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Calm, quiet, thoughtful—that’s the feeling in the studio that houses A Practice for Everyday Life (APFEL), in the East End of London just a few minutes away from the hustle and bustle of Bethnal Green Road. On the street, people rush for the tube, do their shopping, grab some food, and meet up in the parks and pubs. But in APFEL’s space at Durham Yard, a former furniture workshop now split into studio units, the energy is still and relaxing. No music, no sudden movements—just designers focused on creating publications, posters and identities, surrounded by white walls with a bare wooden floor underfoot and natural illumination streaming from ceiling-high windows on both sides of the studio.

© Carol Sachs

“We’re hidden in an enclave of old workshops,” says APFEL cofounder Emma Thomas. “It’s out of the way, but in a part of East London that’s so busy, it’s funny that it’s quiet here. We love it here and wouldn’t want to move.”

Thomas cofounded APFEL in 2003 with fellow designer Kirsty Carter. The pair met during a post-graduate course at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London. From a Yorkshire village with the unusual name of Blubberhouses, Thomas studied graphic design at the Camberwell College of Arts before attending the RCA. Carter hails from Newmarket, just outside Cambridge. She first studied at the Brighton College of Art.

Aside from both of them being enrolled in the Communication in Art and Design course, the two found they shared a common love of contemporary art, which Carter describes as “art that’s less figurative and more based on ideas, like the conceptual art movement of the 1960s and 1970s.” She explains, “You can really see its parallel to our own thinking. And that’s the foundation of the studio, really—contemporary art.”

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Then there’s the studio’s strange name. A Practice for Everyday Life comes from the Michel de Certeau book The Practice for Everyday Life. They could see the book on each other’s desk when they were at the RCA; both studied and appreciated its text. The book not only brought them together, but it also informed how they work as much as their love of contemporary art did—if not more.

“The book is sociological and anthropological,” says Thomas. “In it, de Certeau describes the narrative of the city and its relationship to the people that live in it, as well as the stories they make there. It’s about how people influence their surroundings and how their surroundings influence them. We really liked how this paralleled how we work as designers.”

In a way, APFEL sees the world of design as an environment influenced by clients and projects. Designers form relationships, undertake research and exchange ideas, and as the design process continues, these factors shape the project. Designers produce work that communicates something and that, perhaps, also influences the client, their relationship and future projects.

Rituals, habits, the vernacular, common understanding ... all sorts of ideas run through The Practice of Everyday Life. “It’s a thought process. We never wanted our studio to have a distinctive visual style, but more of a distinctive visual voice and way of thinking,” says Carter.

Looking at APFEL’s projects, it’s easy to imagine the studio moving around different landscapes in the design world, absorbing ideas and aesthetics. In the early days, the studio helped artists and galleries by designing publications, publicity materials and even gift shop goodies. Then the studio’s exhibition designs got bigger and bigger, including major shows at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and London's Victoria and Albert Museum and Barbican Centre.

It’s about how people influence their surroundings and how their surroundings influence them. We really liked how this paralleled how we work as designers.” —Emma Thomas

A key milestone for APFEL was the identity for Hepworth Wakefield—a huge gallery in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, devoted to the work of local modernist sculptor Barbara Hepworth. Research formed the core of the design studio’s approach. After all, how do you absorb everything you need to know about a project without knowledge and understanding?

APFEL wasted no time in delving into every facet of the Hepworth job. First, it developed a bespoke typeface for the gallery. “We wanted to echo the strong British modernist typography of Barbara Hepworth’s era,” explains Carter. “You have typefaces like Gill and Gill Sans, but we didn’t want to use those typefaces because they’re so recognizable.” The resultant typeface and identity reflected the gallery’s architecture. “The angles are based on the roof of the building,” Thomas adds. “It’s like a wharf building you’d find by the weir in Wakefield.”

Even the colors Carter and Thomas picked show the designers’ thoughtful connection with their subject. “We pulled the teal color from the oxidizing of copper and bronze in Hepworth’s sculptures,” Thomas says. “We wanted to bring a bright color to the palette, but for it to stem from her work.”

Carter continues the thought: “For another color, we selected this deep red, rust-like orange. We formed quite a bright, unusual palette based on the colors that appear when sculptors use different metals.”

The museum’s identity system took about four years to complete, including the typeface, wayfinding and signage, brand guidelines, and other materials. Unveiled in 2011, the project really showed the world what APFEL could achieve. Thomas and Carter continued with book and exhibition design all the while, but with the publicity from the Hepworth identity, they could now begin to explore broader areas of culture. One ambition they had always had was to work for a luxury restaurant or retailer, and they realized their ambition with a project for hotel and restaurant One Leicester Street.

Carter explains the thinking behind One Leicester Street’s wine list as she opens it. “The idea was to illustrate all the ingredients of wine—the fortification of wine and how it’s done. And then there’s a gin list that features the ingredients and makeup of gin. Because the restaurant is located near Leicester Square and is in the heart of theaterland, we wanted the menu to be like a souvenir.”

It’s a thought process. We never wanted our studio to have a distinctive visual style, but more of a distinctive visual voice and way of thinking.” —Kirsty Carter

Additional clients, including WallpaperSTORE* and shoe brand Camper, brought APFEL’s design work into the retail sphere. Recently, the studio worked on an identity for the luxury shoe brand John Lobb. Owned by the high-fashion brand Hermès, John Lobb is a French brand that was founded by an English bootmaker more than 100 years ago. Again, APFEL produced exquisite results through extensive research into the John Lobb archive, absorbing all of the details and coming up with an array of ways to use them.

An extraordinary person, Lobb began his career when he walked from Cornwall to London before journeying to Paris. This inspired APFEL. “His epic journey formed the basis for all of the print materials that we were creating,” Thomas says. “The influence of nature, the environment, the ground he trod on—it influenced the photographs that we used for print materials. We created an invitation for one of Lobb’s collection shows that mapped his journey.”

The studio refined the identity from the original logo. Even the color of the shoebox—which APFEL calls “russet”—reflects the earliest burgundy packaging. APFEL textured some print materials to mimic the rasps used to wear down and soften boot leather, and flecks dot the tissue paper inside the shoe- box like little shreds of leather that have come away in the shoemaking process. APFEL subtly subverted the brand’s luxury position by including hints of the toil, the tools and the waste in its design.

This attention to detail is what APFEL’s clients appreciate. Curator Jens Hoffmann first met Carter and Thomas in 2004, when he worked at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London; he still commissions them in his new position as deputy director at the Jewish Museum in New York. The pair introduced themselves at an event where he’d done the typography himself. “They came up to me at the opening and said that the typeface I had selected was not supposed to be used in capital letters,” he says. “I asked them what they were talking about, and we got started. After that, we had a meeting, and I invited them to design pretty much all the books and exhibitions for the ICA between 2004 and 2008.”

APFEL also has an ongoing working relationship with writer Maria Fusco. One project they’ve worked on together is Master Rock, a book and liver performance written by Fusco about the building of the United Kingdom’s first hydroelectric plant, at Ben Cruachan, a mountain in Scotland. APFEL also designed Fusco’s annual literary journal, The Happy Hypocrite, published by London art publishing house Book Works. 

“APFEL’s process is an aligned one, a close consideration of form and content, but in a way that is always unexpected,” Fusco says. “Its attention to the practical details of bookmaking, such as typography and the book’s feel, is forensic.” 

APFEL continues to take its thoughtful approach into fresh areas. the studio recently absorbed a new culture to design a big job for the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong. It is also producing and selling its own pieces on its website. After thirteen years in the business, its latest product, an edition of prints, features quotes that Thomas and Carter chose after revisiting the book that gave the studio its name—The Practice for Everyday Lifeca

Garrick Webster is a United Kingdom-based freelance journalist, editor and copywriter who has been writing about and working in the creative industries for the last seventeen years. His favorite areas include illustration, fantasy art, typography and graphic design. In 2011, he helped create the Memories Book, a 172-page publication featuring 12 stories and the work of 144 artists and designers in support of Maggie's cancer charity.
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