain to them what is better for them. Sometimes when they ask me something that I don’t agree with, I ask them why they want it, and then I have a better understanding of their needs. Sometimes I have a client who comes to me asking me to enlarge the text and then I ask them whether they really want it bigger or more legible. The same applies to color and equilibrium.

So generally you tend to find that golden middle with your clients?
I’m not completely into that either because I’m not trying to seduce the client or to make them become my friends. In fact, sometimes it would be better if I did that, but I’m really a bit tough when it comes to that.

You’ve also done a lot of multimedia work. Some of the stuff you do ranges from posters, album cover design, book design and strictly commercial work for clients such as Toyota. Do you see yourself going deeper into design or moving more towards art direction?

I love art direction more and more. The thing that is super is that you don’t have to produce everything yourself. Art direction in a certain way is also a very strong creation. It’s about choosing the right person to do the right thing. I’m lucky to do it more, but I think I’m not doing it enough. I would love to do it more and it could be better because I’m becoming lazier and lazier [laughter].

Does this mean that you’re going to stop strictly designing?
No, I’m not going to stop. I can’t stop working – I always have ideas and I always want to do something. Even discussions with friends turn into projects, hence I always have something “sur le feu” (on the back-burner) as we say in French… I have no special desire to change. I have been called to do film titles and I’m okay with doing that, as well as many other different projects. The only difficulty is to find the time to do them well. In this way art direction is good for that because you do a project and count on people to do different parts while contributing to the overall quality of the final product. I love this total control [laughter]. When you’re involved in art direction, you don’t have to deal with bad images. If you do a catalog, and there is a bad image of an installation done by an artist, you’re free to change that by choosing the people best suited for the job – in this case, a photographer that can take the best possible photo. Art direction is really the top…

So you’re really aiming towards achieving your ultimate goal with art direction?
I am doing this for the Paris Social club magazine and some other stuff. I have also started to work for a theater with a photographer named Nan Goldin, and the funny thing is that I’m supposed to be in charge of art direction. I have explained them though that she’s Nan Goldin and that she does everything she wants. I also know that it’s quite hard to work with her because she’s a diva. If she doesn’t want to go to a meeting, she won’t come [laughter].

You’ve done some interesting projects and you’re renowned for doing album covers and posters. How did you come up with doing Beck’s poster for “Sea Change”?

He called me. In fact, initially he called me to do the album design. unfortunately it wasn’t done on time and it didn’t go through since they asked me to do it way too late. He did call me back to use the images for the poster and asked me to do some other stuff for him as well. He just called me one summer saying: “Hi, this is Beck, I love you work. I’d like you to do my album cover for me.” and I was like “cool, no problem.”

So going back to client relationship, was Beck easy to please and work with?
Oh yeah, it was super easy. I sent him everything and he was like – “super.” Not to brag, but I think I’m very lucky. Sometimes I do happen to create stuff that is perfect. It’s for this reason that I’m working at several things at the same time. Sometimes I spend a half a day on something and I’m like – “Ah, super!” I think the first ideas are the best ones. I always thought that. The quicker I do something, the better the project is, in fact. For example, I’ve done Beck in only one day. For the Social club I do the drawings at the last minute, just before they go to print.

There’s Beck, there’s the Social Club. There’s the whole music scene. You’ve done stuff for Tahiti 80, Mellow, m83 and it seems like your work is very tied to the music scene. How does music inspire you as a designer?

I grew up with music. I was going to a lot of concerts when I was a teenager, and I was really influenced by the looks of the people that were attending the concerts – especially the attitude of the young people and the way they dressed. It created a kind of strong imagery and my teenage years influenced me a lot and my interest in music. I was also really curious to see how much pop and rock music could create such an influence on people, like the aesthetic, trying to look like their idols – it’s something really fascinating. I think I also use this medium to create my vision of a band and create a kind of aesthetic that people who listen to this music and look at the cover will adopt. Essentially it becomes their aesthetic and no longer mine.

I loved it when for example when I saw that at the Social club people cut stuff and then put that in their rooms, just like teenage posters. I loved this idea, and that’s why the magazine is constructed as a poster that people adopted as a really popular media. I love this idea of doing really popular stuff that people could appropriate easily – posters, free magazines… I don’t like stuff done for a few privileged people. I know that it’s necessary to have that and it’s cool.

I don’t mind having some stuff like this, but the most important thing and the most influential is the image that people have in their mind. For example, everybody knows coca cola and then you have chanel who’s bags are owned by a few even though it’s an icon. You have designers like raymond Loewy who has done the design for coca cola, and it’s pretty crazy when you can say that you’ve done something like that… it’s super!

You’ve mentioned that the French design scene was pretty poor when you started out. How is the scene in terms of design back in France today?

It’s better now. In fact, the thing is that people have the Internet and can see what’s happening in other countries. I have met a lot of young designers who finished school… I think education in France is not so good because there are no big schools. You don’t see schools like Lausanne or rietveld Academy. You don’t see these types of schools in France. Art Déco used to be a good school but now I’m not sure if it’s still at the top. All the big figures have gone, and there are only two or three good professors, but not as many as before.

Belgrade Design Week 2010. You’re in Belgrade for the very first time. What was the reason that made you decide to come?
I wanted to see some of the lectures. I’ve seen the work of the people presenting and I was like “Wow! This is super!” It’s the kind of thing that I don’t have the time to do. If I had the time to go just for my pleasure I probably wouldn’t because I would tell myself that I have to work. This is perfect because I’m working and I can also see the lectures. What I’ve seen this morning was super interesting. For example, I’ve seen some of Ola’s work only magazines and it’s super to see the way he works. I was dying to see gtf’s lecture but unfortunately I have to leave sooner than expected tomorrow. It’s obvious that it’s important to meet people that do the same things as yourself, and it’s cool because it allows you to say “I should push for that… at the moment I’m far from that… I was loving that before… also this needs to be done.”

So what are your plans for the future when you go back to Paris?
At the present time I’m working for an auction house and helping them to renew their image – their catalog, and their editorial stuff. Mostly the publications linked to selling objects. It’s a long project that will probably take up most of June. After that I have a catalog about the gardens of Tivoli, the Italian 18th century gardens. I’ve been commissioned to the titles for a musical movie. After that I have that theater project that I mentioned with Nan Goldin. Albums – the new cover for Tahiti 80 and “The Best Of in Japan.”

I also have to do the signage for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s exhibition. I have a bunch of stuff to do every day and at the present time there are only two of us at the office but I need another person to help us. I’m not sure what I want to do, but I do have a project in mind that I want to develop, however I need to find a business person to make it happen.

Any words of advice for your colleagues?

For the young colleagues I have an advice – stay faithful to that thing that makes you want to do this job. It’s very serious… [laughter]

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The participant’s list is impressive! Belgrade Design Week is the best professional event I ever participated in. But to me it also has emotional significance. I am in Belgrade again, twenty years later. I was not sure what to expect but I encountered a fantastic atmosphere and amazing people. I have a feeling I have old friends here.

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