Philippe Apeloig: ‘I feel closer to the invisible than to the visible’, pt1

Published:  February 7, 2014
Bonnie Abbott

Soon to arrive in Australia for the AGIdeas Look Upstairs design forum, Philippe Apeloig is a French graphic designer of manifold talent, known for his hundreds of posters for art and cultural institutions, such as the  Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre (where he was also art director for 5 years) the Theatre du Châtelet, and the Fête du Livre, most of which feature his logotypes or typographic experimentations with form and arrangement.

His body of work is highly regarded within modern french design culture, referenced and exhibited for its cultural value, with pieces acquired by MoMA and exhibited in major institutions in Europe and the US. desktop interviewed Apeloig about the meticulous process of his work and the influential exchanges between his work and modern French culture.

You are most widely known for your posters for art and cultural institutions, and have said “Promoting art and culture has brought profound rewards by providing me with a deeper knowledge of the world.” How do you approach art and culture through your graphic work?

Being a graphic designer means that you belong to the world of art and culture. Personally, I feel emerged in it and I often dream to expand the frontiers of graphic work.

I am inspired by painting and contemporary dance and music. The other artistic discipline close to graphic design is sculpture: I think about the modelling and the assembling. I see many connections between typography, graphic design and the other forms of artistic expression. I spend time in museums, exhibitions and theatres to constantly refresh my eyes. Looking at visual and performing artforms fuels my creativity. I believe that it brings the whole design alive and inspires innovation.

Right: Bruits du monde (Noises of the world), Fête du Livre in Aix-en-Provence 2012. Left: Le Saut Hermès au Grand Palais, 2013. Design: Philippe Apeloig.

Left: Street Scene (2012) & Kodo Dadan, Japanese drums (2011), posters for the Théâtre du Châtelet, théâtre musical de Paris. Designer: Philippe Apeloig

Seeing architecture and discovering cities motivates me to travel. I feel comfortable to live in an urban environment with its visual irregularity and its playful vernacular design pieces like signage, mostly the oldest ones that show the signs of the times passing by.

What role do you feel a graphic poster plays within the often-grand architecture of these institutional spaces?

Posters enlighten the architecture when they are well integrated and of course when they are well designed too. They can simply transform architectural brutalism with their subtle visual impact into resonant emblems of modernity.

What do you consider is the poster’s strength as a medium – to sell, frame, anticipate and remember an event, or a medium of future history?

A poster is a popular image, made to hang randomly in the streets and on public transportation. A poster is successful when it communicates a message. It can be direct or complex. It is a question of transmission and for that reason it is almost impossible to avoid the fact that a poster is conceived to sell a product or a service. This doesn’t mean that the designer creates mainly with a commercial attitude. The discipline plays an important role in keeping up creativity. I try to keep a distance from the marketing logic that flattens innovation.

Your work is often characterised by the use of type as image – constructed as the the main focus of the piece. With the type also communicating a message through language, what process does its form go through to convey an image’s worth of meaning?

Being a designer involves a kind of constant responsibility. To be creative with typography and to combine letters in one popular and sensitive image that will communicate and become memorable, you have to be sincere and to find the things that we all have in common, things that we share. I need to listen to my own feelings in addition to the client’s expectations. I need a lot of confidence to start a project, to move forward.

Sometimes, I catch a very tiny thing that opens my eyes and drives me to a path of means. Sometimes, I feel closer to the invisible than to the visible.

Padmâvatî & Bintou Wéré, posters for the Théâtre du Châtelet, théâtre musical de Paris. Design: Philippe Apeloig

When you are pulling together the type, space and form of a piece, how do you recognise when it is something ‘good’, or working well?

When I take on a job, I don’t immediately know what I will do. I do my utmost to focus my thoughts, 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, which would only require me to invent a visual to translate it. I’m not illustrating. I’m receptive, welcoming things, and this phase helps me push away a sort of insecurity and keeps my worry at bay. When I realise that the proposed project is no longer foreign to me and that I have started to understand it, my ideas start to be productive.

Sketches begin to pile up, I change things, everything moves. I have to work with constraints, for example the number of letters in a word or title. I look for random things that will help me in developing a dramatic tension between type elements. It has to enhance the perception of the meaning, i.e. the Frida and Diego poster. The text-based approach to this poster, the capital ‘A’ at the end of the name “FRIDA” begins the word “AND”, which itself ends with a ‘D’ that begins the name “DIEGO”. The two names are separated by a backward slash which forms the oblique of the ‘N’ in “AND”. Split in two on either side of the slash, the upward strokes of this ‘N’ are formed by the exhibition’s subtitle “Creative Love”.

Frida and Diego, a creative love. Design: Philippe Apeloig 2008

The poster for the City of Le Havre: The schematic facades of three buildings, depicted in the three primary colours, referring back to modernism. As for their cut-out silhouettes, they relate to modular system motifs, to their rhythm and proportions. At the bottom of the poster, like a sign, the title echoes the regularity of the windows, despite a slight discrepancy.

I work with the luck of the draw, like in gambling. The letter arrangements that I try out, the ones that impose themselves, end up taking the right form, the correct form in my eyes. That’s when I fix it, immobilise it, and the searching stops, at this pivotal point, supported by what becomes a mass of preparatory sketches.

Le Havre, Patrimoine mondiale de l’humanité. Design: Philippe Apeloig 2006

At the end of the design process, after the conceptual approach is found, I am looking for an impeccable control of a balance between form and counter forms. I like to structure the space in between the fullness and the emptiness. That’s when I can go and show it to the client, then justifying it if necessary. I like to reach the point where I can reduce an apparent ‘simplicity’ to a recipe of geometry and materiality.

You also have corporate clients, although you have said you do not actively look for this work. Do you adjust much of your process or method for these projects?

For each client the same process is applied in my method of working. There is no difference in my involvement if I design for a cultural or a corporate institution. Designing a poster, a logo or a brand identity is to propose a positive and fresh image to the client. It doesn’t matter the subject since the secret of imagination stays deeply attach to the creative process.

La belle reliure parisienne et ses clones — Book presenting the work of the famous book binder Jean de Gonet. Designer, Philippe Apeloig 2008

Logotype for the direction of the French Museum, 2004. Design: Philippe Apeloig.

You appear to have passed through many approaches to image and type construction, composition and legibility over time. What principles or movements have impacted your work?

I became graphic designer by accident. In my early years I was so interested by visual and performing arts that I wanted to be a painter or a choreographer. After, when I discovered graphic design and typography, I understood that I was able to create with the letters and infuse the feeling of motion.

Being trained at Total Design in Amsterdam, and later in April Greiman studio in Los Angeles had a huge impact on my way of seeing design. Over the years I received impulses from abstraction and geometrical art.

Of these influences, was it always purposeful to learn, experiment, and move on, or is there more of a cultural coalescence, rather than a digestive process, to the evolution of your work?

Those influences (and more) are what I call my ‘mental dictionary’. Over the years I have accumulated a number of references from which I can draw.

Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tours, saison 2003-04. Designer: Philippe Apeloig

What is it like to be a graphic designer in France? What are your freedoms, your limitations, the expectations on a project’s outcomes?

What I do here can be done somewhere else the same way with different expectations and social influences. There is an invisible cultural background that shapes our mind as creative people. In design, like in art, there are no recipes that you can use constantly wherever you work. The context transforms you, shapes your mind.

Paris is a very rich artistic scene. The predominant question in these high environment concerns the way in which we experience our freedom to create as graphic designers.

I was lucky to be trained in the Netherlands which is the most respected place for graphic design in Europe. It gave me the skills to develop a personal perspective in design. My work acknowledges cultural differences. My approach, aside from being as much as I can comprehensive, differs from the traditional french design in that I place a lot of emphasis on forms, typography and symbols with an emotional perception.

Read part 2 of our interview, where Philippe Apeloig talks through his current retrospective at Musée Les Arts Décoratifs and the influence of his Jewish heritage.

Philippe Apeloig will appear at Look Upstairs design forum on the 3rd of April. You can buy one and three day passes to the event:

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