Matt Appleton’s graphic design studio Modern Activity, housed in an artists’ complex in Hackney, is more like an industrial workshop than a bare white studio, brimming with equipment and work-in-progress. Physical media are much in evidence: shelves of sample books vie for space with reams of neatly labelled paper stock, looming over a small but effective Kobo foil-blocking hand press. This is an object he uses regularly, whether directly on small-run books, or to provide samples to clients and printers: ‘A computer can’t mimic the play of light, and a commercial blocking press isn’t set up for testing 50 different colour combinations.’
These tactile concerns are reflected in Appleton’s carefully structured work, which skews classical building blocks in subtle ways. He initially trained as an architect, gaining two degrees before deciding he didn’t want to be a ‘CAD monkey’. He decamped to the Royal College of Art, where he co-founded a loose collective of illustrators and artists called Le Gun, who garnered much attention in the noughties for their experimental events and eponymous ‘journal of narrative illustration’. These days he works mainly for serious enterprises such as think-tank Demos (to whose plain, text-heavy tracts he gives a severe beauty), but the creative spirit of Le Gun lives on in his meticulous publication designs for the art world. Where possible, he works personally with individual artists, gaining inspiration from their practice and often nudging their gallery to try new approaches. Such clients require what Appleton terms ‘a quiet intervention. You do make quite significant decisions, but hopefully they respond to what the artist’s doing. It’s not seen as the designer’s style, but more just how the book should be.’
Art organisations often need to create impact on tight budgets, and given carte blanche to choose materials, Appleton regularly specifies Fedrigoni papers. For The Flight of O, a twisted take on fairy tales by award-winning young artist Zoe Williams, he created affordable opulence by printing in one colour on Arcoprint Edizioni, and employing her gallery’s roster of interns to tip-in colour prints. The cover, on Ispira Fascino, uses coppery foil-blocked artwork elements printed in-house on his trusty Kobo.
For the shamanic performance artist Marcus Coates, he worked closely enough to earn an editorial credit on the Bookworks project A Practical Guide to Unconscious Reasoning, having helped turn ‘a bunch of Post-it notes’ into a conceptual self-development manual. The bright, complex interior is printed on cost-effective Arcoprint Milk, and clad in five alternative jacket colours, chosen ‘not for prettiness, but for trying to make you think about why you were choosing those colours’. These, like most of his art book cover designs, are the result of workshop sessions with the artist, as ‘colour is an instinctive choice – often people don’t know what they like till they see it’.