“Wine is all about being rooted to the earth and the local. We try to strip the label design back. It’s really all about the wine.”
For Fernando Gutiérrez design is about relationships, dialogue and letting things speak for themselves.
By John L. Walters. Portrait by Robert Billington
Fernando Gutiérrez is a ‘designer’s designer’, whose thoughtful work for clients in the worlds of magazines, museums, luxury goods and wine labels have been subtly influential.
Born in London to Spanish parents, Gutiérrez studied in the UK and took on his first jobs there, but came to prominence after moving to Barcelona in the early 1990s. He founded design studio Grafica with fellow designer Pablo Martín and designed Tentaciones, a weekend magazine supplement for the newspaper El País.
In 1995 he co-founded Matador, an annual independent magazine that won awards worldwide and led to many other prestigious projects. In 2000 Gutiérrez joined Pentagram’s London office as a partner and in 2006 he left to establish his own studio in north London. His most prominent clients include the Prado Museum in Madrid and the Design Museum in London, but many other projects, large and small, give evidence of his unique blend of enthusiasm and fastidiousness. Recent work includes the logo for the Fedrigoni Top Award, fine art and photography catalogues for private and public galleries, exhibition graphics, a perfume bottle for Givenchy, work for restaurant El Bulli and catalogue and exhibition graphics for Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao and Centro Botín in Santander and Club Matador, a private members’ club in Madrid which continues the spirit of Matador magazine.
Late last summer, on a rainy day in north London, Gutiérrez sat down to discuss his interest in designing wine labels, a longstanding passion that he considers to be a form of editorial design. His drinks clients include The Botanist, Poças, Alta Alella, Valdesil, MonteRosola, Domaine La Casenove, and his longterm client and friend Spanish winemaker Telmo Rodríguez.
John L. Walters: Your first wine label for Telmo Rodríguez was very different, very typographic …
Fernando Gutiérrez: Yes, because I didn’t know anything about the wine business. I just wanted to do something strong that would stand out.
I guess you knew it was a quality wine?
I didn’t even know if it was good quality! I trusted Telmo. He had a strong passion for wine and the culture of Iberian wine, and he wanted to do something different. His family had a beautiful vineyard in Rioja. Telmo took a brave decision to move away from the family business and start a new wine project on his own; he wanted to make wines in different points of the Iberian peninsula, rediscovering grape varieties and agricultural traditions that had been lost.
He bought a field in Toro with vines and he had to work it. There was nothing glamorous about it.
I just expressed what I thought wine should look like. I put dry transfer type directly on to the bottle and mocked it up. And I sent it to him in the post, a real bottle so he could visualise it!
Nowadays, it’s all so digital. You approve almost everything on screen. That package made it real.
I’m intrigued by the simplicity of your labels, often one letter, one graphic shape …
We try and strip it back as much as possible. It’s really all about the wine. The design is not a big deal.
I just want to complement the project. The wine buyers know Telmo. The design helps, but it’s really about him explaining the project, what he does and how he does it.
How does Telmo brief you?
It’s a conversation where he talks about his hopes and vision for each vineyard and the local history. Design visualises our thoughts.
There’s a sense that this is someone with a contemporary taste …
You’re right. He thinks internationally, but he wants to communicate a unique wine story about Spain and the Iberian Peninsula. Wine is all about being rooted to the earth and the local. The whole Iberian Peninsula, including Portugal,has had a renaissance in winemaking. Telmo kept buying up vineyards that were down at heel, looking at areas that were not so famous for winemaking but had potential. For a lot of his wines, he was a pioneer.
Using Alan Kitching for the Matallana label was a surprise: a very British, wood-type letterpress-printed design.
I worked with Alan on developing a look and feel for Matallana. But we’re constantly evolving the labels. Music is a reference point. How do youkeep your music relevant and, in a competitive market, transmitting something unique?
We want Matallana to become one of theclassic Riberas, so it’s an ongoing project for us. I like bringing in people who have nothing to do with wine. I do know a little bit more about wine now, but when I got involved I didn’t, and I think that brings a little freshness and a different perspective.
Tell me about some of the other collaborators.
I’ve worked with illustrators Andrew Davidson [Duratón], Chris Wormell [MonteRosola] and Sean Mackaoui, a Scot living in Madrid making great collages. Sean helped me on the original Lanzaga. Sometimes the images start off as little inside jokes, but then we evolve them. It’s a visual dialogue that expresses a little bit of what Telmo’s trying to do with the wine.
What I wanted to do with Valdesil (Valdeorras) was something emotional and abstract. This land, it’s all granite and slate. It’s a unique wine area, going back to Roman times, facing the Atlantic. It’s quite hard to cultivate that area because it’s on steep slopes that go down to the river. They have a grape called Godello that’s causing a buzz in the wine world.
Do the lines represent the slate?
Yeah, it’s that sort of hard-edge thing. I drew it because there was no budget. You have to really make do with what you can.
I liked the pencil handwriting on the Valderroa Carballo and Montenovo labels for Valdesil.
There’s a hard, contemporary, sharp feel and then the pencil is a nice contrast, a handmade edge. They’re a well known family of Madrid-based lawyers. It’s from their ancestors, this land. They were very passionate about bringing it all back to life.
What challenges do wineries face?
The sales aspect. You rely on other people to sell for you. You’re competing against big international businesses and preconceptions. It’s really hard if you want to be authentic. It’s intense. You can’t be naïve about it.
Matador and editorial design
The launch of Matador was a watershed in your career, wasn’t it?
Matador for me was big, it was where I was able to put all my editorial ideas into one place,so it’s like a book, it’s a magazine, it’s in the arts, it’s culture. That came out of working with El País.
While I was art directing Tentaciones, Alberto Anaut, the El País deputy editor, left the paper, and one of the new projects he wanted to do was an arts magazine. We thought Matador was a good name – Spanish, but international. He had a great idea: to do a cultural newspaper, but with time, coming out once a year. We had a large format. It was all about printing beautifully.
Your involvement in wine began with Matador, when you did labels with artists Sean Scully and Sol LeWitt …
For subscribers we would work with a Spanish winemaker to produce a limited edition. They’d pay for the wine, but it would be specifically for them. With every issue of Matador, we always had what we call a sketchbook where we’d work with a contemporary artist. We would use one of the images and call the wine after the artist of that issue. We asked Telmo’s father Jaime Rodríguez for a wine for the first issue. When he handed the project to Telmo, he said: ‘I want the guy that’s doing Matador to help me launch my new wine project. We’ll do it on the condition that the designer works with me.’
A pleasing connection between editorial design and wine!
Exactly. And it is editorial design, and wine is editorial, totally. Matador was the beginning of a big art and cultural project in Spain, based in Madrid. It became a photo festival, it’s become so many things. It has many events. It has a course on arts management for students, like a masters course. It’s a shop. It’s a members’ club in Madrid. They’re involved in the Madrid Design Festival, PHotoESPAÑA. Matador was the sounding board, the springboard, to all these different cultural projects. It’s a publisher as well. [Parent company] La Fábrica is publishing books, mainly on photography.
Have you been tempted to use more photography in your wine labels?
I don’t like photography on labels. It’s hardly ever worked for me, though I have done one that I love, Valderiz. I love photography, but on a label, it looks weird. It’s too much.
Look around a wine store now, and you see lots of faces on labels.
If you have a face, you’re going to sell. If they’re looking straight at you, you’re going to sell more, like Vogue. The fashion magazines have all got a face, so on wine, why not? But it’s not my approach.
Tell me a little about your work for the Prado.
The Prado is one of the most amazing museums in the world. I’ve always worked with photography and illustration, but this was working with fine art and the great masters, and that took me into a whole other world that I love. What I wanted to do was an anonymous thing of quality. We did things that were invisible.We upgraded the whole museum without people necessarily knowing.
Were you setting out to make something new?
Yes and no. They had like six or eight logos. They were stuck in the past, and very academic. It had a terrible gift shop. It took ten years to resolve it. Slowly we had to convince them that design had a benefit, because they initially saw us as superficial. And you’re like, ‘No, this little leaflet is going to be gorgeous. All the text is going to be legible; it’s all going to fit, it’s all going to be in order.’ So I’ve really got into classical art. It’s beautiful. Working with imagery, you’ve got a Titian or a Raphael or whoever, Vermeer … you can do so much with so little. The image will tell you what to do based on your format, and then you go from there. We covered a whole building in a Titian – you can’t go wrong! We had The Bacchanal [of the Andrians] right across the building in the centre of Madrid. Huge. It must have been about an eight-storey high building and it was stunning. That, for me, is graphics. Everything led me to the Prado. It’s all about relationships, staying close to what you love and enjoy.