After meeting as graphic design students at the Royal College of Art, Frith Kerr and Amelia Noble started to work together as KERR NOBLE on cultural projects for Artangel, the Architecture Foundation and the Design Museum and commercial work for clients such as Liberty.
By combining typographic rigour with illustrations and hand-crafted detailing, Frith Kerr and Amelia Noble of the London-based design studio Kerr Noble succeed in enlivening and humanising graphic design while enhancing – rather than detracting from – its functional role as a means of communicating information.
Having met as students at the Royal College of Art in London, Kerr and Noble, who originally studied at Camberwell and Central St Martins respectively, set up their partnership after graduating in 1997. They have since worked in the Clerkenwell district of London. Many of their projects are for cultural organisations such as the Natural History Museum, Architecture Foundation, Artangel Crafts Council and Design Museum, for which they designed graphics for the Gio Ponti, Hella Jongerius and Constance Spry exhibitions. Kerr Noble has also produced graphics for print and moving image for the iconoclastic film maker Tony Kaye since 1999 and developed a range of food packaging for the department store Liberty.
Visit Kerr Noble's website at kerrnoble.com
Q. You met each other while studying at the Royal College of Art in the mid 1990s. Can you remember the qualities that encouraged you to form a partnership?
AN. At the RCA students are always involved in large crits and competitions which involve presenting work to tutors and fellow students — it was during our crits that I first remember admiring Frith’s work. We jointly won a project competition and had to work together, which worked out really well. We discovered we shared a similar philosophy of concept-based work, but had very different complementary skills. Having worked together all hours on this project and enjoyed it, it seemed like a fairly obvious progression to set up a studio together.
FK. When I arrived at the RCA my friend Lynwen and I would sit by and watch a huge clan of Central Saint Martin’s girls at their desks. Somehow Camberwell College and Central Saint Martin’s were always the north and south divide. So it was with great suspicion that I spotted the work Amelia was doing. I thought she was completely the opposite to me and the same all at the same time. I still do. In fact when we disagree we are usually in agreement, but it takes us a while to work it out.
Q. What are your respective design influences? What first drew you to graphic design?
AN. I grew up in the middle of the countryside and spent most of my time entertaining myself writing poems or songs, taking photographs, crashing about on a borrowed drum set or playing the piano. My sister did a lot of drawing and painting and my other sister often joined me in my imaginary band. Graphic design seemed like the perfect way to avoid selecting any one of these things – it includes all of them and more. Both my parents are painters and they suggested that graphic design might be a flexible creative subject and a little more lucrative for me than painting.
FK. My father is a graphic designer and my mother was a fashion illustrator at the time. I grew up with amazing fashion, photography and drawing books and pictures in the house but they didn’t want me to be a graphic designer – they would have loved me to have gone to university to study something ‘proper’. I didn’t think that I wanted to do graphic design or to be an Illustrator either, but I loved art at school. I persuaded them to let me do a foundation course before university to see and ended up choosing graphic design. At this time it was very exciting to me that I didn’t need to distinguish between drawing and writing and design. It was all the same – and it still is.
Q. Do you feel that your education (design or otherwise) influenced the way you work now?
AN. I went to a boarding school in Kent in the middle of a forest. I think the work ethic there has stuck with me. On top of all the homework, we had between 4 and 6.30pm (before prep time) to learn other skills. I did young persons enterprise, ballet, piano, drums and choir on various evenings throughout the week—so I was obviously a very studious pupil.
FK. Definitely. I loved school – such a goody two shoes! And I loved reading. I think that underpins my love of research – I’m much happier reading and thinking and talking. Doing and detail I like but not as much! Beyond school I think studying at Camberwell was very exciting and difficult. It made a big difference in my attitude to what graphic design could be.
Q. Do you teach?
FK. Amelia used to teach at Central Saint Martin’s and I used to teach at Camberwell but we found in the end it was too hard trying to divide our time between the studio and college. Through teaching we made great friends and collaborators.
Q. You often say that your work is based on your research. Can you describe how you translate your research into commercial work?
AN. When we say ‘based on research’, we mean that we like to have time to explore the subject matter of a brief, we like initiating journeys to find new ways of looking at something. It is this gathering of information and lateral thinking which gives us the foundation to start designing. We never know where we might end up visually. That is the exciting thing.
FK. When we worked on Beauty and the Beast—a show about Swedish design for the Crafts Council in London— we decided that the last thing we wanted to do was look at Swedish design. We had a month to present concepts, and we spent three and half weeks researching and thinking about Sweden – its people, its habits, its weather. It is quite hard to trust this process. Sometimes it takes a long time and you don’t know where you are going. Most Swedes have a second home in forests, as there are many forests there. Tree cutting is a big part of their lives, land and landscape. The font that we eventually developed, although it is completely abstract, came from the idea of cutting simple log shapes with an axe or saw. I don’t think that we could have got to that solution in any other way.
Q. You have collaborated with illustrators on several projects. What prompts you to introduce an element of the hand-drawn to your work?
FK. The immediacy of the hand-drawn or hand-applied is exciting. It has been great collaborating with people like Paul Davis, Ian Wright and James Lambert. I don’t think it is only the hand-drawn aesthetic that we are drawn to, but also the idea of something that is not perfect. When we were working on packaging for Liberty, the department store, much of the finishing on the products was done by hand because we were excited about this idea of ‘in-built’ imperfection.
Q. Among your projects is the self-published magazine Lost But Not Forgotten. What led to this publication and how will the project develop?
AN. This came about in a funny way. We were nominated for an editorial prize in Creative Review’s Creative Futures awards, but had done very little editorial design. We decided to set ourselves a project where we would collaborate with people whose work we liked but hadn’t worked with before. We asked everybody to meet us at Highgate Cemetery one autumn afternoon. Lost But Not Forgotten was a collection of their responses to the visit. Frith and I edited, designed and produced a magazine. We are now working on the second issue, entitled Modern Manners.
Q. You now work directly with artists, for example in your catalogue for Tomoko Takahashi. Is the artist/designer relationship very different to that with other clients?
FK. Tomoko was living in the Serpentine Gallery in London at the time, sleeping in the day and working through the night on her installation. We glimpsed her a couple of times but worked very closely with the Serpentine team to produce her catalogue. Our work is concept-led which translates very well when working with artists, but doesn’t seem to be very different to how we work with our commercial clients.
When Artangel asked us to work on the publicity and signage for Kutlug Ataman’s Kuba project, we proposed a conceptual approach which was respectful of his concept – by mirroring the idea but not mimicking the art – but also communicated the heart of the project across all media, to a broad audience.
Q. Who would be your ideal client? How would you characterise the perfect relationship between designer and client?
FK. A cross between Miuccia Prada and David Attenborough!
AN. The perfect relationship between client and designer is one where you understand one another, but you can also teach one another things. An exchange. It’s all about going on an adventure, to find something unexpected and creating a design or visual language from that.
Q. What is your favourite piece of your own work?
AN. This is a really difficult question actually… but some of my favourites are our work for Channel 4 and the Gio Ponti typeface and Gio Ponti Register of Works for the Design Museum. I also liked the process of developing the Lost But Not Found font and how it came about.
FK. It is difficult. My favourites include: the Lunar Keypad for the Natural History Museum, the Gio Ponti Register of Works for the Design Museum, Tony Kaye’s Face poster, our work for Channel 4 and the Beauty and the Beast font for the Crafts Council.
Q. What is your favourite piece of graphic design in general?
AN. I don’t really have a favourite piece of graphic design, but I love these Inuit Coastline Relief Carvings which are three-dimensional sculptural maps of the coastline. They embody what I think graphic design is and can be.
FK. When I was a teenager and into reading, I would borrow or steal my mother’s books and I completely fell in love with Penguin’s series of Milan Kundera novels designed by Mike Dempsey and Ken Carroll, and illustrated by Andrzej Klimowski. I loved those books and Ioved the covers. It doesn’t get better than that. Years later looking back, I still love them.
Visit Kerr Noble’s website at kerrnoble.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 designmuseum.org/designinbritain