Nestled in the traditionally unglamorous environs of Peckham, southeast London (where the biggest claim to fame for many people is being the home of enterprising yet hapless Del Boy and Rodney Trotter from the sitcom Only Fools and Horses), sits Commission studio—a relatively young agency with some very impressive work behind it. Its founders and creative directors David McFarline and Christopher Moorby started the studio having previously worked for Spin and Made Thought respectively, and have brought with them both the nous to work with high profile fashion clients and a thorough knowledge of, and passion for, unusual and striking print processes.
The studio has now grown to encompass nine people, and that’s not likely to increase any time soon: Moorby is keen that he and McFarline remain hands-on and involved in all the projects that come in. “We want to take it one step at a time,” he says.
Commission’s project list is impressive, especially for a relatively small and new studio. Not least is its 2016 rebrand for DKNY, a bold and highly innovative turn for the fashion label, which was looking to heighten its sense of tactility and sensuousness. It introduced the new brand typeface as Franklin Gothic, as well as a new ribbon device that often weaves through collateral such as tags, invitations, and shopping bags.
For Moorby, part of the thrill of working with big name fashion brands (the studio also works with LVMH stablemates Rimowa, among others) is that they’re often “the craziest projects with the craziest deadlines,” he says. “The pace is really exciting; things happen quickly. When we were working on DKNY19, within a few months we had the packaging in our hands.” As with cultural clients, a tricky space to navigate in creating graphics for fashion is working with a brand with such a distinctive existing aesthetic: The graphic design has to speak loud and clear, without overshadowing the brand’s own identity. “You have to put a little bit of your own creative preciousness aside and become part of another creative team with their own creative director and creative vision,” says Moorby.
“You have to get on board with that and take cues from them, and realize it’s an innovation for a fashion show. You have to understand what the collection is about and the references, and then turn that into a physical bit of print.”
For the DKNY S17 runway show invites, for instance, transparency and layering were used to echo themes from designers Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow’s final collection at the helm.
As the studio explains, “Techniques and materials were used to riff on futuristic themes rooted in architecture, light, and femininity. Lighting gel, silicone, paper, and ribbon were printed with lithography and screen inks before being vacuum packed into a screen printed food bag.”
Commission has an ongoing relationship with Institute, the New York-based creative agency founded by Nate Brown that works with a glittering list of clients including Beyonce, Kanye West, Jay Z, Alexander Wang, and a ton of other starry names. As a creative director himself, Brown proved to be a dream client. “He completely trusts in us,” says Moorby. “If more clients had that, every project would be dream. He knows it was his decision to hire us, so now just lets us do what we do, so that’s fun.” The branding project saw Commission create a logo that acts across stationery and the Institute website as a device that looks like an electric strip on a keycard.
“Although [Brown] has very high profile clients, he likes being quiet and low-key as a creative entity,” says Moorby. “It’s all about integrity—he’s interested in the next project, not hammering big names. He wanted the name to have some sort of level of anonymity, and so our designs play on that with the idea of a magnetic strip on a key card. It feels like something that grants you access to this anonymous thing. You feel as though you’re really inside it, and understand it.”
For print applications, the logo is embedded into the black strip through a process called microfilming, so it’s “camouflaged in pattern,” as Moorby puts it, and “represents Institute’s process; it has to be studied to be a appreciated.”
The Institute project is one of many that uses unusual and rather complex printing processes. The DKNY work also falls under that banner, as well as the stunning Luke Evans monograph I Print With 500,000 Volts, showcasing imagery created using manual electronic xerography to “show the hidden patterns in static electricity,” released under Commission’s own publishing venture, The Rolling Thunder of Change. Evans’ book was loose bound in a cover of reversed artificial black leather, which has the texture of cork, as cork can act as an insulator against electricity.
“We’ve always loved the tactility of books and print and packaging, and that experience can’t really be replicated by anything in the digital realm,” says Moorby. “When I started out as a designer around 2004, we did a huge amount of print, even for little things. That approach has disappeared now, so any print we do is very precious—some people don’t even need stationery any more, or just need a business card. What that means is that they’re not spreading the cost across an entire stationery suite—that one business card can be really amazing, as they have more money to throw at one thing.
“We’re not a studio that’s all about creating digital platforms in RGB—we’re at the other end of the spectrum. It’s about subtlety and experience and discovering things.”