Minimal with Maximum Impact

A Practice for Everyday Life reflects on their 21-year journey shaping the design landscape, from pioneering publications to advocating for diversity in the industry. 


A lot can happen in two decades. If you’re A Practice for Everyday Life – the London-based studio founded by Kirsty Carter and Emma Thomas – the past 21 years have been spent building a portfolio replete with books for the likes of David Hockney, Lucie Rie, Sheila Hicks and Rachel Whiteread as well as branding and exhibition design for The Hepworth, Barbican and Serpentine Galleries. Many of those projects have grown into long-term collaborations. So when APFEL dial in from a sunny corner of their studio in east London, I’m not in the least bit surprised that there’s a floor-to-ceiling storage unit covering the wall behind them, their archive of publications displayed like trophies.

Carter and Thomas met during a postgraduate Art and Design course at the Royal College of Art; Thomas hails from Yorkshire and studied graphic design at Camberwell College of Arts, and Carter, from Cambridge, studied at Brighton College of Art. With a shared love of contemporary art, they decided from the get-go that they would work together. “We really liked each other and had a lot of things in common,” says Carter. One of their first publications, Leftover, explored the processes (or better yet, the leftovers) of 11 artists. Produced in their first year at the RCA with second-year curating students at Goldsmiths, the book became the catalyst for many new avenues and opportunities after graduating. The Goldsmiths curators graduated a year earlier than they did and became some of their very first clients. Miria Swain, for instance, who became assistant curator at Modern Art Oxford, commissioned the studio to design invitations and leaflets for a three-year exhibition named ARRIVALS, run with the Turner Contemporary in Margate. This led to an identity project for Rob Tufnell, who left Turner Contemporary to found his gallery Ancient & Modern.

When APFEL officially launched in 2003, the design scene was notably very different to what it is now. There were minimal female-led studios operating, the Tate Modern had not long opened in London, and many blue chip galleries from the US, like Gagosian, were arriving in the UK. The art world was becoming more sophisticated and there was an uptick in printed matter. Trade magazines and catalogues for commercial galleries were the height of publishing, and their designs were simple and “soulless”, says Carter. Most have fizzled out, or at least only live on as digital content. It was amidst this somewhat stagnant ground that Carter and Thomas saw an opportunity to carve out their own niche. “At the time, publications with artists were less collaborative and exciting,” says Carter. “We saw a lot of potential to push what was possible in the field.”

One of their most prominent early undertakings was the identity for The Hepworth Wakefield – a pivotal project which started in 2009 ahead of the launch of the museum in 2010, located in West Yorkshire and near the birthplace of sculptor Barbara Hepworth. Working across signage, wayfinding, website, printed material and exhibition graphics, the studio developed a bespoke typeface and identity that mirrored the angular forms of the museum’s building, designed by David Chipperfield Architects, as well as the shapes and textures of the artist’s sculptures, which were on display in the new gallery. “At the time, we weren’t so aware of how special or unusual it was to work on all aspects of that project,” says Thomas. “It was quite minimal but with a maximum impact.” To this day, the studio still collaborates with The Hepworth, and has created publications for a range of artists exhibiting at the space, such as a monograph for painter Christina Quarles, whose work was shown from late 2019 to early 2020.

As the years went by, not only did the studio start collaborating with people and brands outside of the art world, like Aesop, Birkenstock and Rapha, but they welcomed Daniel Griffiths onboard. Joining in 2018, he became a director 18 months ago. The team of 10 now put their minds towards books of all heights and scales, whether it’s a big collectors’ tome with Vitra or a publication for Centro de Arte Moderna Gulbenkian in Lisbon (both of which they’re currently needling away at). They also launched a type foundry during Covid, after the founders realised how large their typeface archive was becoming. “We really love the balance,” says Thomas. Between all their diverse pursuits, though,
is an affinity for working with people doing interesting things in their field. Even their name, which is inspired by French scholar Michel de Certeau’s book The Practice for Everyday Life, alludes to the desire to understand and connect with the masses. “We are interested in habits and how people interact with the city and the urban environment,” says Carter. “We’re trying to help other people communicate their message, and to get that out of people, you have to really learn about dialogue and have an understanding of collaboration. It’s about conversation.”

At first glance, APFEL’s designs could be perceived as pared back – some might even call them quiet. Yet the more you observe and revel in them, the more you start to see all these tiny details rise to the surface, similar to the way the Rubin Vase shows different interpretations of an image. “We enjoy the idea of a slow reveal,” says Carter. “When you pick up one of our books, it’s not shouting out loud. There’s a layered element to the design which you see when you start to interact with it.” One pertinent example, released in 2022, is the publication design for Prabhavathi Meppayil, an Indian artist whose work is cemented in
materiality and traditional Bangalorean artisan techniques, like goldsmithing. Featured in the book is her series Untitled, which sees metal wire embedded with layers of gesso, which is then sanded down to show the metal lines underneath the surface. APFEL designed
a suite of bespoke lettering that nods to the delicacy of the metal wiring, executed between layers of semi-opaque paper and printed on the front and back.

The same multi-layered approach was applied to an identity for On Foot, an exhibition of fashion label JW Anderson – helmed by designer and Loewe creative director Jonathan Anderson – at Offer Waterman in 2023. APFEL developed the visual identity, exhibition graphics, campaign, bespoke typeface and accompanying publication, all of which were designed to reference Anderson’s recent collections, which were exhibited alongside sculptural works from contemporary British artists like Lucian Freud, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Magdalene Odundo. The identity’s elongated, organic lettering was inspired by the artworks, while the more tapered strokes were influenced by a walk
through London, specifically the shop signs, newspaper kiosks and archival fashion campaigns you’d pass by on route. The book was bound together through layers of materials and the lettering was screen printed onto an acetate jacket, cocooned by a softback cloth cover – the cloth matches the same hand-dyed fabric that cascaded the walls of JW Anderson’s exhibition. Like many of their client relationships, the
collaboration with JW Anderson continued and they also designed the invitations for the JW Anderson AW24 womenswear and menswear shows. The womenswear show identity was made from tweed fabric and featured silkscreen-printed text; while the menswear show was designed as a 3D lenticular print of Christiane Kubrick’s painting ‘Jack and the Computer’ (1997). Both are concealed in an envelope and embossed with the brand’s logo.

Perhaps their biggest project to date, though, is the identity the studio created in 2022 for the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, curated by Cecilia Alemani. Alongside the signet, identity, exhibition graphics and merchandise, the studio created an “enormous” 900-page book – the description is confirmed as Thomas holds it up
high to the screen. A large pair of eyes features strikingly on the cover, while others appear across the rest of the identity, including the posters, banners and billboards. A unifying symbol, the eyes have been pulled as motifs from artworks by Belkis Ayón, Felipe Baeza, Tatsuo Ikeda and Cecilia Vicuña. “We worked with the artists to hone in on particular details of their work,” says Carter. What’s more is that, in a historical first, more than 90 per cent of the 213 artists who participated in the exhibition are female or gender nonconform-
ing. “We love this idea because we push the same agenda,” says Thomas.

Since setting up shop over 20 years ago, Carter and Thomas have come to terms with their influence. Today, only 29 per cent of design companies are female-led, which is a staggering statistic considering that 63 per cent of graphic design students are women. More seats
have indeed opened up at the table, but there’s still a great disparity. “Emma and I used to shy away from the question [of diversity] over
the years, and we used to get quite upset at the end when people would ask, ‘how do you feel about being two women running a studio’ Whereas now, we see a sense of responsibility
for telling our story.”


This article is taken from Port issue 34. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here