Winter 2005

Ugly-beautiful [extract]

The work of one of France’s most original graphic voices bristles with contradictions

His personal and professional nom de plume – Toffe – suggests a character played by Jean-Paul Belmondo in a light-hearted French gangster movie. In fact, his real name is Christophe Jacquet and he’s a French graphic designer. His work, a well kept secret in international design circles, fizzes with daring thinking and unexpected imagery; but it is his recurrent use of provocative and often jarring juxtapositions that is the most appealing aspect of his graphic design. His best work is a bittersweet mixture of ‘ugly’ computer default settings and ‘beautiful’ decorative touches; he mixes ranged-right Times New Roman with elegant filigree linework; he fuses nineteenth-century typefaces with hybrid digital fonts. His work has the aesthetic and conceptual heft that comes from being created by someone with iron hard inner convictions.

Although not much known outside of France, Toffe is an important, if somewhat enigmatic figure within the French design scene. As Etienne Hervy, the editor of French graphic design magazine Etapes, notes: ‘He is regarded by French designers as a one-off, a kind of curiosity. Someone who is somewhere else – in an intellectual sense. But there is a strong group of young designers that follow him and occasionally work with him on big projects, usually after being impressed by him during one of his workshops or visits to their school. If you disregard big stars such as m / m, or before them Grapus, he’s one of the few French designers to have this kind of court – the word is too strong, but I’m not sure what the right English word would be.’

Toffe’s work defies easy categorisation. It is undeniably French, yet it seems to look beyond Gallic culture for added resonance, finding it at least partly in universal digital culture. His work is recognisably postmodern in its eclecticism and its lack of reverence for cultural and graphic design conventions. But this is only half the picture: his eclecticism is not promiscuous, it is calculated and suffused with intellectual purpose. ‘We can consider his work as postmodern design,’ notes Etienne Hervy, ‘but the French design scene did not really explore this area because Grapus had another response to modernism. In my opinion, this is a really important point about French design.’

Toffe was born in Paris, and still lives there. ‘I live in the south of the city,’ he explains. ‘My studio is also my home. The area is cosmopolitan with lots of babies and families.’ He went to the Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-arts in Paris to study painting and sculpture. ‘It was very formal,’ he recalls. ‘Students received a classical art education. Emphasis was on drawing from the nude, and no graphic design was taught at all. But while I was there I discovered the Apple Mac computer. This was in 1984. A friend had an early Mac Plus – it was so new it even had American voltage. This was a nuclear moment for me. I decided to become a graphic designer on the spot.’

Evidence of Toffe’s momentous encounter with the computer is still vividly present in his work today. The distinctive aesthetic flavour of early graphics software packages – bitmapped lines, vectorised paths, default typographic formatting and the easy repetition of graphic shapes – are recurring motifs in his design: ‘I use a lot of default settings in my work,’ he says. ‘I like people to see the nature of the machine I have used.’ The little grey Apple box, the runt-like ancestor of today’s sleek ergonomically sculpted G5s and iBooks, ignited within Toffe a deep-seated passion for the digital – or what the French more poetically call, le numérique: ‘I was enchanted by the computer,’ he notes. ‘It gave me a sense of power. It did for me what the Internet does now. It meant that people all over the world were using the same machine. I was using the same machine as someone in America. I used MacPaint and MacWrite. I recently met Bill Atkinson, the guy who created MacPaint and I thanked him profusely. What really excited me about the Mac was the “undo” function. You can’t undo a drawing or a painting. I found this psychologically stimulating. I was also obsessed with repetition. I had been making repetitive sculptures – bas reliefs – and this seemed to be a bridge for me between art and graphic design.’ . . .