Pol Pérez and Pep Román are the founders of Affaire – an art and design studio working in the fields of fashion, culture and consumer goods.
There are some very interesting parallelisms between your individual lives before becoming Affaire. You were both into graffiti at a young age, you took your bachelor’s degree in Elisava, you both had an educational experience in Switzerland… Yet, it wasn’t until you were hired as a team in Folch Studio that you actually got to know each other better.
Yes, it’s true! It sounds a bit like a cliché, the story of the designer who used to do graffiti, but I come from a small town where lots of young people did it because there was nothing better for them to do. Graffiti stimulated my curiosity for working on something related to drawing or design, it’s the reason why I took the artistic program in high school and later enrolled in Elisava as a graphic design student.
I’d say that graffiti is only a small part of what we have in common. Our backgrounds are linked by an interest in counter-cultural movements, which are usually the ones that catch your attention when you are young, because you feel like you can do them too. We were also really into skateboarding, and this interest in street culture as a whole still holds up today.
What’s your first memory of each other?
The first time Pol and I got together was at a lettering class in Elisava, led by Eduardo Manso and Laura Meseguer. I studied Engineering in Elisava before switching to graphic design. I loved lettering at that time, but later I found out that graphic design was something completely different, that involved briefings and stuff like that.
I remember well that your lettering was very vibrant, there was a lot of illustration in it too.
Yes, I was 100% from the school of graffiti. However there was nothing related to painting about it, it had more to do with calligraphy and the expression of the letter. Later I also found out that typography was a whole different world, that answered to other canons and needs.
We didn’t know each other well at the time, but then there were similarities in the decisions we took during our studies.
I did my Erasmus at the ZHdK in Zurich and Pep went to Lausanne to study at ECAL. I actually first had the intention to go to ECAL, but changed my mind at the very last minute.
There were other universities that interested me too, like the Rietveld Academie in Holland, but the places were destined to Fine Arts students only.
This happened in 2010, so I guess ECAL wasn’t as famous as it is today. I find it interesting how some design schools have developed their own languages – you can immediately identify their student’s work. They also contributed to a new revivalism of the International style.
There are schools that put a lot of effort into creating a very recognisable house style. However, at an educational level I find this problematic because it focuses on the aesthetic rather than the conceptual layer. While it could be argued that the visual style of the projects helps attract new students to the school – and, honestly, it does look good on social media like Instagram –, it doesn’t help foster each student’s individual creativity and critical thinking.
In 2012 you became the senior design team at Folch Studio.
Pep, do you remember the first project we did together?
Not really. I must say our work chemistry comes from a geographic bond. We were literally sitting next to each other, that creates a lot of complicity. At first I was only working part time and felt like a bit of an “outsider”, because you two had started working there a few months earlier than me.
Really? I had no idea, I was just an intern.
But then we had breakfast together every day, we did smoking pauses together… that’s when Pol and I started sharing a lot, and understanding we had very much in common. I already admired him because I knew his work, but as a team we found out that we complemented each other really well. If one felt blocked, the other one would jump in. We acknowledged the strengths each other had, so we started creating a dynamic of building decisions together.
As in a dialogue. This actually relates to a testimony I collected from someone who worked with you at Affaire, your student Laura Frade.
“Pol and Pep understand each other really well. They speak the same language and, by means of working together, their different strengths are enhanced. Their approach to design doesn’t focus on the final result, but in the process. The path that leads to the final result, and each piece that composes it, is where the dialogue takes place, where they find the solutions to their projects in a very brilliant way. I’m not sure if they are aware of it, but this idea of “conversation” is a fundamental part of their practice: it happens while smoking a cigarette, taking the morning coffee, or eating dessert at lunch. It’s a very mediterranean way of working. They talk to open a space of reflection.”
Wow, I really identify with her description. After three years at Folch we got to know each other pretty well, and we are aware that we have complementary skills. It’s also true that we like to enjoy life, we love to eat well, to have endless coffee pauses… but as a consequence we also usually tend to work late to compensate for all the time “lost” while talking.
I must add that we are also very critical and skeptical people. The conversation is part of our methodology, a starting point to approach concepts at the beginning of our projects. This methodology is later combined with a more rational thinking during execution, but Affaire is definitely a studio that believes in instinct and spontaneity.
In your website description you explain that, on the one hand, “Affaire is an art and design studio” and, on the other hand, that your projects “prioritise a strong conceptual foundation with impeccable execution”. When I look at your portfolio I notice that you seek to explore many different visual languages. There’s a very balanced combination of creative freedom and rational minimalism.
When we started the studio we had an idea that was perhaps a bit naive, but we wanted to do work that we liked. When you talk about these constants that you see in our work, I guess it’s easy for you to pin them, but we don’t have enough distance from ourselves to recognise all of our defining features. However, if there is one thing that defines us, is that we don’t have a closed idea of what design is supposed to be. There are projects that lead us into a more conceptual approach, but others that appeal to us in a more emotional/sensorial way. We don’t have a design mantra, our way of working evolves with our own growth, and we are honestly not afraid of sometimes being incoherent with ourselves or with something we did in the past.
That’s right. We like things that feel genuine, that have character. We try to escape trends, even though there’s nothing wrong with them – I personally don’t relate to the elitist idea that independent design is necessarily better than commercial design (I’m actually very interested in design in a commercial context). To me it all comes down to the quality of the craft: sometimes I fall in love with a piece of independent design with a strong concept, and other times I get crazy with the exquisite execution of a commercial design product. To sum up, I just don’t like “formulas” applied to design.
Your design is also very well informed. In it we can find references from contemporary art, literature, graffiti, vernacular culture or even Pop culture. There’s no filter!
We try to keep learning new things from each project, because we’d get really bored otherwise. It’s not that every project needs to be innovative, but it should always be an opportunity to grow and improve.
This leads us to the theme of Curiosity: I know that it is very important for you as teachers. A student of yours, Francisco Pires, wrote me this message:
“Pol and Pep were the teachers of my book project at the Editorial design Master in Elisava. With them I learned how to approach a project with a critical spirit, to develop a refined aesthetic sense, and practice a way of working that I found fresh, disruptive and free. In class, they would bring us many publications from the art world, fashion, technology, cinema, literature… References that helped me to better understand the vast universe of the book, and also fuel my curiosity to discover and analyse the possibilities of this medium.”
What we do with the students in class, and with ourselves too, is to promote an approach based on investigation, make research from many different fields – even embrace random findings – as a way to open them up to new interests and break with preconceived ideas. We want to give room for experimentation based on a critical spirit. The academic environment offers us the rare possibility to be flexible, so we make sure they grab that opportunity. It’s a challenge when we try to bring this into our professional practice, but I have a lot more fun when we do it.
Pol, actually the other day I entered your studio and found Pep on the floor, experimenting with typography, pink glitter, clay and googly eyes.
It is very easy for a young designer today to be in contact with the work of other designers, and to immediately try to be a part of a visual universe without really nurturing his/her own creativity with other interests. It’s important to be in touch with different visual techniques, to try different media, even absorb different kinds of design. It’s very positive and liberating.
If your references come only from other designers, or design studios, you’ll soon find yourself in a dry plain. You’ll end up appropriating their work, which it’s ok for learning purposes, there’s nothing evil about that, but it limits your vision in the long run.
Your clients come from different fields and have many different scales. Your daily reality may involve, for example, the design of a vinyl record cover for an indie group from Barcelona, and the making of some music video credits for world famous artists, like Rosalía or Asap Rocky, both at the same time. Isn’t this shift sometimes a bit brutal?
The client diversity comes from the same reason we mentioned before, regarding our references: we like to design for different fields. Culture and fashion are perhaps more prominent than other fields, but there’s an easy explanation to that, which is that these industries constantly need design services. As for the range of clients, I must say that some projects seem very commercial, but they were actually favours or underpaid jobs, they were not commercial at all. Anyway, we like to shift between big and small clients, long-term and short-term projects, it keeps us sane.
When we design a brand, we have to think long-term, envision how it will endure and behave through time. When we design the credits for a music video, as you mentioned, the work is very explosive, usually framed in a very limited amount of time, and you know that your part is just a small contribution to someone else’s creative project.
Are you usually involved in every step of the design process, from strategy to final design?
We haven’t always had the opportunity to be involved in our clients’ projects from a strategic or creative direction point of view. But this is actually changing now. We recently redesigned the identity of one of our long-time clients, Alfred Kerbs. This project is by definition a creative direction project: we helped defining a new strategy, we oversaw the production process of the collection, and we are currently in control of every creative aspect of their communication, from the art direction in photography, to the set design, web design or social media communication. To contrast with this approach, we have also just designed the vinyl cover of Oso Leone’s new album. This was an art project, completely sensorial, done hand in hand with the group. This way of working is more authentic and intuitive, there’s no business strategy behind it.
You are also represented as art directors by O, a production company through which you’ve been given the opportunity to work with emerging artists like Carlota Guerrero or Diana Kunst. How has having a manager influenced your studio commissions?
O represents us and commissions us many projects, like music video credits, art direction for advertising, independent publications, among others. Working with a production company gives you the chance to collaborate with a bigger team of creative people, which is very rewarding. We did the art direction for a television spot for Simyo (a telecommunications brand), in which we paired with photographer Alba Yruela and director Maria Sosa. The advertising world is a bit unknown to us, there are agencies and marketing teams controlling our work, but we were happy with the result.
Aside from this, O also invests in personal projects, where we are given almost complete freedom. I guess the best examples are the “O Newspaper” and their own website. Their identity is based on a grid system, that is both applied on print and digital media. When we were asked to design their website, we decided to create a tool that would let us explore this system in a way that would prevent the layout of the posts to become a boring mechanical task for us. This tool exemplifies well our project methodology: it gives us freedom to experiment and allows us to reach very different and unexpected results. Our aim was to investigate a CSS language, and to find out how far we could go with that tool.
Affaire also has a special relationship with editorial projects. Your role easily oscillates between that of an editor and a designer. I have two specific projects in mind — “Material Turn “and the “Spanish Advertising Annual 2017” — because I see vividly the role of the designer on the former, and the role of the editor on the latter.
“Material Turn” is a project that landed on our studio thanks to Jordi Carles, a friend who works as a creative director at …,staat (the Amsterdam design agency where I’m also currently working). A book that was in fact published by three parties: Baumeister Jung, …,staat and Affaire.
The book is an exercise performed by the photographer Paul Jung and fashion designer Melitta Baumeister. In it, Paul photographed a number of garments designed by Melitta, presenting them in ways that helped underline – and, at times, mislead – on their materiality. It’s a game of perception, volume and materials. Our input in this project, since the content was already defined, was a conceptual interpretation of their work.
We wanted to surprise the reader through the materiality of the publication. The general feeling is that everything is white, or empty, but in truth it’s all about the tactile experience. On the outside, it’s a white book bound in a transparent plastic case; the cover has both embossed and debossed texts in different and unexpected places; there’s only one type of paper, but the weight varies throughout the book…
It was a playground for us. We experimented with many things, things that we wouldn’t be able to apply on other projects for budget of commercial reasons. The perception of this book is completely different depending on whether you see it as an image or when you hold it with your own hands. It’s a material exercise. Books are objects, not just images.
On the other hand, we didn’t anticipate how hard it would be to sell a white book, which looks like a book dummy when you photograph it. In this case we focused completely on the conceptual exercise. And we learned a lot about the challenges of making products that you expect other people to buy.
The Spanish Advertising Annual is a yearly book released by Club de Creativos featuring the best projects of the industry in that period of time. Until 2017, these books had been approached by other designers as book-objects, beautiful publications that were also the actual award that agencies took to display on their shelves. You completely changed this approach. Why?
We wanted to make a conceptual intervention that would justify the existence of this book. As you said, this kind of award books is usually in between two formats: a book-object and an informative-book. However, our reflection was that its content easily becomes obsolete after a certain period of time. Just to give you an example, I have a 1958 Creative Annual serving as a basis for my computer, to raise it up to my eyes’ height.
We also discussed with Rafa Montilla, from O, who commissioned us this project, that we wanted this book to be more than just a compendium of awards. We felt it should include a critical reflection about consumerism, commerce and advertising.
We finally decided to draw a parallel between the obsolescence of a book and the obsolescence of information.What matters today, doesn’t matter tomorrow anymore. The exercise consisted of contextualising the awarded advertising projects with a series of events that had marked the year of 2017. We had to do a lot of research to gather all the news we considered relevant from different sectors, like Economics, Culture, Sports, etc. As a result, we were able to create a picture of the information chaos we had been exposed to during 2017.
We must admit that at first we wanted to be a bit more acid, our idea was to select news about, for example, carbon emissions, and contrast them with car ads from that year. But of course that could have rubbed clients the wrong way, so we were asked to soften the narrative a little bit.
Those news are ultimately in the book, but the focus shifted to the information overdose, instead of giving protagonism to the contradictions of the world we live in.
Supermarché is a side project that you have. What is it really about?
Supermarché is a project where we want to talk about consumerism and critically think about our role as designers in a consumer society.
We are a part of the industrialisation process, we design things that exist in the world, so we made Supermarché to reflect about our own impulses as producers and consumers. It is also a creative space for us to experiment with different media and formats, where we release our own projects. The projects we’ve done so far include a very resistant plastic bag, a t-shirt featuring an iPad artwork by Pol’s grandma and Material Turn, the book we’ve already talked about. The plastic bag was a conceptual exercise about endurance and quality. We wanted to subvert the idea of it as a disposable object that people don’t appreciate, and to create a high quality object, which we also found very beautiful.
The T-shirt with the iPad drawing from my – then – 82-year-old grandmotherwas an experiment about anonymity, technology and age. We also wanted to investigate more about textile production, we used recycled polyester and organic cotton to ensure the softness of the product. If you look closely, the artwork credits overlap the artwork itself.
Finally, there’s the “You May Like” section of the website.
This section epitomises the reflective character of Supermarché. It’s a platform where we want to share everything that we like, be it for its artistic value, for the design, the quality of the materials… whatever. We celebrate the things, big and small, that we consume physically or digitally and that bring us happiness.
It includes screenshots of pieces of art, Milan rubbers, luxury labels products, chicken soup packaging… Even reading material that is free to everybody. Everything fits in there, it’s a portrait of us through consumerism. It also looks like an online shop, but it’s just an archive of things, we don’t profit from it.
You are both teachers at the Editorial design Master in Elisava. You teach the book discipline and you have so far explored themes like the “Antwerp Six”, “Dogme 95”, “Speed”, “Conflict”, “Humour”. What do you expect from your students when you present them with these subjects?
Our briefs intend to provoke some friction in the students. We want to open up their world, to make them dig into issues they perhaps never thought could be of interest to them. We also push them to take the projects to the last consequences, go beyond the surface.
The first step is Discovery. We, as teachers, learn a lot from their research, and they learn in return that design should stem from an approach based on investigation and curiosity. Our role is similar to that of an editor, we encourage them to give special attention to the content, and the design will be a consequence of their fieldwork.
You might have noticed that our briefings evolved from specific themes, like the so-called “Antwerp Six”, to abstract themes, like “Humour”. We changed it because we wanted the projects to become less predictable, and to let the students come up with ideas that were a good fit to their own personal interests. Still, there were some really beautiful books that came out from our first brief about the Antwerp Six.
Last year, there were some projects that I wished I had done myself. They were perfectly accomplished from the editorial point of view, some texts were produced by the students themselves, the art direction in photography and the design were spot on… It comes to my mind that one about Colombia’s jungle, do you remember it Pep?
Yes! The theme was “The Nature of Conflict” and the students went really deep with their research about the flora diversity in Colombia’s jungle, and related it to the presence of the FARC there during the war. It was like a biology book, but it had a profound political reflection about Colombia’s social reality, the conflict between the FARC and the government, the reintroduction of people from the resistance after the peace agreement, etc. In these kind of projects we guide the student, supervise the design execution and production, but in truth the student is guiding us too.
It’s a two-way relationship.
Another book that I remember was about love, departing from “La tragedia de Numancia” (by Cervantes). It was a very mature project content-wise, and the graphic design was also very eloquent, it worked really well. These projects make me very proud and motivated. This takes me back to the “authenticity” issue that we spoke about earlier: to me, our discipline is not just about making a book that looks good, or that is nicely produced, it’s a combination of these two things with an expression of personality. Books with character.
True. I’d say Education is our studio’s “star-project”.
After four years as Affaire studio, this year you have both decided to shake things up a little bit, and search for enriching personal experiences. Pep, you became a student again, and Pol went on an international adventure. What was it like?
Pol and I have a common interest in photography, mainly through art direction. We actually bought a good camera when we started the studio because we felt that, if we wanted to give directions to photographers, or try to innovate with the medium, we should know more about how photography works. My main interest is documentary photography, my mother was an art conservator and I grew up surrounded by photography and painting books. Through graffiti I started documenting my life, taking pictures of my pieces and my friends. This year I had the opportunity to enroll in a Fashion Photography course at Fotodesign Barcelona. The school approached Affaire to develop their identity, and since I was interested in that course, we agreed on interchanging the design services for attendance at their educational program. It was a way for me to learn more about audiovisual production, casting, directing models, things I had never done before. I already had the natural interest, so this was a way to develop it and amplify my curiosity.
Most educational models so far have focused on making us “learning beings” at the beginning, and “executors” at the end. However, this model is changing today: we must keep learning until the end of our lives. I think that’s how it should be.
Pol, you are living in a city with a strong design legacy: Amsterdam. Did you find the experience you were looking for?
It’s only been six months, but I think I’ve already learned a few valuable things. The first thing is a practical one, and it has nothing to do with design: that sometimes it helps having distance from things in order to gain perspective. This distance has allowed me to rearrange my mind in a slightly different way and it will influence the things I’ll do when I go back home, which will be very soon.
As for the design experience, one of the most interesting aspects has more to do with the Dutch mindset than specifically Dutch design. It’s the fact that private companies find value and indeed make an active investment in culture. An example of this is Westergas (formerly Westergasfabriek), a building complex that was home to a gas factory that’s just been converted into a cultural hub – at the hands of a real estate company, surprisingly. I feel naturally attracted to it because the branding was carried out by …,staat – but it just goes on to illustrate that the private sector has a long term vision that we seem to lack here. Another thing I can say is that I am a part of a big multidisciplinary team, and that I am learning a lot from each person’s individual experience. I work daily with strategists, researchers, 3D designers… It emphasised to me that design is becoming more and more a very ambiguous discipline, it is turning into a kind of “creative soup” where everything fits.
Totally! Guys, thank you so much for all the things you shared on this interview, I feel like we could talk for hours!
See you soon, Pol!