Interview with JP Williams of MW

When I decided that I might try to contact some designers when I visited New York, I had set myself a wish-list of those I would approach, figuring most would probably say no, or I would not hear back from at all. Well, most did say no and even more didn’t get back to me (it doesn’t say much for our profession when you can’t even be bothered to email someone back and say no, but that’s another article!) Anyway, there were some firms I was more eager to visit than others, luckily two of my favourite firms did reply and say yes, the first of these being design firm MW. I’d love to be able to point you to a website where you could see some of their work, but it’s under construction at the moment unfortunately. What I can tell you is that MW do some of the most beautiful and elegant graphic design work you will come across. Meticulous doesn’t even begin to describe it, but not in the overly decorative vogue that is popular at the moment, but a deceptive simplicity that carries the weight of a concept in a particular type choice, or brilliantly art directed photograph. I first became aware of their work through an article in Step By Step Graphics magazine, I was struck by their designs for for department store Takashimaya, in particular an amazing tea box design which remains one of my favourite pieces of design in any medium. I spoke to director JP Williams who was a very gracious host, displaying a keen and good humoured intellect on a number of design related issues (as well as a few other tangents!) some of which is transcribed here:

Chris Bowden: How do you go about getting clients in such a competitive market as New York? Does having your work featured in Design annuals, periodicals and competitions help?

JP Willaims: It’s the primary way we get new clients. We don’t do any marketing as such, we don’t do any PR; we just let our work speak for itself. Most of our work is in retail, retail has a lot of people moving jobs, quitting and going to another job, it’s nature of retail. The idea here in the states, I don’t know whether you have it in Australia, the idea of the ‘gold watch’ after 50 years, doesn’t exist anymore and went out many years ago. Retail is one of them, advertising as well, people move a lot, art buyers, marketing people, that’s just the nature of it. You don’t see people stay for a long time, so when you work for a retailer such as our work for Takashimaya, it’s very unusual because the person we dealt with was there for over 10 years, so we did everything for them over that time.

CB: Are you still doing work for them?

JP: We are, but the work is very sparse. The woman we worked with finally left, she went to Saks and hired us to do some work for them on quite a few projects and then she retired. The people who took over at Takashimaya, it’s a very unusual place, they have new management that comes in every 18 months, there’s no continuity, it’s very unusual.

CB: I’ve always had the impression of it being a very ‘exclusive’ store.

JP: Well, people seem to think that, it’s only exclusive in the sense that it’s small and unique and some people think that it’s very expensive; my favourite item there is only $12. The store has changed a lot since the woman we dealt with left. In the beginning, they have a beautiful gallery on the ground floor space, which is very traditional in Japan to have a gallery on the ground floor. The design that we do is very precious, maybe sometimes too precious, but for Takashimaya it seemed to be appropriate. The idea was to have all this really cool stuff from around the world – so that’s what we did.

CB: Could you tell me a little bit about your background and how you started MW?

JP: MW was started by default. I had quit my job, and then my wife finally quit hers. I had worked in retail; I was art director at Bergdorfs which is a single store here in Manhattan for three years and before that I did mainly corporate identity work. They needed someone to work on the identity of the men’s store and they didn’t want to hire an agency, they wanted to have one person because the guy who was vice president wanted to oversee it more readily. I did that and started doing all the advertising and packaging for the store. I did that for 3 years and then quit because working IN retail is a lot more difficult than working for retail. My partner was at Carbone Smolan for 10 years and I helped her get a couple of freelance jobs for Bergdorfs and then she quit her job. I did a magazine for Hearst, freelance, and then I was told about Corky Tyler leaving to start Takashimaya. Someone else told me to go and talk to her, she knew who I was, so that was how, by default, we became a studio. To begin with we worked out of our apartment with no plan. Our studio has been never more than 6 people, at the moment we’re 4.

CB: What has drawn me to your work is the elegant simplicity to it, what has influenced that?

JP: Believe it or not, I’m just going to talk like a graphic designer and say ‘the product’ does. The problem calls for.

CB: Do you find yourself working for clients that can appreciate that?

JP: I think so. I think that people come to us; we’re not out there trying to do a job for Nike. We get a proposal every now and then to design something and the ‘Request for Proposal’ – ‘they want to know about our structure of the office and who the account manager is. We kind of smile and realise we would be please to work for them without any issues; however we’re not structured in the way they want us to be. A lot of times people might not want to hire us because one of us might get sick, I really don’t understand that. If someone hires Peter Saville, they’re hiring him, and that never crosses their mind that he might get sick, he might get cancer because he smokes! There’s a lot of this attitude in business in America, whereas in Europe, the entrepreneurship of being an individual and doing large projects is not a problem, it’s more open. Here the expectation is a studio, say somewhere like Pentagram; you have to have a certain structure. I think the clients that like that go to that, and people who want a more individual point of view, they come to us.

CB: It seems as though there is a push in some areas for studios to structure themselves to be able to do just about all their clients requirements in-house.

JP: Especially when the client is paying multi-thousand dollar fees. We did a website for West Elm, a furniture brand, a few years ago. That was a huge job for a studio our size. Not many studios our size have the opportunity to a project that size. I find that interesting, the only reason we got it is because it was one woman, the woman who runs it, she’s since left and started a new brand and now we’re working on that. As long as you get that one person who believes in you, then you’re fine.

CB: Of all the projects you have worked on over the years, which have given you the most personal satisfaction?

JP: Some of the work we have done for Gmund. We did a corporate brochure for them and I think that’s probably one. A couple of our Takashimaya pieces I guess are the ones I like the most, they’re very simple. I did a business card for somebody once that I liked. It’s a lot of the time, things that people probably haven’t seen much. The Gmund brochure was very well received; we did the photography shoot in Germany, That was a lot of fun. Some people will answer ‘ the project I just finished,’ but I can’t always say that. We’ve just done some catalogues for Nordstroms who are a large department store chain in the US, a simple fashion and still lifes. It was enjoyable because we don’t do a lot of that stuff any more. I think the simple things are usually the ones that I like the most.

CB: When I’ve spoken to some other designers they quite often say they favourite work tends to be stuff that they did when they first started, they felt they had more freedom because there were less expectations placed upon them.

JP: When you say that I think of the guys the studio 8VO. I remember when they founded their business, I went to school in Switzerland for a short time and I met them in Basel. Looking at the new book about them that came out last year, I get that impression from them as well. Just by looking at something like the charts for the sales receipts for American Express, although it was about information, I could see that the things that really mattered a lot to them wasn’t the stuff they did at the end, it was probably one of the reasons they closed I guess.

CB: What are some of the things that keep you inspired?

JP: I’m actually looking into leaving design and teaching again or opening a paper/book store. Teaching in New Zealand would be cool. I think the US is a really bad place to be right now, I think it’s going downhill in a world global scale. Communism will wane in China only because of people’s natural tendencies to want a choice in their lives, when it does; I think it will be a comfortable transition, just like Hong Kong and religion is not a driving force behind their society. It’s most likely going to be the centre of the world soon – the US is just a sad place – it’s all about money and it’s becoming even more so.

CB: Australia at the moment seems to want to follow the US as an example rather than embracing the region in which it is situated.

JP: That’s why New Zealand seems so attractive to me, they’re out there advocating non-nuclear proliferation and neutrality, I just can’t get my wife on board at the moment! Design for me is not the pre-eminent thing on my mind at the moment. I enjoy doing our job and I enjoy working, I love our studio. I think I like everything that is about design. Design is my hobby. I collect things that are design driven, books that are designed by designers. I think the way I save myself is to get lost into my books and the reference of design, collecting objects and things that are related to typography. I have my own little things that I try to delve into. I’ve made a product for my child that I sell over the internet; it’s a thing about watching television. These types of things have been driven for me more by being with my daughter than by the client based type of thing.

CB: Would you consider moving your studio to Australia or New Zealand?

JP: I would, but it’s very difficult for a US citizen to move to somewhere like that who has no connections whatsoever. I considered moving to Sweden three years ago, they required me to have $100,000 in the bank, letters from three separate clients saying they would be paying me x amount, it was not easy. What I would really like to do is return to teaching– I think the way you get a job like that is to be recommended by somebody else. I taught for six years, I have a masters and I love teaching. The problem is, as you get older and the more technology becomes an important part of design education, the more difficult it is. Doing a problem now is not just about knowing one layout program; it’s really all of them embedded together. Teachers are going to have to be able to talk this language. I taught at The University of Arts in Philadelphia, a very ‘Swiss based’ school, so a lot of the teachers there have been trained in that. That’s all well and good, the problem is, that those assignments now have to be re-thought of in relationship to how they can be approached for the tech-savvy students coming through. Sitting and drawing letters by hand is no longer relevant because in the this world those students are never going to have to do that, it can be done quicker and better on the computer. What is needed is to be able to teach within that framework, to look into what they are doing. There’s no question that having the ability to hand draw type forms is amazing. I had Armin Hoffman as a teacher, one of the most famous designers of all time, I saw him cut out a perfect letter from black paper. It was an art; very few people are going to have that ability. I saw a lot of teachers who where very frustrated at the school in Philadelphia because they thought the students weren’t learning. I thought the problem was that the teachers had stopped learning; they just wanted to teach what they were already familiar with. Now when I see the kids’ portfolios from there, they’re exactly the same as they were ten years ago, and I think that is a problem. That’s just my opinion on teaching, but I care a lot about it.

CB: Do you know anything about Australian design?

JP: I know nothing actually! I don’t look at design journals all that much. I look at the Japanese magazine Idea on occasion when I see something I like in them, but I don’t really read that much about contemporary design. We get Creative Review, Eye, ID and Step Inside Design for the studio – but I try not to look at other contemporary designers so much for inspiration. The things that I tend to look at are Swiss and Dutch book design compendiums, for example, I may see someone’s work I like and I’ll follow that up and look at their website. There’s an exhibit on right now of work by Anton Stankalski in Switzerland. I’ve been going to more design blogs of late and hear a lot of stuff from interns we have here. Blogs like Design Observer and Be a Design Group are interesting, I would say on a scale of 0-10 on using the computer and the internet, I would be a 3! Whereas people at Design Observer are 11s, they probably spend 6 hours a day researching, looking, at least what it would take me to keep up. I find with the interns we have here, they’re really quick at finding information. We did a project this summer using the periodic table as the basis for our problem, within 30 minutes we had 45 resources on what it should look like. It also just so happened that someone at Design Observer is a periodic table freak and he had even more examples to show us. There is an amazing amount of information to be gained from the internet that I’m just beginning to comprehend. I was amazed to find on MySpace that Andre Leon Tally, editor at large for Vogue, has a page, I think it’s amazing that he is part of this culture. Nick Knight, the British photographer, has website called ‘Studio View’ that is devoted to the industry and features all kinds of interesting things. I’ve been looking at it a lot recently; he’ll show some of the latest ad campaigns, things he has worked on for Dior for example, so I like to keep track of these things because I find it really exciting. I love photography. Our work here is hugely based on photography. Illustration to me is so stylised, I love certain illustrators, but I seem more drawn to photography because it’s something I aspire to.

CB: I imagine there’s a huge pool of amazing photographers to draw upon in New York?

JP: Yeah, don’t throw a rock because quite a few of them will dive to the ground! Like designers here, there are quite a few, there even seems to be quite a lot more good ones than there used to be. All the photographers we began using for the studio 15 years ago, most of them we can’t afford now, they make so much money. Because we use a lot of photography in our work, I’m really interested in photographers that can offer an individual point of view.

CB: I’ve recently worked on a brochure for a property developer where we chose to use an art photographer to get that ‘different point of view’.

JP: It’s funny you say that, I worked in that same kind of environment for my first 5 years, with a commercial photographer you have to put a lot more into the shoot as designer/ art director, whereas when you hire a fashion/art photographer you’re really asking them to bring just as much themselves to the shoot. I say to people all the time when they ask what is the biggest reason for success? Hiring people who are better than you, that’s really the way to do it, and that’s what we try to do at MW. I took a commercial/corporate photographer years ago who did annual report shots, really good work, very stylised black and white stuff, beautiful prints in the whole tradition of ‘the zone’ that Ansel Adams did. I got him to do a fashion shoot for me and it turned out spectacularly, so now he does a lot more of that sort of stuff, he’s crossed over into the fashion/art photography scene. I mean, in some aspects he was difficult to work with, he was very specific on things, so you had to buy into all of that. The best thing I did was to just get the contact sheets from him and not have him deal with the post, because if I had to deal with him with that, I never would have got the job done.

CB: Is it a matter of not caring so much with what ‘egos’ you may have to contend with as long as you get ‘the shot’?

JP: You know, I used to think that. I feel as though I don’t want to do that anymore though. We did a job for a company called Waverly Fabrics, an advertising job, so we had to go into a space, take everything out, and make up the room with their fabrics. The photographer I hired was someone who I had worked with many times before as well as room stylists, fashion stylists, makeup artists – the generator we were using outside was as big as a Volkswagen because it was raining outside heavily and we had to do the shot as if the sun was coming through the window. You’re talking about a lot of angst and worry getting this shot done, there are probably 20-30 people on the shoot. Anyway, the client comes, I’d told him not to come over until 11 or so because we wouldn’t be ready to shoot until noon. So comes around, there’s food there, everybody is smiling, laughing, music is playing. He comes up to me and wants a word; he says ‘You guys are having fun?’ I say yeah! He’s really surprised that everybody seems to be happy because he’s done this shoot three years in a row and every time before it’s been a nightmare. I told him it’s supposed to be fun; you’re going to love the product. We did that shoot for 3 more years until he moved on, he hired us to do more stuff with his new company. So that’s the type of environment on a shoot I want to be in. I’ve done shoots in Mexico where I was literally crying every night because of a photographer. So, you do whatever it takes to get that picture, but what I think is important now is to figure out when you go into it, to make sure that sort of stuff doesn’t happen. There’s a Nietzsche quote that goes ‘Nothing that is rigorous is meaningless’, so to a certain extent that can apply. If it is really meaningful and rigorous, it’s still got to be something good, so I think you don’t just accept it.

My thanks to JP for answering questions he’s probably been posed countless times and for being so generous with his time.
Design MW