It would be easy to get lost in the graphic art of M/M (Paris), with their child-like doodles, defacing of photos, wild experiments in juxtaposition, and layers upon layers of hot-mess provocation. Thank goodness for their new book, M to M (Rizzoli), which they liken to a "map" of their work. For the most part, it is indeed like a map — or rather, a 20-year survey of their creative output. But here's the catch: arranged in alphabetical order, it begins and ends with M, so that the beginning of the book actually falls in the middle, at page 528.
And therein lies the beautiful conundrum at the core of everything Mathias Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag do. Which is to say, nothing is as it seems. One the one hand, the celebrated French art directors push the limits of print design like the true iconoclasts they are, while on the other hand there is method to the madness. Their seemingly haphazard squiggles, for example, drawn over yet not obscuring Balenciaga's and Calvin Klein's campaign imagery in 2001 and 2002 — photographed by another iconoclastic duo, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, with whom M/M have collaborated innumerable times — was a sensational and oeuvre-defining coup.
For the New York launch and signing of the book, the two of a kind chose as their venue the impossibly elegant French consulate on Fifth Avenue, where they opened up to HINT on a range of topics, from Bjork's Biophilia to Riccardo Tisci's Givenchy, and from seeking a relationship with truth to finding the word "inspiration" boring.
This table is fantastic. Is it your design?
Mathias: Yes, we had them made for the first exhibition we did in Paris. We did the exhibition at the Chapelle des Beaux Arts. We were invited by l’Ecole des Beaux Arts, which is now run by [art curator] Nicolas Bourriaud, who we’ve worked with him many times. As he is at the head of the school now, he proposed hosting a book signing like we are going to do here.
I was looking at the book on the way here. Everyone on the subway couldn't stop staring at it. It’s really beautiful. I forget sometimes how much of your work is out there.
Mathias: This is why we did this book, because so many things are out there. It's a kind of map.
It really is like a map.
Mathias: Of course there are no continents, but still there is a world. That is how we describe it sometimes. We didn't design the book, but it's constructed a bit like an A to Zed.
Except it's M to M.
Mathias: Yes, so it’s like a space in between two persons. It embodies all the people we have been collaborating with.
How is working on fashion projects, for example Jil Sander and Balenciaga, different from other projects? Or is it?
Michael: We get clothes cheaper.
Mathias: No, we both come from a school of applied arts, the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs. In the school there were all the different disciplines. There was a fashion department, there was a design department, there was a painting department, and then of course graphic design. We liked the idea that all those disciplines fed into the culture of now. When we started, it was not so obvious that art would go out of museums. This is why we were interested in fashion, because it was producing culture.
Fashion is a pretty small community. For me the book was a reminder of how much fashion is integrated into everything else, from music to art, and how it all converges into one thing. It’s nice to see that.
Mathias: Thank you. You say fashion is a small community, but art is also a small community. Of course, you can see art anywhere, or you can hear a song, like Kanye West, anywhere in the world. But still the people who are really making things are a very small community. And they often like clothes. I mean, that was then. That’s why our interest was how to take something daring from one world and put it in another one.
You began in the early 90s. How does it feel that it's been two decades since you started?
Mathias: It's weird, everything is a bit contradictory. It’s funny to have this taste of the 90s, but mixed with the present. The internet thing was not so much the 90s. Back then it was a kind of network of people. It was more real. Now we're having the return of the 90s.
I know what you mean. Following Courtney Love on Twitter blows my mind. Back in the 90s, it was all about faxing.
Mathias: Yes, fax was the kind of “it” thing. There was a book published by Thames & Hudson called Fax You, like fuck you. They commissioned many different graphic designers to produce a piece with a fax machine. At the time we produced the first-ever color fax.
How did you do that?
Mathias: We sent the four colors separately. We faxed C, M, Y, K. And also for that project we created this typeface that was made with McDonald's french fries. It was not about an artisanal thing, it was not about handmade. It was about coping with industrial things. The fries were registered in size. They were designed so you have a really long one or a shorter one. There were seven sizes. So we created a typeface based on that.
Fashion can't get enough of the Internet now.
Mathias: But it was so anti-Internet. It took a long time for fashion designers to say, Okay, we are using the Internet.
Are you moving more into interactive design?
Mathias: It’s not that we are moving into it. It’s that it’s part of the culture. It’s there, and we have to take that into account. Images have different lives now. IPhone and iPads present a new way of exploiting an image. That is why we did the Biophilia project with Bjork.
Which is amazing.
Mathias: Yes, it is amazing, but I always think of it as something a bit frightening, because it is so big. It's something you don’t want to do again.
How did that come about? Did she come to you with the idea of merging music and technology?
Mathias: It came about when she was very, very early in the recording of the album, when she was starting to use tactile interfaces as a way to compose and perform using more improvisation. The iPad didn’t even exist when she was doing that. We just had iPhones. So we were all discussing this whole tactile thing, and how the iPhone would somehow allow us maybe to create ways to experiment or explore the tracks, and how every track would become an attractive thing rather than a single. And then, in the process of discussing this, the iPad was announced. And together we created a whole series of apps that would work as an app album.
Do you think it went over some people’s heads?
Mathias: Because I think there was so much content that we tried to put in. In a way it was too dense, there were too many layers.
It felt very intellectual. There was a lot to understand.
Mathias: In the end that is where something went wrong, because it was not intellectual at all. It’s a very basic musical experience. But I think the problem that we didn’t really foresee at the time was not everyone had an iPad. It was a very luxurious object. I mean, now it’s everywhere. I think, with time, the project is going to be a part of history. I think when you see the concert, it’s going to have the effect of before and after Biophilia. I don’t know for who, but it’s true for me there is a before and after.
I was thinking you could also do that with fashion designers, the same concept of people interacting with colors and fabrics. I don’t know, I’m not the artist. But it seems like fashion really lends itself to iPad apps.
Mathias: Maybe. I think that with fashion there is a need to always go back to reality. If you speak a lot about it and it’s a lot of information, at the end of the day it has to be a dress. It’s really, really physical.
It seems with each of your ad campaigns, you really try to capture the spirit of the designer.
Mathias: In that way we are from the 90s. There is this relation to truth, maybe. We like fantasy, but I think there is always a reality factor. And the designers we work with, they also originated from the 90s, even though we worked with Yohji Yamamoto, who was very big in the 90s, and then someone like Nicolas Ghesquière, who was at the end of the 90s. So we are really anchored in that period. So it’s true that most of the time it was about telling a tale, but a tale that was always anchored to a person.
Do you ever try to predict the future? For example, the future of art, the future of graphics, the future of fashion?
Mathias: I think we are critical and curious. And because we are two persons and we have different interests, somehow it enables us to put together things that are coming from different worlds. It helps us be a bit “in advance.” We believe in time. Things take time. And you have to commit, you know. That’s the way we do things.
And nowadays it’s all about Instagram, instant fame, being famous for nothing, and being front row for no reason.
Mathias: Things grow and die quickly. People ask what our trick is. I say it's spending more time on things.
Tell me about this guy [pointing to a recurring pixilated character called the Agent]. He’s cute.
Mathias: He’s cute? Well that’s a good answer. He is cute.
Where does he come from?
Mathias: That was the first thing we did. It was just to do a cute symbol, like a pet. He is not alive, but you could think he could be alive.
He’s like a mascot. He keeps you company.
Mathias: Yeah, he keeps us company, exactly. I see him as a pet.
And this Givenchy stuff is incredible.
Mathias: Why do you think it’s incredible?
I'm drawn to faces. Like here, where you combine different faces.
Mathias: Since fashion advertising is not how it used to be in the 90s, we can’t really do something very explosive like we did for Balenciaga, for instance. What we did for Givenchy, the advertising we’re working on is much more, I would say, normal. But then we kind of reversed course for the invitation, so that the invitation became more of an exploration. This is where we are trying new things, and Riccardo understood it. And that also helps him to build the archive.
Do you consider it part of your job to create a label's branding?
Mathias: We do it in our own way, we don’t just do it on top of a brand. But it’s true that what interests us is just to help the designer to really build his brand, and help delineate the creative differences between Riccardo Tisci and Nicolas Ghesquière when he was working at Balenciaga, for instance, or between Riccardo Tisci and Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent.
Do you prefer to work with designers who have very clear ideas? Or do you prefer to bring your own ideas?
Mathias: I think people we are working with have to be strong so that they don’t get swallowed into our...
I think it would be easy to get swallowed into your universe.
Mathias: Yes, and I think this is what people appreciate. And I think — again referring to Givenchy — Riccardo has a strong point of view.
Michael: That’s what makes it interesting. The strength of his working relationship to the images we produce for him makes it even more special. Because then it belongs to the two of us, and the complexity of both worlds are merged into the work.
Do you ever see your ideas brought into a collection?
Mathias: Maybe what’s good with Riccardo is that the way we influence each other is not direct. It’s more like, I would say...
Mathias: Yeah, it’s on a more conceptual level.
Michael: The great story about Riccardo is that he came to our studio two years before he was appointed at Givenchy, when he was still a fashion student. He wanted to buy some of our posters because he was a fan. He got a couple of the alphabet posters, and then eventually, when he ended up at Givenchy a few years later, he was able to work with us. And that’s why he has always been extremely pleasurable, because it was never about trying to convince him about how we work. He knew intuitively what our strengths were and how to use us. And that’s why in some respects we are less involved, and in other respects we are more involved. But the more the relationship is going, the more it has been productive. When, for instance, he stopped doing couture, he commissioned us to design the last presentation space. That could only have happened because of the freedom we had. We are not presentation designers, but he knew that by hiring us he would get something special that would make the whole thing come together.
Is there anything that you haven’t been able to do? Has anyone come to you with an idea, and you said, "No, this is not possible?"
Michael: When it’s really stupid, sometimes we have to say no. This happens.
You'll turn down the job?
Michael: Yeah, if it's wrong. Same thing with a relationship. Sometimes you meet someone and you think, Okay, there is something there.
I thought these [pen-scribbled sneakers by Marc Jacobs] were great. Did you wear them?
Mathias: I did.
I think I would be too nervous to wear them. I always spill.
Mathias: But you know, it’s designed for that purpose. I think that’s what we like in our work, that things are aging, and wearing, and disappearing.
Michael: [Pointing to iPhone] That’s him yesterday, wearing it.
Wow, what’s the backdrop?
Michael: That’s the exhibition we just opened at the Pasadena Art Center.
Fantastic. Where do you see yourselves in the near future?
Michael: For me, I’ve always had the dream — it’s a stupid dream — to go on holiday. What we’ve been doing is very, very tiring. The problem is that we are enjoying a lot what we do, and we are also extremely dedicated to what we do. So we are very light and playful, but at the same time extremely serious. Even when, for instance, we produced a tree made of bronze letters, it sounds like fun but in the end it was a lot of work. This is a dream of mine.
Do you feel like you’re starting to become as famous as some of the clients you work with?
Mathias: For sure. That creates a problem, yes. Recently it happened.
Does it bother you?
Mathias: It’s a bit sad, I think. it’s great what we achieved. When I say “achieved,” it’s not just us. It made them strong and we are strong.
Well, congrats on the book. Hope I didn't bore you with my questions.
Michael: No, it’s good to ask those things. The only boring question is “What inspires you?” The answer is obvious.