Frith Kerr compares graphic design created for art to “a vase for flowers.” The graphics, she says, are a vessel. “Sometimes you can have a great baroque vase, and other times a simple jug will be perfect.”
Kerr should know. Her studio has worked for some of the most respected and boundary-pushing arts organizations around, including the Chisenhale Gallery, White Cube, New York’s Guggenheim Museum, and iconoclastic dancer and choreographer Michael Clark.
Since Kerr founded her eponymous Studio Frith in 2009, the West London-based consultancy has brought its inventive, playful, and thoughtful approach to a wide range of cultural clients, including the Design Museum and Penguin, swanky department stores Liberty and Selfridges, and fashion house Valentino. It’s a testament to the studio’s craft that the breadth of its creativity can augment everything from visceral (and often strange) contemporary art shows to some of the most high-end fashion names in the world. But open-minded clients can be hard to spot.
“You don’t ever really know if someone’s going to be a great client,” says Kerr. “Many people are very risk-averse. If you want to stand out from the crowd you need to take risks and not do what everyone else is doing, we seek clients that are serious and take risks that are calculated.”
One thing that’s made Studio Frith’s work so consistently fresh and engaging is Kerr’s refusal to engage in solipsistic design-wank—that, and her palpable curiosity about anything and everything in the world around her. Among the things she cites as informing her design work are spiders, science, history, Hill Street Blues, chairs, J.G.Ballard, nature, and the city. “Our initial approach [to a project] is always investigative,” says Kerr. “Our design work is always based on the truths we find. These ‘truths’ enable us to establish a strategic base on which to build.”
It was nigh-on impossible for anyone on London’s The Strand at the end of last year to miss the studio’s graphics for Strange Days, a vast group show of radical moving image artworks, which were used across exhibition texts, printed matter, the website, and a vast typographic exterior building-wrap. For these designs, Studio Frith looked to what influenced the show’s curator, Massimiliano Gioni: the Kathryn Bigelow-directed 1995 cult movie Strange Days, and the radical 1920s Soviet Union book Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. “The [film’s] typeface plays between typographic components of early 20th century Russian letterforms, and a now-out-of-date idea of what the future might be,” says Kerr. “It’s this kind of tension and playfulness that we have exploited in the Strange Days typeface. It’s a headline typeface that can be used small or big. The large scale letters wrapping around the building became a selfie opportunity. A celebrity typeface!”
Prior to opening Studio Frith, Kerr co-ran the agency Kerr/Noble from 1997 with Amelia Noble, her classmate from the Royal College of Art (RCA), where she studied under veritable design legend Margaret Calvert. It feels like a brave move to set up shop as soon as you finish your post-grad course, but according to Kerr, that was almost expected of her class. Calvert, says Kerr, “encouraged us to set up your own studio, so that you didn’t get a job first and get used to the money and then find it hard to step away from.”
Two decades on, with today’s crippling art school costs and a more general sense of post-recession unease around job security, would it still be possible to create such a successful studio from the get-go? “Well, we had nothing—so I don’t see how that would change for people nowadays,” says Kerr. “The responsibility of the student fees is obviously a pressure now, however I think there are some interesting ways of sharing space and collaborating on projects now that just weren’t possible 20 years ago. Laptops, mobile phones, notebook, and pen—the iPhone is only 11 years old. You are more fluid in how you can set up and work.”
So what are the best and worst things about running your own studio? “Being the boss and being the boss,” she says. For those looking to set up shop themselves, she advises, cryptically, “Look both ways.”