“Make New History” seems to be a nice underpinning for the bold, striking, and rigorous aesthetic favored by London-based studio Zak Group. The phrase was the title of the recent Chicago Architecture Biennial, for which the studio designed the visual identity, campaign, wayfinding system, and catalog. It’s a neat distillation of a lot of things the studio’s work stands for: one eye on popping color palettes, one on architectural precision, and feet firmly planted in deep cultural understanding.
Zak Group, which has just celebrated its tenth birthday, was founded by Zak Kyes, who relocated to London from CalArts and until late last year ran the studio alongside his role as art director of the Architectural Association School of Architecture. As part of that position, he launched Bedford Press, an imprint of the school’s AA Publications, with graphic designer Wayne Daly. “I was not only interested in what things looked like, but how they came about,” says Kyes. “Setting up Bedford Press was a way to broaden the conversation.” Between 2006 and 2016, the imprint published 46 titles that look at the intersection of architecture, visual art, graphic design, and theory. Kyes cites his favorites as Exhibition Prosthetics by the artist Joseph Grigely and Auto-Destructive Art: Metzger at AA, to name just a few. “After a decade-long collaboration I decided to step away from the AA in October 2016 and subsequently closed Bedford Press in order to devote myself to the studio full time, at long last.”
That move seems to have come at a very exciting time for the studio, which has built up a vast and impressive portfolio over its decade-long life. They’ve become increasingly high-profile ones at that: take the art direction for Frank Ocean’s magazine Boys Don’t Cry, for instance, which unsurprisingly sold out instantly when it was launched with little warning (save no shortage of “leaks”) and lots of fanfare in August last year along with Ocean’s visual album Endless and Blonde. When the images suddenly zipped their way across the internet, it was the first time the Zak Group team saw their much-guarded work out in the world, too. The typographic treatment is a deliciously warped confection, shown across a hand-distorted masthead created by scanning originals on a large-format scanner. “The technique of printing, capturing, and manipulating original artwork references historical works by artists such as Bob Cobbing or experiments made in the late ’60s with the then-new photocopy technology,” says the studio.
Kyes adds that he and his team see the identity work for the project as “an extension of our work to give shape to artists’ projects. The machine-distorted lettering of Boys Don’t Cry exposes the glitches of technology by scanning, printing and manipulating letterforms.” He adds, “our clients work at the edge of visual culture and we see our music and fashion clients, like Frank Ocean or Paco Rabanne, as working towards the same goals as cultural institutions or visual artists.”
The studio tells me it sees its projects as “a hybrid of identity, art direction, brand strategy, technology, architecture, and content development.” The architectural component seems to be a particularly prescient one, if we consider the complex layers that build up to create such dazzling and beautiful work. To attempt to fabricate this slightly clumsy metaphor; perhaps the foundations are an academicized understanding of the cultural worlds Zak Group’s clients mostly inhabit, the walls draw on Swiss-like rigidity, the overall vision is informed by an astonishingly broad understanding of art and visual culture more widely; the paintwork and interior flourishes are occasionally playful and often radical.
“The aim is always to create original work, even if we recognize this is often not possible,” says Kyes. “The challenge of a great project is to maintain creative independence—to avoid the traps, conventions, and clichés, that homogenizing constraints impose. This requires an incredible amount of energy and a conviction to be original.”
The studio is keen to espouse the collaborative nature of what it does, working closely with artists and curators as well as “within the team at our studio, with experts from other disciplines and with our clients” to create “a creatively and intellectually charged environment that is energizing to be part of.”
The newest fruits of such partnerships will include a new identity and website for renowned Frankfurt art school Städelschule, launching at the end of the year—“it’s hard to imagine a more experimental, and therefore more challenging, context to work in”— as well as the exhibition design and architecture of Parapolitics: Cultural Freedom and the Cold War at HKW in Berlin. This was the first time an architect joined Zak Group’s in-house team, and Kyes sounds excited at the opportunities this partnership offers for “new ways to work with space and think through the presentation of artworks, objects, sound, and text.”
This expansion into physicality is echoed in the studio’s new explorations in the product world, too, with the launch of a new project called Group Object—feast your eyes on the dizzying holding page for now, and expect to know more by the end of the year.
The energy Kyes often speaks of shows: the work straddles a considered thoughtfulness and a drive for newness. And according to the designer, that’s partly born of working with people that really get what design is, and what it can do. “I think it’s important to share a common understanding of why and when design is needed,” he says.
“For some, design is still a matter of styling that occurs at the end of a project. But today, everything is designed—from how we work to the politicians we vote for. As a result design has become a central part of almost every activity that happens at the beginning of a project. A successful partnership understands the transformative effect design can have.”