Studio profile: MASH

Published:  May 27, 2011
Studio profile: MASH

Flanked by Rundle Street and North Terrace in the hip East End of Adelaide is a gracious Victorian façade housing a number of design studios. MASH, Purveyors of the Fine – Art Direction & Design, reside within, creating amazing work.

Picture This
The irreverent Doctor Seuss guides their inspirational world. The unsinkable Mighty Hand shapes their daily Buddhalike consultations. Mum Lesley’s tray of wholesome scones whets the appetites of seven studio mouths. And a glint of The Sound of Music’s ‘doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles’ hints at their wayward and irrepressible humour.

It’s no wonder that MASH is a fun playground for fresh ideas and solutions, and was nominated by a leading UK design magazine in 2009 as one of ‘the 10 best design studios you don’t know about yet’. That was then…

AGDA Awards 2008 Compendium

AGDA Awards 2008 Compendium

AGDA Awards 2008 Compendium

Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings
Despite the yin and yang of their personalities and pathways, it’s always been this way for MASH principals Dom Roberts and James Brown – this deep-seated desire to keep things fun and fresh.

They shared similar teenage pursuits and passions, constantly drawing and sketching from as far back as they can remember (and throughout this interview), winning art prizes along the way, enjoying skateboarding, graffiti, surfing and the individuality and freedom those pursuits entailed, and eventually making those life-changing decisions where and when their hearts took them.

The regimentation of cricket practice, rules and uniforms was not in their vocabulary – “Why can’t they make hyper-coloured bats?” seemed a reasonable question to raise – “It would have been much more fun!”

James Brown recalls that as a kid from a dodgy Adelaide suburb, his life and career could well have taken a different turn if not for two teachers. “One was like John Keating from Dead Poets Society; he pushed everyone in an artistic sense.He turned every lesson, every excursion, into an art lesson, even when he wasn’t supposed to. He got kicked out, same ol’ story.”

The other teacher of influence provided Brown with the foundations for creative thinking, which MASH still hold as true today. “I was drawing the Taj Mahal in Year 5 – at that point it clicked and, because of their encouragement, art became a passion for me,” he declares.

Sticks & Bones font

A working stint with Gerry Wedd (of Mambo fame) as a prize for an art competition in Year 8 had a pivotal impact on how Brown would like to model his design life and the MASH journey. “Here was someone intermeshing alternative music, artistic stuff, social and cultural commentary – it has to be about having a life.”

On the advice of his teacher, Brown’s parents allowed him to leave school and apply for a TAFE design/arts certificate course. “I busted my gut [preparing my portfolio] to get out of school,” he says. Deciding to cut short his TAFE course to go overseas, Brown eventually returned with a clear conviction to enrol in the uni design program. And that’s where yin met yang.

Dom Roberts admits to being a purist geek, who still loves watching the motorbike scene from Tron (the 80s version, of course). On graduation from a marketing degree, Roberts travelled overseas. And then he realised that he wasn’t really hungry enough about securing a marketing job, so he pulled out his Year 12 art portfolio and did a complete U-turn back to uni, followed his original dream and walked away with the AGDA Design Graduate Prize in 2001.

“I knew I had to do what I really loved and that was design,” says Roberts. It was a natural progression when Two Hands Wines approached this talented graduate to design its brand identity, and its ‘Picture Series’ and ‘Ares’ wine labels.

From there the freelance work snowballed, including other early projects such as ‘The Guilty’ and Redheads Wines.

Evo packaging

The catalyst for the MASH partnership was Evo Miracle Hair Products, which obviously appreciates and values their expertise and wicked sense of humour, and has loved working with them for a decade. “They had approached us individually, the job was massive – identity, branding, 10 products. It was huge and we each realised that we didn’t want to lose it, but we couldn’t do it alone. So we proposed that we work together, which they accepted,” says Roberts. “It was crazy; James used to carry his grey iMac G3 model round to my place (it weighed a tonne). We’d work well into the night, surviving on a diet of carrots and hummus.”

Brown paper packages tied up with string
With a healthy percentage of MASH clients positioned in the wine industry, and the list now extending beyond home soil to the US, the UK and New Zealand to include Victoria’s Secret NYC, and the prospect of Nike USA and the producers of The Diving Bell and The Butterfly and Slumdog Millionaire in the wings, how did MASH evolve from those beginnings?

When Evo put the project on hold and came back some time later, it gave MASH the opportunity to review its previous presentation and advise the client against using it.

“It’s not always the best financial decision when you do something like that. We’d like to say that we’re business savvy, but, at the end of the day, we want to be happy to put our name to the job,” says Roberts. Evo was also the impetus for the duo to take their collaboration to the next level with MASH. “We realised that our similarities and opposites were quite complementary. Where I would say ‘Let’s just go for it!’, Dom would ask, ‘Can we afford it?’ And, if you think I’m fussy at press checks, Dom is quadruple fussy – he’s definitely obsessive compulsive about quality. We call him ‘Genius Christ’,” declares Brown.

AB&D - Alpha Box and Dice. The world's first alphabet of wine.

AB&D - Alpha Box and Dice. The world's first alphabet of wine.

The MASH team believes that its clients share their same sense of adventure and fun, and that they are working for and with people they want to work with. “For us, artistry is paramount and, in a way, we subscribe to the term ‘graphic artist’, rather than graphic designer to describe our role,” says Roberts. “Even Michelangelo was a commercial artist. I’m sure there was a priest who posed the question, ‘Can you make God bigger?’. Just because you’re working for a client, [it] doesn’t take the artistry out of the work.”

Their clients have some input in the process, but, in the main, “They trust and believe in our expertise – like you would a surgeon,” says Brown. “I mean you wouldn’t tell a surgeon where the cut should be made. They have faith in our ability to provide memorable, original solutions without ridiculous theories and processes. When they’re open-minded and not tunnel-visioned, it works, and we have much better success with these relationships and brands.”

Alpha Box and Dice is one such example. These award-winning identity and label/packaging solutions were started on a shoestring. “The winemaker created his wines with such artistry, we were committed to reflect that ingredient and quality in the label – as opposed to putting a picture of hills together with some typography,” continues Brown. “We produced whole pages of ideas, as if a lifetime of his creativity had come together in front of the bottle. His wine is the musical creation and our label is his album cover. We’ve completed labels A to F so far and in time we will do the whole alphabet.”

Sometimes there is a little work to be done beforehand. “With Chef’s Special magazines (AGDA and D&AD awarded), we fought hard to use lots of different fonts in each issue, which is not the accepted norm,” explains Roberts. “We believe that every issue has its own character, and the typographic solutions change accordingly. So, when it’s not ‘templated’, each issue remains innovative and interesting. You can’t settle for mediocrity.”

Chef's Special #73. 44 pages of non-vego fodder

Chef's Special #73. 44 pages of non-vego fodder

What kind of footprint would MASH like to leave behind? “We are always trying to minimise our energy and waste in this humble abode,” says Brown. “Powering down equipment when not in use, using pencil and paint in place of computers, energy efficient lighting, as well as recycling and other ways to reduce office waste, selecting 100 percent recycled paper and environmentally friendly products, vegetable- or soy-based printing inks where possible, are some of the standard practices adopted at MASH.”

They consult clients and suppliers on sustainability issues before the start of any project, and always try to source and produce materials locally or local to where their clients are based. A recent interior project for Alpha Box and Dice was completely overhauled using recycled antiques and pressed tin materials, with the lighting systems made out of second hand fence wire.

Planning ahead, the MASH team intends to provide employees with a bike, tricycle or skateboard as a part of their pay package, to encourage riding to work.

Brand identity for Rojo Rocket

Brand identity for Rojo Rocket

These are a few of my favourite things
The pair says that the best feature of their studio space is the huge balcony and note the space is a far cry from gritty beginnings at the opposite West End of town in Hindley Street.

Besides packaging work for Victoria’s Secret in New York, current projects include artwork for a Sundance Festival selected film Shut Up Little Man!, a t-shirt range for the Big Day Out Festival, an Evo photo shoot in Mexico, artwork for Banjo’s War (an upcoming documentary about an Aboriginal community’s battle for self-determination and empowerment), plus a surf activist doco El Mar, Mi Alma, which raises awareness about marine conservation and whale hunting.

Brown and Roberts are still pinching themselves to have had over 26 pieces included in the current SFMoMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) exhibition (showing until 17 April), How Wine Became Modern, Design + Wine 1976 to Now. The curator of the exhibition, Henry Urbach, says, “In the roughly two years of doing research on this exhibition, we repeatedly came across exemplary design developed under MASH’s art direction and execution. There is a delicate balance of playfulness and craft, detail and proportion that makes each project really attractive as both artefact and branding tool. MASH has consistently been an impressive force in the widespread field of graphic design, and we are thrilled to be able to include so many examples of their work in our exhibition.”

Wine labels for Linnaea winery in the Napa Valley

Brand identity for online fashion retailer Claire Inc

It is now 4.45pm and a sudden quiet has descended within the three floors of design inhabitants. They’re awaiting the 5pm (or thereabouts) ‘Tourette’ outbursts that regularly emanate from MASH’s walls, their signature call to the wild, grating yet liberating. On this, their 10th year of collaboration, and with The Sound of Music’s ‘My Favourite Things’ ringing in their heads, the world is definitely their oyster.

Eight million visitors to the MASH website this past year certainly believe so.

Happy anniversary, MASH.

Cover design for desktop's April 2011 issue

All images copyright MASH.

Thumbnail image: Burn Cottage. Business cards measuring half a metre, how the hell do you fit them in your wallet/purse for a meeting?

From desktop magazine.

One Response

  1. Great post with some beautiful wine labels, loving Linnaea and Alpha Box and Dice, off to the website to view more.

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