London-based design agency A Practice For Everyday Life (more often known as APFEL) has spent the past 14 years garnering a well-deserved reputation for work that combines conceptual rigor, innovative approaches to graphic design, and carefully crafted typographies. The fact the studio’s name is taken from an essay by a French scholar hints at their marriage of style and well-read substance, and APFEL’s portfolio is packed with elegantly told design stories for galleries, publishers, and brands in the art and cultural sectors.
Kirsty Carter and Emma Thomas founded the studio in 2003 when they were studying for MAs in Communication Arts and Design at the Royal College of Art in London. Although at the time their design aesthetics seemed worlds apart, a close friendship, shared studio space, and a similar sensibility meant that the pair very quickly began collaborating on projects.
Today, Carter and Thomas tell us the story of their first commission as APFEL: an art publication that foreshadowed the career path that the studio would take, and which laid the foundation for its future clients and collaborators.
“It made sense for us, at that stage in our education, to try to make money through graphic design rather than any other part-time job. Our visual languages were still very different, but we were working with similar materials and ideas, and were very heavily interested in contemporary art.
“The first live project that we ever worked on together was a publication called Leftover, which explored the working processes of 11 international artists. We produced it in our first year at the RCA with a group of six second-year students on the MA Creative Curating course at Goldsmiths.
“The project itself was really enjoyable—in a way, it foreshadowed the exhibition design that we’d come to work on as A Practice for Everyday Life later on, because the publication itself functioned almost as an exhibition. It was a collection of ephemera and workings from 11 contemporary artists, literally the leftovers from particular pieces of their work. Each piece or scrap submitted by the artists was reproduced as a multiple, and then collected within a folder which acted as the ‘exhibition space’ for Leftover.
“Over the course of a week, we documented the process of creating the publication, and recorded the location and presence of the original items in our studio as they came in. The outside of the folder that housed all the items was printed with a photograph of our workspace where we were creating the publication. Our response was a kind of super-organized disorganization.
“We believe very strongly that the working processes within a project are often as important as the final outcome, so Leftover really resonated with us.
“It turned out to be quite an important project for us in a more practical sense, too, because the Goldsmiths curators we worked with on Leftover all graduated the year before we did, in 2001, and went to work in different art institutions across the country. They ended up becoming some of our first clients.
“Miria Swain, for example, went on from Goldsmiths to become assistant curator at Modern Art Oxford, who then commissioned us to design invitations and leaflets for ARRIVALS, a three-year exhibition series jointly run with Turner Contemporary in Margate. In turn, that led us to work with Rob Tufnell, who left Turner Contemporary and founded his own gallery, Ancient & Modern, for which we designed the identity.
“Leftover turned out to be a kind of catalyst for us, in terms of our future work within the cultural sector. Because many of the people we worked with at this point were of the same generation as us, we’ve been able to build a working relationship with them as we all progressed. That’s been a really positive experience, and beneficial to the designer-client dynamic in the long run.”