Sure, London, you’ve got yer Pentagram, yer Wolff Olins, yer big-studio big-guns. But the beauty of such a creative hubbub is the sheer vastness of the graphic design landscape. We wanted to chat to the little(r) guys working with big-name clients (or pinching them) from the more established studios. So here, we’re delving into the lives of two (mostly) one-woman practises, taking a peek into what it’s like to set up shop on your own in a big city; how to win work, how to keep clients, how to cope with the hustle and bustle and how to make the best work you can in what can be an occasionally daunting and competitive city.
Emmi Salonen was born in Finland but studied at Brighton University in the UK, later moving to northern Italy to work at Fabrica, Benetton Group’s famed communication research studio. She then worked at various consultancies in London and New York, but says that when she founded her own agency, Studio Emmi, in 2005, it was her experience of the studio culture at Karlssonwilker’s NYC office that inspired her the most.
Studio Emmi’s London base is in east London’s Shoreditch (“It’s hard to avoid the buzz and the sirens”), and for the past five years she’s shared studio space with illustration and animation practice Peepshow Collective. “They are a lovely lot and it’s fab to have such complimentary talent in the same room,” says Salonen. “We often collaborate, and it’s great to be able to ask a second opinion on matters at times. We sit down together for lunch daily, which I love. The atmosphere is relaxed and fun. Of course there are days when a stressful deadline cloud hangs in the room, but it’s definitely never competitive or unkind.”
Salonen is at the helm of her agency, but works with a group of “associates” depending on the project and the expertise she needs to bring in. Rather than defining the studio by its people, Salonen says that it’s the clients that define Studio Emmi. “At the core is a strong set of values,” she says. “Embracing good design, combined with environmental awareness and a positive attitude. I also pride wit, openness, and mastered craftsmanship in our work. We champion messages for a better society, positive participation, and sustainable design, and work with clients whose core message we believe in and share. I feel this brings real passion and purpose for each project.”
While Shoreditch is occasionally celebrated, and often half-mocked for its alleged trendiness, Salonen says that despite the studio’s location, “I wouldn’t say we’re specifically ‘east’ in style. It’s not a glossy, white studio space, it’s more like a workshop.”
So having worked in studios around the world, what is it she loves most about having a London base? “Opportunities, diversity, creativity, and being able to commute by bike,” she says.
Born in London and raised in the U.S. and France, Sarah Boris a graphic designer who has made a name for herself through considered, effective designs that emerge from a conceptual standpoint for a range of arts, cultural, and publishing clients. Her most recognizable project is the identity for London’s ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art), created in 2009 and still in use today. Since leaving the ICA’s design team, Boris joined publishing house Phaidon as art director, and left in March 2015 to set up her own studio based in east London.
She has continued to work with cultural clients and on art book design, including taking on the title of consultant art director at London’s Photographers’ Gallery, overseeing poster designs and image selection. “The decision to start the studio came about quite naturally,” she says. “I had been longing to have a better work/life balance and had a series of self initiated projects I wanted to realize. Setting up the studio allowed me to do these and hugely improve my quality of life. My space is quiet, very focused, hard working, collaborative, and supportive. The principle of the studio is to treat others as you would like to be treated, and this goes with clients, collaborators, suppliers. A professional, respectful, friendly, open-minded, flexible, curious outlook as well as a sense of creative freedom, experiment, and play all guide the studio culture.”
Boris’ choice of an office near east London’s Hackney isn’t just down to chance–it’s a place packed with art galleries and bookshops, and there’s no shortage of fascinating local characters. “The studio lives and breathes with the local area,” she says. “It is very much impregnated with the local culture, which is diverse and gathers immensely creative people.”
So having had quite an international life so far, why set up a studio in London rather than anywhere else? “This is the city I feel most at home,” says Boris. “I have also developed my career and professional network here, so it felt like an obvious choice. It’s a truly international city with people from all around the world, and the diversity and international outlook inspires and informs my practice.”