Autumn 1995

Reputations: Fabien Baron

‘Putting too much interpretation into design is not good … For me, the reasons behind it are more primitive than philosophical or sociological’

Fabien Baron was born in Antony, France in 1959. He studied at Arts Appliqués in Paris from 1975-76 before taking a job in the art department at L’Equipe. In 1982 he moved from Paris to New York, first working at Self and GQ magazines. In 1987 he designed the prototype for New York Woman and was the magazine’s art director for its first year. While there, he was appointed creative director of Italian Vogue and began dividing his time between New York and Milan. He returned to New York in 1990 to open his company Baron & Baron and guide the relaunch of Interview magazine. In 1992 he became creative director of Harper’s Bazaar, for which he has won numerous awards from the American Society of Magazine Editors and the Society of Publication Designers. Baron & Baron has designed advertising campaigns for many of the leading names in fashion, including Issey Miyake, Hugo Boss, Giorgio Armani, Valentino, Pucci, Micheal Kors and Norma Kamali. Baron is creative director at Calvin Klein. The studio’s portfolio also includes creative direction of Madonna’s Sex book, Erotica video, and album packaging; the design of Robert Altman’s Prêt-a-Porter book; and graphic identities for Ian Shrager Hotels. Baron has overseen a number of fragrance launches, including Issey Miyake’s L ‘Eau d’Issey and Calvin Klein’s cK one.

J. Abbott Miller: How did you come to design magazines in the first place? Your father was an art director, wasn’t he?

Fabien Baron: Yes. He’s done several magazines and a lot of newspapers.

JAM: Did you go to art school?

FB: Just for a year. I wanted to check it out. I enjoyed it, but I thought it was a bit slow. I was already focused on what I wanted to do, so I decided I might as well move on to what I wanted right away.

JAM: Was it a classic design fundamentals course, or was it more trade oriented?

FB: It was more general arts – photography, design, sculpture, painting. It’s a good idea for someone who wants to be in the art field but doesn’t know where to go because you have the chance to play with many different media.

JAM: It wasn’t a Bauhaus-inspired introduction to the fundamentals of design?

FB: No, no. Even the design course was primitive.

JAM: I think of French design as dominated by illustration and not very typographic. Yet the direction of your work has been towards a strong emphasis on typography.

FB: Maybe that’s why I left France – it didn’t really offer the opportunity to do anything different. At any rate, I felt the need to come to the US intuitively.

JAM: What was formative in your early jobs?

FB: There were some jobs that were so tedious you cannot imagine it: staying all day long in a stat room at a desk doing mechanicals. But I did the mechanicals, and I would say, ‘Wouldn’t it be easier if you had three columns on top?’ And they began to say, “Hmm, maybe you should do more than just mechanicals.”

JAM: So when you arrived at Condé Nast, you were still at a relatively low level?

FB: No! I was an art director already, for a music magazine. But what is an art director?

JAM: That’s one of my questions.

FB: It doesn’t mean much. It simply means someone who is doing the job. At first I had to do everything, there was no team. But it was fun, and I was designing a lot, giving ideas to different magazines.

JAM: Were you consciously bringing some particular aesthetic to those magazines?

FB: Definitely.

JAM: Can you define that?

FB: No. It’s funny, but when I look back, I see a little of what’s going on today. It’s very clean and organised and well put together. I had to invent a lot things because I didn’t have much to work with and I wanted to make it interesting. That’s what creates ideas: solving problems with nothing. So when I moved to a big magazine with money where you can do whatever you want and I saw people getting stuck, I’d say, ‘Don’t worry’. Because I’m used to doing things with nothing.

JAM: If an art director is just someone who does the job, what is a creative director?

FB: It’s exactly the same thing. I’m the art director, I’m the designer, whatever. Basically I’m part of a team of talented people and we’re trying to put a magazine together.

JAM: Does being the creative director make you equal to the editor?

FB: No. The editor is still the editor.

JAM: A lot of stories in Harper’s Bazaar are intrinsically ‘design’ stories in that they rest on a visual conceit. Do you suggest stories?

FB: Sometimes. At Bazaar everyone can come up with ideas – it has nothing to do with your position on the masthead. Liz Tilberis wanted to do the best fashion magazine and you can’t achieve that without being open to the people you work with. That’s her strength and it’s a very modern way to edit a magazine. It’s why we all have great respect for her leadership. She’s the best editor I’ve worked with.

JAM: You are creative director at Bazaar, but you are also an independent consultant to designers such as Calvin Klein and Issey Miyake.

FB: Yes, I have my own company.

JAM: Does that create any conflicts?

FB: I don’t see any problem.

JAM: Well, does the conflict arise from Bazaar or from your other clients?

FB: It comes from other designers, editors, other people in magazines who wish they could do the same thing. I think sometimes people see a conflict because they’re jealous that they can’t do more than one thing themselves. I was smart enough to be able to do a magazine, advertising, packaging, television stuff. And I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to do that as long as I’m professional about it and can separate the jobs. When I’m at Calvin Klein, I’m working for Calvin Klein. When I’m at Bazaar, I’m there for the interests of Bazaar.

JAM: I think part of the concern is that there is supposed to be a division between editorial and advertising.

FB: It’s all communication. Bazaar has to sell a product, which is a magazine. Calvin Klein has to sell clothes, which is another product.

JAM: But in scanning the magazine, there’s a page of Calvin Klein underwear followed by a page of editorial which looks a lot like it.

FB: I could pull out billions of magazines and find pages where other advertisers rip off Bazaar, but there’s not conflict there, right? Are you saying that I cannot use my style, but other people can rip it off and put it on NBC or wherever they want? It doesn’t make sense. And anyway, Calvin Klein’s image has nothing to do with Bazaar. They would never use the type of pictures I do for Calvin at Bazaar and Calvin would never pick the type of picture I do for Bazaar for his own ads.

JAM: Because the identities are so distinct?

FB: Totally. Calvin is sexy. He likes simple, sexy, strong images. At Bazaar we don’t do articles with sexy pictures, we cover fashion.

JAM: The photographers you work with are one of the primary things you brought to Bazaar. How closely do you art direct the shoots?

FB: I are direct some shoots, but a lot of the look comes from the editors and photographers. The beauty of Bazaar is the teamwork. Sometimes we disagree, but that’s a strength.

JAM: You mentioned the use of your style by other people. Is there a point where you feel people are stealing your work?

FB: Yes, obviously. At the beginning I might not say anything, just think, ‘Hmm that looks familiar’. But there are so many examples now, it’s scary.

JAM: Is it flattering or does it make you angry?

FB: I guess it must mean I’m doing something right. Sometimes it makes me laugh. And I take it as a challenge to move on.

JAM: You’ve gone through a series of distinct typographic phases, from Franklin Gothic, to Didot, Helvetica, and now Letter Gothic.

FB: Yes. When everybody catches up, I say, ‘Okay, we change’.

JAM: How long do these typographic moments last?

FB: It depends on the mood. With Letter Gothic, that’s enough. We’re changing in September’s Bazaar. When I was doing Italian Vogue, I would do one story in Franklin, another in Didot. The way it was designed was a breakthrough, but it was not very consistent. Interview was totally consistent – each issue would be one typeface, one colour, consistent throughout. I think the readership should understand what is your voice and what is the voice of your advertisers.

JAM: But that’s the line people see as blurred when your own advertising work appears in Bazaar.

FB: It is not. I think they only see it because I am the author of both. If someone else did exactly the same thing in my style there would be no problem. After all, no one would criticise a photographer for doing both editorial and advertising.

JAM: Do you pay much attention to the work of other designers?

FB: I don’t really look at other’s people’s work. I flip through things and sometimes I find something interesting, but on the whole I’m influenced by other things – by painters or signs in the street. The way people write ‘On sale now’ in shop windows attracts me more than the most serious design. It’s not that I don’t find anyone good. But I think it’s dangerous to get close to someone else’s work and swallow it.

JAM: Do you see anything that intrigues you or that you admire?

FB: There are tons of things I think are very cool. David Carson and Neville Brody have both done new things.

JAM: There seemed to be similarities between your work and Neville Brody’s at a certain point.

FB: Yes, though I was not aware of his work at that time. I think Neville is the designer I like the most because he’s coming from a very specific point of view and everything I’ve seen of his has a lot of power, an aggression, and a simplicity. He’s a great designer and I think he’s the one who is the most intelligent about his work. Brody’s work comes out of the English punk movement and Carson’s is tied to California beach culture. You have to watch out when you’re tied to something so specific. What happens when punk disappears? I never wanted my work to be tied to anything cultural, I want it to be more about something in my head. I think it’s a classical approach.

JAM: And that concern for classicism distinguishes what you’re doing from more self-consciously experimental work?

FB: I don’t break the rules just to break the rules – that’s not enough. Things have to make sense. I don’t want to do things people won’t be able to read. You have to have a couple of words that define your work.

JAM: ‘Elegant’ and …?

FB: ‘Simple.’ ‘Powerful.’ ‘Beautiful.’ No more ‘elegant’, I’m tired of hearing that.

JAM: Much has been made of the parallels between your tenure at Bazaar and that of Alexey Brodovitch. Is that something you’ve cultivated?

FB: Anybody working here would have been compared to Brodovitch.

JAM: He’s not a particular hero of yours?

FB: My father mentioned Brodovitch to me when I was 16. And I though, ‘Wow, this guy must be a genius because my father is telling me he’s a genius.’ But it was only when I came to Bazaar that I had a chance to get really familiar with his work.

JAM: So your choice of Didot was not an attempt to recall the Brodovitch tradition?

FB: No. At that point I was finishing the Madonna book, where I used a lot of Bauer Bodoni. I really wanted to do a typeface for Bazaar that would be more like the classic Didot. I couldn’t use something like Franklin Gothic. We used Didot because it’s very feminine, not because of the magazine’s history. When we started at Bazaar things were very elegant and the direction of the magazine was about elegance. Then the grunge movement happened.

JAM: What was your response to grunge?

FB: That’s when I started to use a lot of handwriting and very light typefaces.

JAM: Did you know there’s a font called Kate Moss? It’s even lighter than Helvetica Extra Light, whisper thin.

FB: That’s cool. The problem with computer typefaces is that they look good at text sizes, but when you blow them up they look too fat, out of proportion. All these new computer typefaces are not for me. I find it more challenging to pick something generic like a Franklin or a Didot and do something new with it. That’s the hardest thing to do.

JAM: Negative leading and tracking have become a very quotable trademark of your work.

FB: I was doing that with Xeroxes before the computer. It’s been done for a long time.

JAM: How much of your work is done on a computer?

FB: Everything, eventually.

JAM: But a lot of your ideas are still independent of their realisation on screen?

FB: I like drawing. I draw a little something first. But new technology is good. When I was 16 I was doing things in metal.

JAM: What kind of publication was that?

FB: I don’t even remember – it was a little magazine. I think you have to be careful with the computer so that work doesn’t look like computer design where the designer is absent. I like metal, I like wood, I like computers. It’s like having a new pencil.

JAM: How directly do you design the magazine?

FB: I design most of the type pages and I oversee everything. Johan Svensson, the art director, is the best right hand I could ever find. He’s involved in the design of all the magazine.

JAM: How did you make the transition from graphic design to directing?

FB: I just wanted to do it. I think it doesn’t matter what you do: design is design. It has to look good, whether it’s a pack of cigarettes, a lighter, a magazine, clothes or even music. Directing is the same thing, you can say, ‘This is good. This is not good. This is visually striking. This is visually powerful. This building looks good. This building looks bad. This page in this magazine looks good. This page in this magazine looks bad.’ If you have some kind of philosophy about the way you like things to be, you can apply it to anything.

I think people channel themselves too much. They think, ‘I’m an art director, I work for a magazine, and I’m going to do that all my life.’ Why? It’s just a medium. Of course, it’s going to take time to learn a new language if you start work in a new field. But you’re still tapping into the same place in your heart, in your head. It all comes from the same source.

JAM: Your work is in mass media, which exists outside of so much of what is going on in the more internalised debates taking place in art schools and design publications.

FB: You’re talking to me in Chinese now. What do you mean?

JAM: I think there is a disagreement about the role of theory and political and social issues in design education and practice.

FB: My God! You shouldn’t tell people how they should design things. You should let them find out for themselves, see what they have to say. You’re putting walls around them and they may never get rid of those walls. Putting too much interpretation into design is not good. Someone did a piece on me, and she wrote something like, ‘The use of white space reminds me of death.’ It was funny, but a little sad. For me, design comes out of you. The reasons behind it are more primitive than philosophical or sociological.

JAM: But because your work reaches such a large audience, people are interested in its possible sociological impact.

FB: It has sociological impact, yes. Whatever is around you influences your mood, your behaviour. I believe that the environment has an effect on the way you think, which is why I try to improve it.

JAM: What are your mistakes? I think people get the impression that you’ve had a flawless career.

FB: I make mistakes, you have to make mistakes. I think it’s very important. Nothing can be perfect, but that’s the beauty of it. I like the idea of reaching for perfection, but I don’t like the idea of being perfect. If I were perfect, I would be inhumane.

JAM: What fashion designers do you respect? Are they also your clients?

FB: One of them is. Calvin, I really like. He’s a genius. He’s very open. When he has new ideas he just has to say three words and I know what he’s talking about. And my answer to him is three words, and he gets it. I think we’re similar in the way we see things. I like the clothes he designs and he likes the things I design. It’s a good match.

JAM: And Madonna is also a good match?

FB: She’s fun. She’s more like my wild side. She’s so out there, she’s breaking so many taboos. I think it’s very good. I find my best work is done with people I don’t have to talk to. When I’m doing the work, I’m not thinking, ‘I hope he’s going to like it, I hope she’s going to like it.’ I know that it’s right. There’s no question about it.

JAM: Do you go after work or does it always come to you?

FB: I never have to look for work. I’m very lucky.

JAM: How much money do you make?

FB: I’m making a nice living. But I work overtime. Maybe I’m the best-paid art director, maybe I’m not, but it’s like being the best-paid plumber – all my clients make a lot more money than I do.

JAM: It’s interesting that you call your company Baron & Baron Advertising.

FB: That was my thinking when I started the company. We do a lot of advertising. But we do a lot of design too.

JAM: Do you see a difference between advertising and design?

FB: If it was really an advertising agency, 50 per cent of the company would be geared towards placing advertising. But we decided not to do that because we find it very time consuming and financially it’s a big burden. It’s not what we’re about. We don’t take jobs because there’s a lot of money to be made from them. We take a job because we feel we can do something good.

JAM: What is the future of Baron & Baron?

FB: I think we’d like to develop a line of products, become our own client.

JAM: Personal care items? Furniture? What kind of products?

FB: Anything we feel is lacking. It’s an idea I have for a store. We would carry all the things you can’t find.

JAM: Perhaps you could become the Martha Stewart of the avant-garde. You could have your own cable programme…

FB: No. I don’t feel what I’ve done is so big that is deserves so much attention. But I’m glad my work has some influence. When I see car advertising or Coca-Cola – all those big names – and it looks like my work, it makes me happy. It’s as if I’m part of American culture. I came here like the poor little French guy, with only $20 in my pocket, and I became part of American culture. I like that.

J. Abbott Miller, designer, Pentagram, New York

First published in Eye no. 18 vol. 5 1995

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.