With all the noise coming out of design capitals like Denmark and Holland, it’s easy to miss the transition “old Europe” is making into a “going design concern” right before our eyes.
Take Paris, a city of stifling historical-preservation laws and pearl-clutching attitudes toward change. With its architectural fabric frozen in aspic, the city’s path to modernization is seen, increasingly, on paper—and triumphantly so. The typographic identity for the Musée d’Orsay, for example—a simple, monochrome “M ’O”—seems as fresh now as its first appearance in the mid-1980s. But there’s more, and better. Walk the gentrifying 3rd and 10th arrondissements, explore the once squalid streets of Montparnasse, Pigalle, and Belleville, and you’ll find yourself in a 21st century Belle Epoque of futuristic fonts and peculiar palettes—antidotes to Gallic classicism.
That Paris has evolved into one of Europe’s most exciting creative cities owes a debt to the hard graft of graphic designers, who work in isolation from design-centric Northern Europe (really putting the “island” in Ile de France). Two designers at the fore are Mytil Ducomet and Léa Chapon, graduates of the city’s Ecole Nationale des Arts Décoratifs, who paired up in work (and life) nearly a decade ago when they launched Atelier Müesli.
These days the duo are working harder than ever from their second floor apartment in Bellville. Despite the recent birth of their first child (or perhaps compared to it), their business is easy to contain. Where they once integrated photography, woodcuts, and newspaper imagery into their designs, they now work exclusively from mind to mouse. “Even if we could use the work of other people that we admire,” says Ducomet, “we are always returning to images where we can build and control all aspects and meaning.”
Despite the emphasis on drawing by hand in Chapon’s training as a type designer, Ducomet says the computer is simply the most efficient way to shape the typography that forms so much of their work, for cultural hubs like Espace Drouot and TRAM in Paris and exhibitions in Brittany and the South of France.
For institutions operating on the fringes of France’s cultural landscape, the allure of Müesli is plain: their graphics are artworks in themselves, imbued with history and subtle, conceptual cues. In a contemporary art catalogue they point out references to the Dada and Fluxus movements; a calendar reveals influences of what Ducomet calls “hard-edge American painting.”
“These influences don’t lead us to enlarge our expressions, but to refine them, make them precise, and to try to radicalize our work,” he says. “We take an idea and try to refine it in translation,” something Ducomet calls “restricting art” as a way of delivering a more efficient, powerful product with a stronger meaning.
After winning their first competition (to design an identity for a dance center in Tours) they followed a classic, linear approach to design, with sketching and technical trial and error. Over the years that’s evolved into a more abstract, discursive process that’s most apparent, perhaps, in lettering work that’s often closer to image than to type. Ducomet likens them to craftsmen. “We’re almost purists, in a way. It doesn’t mean that everything must be in black and white, even if we’d often like it to, but that we ask ourselves the same questions. After eight years, this is how we show continuity through different projects.”
Their most recent (and probably most significant) project is the art tome Mer Sans Rivage, published by Musée Sainte Croix de L’Abbaye and contemporary art museum FRAC Pays de la Loire, featuring work by the Belgian artist Edith Dekyndt. For this they took a side-by-side approach, with Chapon designing and arranging artwork and typography and Ducomet shaping the editorial.
The key to that “New Parisian” freshness is a commitment to spontaneity. “We don’t spend too much time with ‘blah blah blah,’” says Ducomet. But there’s always a hazard, particularly on Paris’ hipster east side, of falling into sameness. Even in the field of public art, Ducomet says they find it increasingly difficult to push through to their more radical ideas, citing “accessibility” as one enemy of creativity.
But Müesli are determined not to be easily categorized. “It’s a fight not to follow fashion in graphic design,” says Ducomet. “We have to deconstruct our work to find what is really us, our purpose, our message. Otherwise we’ll become just pawns.”