1986 – 2009
Traipsing between those fine lines of celebration and remorse, it’s difficult to know just how to begin when writing an obituary. Sentiments of grief are best kept at a minimum should you not wish to upset anyone, whilst vacuous praise may have a rather opposite effect. But how does one go about writing the necessary retrospective when the deceased is not a person at all but an enterprise, a conceptual entity shaping the era in which it was up and running? Short of having lived on another planet for the past six months, news of the global recession having taken its toll on major business leaders and small players alike is nothing new. However, one closing its doors in particular has brought on the sort of sentiment felt when a good friend moves away. In fact, this very piece has been sitting in my draft box for the past three years, left to ferment as a blank page at large reserved for the studio that inspired my career choice and passion for a field that — let’s face it — hasn’t always been as experimental as it is today. Admittedly I was so enamoured, so enthralled by what I saw to be (and indeed was) at the very pinnacle of graphic design enterprise at the time that I’ve been too wrapped up in navigating my way through the realm which it has created for itself and for the many clients whose successes were partly hinged on the humourous, constructivist visual impact it provided them across boundaries.
But never did I expect to be writing on such a sad occasion of finality. And it is thus after twenty-three long and successful years, The Designers Republic has bid its farewell. In founding the studio in Sheffield all those years ago in order to provide graphic support for the flourishing ‘SoYo‘ music scene and the band Person to Person, creative director Ian Anderson managed to create a dynamic home-grown alternative to the overrated London design scene. The byline to be ‘Made in the Designers Republic, North of Nowhere’ soon became a desired branding of its own, though ironically tDR’s roots were based on a vision less ‘branded’ and rather more frank about big-city commercial culture and the insatiable consumer demand that went along with it. But it is precisely this paradox that has dominated throughout its lines of work in recent years whilst setting itself apart from the rest, catering to big-name clients such as Nokia, Nike, Saatchi & Saatchi, Orange, and commerce’s favourite target of criticism: Coca Cola. Today, the quintessential tDR style noted to have been inspired by Moscow’s VKhUTEMAS school of the 1920s is perhaps one of the most recognizable of UK studios abound: bright colours, abstract shapes, in-your-face images and modern disjointed typeface in English, Japanese and binary code that screams out whether it be in print, screen, a national flag or a European Space Agency logo.
All of these elements played into the tongue-in-cheek aesthetic that shaped much of its famed output. But to be honest, it’s wasn’t the corporate shelf of Anderson & Co.’s portfolio that first caught my attention. Referring back to its initial connections to the Sheffield music scene, I actually discovered tDR through the work it had done for electronic labels such as Warp Records and the now defunct Em:t Recordings — and for groups such as Moloko and the similarly defunct Funkstörung (see video below). Who can forget Richard D. James leering in a bikini on the cover for the Windowlicker EP, or the vintage sci-fi number for Mat Jarvis’ Gas 0095? The Nine Inch Nails lithograph concert poster series fatigued and true to the band’s industrial heritage proved a further irresistible pairing between the studio and music, as well as the more recent steel-clad limited edition of Quaristice following a long line of covers for Autechre with the hypnotic accents of tDR’s ‘Customized Terror’. I had drawn a comparison some time ago between Anderson and both Warhol and Hirst, and it was vis-à-vis the inextricable links to music that their tremendous impacts paralleled on the cusp of visual representation viewed by an audience of listeners who enjoyed such imagery built on the sounds that lured them into collecting merchandised memorabilia via concert venues and niche online retailers.
And this impact has certainly not gone without ample recognition: In 2001, Q magazine chose the 1987 cover of Age of Chance‘s Don’t Get Mad… Get Even! as one of the ‘100 Best Record Covers of All Time’. Meanwhile, a sold-out 1994 Emigre issue revolving around the Republic was auctioned off for more than $750. Even more recently, tDR was featured amongst the roster of twenty-four artists in the Maxalot projections at the Hague for the TodaysArt Festival in 2006, with a statement of simply ‘Wait Here. Help Is On The Way.’ spanning across the City Hall building in a fashion that went beyond correct kerning demonstration: it was another example of the ethos that brought about the wordplay visuals of ‘Thinking and Doing’, ‘Design or Die’ and ‘Work Buy Consume Die’ en route to the ‘This is the Emperor’s New Clothes’ theory. Incidentally, TodaysArt also brought the work of tDR alongside that of Universal Everything, another Sheffield-based studio whose director Matt Pyke served at tDR as a senior designer for eight years. Which brings me back to the point of the studio being in Sheffield: the playful anti-capitalist ethos so evident in Anderson’s work stems from his world-view (and love of good music) that led him there in the first place. ‘Sheffield doesn’t have places like Hoxton Square,’ he told the Creative Review in August 2001. ‘And I think, Good, that’s why we’re here. I’d rather slit my throat than have to work with people like that.’
‘The majority of clients haven’t the faintest idea what they’re getting into when they work with us, and a lot of them just haven’t got the balls to see it through. It’s really disappointing to realise that so many people involved in commissioning creativity haven’t got the faintest idea what creativity is.’ Amen. Finally somebody said it, and I couldn’t agree more. The fact that Anderson doesn’t ‘really give a shit about what anybody else does, or about being in anyone else’s band’ is why the legacy of The Designers Republic is worth more attention than much of the rest out there (though it does seem they buckled under commercial pressure throughout the last three years). But their ingenuity and individuality has always counted so positively in terms of a socio-anthropological relevance throughout a broad spectrum of visual communication. Now, not having had a chance to purchase any of the limited edition prints from the tDR online ‘disinformation’ merchandise flagship lovingly tagged as ‘The Peoples Bureau For Consumer Information‘ (the neon night-scene Tokyo print and catchy T-shirts were amongst some of my favourites), I’m glad to know that Anderson has indicated that eventually tDR ‘will rise again’. In the meantime, a copy of the Lovebytes‘ Volatile Media DVD, several albums, and various videos will serve just as well amongst the prized memorabilia to reminisce in anticipation for the second coming of the Republic.
Sarah Badr © MMIX
‘Grammy Winners’ directed and produced by The Designers Republic
Funkstörung, Appetite for Disctruction (!K7 Records, 2000)
See also: V&A Forever (pieces at random)