Design matters: In Print
with Philippe Apeloig
by Debbie Millman
After studying with a host of masters, the French artist developed an incredible typographie style all his own.
French graphic designer Philippe Apeloig was educated at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Appliqués and the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. This was where he ﬁrst experimented with typography and letterforms. While still in school, he became an intern for Daphne Ofreski and Yoleen van der Vouw at Wim Crouwel’s ﬁrm Total Design. This experience helped create the foundation for Apeloig’s groundbreaking work. Now the principal of his own ﬁrm, Studio Philippe Apeloig, he has crafted some of the world’s most inventive and distinctive identities, including the Musée de France, Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia and the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Here, Apeloig speaks about his past, his influences and his wildly unique aesthetics—all of which manifest in his amazing design and typography.
Your ﬁrst design job after school was at the Musée d’Orsay, where you worked to launch the identity created by Bruno Monguzzi and Jean Widmer. What was it like for you to implement their vision?
I was Lucky to join the Musée d’Orsay team when I was 23 years old. I met Bruno Monguzzi and Jean Widmer and was surprised by the typeface they chose: Walbaum. Up until that point, most of the fonts in the Netherlands were sans serif types. However, I realized their choice made sense in the context of the period of time covered by the museum: 1848—1914. Walbaum belongs to the Didot family, which was a typical font used in the 19th century. This decision brought dynamism and freshness to all of the work. I found that Bruno had a strong cultural background and knowledge about the history of art and architecture. The elegance of the logotype was a fantastic example of combining tradition and modernity to create something new.
You left Paris to work in Los Angeles with April Greiman in 1988. What made you decide to do so?
When I was an intern for Wim Crouwel in Amsterdam, I enjoyed spending free time in the library they had created. It was a peaceful room full of art catalogs and books and magazines about graphic design. I found a book titled Posters by Members of the Alliance Graphique Internationale 1960-1985, edited by Rudolph de Harak. One poster, on page 157, stood out; it was very different from all of the others. I was struck by the freeness of the typography, shapes and colors; it was literally vibrating. I knew that I wanted to learn from the designer of the poster: April Greiman. After the opening of the Musée d’Orsay in December 1986, I visited the USA for the ﬁrst time. I arrived in New York, where I met Massimo Vignelli, lvan Chermayeffand Rudolph de Harak.
Then I went to Los Angeles speciﬁcally to meet with April and show her my portfolio. When I ﬁrst entered her studio I realized I had jumped into the 2lst century. Everything—the furniture, the light, her silhouette, her attitude, the way she dressed—contributed to her design spirit. She liked my work, and I applied for a grant with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in France to spend a year in California in April’s studio. When I arrived in Los Angeles to start working with her I discovered that she was using the Apple Macintosh! April was the only designer at that time to use computers to design. I didn’t expect to be confronted with having to learn this new technology. It took me a few months before I understood how revolutionary this new tool actually was. I was lucky; I ended up at the right place at the right time.
A year later, you came back to Paris to open your own studio. At that time you also became the art director for Le Jardin des Modes, a fashion and design magazine.
Not only was this something I’d never done before, I also didn’t know much about fashion. Apparently, this is what [editor-in—chief Alice Morgaine] was looking for in an art director! She wanted to hire someone with no experience in the fashion world. But when I started the job, Alice told me I could not change the logo of the magazine or the template, or choice of the fonts, or even the tabloid format because it was designed by her friend and guru, Milton Glaser. It was an amazing coincidence, but not surprising in that Le Jardin des Modes had a strong design history.
In 1993, you became a fellow at the French Academy in Rome. You created a number of fonts there, and ultimately won the Gold Award from the Tokyo Type Directors Club for your body of work. Original typography has been central to your output. Can you talk a bit about how you design typography?
I was looking for a way to use the elements of typography like a choreographer with dancers on stage, or a composer with a music score. I also was—and still am—interested by abstraction in painting, minimalism, and repetition. But it took me time to acquire the right skills to experiment with typography. I wanted to bring a sense of movement and create a dimensional effect by overlapping various textures. Technology has provided me with the liberty to use typography to invent shapes more freely and to push the limits of readability. I have taken the opportunity to develop new fonts in my own work designing posters or for new corporate identities. But it took me time to become unafraid to “play” with letterforms and to be at ease in the discipline.
Experimental typography is the balance between full and empty, light and shade. It is midway between science and art, functional and poetic; it is a precise and yet arbitrary practice. Typography is alive when it is a bit awkward and fragile. I not only like it to be experimental—I need to be in order to create. My alphabets are “innocent, awkward and playful,” and they are irrational and predictable.
You moved back to the U.S. in 1998 and became a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design.
For me, teaching is a way to keep connected with the young generation. I want to share my knowledge, my skills and my experiences, but I seek to learn their codes and language. I found that most of the inspiration American students got was from consuming society: television, the internet, etc. I found my students to be the direct descendents of the pop culture. During that time you also taught at the Cooper Union School of Art New York and became curator of the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography.
That’s a lot of teaching. Were you also taking on your own design projects?
I always make time to practice my personal work and to complete client commissions. However, at one point I realized it would be difﬁcult to keep both positions, so I had to make a choice between having an academic career or a purely creative one. I chose the risky one and resigned my full-time faculty position at The Cooper Union School of Art. I kept my position as the curator of the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography, where I organized a series of design lectures and curated exhibitions.
Why did you move back to France?
That is a big question. Many factors pushed me to leave New York and return to Paris. It was a year after 9/11, and the City was depressed. I was depressed as well. I didn’t know if I could rebuild my life in the U.S. without teaching, and if I could survive as a freelance designer. I lost my apartment in Greenwich Village, which had given me enormous pleasure. I was 39 years old. I decided that the next decade of my life should be in Paris. It was a very strong emotional choice. I do not regret it, but it is bizarre for me to remember my New York years. I feel as if I was a totally different person. When I come back to New York and walk across Washington Square, I look at the windows of my old apartment building and try not to be engulfed by sorrow. I believe that New York City is like a chameleon—she regularly changes her skin, but she is always the same fascinating creature.
Last year, the Stedeliik Museum Amsterdam mounted a show of your work titled “Philippe Apeloig: Using Type.” What was it like seeing your work presented in this environment?
Carolien Glazenburg, the curator, ﬁrst approached me about this project; “Using Type” would have been impossible without her focus and tenacity. She has worked tirelessly to make the Stedelijk Museum a home for graphic designers from all over the world. While working with her, I was grateful for her advice but also surprised. Some of her choices, frankly, were difﬁcult for me. But she gave the exhibition a coherent vision and brought out qualities that were unexpected. One large room was like a bath of typography. All the walls were covered with posters, placed on top of each other and next to each other, as if they were outside, in a public space. The small publications were placed on tables in the middle of the room. I also asked Carolien to assemble three posters of my mentors: Wim Crouwel, Wolfgang Weingart and April Greiman. It created an interesting dialogue between their graphic design language and my own work. I was especially grateful for the opportunity to reconnect with Amsterdam, my second City. It was an honor and a joy on many levels.
Not long ago, you were commissioned to craft the numerals for the Slim d’Hermès watch. The numbers you designed are some of the most beautiful ever created.
For the Slim d’Hermès watch, I was asked to imagine the numbers on a ﬁne, elegant watch, with the silhouette of a thin line. I chose to use only very simple, nearly existential graphic elements. Everything had to work together: the angles, the lines and the curves. It needed to be as pure as possible. There could be no variations in the upstrokes of the numbers, or in the widths of the numbers. Because of their “hybrid” nature, the numbers 2, 3, 4 and 5 were the hardest to create. One of the things that has always fascinated me is the essence of basic shapes. Typographie signs—like the seven notes in music —must be created in the presence of a well-thought-out composition of impenetrable fragments. A watch is not an ordinary object. The spaces between the numbers—these interruptions—produce an absolutely metaphysical impression. The numbers never touch! For me, this evokes the meeting of the spatial and the temporal. This is like life. Certain lines are never meant to meet. These interruptions impose a silence: a stop, followed by the starting up again of time. The little breaks are like a masterful form of imperfection. My idea was to bring a modesty—a fragility—to the face of passing of time. This fragility, against all expectations, gives a strong visual identity to the watch. It is a bit like the unsettling skull and crossbones adornments you might see in educated salons 300 years ago.
Since 1997, you have been the poster designer for the Fête du Livre d’Aix-en-Provence. It reminds me a little bit of Michael Bierut’s long-term relationship with the Yale School of Architecture. How do you go about designing these posters?
For each edition, the literature Festival d’Aix-en-Provence chooses one or more regions of the world for its literary theme. The debates sparked by the speakers work are often political, and they explore the pressing social and political issues faced by the writers countries of origin.
When I start to design a poster, I read the novels and I collect many different kinds of photographs. I immerse myself in the culture of the country. I also examine many things that might not have any direct connection with the topics. This feeds my imagination and can drive me to unexpected directions. It also helps build my mental dictionary. My goal is to pinpoint an emotional feeling in the design. I don’t immediately know what I shall do. I do my utmost to focus but my attention wanders aimlessly at ﬁrst: I let things float by me—images, objects, things I’ve read, sounds. I’m active by being receptive. I never have a preconceived idea. This would require me to inventa visual to translate it. I won’t do that.
This phase helps me push away insecurities and keeps my worry at bay. When the proposed project no longer feels foreign to me, my disquiet starts to be productive. Sketches begin to pile up; everything moves. I like to work with constraints. I work with the luck of the draw, like in gambling. I try different letter arrangements and work until the correct form reveals itself. That’s when I immobilize it, and the searching stops. That is a pivotal point, and it is supported by the mass of preparatory sketches. It is only then that I feel I can go and show it to my client.
I believe that a graphic designer is always cutting, changing, damaging his alphabet and working to push the limits of legibility. I feel that typography is the essence of the métier. In the end, there is nothing worse in our practice than being constrained by the format.
Design matters: In Print
with Philippe Apeloig
Press, June 2017