Named after a 1997 album by indie rock-band Pavement, Brighten the Corners have been enlivening the design industry since they founded their studio back in 1999 (with the aforementioned album presumably playing on the office stereo). In the 17 years since then, Frank Philippin and Billy Kiosoglou’s memorable projects and humorous design quirks have weaved an infectiously colourful thread through a portfolio of work which includes clients such as Anish Kapoor, freize, and the ICA. We spoke to Frank and Billy about splitting their time across two countries, teaching today's design students, and THAT infamous inbox project.
As a design studio you work across lots of different mediums - do you have a favourite? Or one that you especially enjoy seeing your work play out it?
Frank: My favourite project is always the next one. And the projects play out the best when the client encourages us to do what we are good at and not - as is often the case - tries to prevent us from doing just that.
Billy: Yes, projects are fun to work on when the client comes and is genuinely interested to see what we’ve come up with. We’ve obviously done lots of books but I couldn’t say that’s our favourite medium, it really depends on the job.
How about last year's projects, which are you most creatively proud of and why?
Frank: Pride is a big word and last year wasn’t very interesting creativity wise. You always need an interesting commission or rather, interested and interesting people commissioning you, in order to make good work. That wasn’t the case last year but there is always another year...
Billy: My favourite project technically-speaking was my VAT return Excel document. After 15 years in the business, I’m finally mastering this software.
Your studio is split between England and Germany - how do you approach a new brief?
We approach it as one studio - well, we are one studio (with two different locations). We know each other very well. We studied together back in 1995, we lived together, and we’ve worked together on a lot of projects since student days. That’s the basis. And the everyday business is sponsored by Skype.
Where do you head for inspiration at the moment?
Frank: I’m revisiting and enjoying the work of artists: Martin Creed, Terryn Simon and Agnes Martin (especially her writing), and I am reading a lot of Paul Auster (his latest stuff: The Winter Journal and 4321), John Irving (the early stuff: Setting free the Bears), and Heinrich Böll (Doktor Murkes gesammeltes Schweigen).
Billy: Some memorable shows I went to this year included the Hockney retrospective at Tate, and Martin Creed at Hauser & Wirth.
I also just discovered that one of my favourite walks in Athens (around the sites below the Parthenon) was a project by a famous Greek architect, Dimitris Pikionis, who was in charge of landscaping the entire area in the late 1950s. I always just took it for granted, and didn’t think of how it was made – which is very similar to the public consumption of graphic design!
What are you working on this year that you're excited about?
We are super excited to be finishing a book which we have worked on for the past six years. It’s a book about the architectural work of artist Anish Kapoor, published by Steidl. The printing stage seems near (although we’ve thought that a few times during the last few years). Aside from that we’re happy to take on new jobs - there’s not much in the pipeline at the moment…
In 2009 you rather hiariously published the contents of your inboxes. Are you still saving emails and is there a chance of another 'Inbox'-style project in the coming years?
We are still saving… so who knows. Our 20th anniversary is coming up soon so it would be a good time to do a second edition - 10 years after the first. But then again, we don’t like to repeat ourselves…
Do you notice people write emails to you differently these days?
Yes: Answers take much more time (if we get any at all) and people seem to read (and take in/understand) even less than they did ten years ago. Emails are probably too old school now though - my students said something along those lines the other day.
About your work as lecturers. What are the main changes you see in the way design students are taught these days - especially since you were both design students yourselves?
Frank: I don’t want to change the ways design was taught (to me) in the good-old English, art school style (which doesn’t exist anymore) - it was broad, free minded and free spirited. Unfortunately the pressures of legitimising that kind of an education (just to remind all bureaucrats, politicians and ourselves about what studying means: "application of the mind to the acquisition of knowledge, as by reading, investigation, or reflection") is getting more and more difficult. It’s more results-based these days and you have to fill out a lot of forms for all kind of things - it only seems to be getting worse.
Billy: I think that the introduction of fees (in the UK) has brought in an additional pressure for students and has made it harder to study in that free-spirited way of yesteryear. It’s also made students less willing to fail because if you're only doing a 2- or 3-year course, the truth is that you don’t have much time to fail. And of course, without failing there is no learning.
With all this in mind, what's the main piece of advice you'd give the graphic designers of tomorrow?
Frank: Study first - either at college or self taught. When you are ready (intellectually, skills wise and in terms of self esteem), start making good design that you and others enjoy.
Billy: I think the results-oriented (rather than process-oriented) approach to studying can be damaging for students as it puts all the focus on the outcome and therefore, inevitably, on appearances/the surface. This is likely to get reinforced when students graduate and start working (i.e. “We want you to make this look good”, or “we want something beautiful”, etc.) You need to know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it when you graduate, otherwise you will slowly get shaped into what’s expected or wanted from you – and that may not be a good thing.
Describe your desks to us - what's on there to inspire you?
Fred: It inspires me the most if it’s clean and empty. At the moment it’s full of books, paper, laptop, screen, stuff. So it’s about time to get inspired again…
Billy: Clean is definitely inspiring. Problem is, it’s only inspiring when it’s been a total mess previous.