The designers behind the initials of Studio U-P are Uriah Gray and Paul Marcus Fuog, a Melbourne-based pair (with a new NYC satellite office) that clients know for, among other things we’ll get to shortly, the openness with which they approach every project brief. That attitude might stem from the fact that they both began their careers studying art, where one often lacks a brief to work towards. However, they found that much openendedness a bit too daunting, and gravitated towards the vocational practicality of graphic design.
The Australian duo met five years ago when Gray interned at Coöp, Fuog’s first studio. With such similar backgrounds, work styles, and visions, they bonded instantly, forming a shared sense of purpose and process that now defines their partnership. Their process is perfectly in sync. “At the beginning of each project, we research non-stop. Once we’re filled to the brim with information, we completely let go and are guided by intuition, experimentation, and change.” Because they’ve done the research before hand, U-P trust their intuition unequivocally; spontaneous and unrestrained play is guided by a tight, pre-prepared structure made of clear reference points gathered during their investigative legwork.
You can see how they deftly handled an eruption of references with a mixture of intuitive and abstract design for the identity for Monster Kitchen and Bar. The original name of the restaurant was actually Godzilla, which Gray and Fuog interpreted with scales and sea forms splashed across posters, as well as a mutating logo that sits alongside stickers that can be best described as reptilian Matisse cut-outs. These stickers can be found all around the restaurant and accompanying hotel, as if Godzilla was rampantly taking over the space. For the typography, Benoit Bodhuin’s Zig Zag was the perfect choice for a shape-shifting identity.
For another food-related project, this time for a bakery, U-P spoke to the local, artisanal aspects the A. Baker brand without ever straying into twee territory. Gray and Fuog experimented with locally sourced materials for a homey identity with hand-drawn markings. The ultimate result wouldn’t have been possible without a high degree of play. “Play is important as it isn’t outcome focused,” explains Fuog. “When we’re playing, we get lost in the moment and we’re not working towards an end goal.” The freedom, which they both relished and loathed as art students, allows for ample experimentation. “It’s a means to learn, hone skills, make discoveries, move through limitations, problem solve, and interact with others.”
Gray and Fuog actually schedule blocks of playtime throughout their day, otherwise ideas could spiral in wayward, endless, and unhelpful directions. An interest in play has led U-P investigate the visuals associated with fun and games. For an open-ended, self-initiated project called Field Experiments, U-P organized the “Grounds for Play” exhibition that looks closely at the visual language of a playground. “One interesting thing that seems obvious is that play is curvilinear,” says Fuog. “When animals or humans are playing, their bodies aren’t rigid, but curved and rounded. Likewise, when playgrounds are empty, they still communicate a sense of joy and whimsy through their curvy design.”
Field Experiments has become an ongoing project, a way for U-P to break out of the routine of client work and collaborate with other designers, including Benjamin Bryant and Karim Zariffa. “We spend so much time using design to sell something—a product, a service, an idea,” says Fuog. “With Field Experiments, we get the chance to use design as a way to learn about other people, places, and cultures.” The project is a rare opportunity to work with local craftspeople around the world, using design to share personal stories that they encounter every day.
“We exist in a cross-cultural world,” says Fuog thoughtfully. “And for this world to work, we need to be curious and build empathy and understanding about different cultures. There are many ways to bring about this exchange, and design is one of them.”
For a recent showcase at Sight Unseen’s OFFSITE during New York design week, Field Experiments drew from objects spotted in a traditional Balinese market. The first months that U-P spent researching in Bali were spent looking through local materials and documenting the peculiarities in dress, everyday utensils, signs, and lights that they observed. “We looked at everything closely, from natural materials like bamboo, limestone, teak, and rattan, to synthetic materials, like hard and soft plastics, rubber, and foam.”
After building up a rich list of visual influences that formed the bulk of their research, U-P emerged from their designated daily bouts of spontaneous thinking with “Magic Carpets” made of straw, foil candlestick holders, and bright plastic kites for the exhibition. U-P’s playful yet restricted process produces objects and designs that are vigorously grounded in time and place, but that also exude the kind of whimsy that’s only possible when intense research is combined with fantastic flights of the imagination.