Combining commissioned work – typically from fashion, music and art clients – with self-initiated projects, the British graphic designers Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell have worked together as FUEL since 1991 from a studio in the Spitalfields area of London.
From the staccato illustrations on a series of album and singles covers for The Thrills, to the glacially decadent portrait of the photographer Juergen Teller and actor Charlotte Rampling on the cover of his Louis XV/Ich bin Vierzig book, the work of the London-based graphic designers FUEL always has an arresting, even sinister quality.
Founded in 1991 by three graphic design students at the Royal College of Art in London, FUEL was originally composed of Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell, who has studied together at Central St Martin’s, and their friend Peter Miles. Their first joint project was the magazine Fuel, which they produced at the RCA, made the focus of their degree show and which elicited their first commercial commission from the Diesel fashion label. After graduation they opened a studio off Brick Lane in the Spitalfields area of London.
Murray and Sorrell, both born in 1967 in London and Maidstone respectively, still work together as FUEL, but Miles left in 2004 when he moved to New York to work for the fashion designer Marc Jacobs. Over the years they have continued to publish Fuel magazine as well as other self-initiated projects, and have built up a loyal cadre of clients in art, fashion and music, including Juergen Teller and the artists Jake and Dinos Chapman and Tracey Emin. Print remains the focus of FUEL’s work, but they have also experimented with moving images, notably by creating the film titles for Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation.
Find out more about FUEL at www.fuel-design.com
? Design Museum
Q. You met at the Royal College of Art and began publishing the magazine Fuel. What drew you to self-publishing?
A. We were bored with the set projects at college and so started a magazine. The content was image-based because good copy was hard to source. The pages were high impact – with bold images and headlines – often containing ambiguous or thought provoking messages. We didn’t really think of it as self-publishing – more as an outlet for our work. We felt we could achieve more as a group than as individuals.
Q. Do you feel that your education – design or otherwise – influenced the way you work now?
A. In terms of design education Central St Martins gave us space to develop freely while the RCA gave us something to work against as a group. We were quite driven at college to produce work fast and to make the most of our time there. We still work quite quickly.
Q. What are your design influences?
A. Various things influence the way we work. The value of influences is in discovering your own. A list of reference points isn’t a short cut to our thoughts or approach. Influences or things we like:
Tour de France
Q. Fuel, the magazine, and various associated publications have been produced sporadically over the years. Without a client driving you on, what leads to each new issue or book?
A. We have always had an urge to produce work that is self-generated and not confined to a client's brief. When we have ideas that cannot be used in a commercial context the publications give us the opportunity or reason to produce the work.
Q. What were your earliest commercial jobs? How did they relate to your self-published work?
A. While still at the RCA, some of our earliest commercial work was for Diesel clothing. They saw an article about our first magazine FUEL / GIRL in Creative Review magazine and commissioned us directly from that. We were given a free reign to come up with images involving their clothes for their catalogue, including setting them on fire and freezing them. We also produced a series of screen-printed posters for Virgin Records as an installation for its foyer. These posters were like large scale pages from our magazines, updated every six weeks. These commercial projects funded the printing of our magazine and helped set up our studio after graduating.
Q. You have continued to initiate various publishing projects throughout your career – such as Wow Wow and Steidl Fuel. What prompts these projects, and how do they relate to the rest of your design output?
A. The ideas are always driving these projects. They are based on ideas we’ve had or subjects we are interested in and want to develop.
Q. In recent years you have produced a number of catalogues and books for artists. Is the artist/designer relationship very different to that with other clients?
A. Often artists want good but quite simple design, they don’t require another voice. Like any client/designer relationship, it helps when you get to know them and can develop an understanding. Tracey Emin and Jake and Dinos Chapman live very near our studio so we have got to know them quite well. Working with them is quite sociable which makes it more enjoyable.
Q. You have also worked for a number of fashion clients. Do fashion clients have demands that are very specific to their field?
A. Fashion clients want ideas and good art direction more than anything else. With both artists and fashion clients the fine details are very important.
Q. How would you characterise the perfect relationship between designer and client?
A. Time to develop trust and understanding.
Q. What would be your ideal job?
A. A book or magazine for a major client where we have the freedom to generate the content.
Q. What is your favourite piece of your own work?
A. The Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia is a book we are happy with. The drawings and photographs are quite extreme and unlike anything we had seen before. In contrast the packaging of the book is quite inviting. It was also a commercial success.
Q. You have been working together since 1991. How has your studio evolved over that time and what are your plans for the future?
A. Our work has developed over the years but the approach to work is fairly consistent. Peter Miles left Fuel in 2004 to live and work in New York so that created a change. However, our studio set up in Spitalfields has not really changed that much in more thirteen years – it’s a floor in a Georgian house with a big table and a couple of Macs. We are now publishing books ourselves as well as designing and editing the content, an exciting development for FUEL.
Visit FUEL’s website at fuel-design.com
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at www.designmuseum.org/designinbritain