Stephen and Damon, aka Fuel Design, who’ve produced many covetable books over the years (including Tracey Emin’s Photo Album and various productions for Jake & Dinos Chapman) have been long-time friends and clients. To celebrate the opening of their latest show in London, I thought I’d ask them – in a sort of coda to the recent Best of British series we’ve been running – to elaborate on their practice and how it intersects with mine. Here’s what they said…
We went through art college in the late 1980s. Commercial graphic design at the time could generally be classed as tasteful; pastel colours and considered typography. This wasn’t something that appealed to us. We reacted against it with a bold, confrontational approach, both in terms of our work and our image. We quickly defined a FUEL aesthetic.
We left the Royal College of Art in 1992 and immediately found a studio within a Goergian house in Fournier Street, Spitalfields, midway between the edge of the City and the Bangladeshi community of Brick lane. It was an interesting environment with a strong artistic community.
We’ve always perceived ourselves as outsiders in the world of design and we subverted our image accordingly. When we started out, every design and advertising agency was based in the West End or Clerkenwell. We felt we could best express our distance from everyone else (physical and spiritual) if we had bespoke suits made. Timothy Everest was recommended to us as a local tailor who (at that time) was working from a house in Princelet Street, one road along from our studio. We had cropped hair, and the notion of having semi-matching pinstripe suits – like a utility uniform – felt wrong in the right way. We enjoyed the process of having a suit made, and took Polaroids of each other at every stage. As designers and publishers, we aim to create beautiful objects with our books, and every detail is carefully considered – the size and format, paper quality, cloth-covered boards, dust-jacket, head and tail bands. These decisions are very similar to those involved in getting a suit made: the choice of cloth, the cut, buttons, lapels, pockets, lining, etc.
The most popular books we’ve published are the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Volumes I-III. The books document the coded meanings of Russian prisoner tattoos. In 2009 we founded the Russian Criminal tattoo Archive. The collection consists of over 750 original drawings of tattoos and photographs of Russian prisoners. In 2013 we acquired a further collection of photographs from the Soviet police files. We have just published the first of two volumes of this work, Russian Criminal Tattoo Files, with an accompanying exhibition of prints which runs at the Grimaldi Gavin gallery in Albermarle Street, London W1, until November 21st.