At work with: Astrid Stavro, Elephant

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Mallorca-based design studio Atlas is one of the most respected in Spain, working with publishers and cultural clients across Europe. Astrid Stavro is a founding partner of the studio (the other being Pablo Martín), and she recently took on the role of art director of London-based art and culture magazine Elephant. We look at her week as issue 22 of the magazine is published, the third she has been responsible for.

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Where are you today?
I’m sitting at my desk, hearing the ‘Atlas Summer Jazz Classics’. Fermín (an incredibly talented saxophone player) comes from Barcelona to Mallorca during peak season and plays for hours in the main square facing the office, the Plaça del Mercat in Palma. The studio is a beautiful 19th century traditional Mallorcan house and coincidentally used to be to the home of the now extinct Escola Blau, the best graphic design school in Palma.

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What can you see from the window?
I have two big balcony windows behind my desk so I sit facing the crammed bookshelves, piles of magazines, posters and messy stacks of papers in my office (I am an organised person by nature but the speed of work and life all makes the word ‘physical order’ something realistically impossible to achieve until I have time to clean up). There are peak moments in which the room is so full of spreads, layouts, cover options laid out on the floor, mixed with unopened boxes of recent work, that whoever walks in has to literally zig-zag through the paper labyrinths and columns of boxes to reach my desk.

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Are you a morning or evening person?
I am definitely an evening person. Always have been, kind of Dracula style. My ‘real’ mornings start at about lunchtime. That’s when I feel more awake. I need to concentrate when I work and I can only really do that with complete silence. That’s why I prefer to work in the evenings, when the phone stops ringing and I’m alone (or almost) in the studio.

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What was the first magazine you remember enjoying?
Interview magazine, designed (at the time) by Tibor Kalman. This was a long time ago and it’s actually the reason why I eventually became a graphic designer. I still remember one particular spread (wish I still had the issue!) made with photographs of lemons. I have had a lemon fixation ever since. It was one of my best London friends who introduced me to the magazine; she told me that this was called ‘graphic design’. That changed my life  – I was studying literature and philosophy at the time.

I eventually landed my first design job at a small studio in Madrid thanks to Interview. The studio was located just off the Puerta de Alcalá in Madrid, and the one newsagent in the city that sold Interview was there. So I bought the latest issue and walked into the job interview with the magazine under my arm, with no portfolio except a youthful eagerness to learn what this graphic design thing was about. To my enormous surprise, I was hired the day after. My future bosses seemed to love the magazine even more than I did. They skimmed through the magazine, page by page. When I eventually asked them why they hired me they said that it was precisely because I didn’t have a portfolio but had an obvious passion for design.

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At the time, British magazines were hard to find in Spain (i-D, The Face, etc). But there was a lot of exciting stuff going on nationally — other big influences were El Canto de la Tripulación published by Alberto García-Alix & co, La Luna de Madrid, Poesía by Diego Lara and Ajoblanco. The highlight was most definitely El País de las Tentaciones, designed by Fernando Gutiérrez. It was as big a sensation as seeing that ‘lemon spread’ in Kalman’s Interview. It was a benchmark in Spanish editorial design (and still is). I am pretty sure that any Spanish designer from my generation feels the same.

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Who’s your favourite artist today?
Can one have a favourite artist for a day? I’d rather you asked about my favourite magazine of the day. It would definitely be last weekend’s NY special issue of The New York Times Magazine. The cover is extraordinary, as is the art direction and design throughout. Big congrats to Gail Bichler, Matt Willey and the rest of the team. It’s definitely one of those “I wish I’d done that” things.

Going back to your question: I am discovering a lot about art culture through Elephant magazine. To be honest, I was not particularly interested in contemporary art culture, that’s precisely what makes designing Elephant so interesting. I am a curious person by nature and find it incredibly nurturing.

On the other side, I am currently designing the Phaidon Classics volumes which are the exact opposite: lavish, sumptuously produced and elegantly crafted monographs of artists such as Vermeer, Rembrandt, Raphael, Van Gogh, etc. It’s a real schism between the new and the old. It is fun and exciting to be working, in a way, on both sides of the coin at the same time.

You work from Mallorca; describe your working day
Living in Mallorca is like living in paradise. In this sense it is exactly as people imagine it (except that we don’t work with laptops on the beach!). It is the question that I get most often when giving lectures abroad. How can you work from Mallorca? The answer is simple: Mallorca is the third best connected airport in Spain (five minutes away by taxi from Palma), it takes 30 min to fly to Barcelona, 45 min to fly to Madrid and the average two hours for the rest of Europe. Flying to Barcelona takes less time than travelling across London.

I find the Mallorca question surprisingly out of date for the times we are living. 75% of our clients are from abroad. This obviously means that there is lots of travelling involved. My partner Pablo Martín just returned from Miami two days ago, I have been in London and then straight to Madrid all of last week. The travelling depends on who you are working for or what you are doing. Mallorca happens to be where we live. After ten years living in London, another ten Barcelona and several other big cities in between, I find that living here, from a work perspective, is pretty much the same as living in London, New York or Paris. The difference being that when you land here from anywhere on planet earth it feels like flying back to a very privileged home. The fact of not living in a big city (whatever city that may be) is an enormous advantage.

There are great cultural projects happening locally such as the Maremostra Palma International Film Festival, the only film festival in Europe dedicated exclusively to the sea in it’s broadest sense (films, short films, documentaries, etc). As residents in Mallorca we feel happily obliged to help to promote local initiatives such as this one (to name just one).

Beyond the image of Mallorca that any reader of this site might have, there is a deep cultural heritage. We form and feel part of the local community as much as we form and feel part of the bigger, more global one. This gives us a pretty unique ‘glocal’ perspective as both insiders and outsiders. I spoke to Peter Bilak last year, and suggested that Works That Work (one of my favourite magazines) launched an issue here. Peter’s first answer was “this is where I go for holidays, I never thought of mixing work & holidays, sounds great!” We liaised with Camper (an example of a very successful ‘glocal’ company) and for different reasons it didn’t work out. I still hope it will! Last but not least, some of our clients naturally love coming to Mallorca which saves the occasional travels here and there.

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As an art magazine Elephant benefits from great imagery; but that also demands a respectful design. Does that frustrate your creative ambitions?
It is tricky to find an appropriate visual language that is playful and enjoyable but respectful at the same time. When you have great content and imagery, as Elephant does, you don’t need to add unnecessary navigational tools except the artwork itself. We spend a lot of time sifting through the images to find the one that best represent and encapsulate the artist’s work. We then ‘editorialise’ the images with the headlines to make the openers as conceptually powerful as possible.

Our aim, in this sense, is to keep the visual language playful but transparent to let the content shine. Not the design, but the artwork within. It is challenging, not frustrating. The magazine is not about us (a platform to show off our design skills or creative ambitions).

Having said this, from our second issue (Elephant 21), we decided to maintain a visually appealing surprise factor within the parameters of a branded design by changing the main headline typeface in every issue. This allows us to explore and experiment while maintaining a high level of consistency, spontaneity and originality in every issue. That’s where we keep our creative juices flowing (even if it also makes it twice as hard to keep on reinventing oneself)

From the very beginning we were commissioned to redesign the magazine making it more timely, more journalistic and lifestyle, more readable and enjoyable, getting skin-close in a way, to the lively culture that thrives in and around contemporary art. One of the overarching principles of the redesign was to make Elephant look “less like a design magazine”. We tried to find the right balance between words and images, creating well considered, aesthetically intriguing, thoughtful and playful layouts that respond to the content without feeling dry, formulaic or over-designed. We avoided the style-over-substance approach by letting the content speak for itself: the design is based on the content and not the other way around. In this sense, the design is based precisely on the great imagery of the magazine.

What other magazines is Atlas working on currently?
I received a phone call from Pablo Rubio two weeks ago (current Art Director of the legendary Matador magazine). He asked me if I wanted to take over the art direction of Matador (first designed by Fernando Gutiérrez). I felt flattered and overwhelmed at the same time. It’s like asking: do you want to design Colors (after Tibor Kalman?) There are magazine that are so brilliant and iconic that they should remain untouched. My partner Pablo is currently working with Mark Porter on a digital newspaper which is incredibly exciting.

What are you most looking forward to this week?
We have been working closely with Camper, Lars Müller and editor Anniina Koivu for the past months on a very exciting book called “The Walking Society”. The book offers a unique ‘behind the scenes’ look at the history, craftsmanship and innovation of the company but is also a metaphor of the walking society in a broader sociological and philosophical sense. We are closing the book this week, finalising the design and working on the production details of the cover. The book will be launched at the Vitra HQs in Basel this coming June. This is something that we are all very excited about.

Equally exciting this week is the art direction and design of Elephant 23 and the design of the first YCN Professional Awards Annual. Another exciting project (launched this week) is the opening of the Casino de Ibiza, for whom we designed the whole visual identity including all the printed matter (with interior design by Patricia Urquiola).

Last but not least we’re very excited about going to the D&AD Awards ceremony soon, where Atlas has won a record 7 Pencils (two of them for Elephant). The great thing about it is that Martí Ferré (from Bildi Grafiks) had the brilliant initiative of getting all of the Spanish Pencil design winners to share a table at the ceremony (it turns out that we need more than a table of 12) so it feels a bit like Spain going to the Olympics! It makes us incredibly happy to share, as a national group, the high level of Spanish creativity which has marked a record benchmark at D&AD this year. I truly love the fact that what we are celebrating our achievements together as a national group (rather than as individuals). This fills me with immense joy and satisfaction.

What are you least looking forward to this week?
Catching up with all the emails and accumulated work from last week! We are also finalising, with Alvaro Iglesias and Enrique Vidal, the video produced at The Royal College of Art last week for the Core 77 Design Awards. It’s proving a to be a bit trickier than we initially thought.

What will you be doing after this chat?
Meet with my two senior designers, Maggie Adrover and Nuria Cabrera, for un update of last week followed by the weekly Monday morning meeting with my two partners and studio manager. And then there’s the sacred 11am coffee break.

frameweb.com/magazines/elephant
designbyatlas.com

Portrait of Astrid by Gori Salvà

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