Interview with FUEL Publishing: the design of the book as an object and its content

By Stephen Sorrell | Damon Murray. October 24, 2013


London-based design studio FUEL are British graphic designers Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell, who have spent the last 22 years exploring the heart and limits of graphic design and visual culture in its broadest sense. Besides their work at FUEL Publishing, they have produced and directed short films, idents, film titles and TV commercials. Trained at the Royal College of Art, the sensitivity of their publications is rooted in the practice of contemporary art and they have produced books with authors like Jake & Dinos Chapman and Tracey Emin. They are also responsible for the three volumes of the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia and the Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive.

To celebrate that they have trusted visualMANIAC to explore digital publishing –we offer five of their fantastic books–, we decided to interview them. We sent them our questions from our beautiful office in the center of Madrid –we are about to move to another even nicer a little further south and with a rooftop pool–. They sent us their answers back from their cozy studio in East London, where magic happens.

How do you combine your job as designers and publishers and how are both projects related? Do you think that the fact that FUEL design came before FUEL Publishing makes your books somehow different to others produced by a "regular" publishing house?

From the outset we have combined commercial commissions with projects of our own. The books we design and publish are a product of our practice as designers and editors over the last 22 years. Our books are often self-initiated and the content is compiled and designed by us, as the book takes shape over a year or so. The design of the book as an object has always been very important to us but this is always driven by the content: this is what defines FUEL books. There are just two of us here and we are involved in every aspect of the book from start to finish, so naturally every book contains an element of our personality. How this quality manifests itself varies with each publication, but when viewed as a whole our list has its own unique character.

Where do you work from?

We have worked from the same studio since leaving college in 1992. Our studio is on the first floor of a Georgian terrace house built c.1720 in east London. Situated on the edge of the City’s financial district where modern office blocks meet streets of Georgian houses beside Brick Lane and the Bangladeshi community. It was this diversity that we found inspiring. When we first arrived it was an unusual place for a design group but the area is well known for its arts scene. Over the years we have got to know some of the artists living in the area. Gilbert & George live opposite our studio, Tracey Emin lives a few doors along, and Jake & Dinos Chapman work nearby. We both cycle to work from south London.

The majority of our work is with artists (as well as publishing books independently, we also design and produce catalogues for various shows and galleries). With our own publications we often work on subjects outside the sphere of graphic design, making books on topics that are interesting and compelling to us in some way. This means that we work with different groups of people with almost every book: the common denominator is our editing and design.

What has changed since you produced your first self-published magazine, back in the very beginning?

FUEL was formed while we were students at the Royal College of Art in 1991 where we started our magazine, also called Fuel. This is where we began learning the process of designing, editing and publishing. Over the next three or four years we self-published six Fuel magazines. Two books followed: Pure Fuel in 1996 and Fuel 3000 in 2000. These books examined the accepted notions of graphic design, illustrating our ideas and preoccupations. This approach – generating the complete content of the book from initial concept to commissioning writing, editing and then designing – was uncommon at the time (later it became known as ‘graphic authorship’). This process of working has shaped the way we produce books today. In this sense little has changed for us: from the outset we understood that whatever we produced could be termed graphic design.

Tell us a little bit about the Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive and your series of books on Russian Criminal Tattoos?

The first Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia was the book that launched our current publishing list in 2004. When we were first shown the tattoo and photographs drawings by a Russian friend, we knew it would make an incredible book. During his lifetime as a prison guard Danzig Baldaev made hundreds of drawings and recorded the coded meanings of the criminals’ tattoos. We published two further volumes in 2006 and 2008. These books have continued to be our best-selling titles as tattoos have become more and more popular generally. In 2009 we purchased Baldaev’s entire collection of drawings and founded the Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive along with Sergei Vasiliev’s photographs of Russian prisoners tattoos. To date these drawings and photographs have been exhibited in London and Berlin.

Why do you think that your book Home-Made, that features contemporary Russian folk artifacts, has been so successful that the printed version has been sold out?

In 1992 we visited Moscow. The Soviet Union had just collapsed and the country was experiencing extreme hardships. We were amazed by the stoical way the population continued with their lives through such a turbulent period. Since then Russian culture has held a fascination for us. The book Home-Made features objects made by ordinary Russian people inspired by a lack of manufactured goods during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Vernacular and un-designed materials have always held an interest for us. These unique artifacts are particularly appealing because they have not been made by designers – their function is more important than how it looks. The use of materials to make these objects is very inventive and the stories told by the makers are charming, humorous, beautiful and tragic. The follow-up book Home-Made Europe features objects made by people across Europe. We think the book touches on an aspect of humanity – all the objects have been personalized, humanized in some way. The ingenuity, and sometimes simply raw elements of the designs have made the book very popular, it serves as an antidote to the over-processed design that surrounds us today.

What do you see right now if you raise your eyes from this question and what will you do once you finish this interview?

Above our desks is the Dieter Rams classic 606 Universal shelving system that displays the books we have designed and published. To see them together gives us a sense of achievement as well as inspiration to produce better work. 

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