Studio profile: Coöp

Published:  June 21, 2011
Brita Frost
Studio profile: Coöp

Coöp is the creative brainchild of laconic and talented Melbourne designer, Paul Marcus Fuog. Well-known for its extensive body of innovative design work, it is a studio in the smallest sense, one that has carved out a reputation as both bold and brave, not compromised by industry expectations.

Since its establishment in 2004, Coöp has shifted from being a working studio of four to just Fuog, allowing him to travel extensively and to focus on the studio’s philosophy of collaboration, experimentation and positivity. This downsize was a calculated decision, one that reflects his very specific rejection of the designer-to-studio executive trajectory. As he points out, “Designers often think that eventually they will work their way out of actually doing design, but it’s doing the design that I love.” These determined business choices, often in the face of more conventional corporate logic, have set Fuog on the path of the apprentice, a path that has taken him around the world, and led to him assisting Stefan Sagmeister on sabbatical in Bali in 2009. As Fuog says: “I’m stimulated by experiencing different cultures, living in new places, meeting new people and collaborating and learning from people smarter and more talented than me. That is part of why I scaled the business back. It really is just to learn more. To be honest, I think that that is probably the gift of being able to do graphic design.”

Branding for Broached Commissions, a creative management group that works with local and international designers to explore Australian identity

Branding for Broached Commissions

Fuog makes a clear case for allowing his studio culture to be shaped by his design practice, an approach that is perhaps only available to small studios. The integrity of his design practice hinges on collaboration, travel and positivity and Coöp by necessity must reflect this. He has created a studio that allows him to design what, where and how he likes, within the limitations of the brief. As he says: “Although it seems like a tough thing to perhaps not take on some work, it’s even tougher if you really want to get back after being so far away from doing good work. It’s really hard to get back. When you’re starting out, you definitely have to pay the bills, I totally believe that, but I think that you should be trying to find your voice and discover what is right for you.”

These are tough commercial decisions, decisions that are perhaps only available to the designer who sees little delineation between design and living. “For me, there is little separation between design and life. Not in a tragic way, as in that is all I think about, but they both work so well together.”

He continues, “I think you hit a point and it’s sort of like, well, what do I want? How do I want this business to work for me? How do I want my life to work? And then you try and mash it all together. I think you can spend a lot of time trying to separate the two. You know this is my work time and this is my out of work time. Now I just shove it all together. And I kind of feel like now design is life.”

Annual Manual: A Guide to Australian Design Now. Exhibition identity for Object Gallery's 2011 show on the top emerging designers of today.

Annual Manual: A Guide to Australian Design Now.

Collaboration, as a creative approach, seems to both require and generate energy and integrity. And, while it may be hip to be collaborative, these working relationships are often more complex and sophisticated than they sound. It is easy to mistake collaboration for cooperation, or just working with someone. Since Coöp began, Fuog has developed close collaborative relationships with a handful of designers both locally and overseas. In particular, his ongoing collaboration with local designer Axel Peemoeller has resulted in several successful projects, including the recent Victorian College of the Arts identity.

As far as possible, these collaborations are based on a deep level of respect. As Fuog says, “These relationships are difficult to cultivate. It needs to be like a marriage in some sense. You need to be at the same stage and moving at the same pace.” To some degree, this kind of working relationship requires you to give something up of yourself, because, as Fuog notes, in some way you lose authorship and ownership. In his work with Peemoeller, it is difficult to delineate where Fuog’s work ends and Peemoeller’s begins. And this is the point.

Design for the feature spread of Feld Magazine Issue 12 - a Hamburg-based publication on contemporary design.

Design for the feature spread of Feld Magazine Issue 12.

“I remember reading about Andy Warhol and his collaborations with [ Jean-Michel] Basquiat and he said the best results they ever had were when not only the viewer couldn’t tell who’d done which part, but they couldn’t tell who had done which part either. And that’s kind of the idea. You know, I think when that happens, you’ve got a really good thing going on. Making magic in this way is rare; I’ve been practising for over 10 years and have only experienced true collaboration a handful of times. It gives me intellectual and creative companionship, which I’m thankful for, especially considering I work alone a lot.”

Locating an Australian design identity seems to trouble Australian designers both young and old, and yet Fuog seems remarkably clear about his identity as an Australian designer. Interestingly, given the dynamic contemporary quality of much of his work, his approach seems to reflect a traditionally Aussie approach, one rooted in ‘have a go’ and egalitarianism. His Australia is located in the suburbs, and in the colour and multiculturalism of inner city Melbourne.

Identity system for the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA)

Identity system for the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA)

Identity system for the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA)

Graphic design carries with it a certain universalism. It can cross cultures easily, but Fuog says there is a definite Australian quality to his work. “I think it still has a sort of brutish feel to it, perhaps clunky. There’s an element of the unrefined that probably comes from growing up here.” The integrity of his work does not, however, rest on the more apparent symbols of Australiana. “A lot of the personal work I do, and am starting to do, explores my suburban upbringing and it’s definitely Australian, because this is where I was brought up, but aesthetically it doesn’t reference our national icons or our natural landscape because I don’t have a direct connection to it at this point in my life and to reference it would feel dishonest. I don’t have cultural cringe and I’m not avoiding Australiana, but I live in an urban environment that isn’t so different to other urban environments in other cities around the globe.”

Since establishing Coöp, Fuog has refined the intention of the studio. His focus on travel and on collaboration has allowed him to continue to develop as a designer and to sustain work of an exacting quality. For Fuog, these decisions are about his personal integrity, the integrity of his practice and the integrity of his design. This is an inspiring approach, one that will surely see him continue to produce interesting, alive and quality work well into the future.

Photographic series for 175 Years of Design in Victoria produced by the State of Design Festival.

Photographic series for 175 Years of Design in Victoria produced by the State of Design Festival.

Photographic series for 175 Years of Design in Victoria produced by the State of Design Festival.

All images copyright Coöp. Thumbnail image: Annual Manual: A Guide to Australian Design Now.

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