Marc was one of the founders of Base Design, a network of studios in Barcelona, Brussels, Geneva, Madrid, New York and Santiago de Chile. He is also the co-director of three masters at Elisava: Graphic Design, Editorial Design and soon Data and Design. I sat down with him in the rooftop of Elisava and later at the bookshop Central del Raval to talk about the past and the future of education, being a director of masters and the challenges of opening and being the partner in a studio.
Being born and raised in Barcelona, could you share a little bit more about young Marc and his upbringing? Well, in fact I was born in Barcelona but I wasn't raised here. My parents live in a town called Vilanova, close to Sitges, the place where Blanc Festival started. I lived there until I started studying design in EINA. So in fact I'm Barcelonian since my 18 years old.
Have you always wanted to be a graphic designer? What things in life made you decide to go down this path? On one side I initially wanted to do architecture, but at college I realised that I was so bad at mathematics and physics, and on the other side, it was my older sister who opened the design path in my family. She’s also a designer, a fashion designer, and she was the one that had to have all the conversations with my parents about doing a different career and not going to a regular university.
Apart from that, I think I basically discovered graphic design through the magazines of my sister. She would always have a bunch of fashion magazines and I don't know how, but I quickly figured out that there was someone behind those pages, doing that as a job. Then I started thinking why some of the layouts were nicer than the others, paying attention to the ads and this made me realise that there was a profession called graphic design.
"...magazines are a stronger memory, music was in a more indirect way but both were really important. I wouldn't think on a conceptual or intellectual level at this point, they're more visual appealing than anything."
Would you say that these magazines were your earliest design memory? Magazines and music, but the latter in a more unconscious way. Since my teenage years I was already really into music and at that time it was still vinyl. I used to buy quite a lot of records and with some of them I would realise "Wow, this is looking different, there's something behind this cover". From there I started discovering labels and artists that would use a specific visual language and it also helped me to find out that there was a profession behind it.
But if I have to say, magazines are a stronger memory, music was in a more indirect way but both were really important. I wouldn't think of it on a conceptual or intellectual level at that point, they were more visual appealing than anything.
When you came to Barcelona to study, did you already come with the idea of doing magazines or vinyl covers? No, definitely not, I came with the idea of doing design – I wanted to do graphic design in a broad sense. I was lucky in the sense that my parents didn't put any problems about that, so I just came to Barcelona in ’88, I was only 17 then, to research and visit all design schools.
Being someone that graduated in the early ‘90s and now in 2019 is the director of two masters in Elisava. What are the biggest differences you see from the students now compared to back then?
The biggest difference is definitely the access to information, and I think it also relates to how you understand the profession. I have the feeling that in my generation you needed to be very passionate about what you were doing, because it was hard to find magazines, books and materials in general – if somebody was traveling to London you would always say "Please buy me this book, and this and that" (laughs). So it was very much about sharing, passion, discussion and talking about new things, this was a big part of the way we learned.
And what I think about now is that this same passion is more difficult to find in students, of course there are people very passionate about what we do, but I have the feeling that there are fewer that go deep into why they do things or why they like things and how design is related to the subjects they are working on. It feels like things go easier into a visual way but it's more difficult to go deep into the roots.
One thing that I've got from the years I was studying and I try to keep it in the same way now in the masters is the kind of teachers that I had – all my teachers were professionals, they were not at all academic (laughs). And I think that fact, in a moment when the design community here was much smaller, made me feel that I was in the right place, with the right people, with direct access to the ones who were doing the great things at the moment.
This feeling is something that I continuously try to repeat here in the masters – the selection of teachers that I do is very oriented in that way. Of course I try to see if they are good at teaching too, but even if I had to put it in a balance, I would still prefer the professionals. The way these teachers work, the way they convey what they know, how they transmit that to the students, it's different. At the same time, it's also good for the students to leave room for experimentation and be aware that we are in an academic environment, so, it is the moment to make mistakes.
And then you can feel how these very passionate students, building very good relationships with the teachers, they fight hard to find a job and they are really present in the project. This is actually something that I always try to do – to build a close relationship and a good atmosphere between students and teachers.
In a master, at least in a profession like design, I think that the easy part is to teach how to do things – how to do a book, how to do an identity – for me it is much more relevant to help the students build their own criteria and develop it, finding their own voice and making connections. I get really satisfied when after a year the students developed their own criteria.
"It's true that in the forming years everything is about design, but I think that it's good to know how to take distance from it too. It's like love, you don't have the same passion that you have in the first years of it for all your life..."
How do you build your criteria, your vision? One of the things I realised early on is that it is different for everyone. And it's very different when you are in an academic environment or you are in a working environment.
When I was at Base, I gave shape to the team, I tried to put them in a certain direction, I would have my way of doing the selection of people I would choose to be part of that team. In a design school is not really like that, I actually do a selection but it is much more diverse, you don’t really know who will be attending the master – so one of the things I had to learn during these years was that all these students are different from each other and their way of understanding design is very different, so how each one learn things is very unique for each case.
We are now in the final week of this year's master and a certain group students came to me and said “We were reviewing what we were doing in the early months of the year and how our project has evolved until now, and we are so thankful for that!" – this is really what fulfills the mission of being here in this academic environment, of course, it is nice when they tell you, when you realise that there has been an evolution, that there is a change in their mind and in their way of doing.
Each student comes with a different expectation, and as a director, I have expectations too. There are a lot of things in the mix, but in the end of the day the best thing you can do is create a really good atmosphere, with good energy for everyone. In a way, no one will be 100% happy or have fulfilled all their expectations throughout a whole year, but if you generate a good environment, everyone can pull things for their own good.
There is always room for improvement for everyone, and one of the things that I like about our faculty is that they treat all the students in the same way, with an open dialog about how the project will evolve, being honest to themselves and to the students. More than being honest, they don't fall into the trap of saying what the student wants to hear, because it is easy when you find students that are hard workers, but you have other students that are not like that – and then is when you have to be constructive and motivate them to find their way.
The community of design in Barcelona is not very big (like in most places). How would you compare the present moment to when you graduated? If you think the design community in Barcelona is small now, when I graduated it was miniature. The first reason was the amount of schools, there were basically three schools: EINA, Elisava and Massana. At that time, every year there were 30 new designers in the market, nowadays this number is around 600, and this is something young designers should be thinking about – It's a kind of profession that if you are not totally passionate about, it doesn't make a lot of sense. If you don't have this attitude it's very difficult to enjoy or even do good projects.
Maybe because for designers, the line between work and life is usually very mixed? In a way yes, and it also has to do with age. I would totally understand what you are saying a few years ago, but now I think differently – I love design, but there are other things in life that I want to enjoy more, I want to have time for my daughter, my family and my friends.
It's true that in the forming years everything is about design, but I think that it is good to know how to take distance from it too. It's like love, you don't have the same passion that you have in the first years during all your life, you enter in different phases and the point is to learn to enjoy each of these phases.
"...the idea of Base started because we wanted to work together but I didn't want to live in Belgium, I had my time, I enjoyed it and still have friends there, but it wasn't a place I wanted to live forever."
Going back to an early stage in your career, you were one of the founders of Base Design. How did the idea to create Base come about and what were the challenges to make it work? The idea of Base started back when I went to work in Belgium in '93.
In Brussels, after design school 5 people founded a studio called ‘Traces de Doigts’, that quickly became 3: Thierry Brunfaut, Dimitri Jeurissen and Juliette Cavenaile. Then Thierry left Brussels and came to Barcelona and I met him while he was working at Summa, we became friends and through him I met Dimitri that visited him a couple of times. At that time I was obsessed with Vaughan Oliver, from v23, 4AD and all of that vibe, so I prepared what I thought was a very good portfolio to go talk with him. And in one of those crazy nights of the '90s with Dimitri we made a bet – I would go to London to talk with Vaughan, but if he says no, then I would have to go to work with him and Juliette in Brussels.
It is not that Vaughan said no, he just didn't reply (laughs). He received me very politely, but that was it. So then I paid my debt and went to work with Dimitri and Juliette in Brussels. At that time they were doing awful jobs, very commercial, with no direction and we set a plan "Ok, if we want to do good projects we need good clients" and Dimitri did a really good job finding new kind of clients in fashion and culture and I think we built a very nice body of work. Soon after that Thierry wanted to join again Traces de Doigts, but then I had my time in Brussels, I enjoyed it and still have friends there, but it wasn't a place where I wanted to live much longer. And the idea of Base was born because we wanted to work together but I didn't want to live in Belgium.
"...everything in a very organic way. It actually couldn't happen in any other way, because we didn't know how to do it in another way, it had to be organic. We didn't have the knowledge, or the resources, or the strategy, we're just young with energy and willing to work, those were the things we had in our pockets."
The basic question was, how can we continue working together but with you living in Brussels and I living in Barcelona. I left Brussels in '94 and started working in some other places, but we kept in contact trying to figure out how we could do a studio together.
At that moment there were no international studios aside from Pentagram, I'm talking about the early days of internet, sending presentations through FedEx, a total nightmare. There was no model and at a certain moment we decided that if we wanted to work together, we would have to be together and have a name and present our portfolio as one, so we started like this is '97 with an office in Brussels and another in Barcelona.
Soon after we added a new partner, Geoff Cook, who proposed the idea of opening a new Base in New York, something that we had never thought about, but he came with a more "marketer" angle. He had worked in the fashion industry for some years and he did all the hard work to make it happen – all the meetings, getting the jobs and everything in a very organic way. It actually couldn't happen in any other way, because we didn't know how to do it in another way, it had to be organic. We didn't have the knowledge, or the resources, or the strategy, we were just young with energy and willing to work, those were the things we had in our pockets. Of course, that after it starts to grow you are obliged to learn other things and manage it in a different way, but it started just with the energy.
Then much later on you went to South America, to Chile. Why did you open a Base in Santiago? Yes, Base started in '97, New York opened in late '98, I opened Madrid in 2004, we tried for a while in Paris, but we never found the way to really work there and then in 2009 I opened in Santiago.
From my design school years I had a Chilean friend and I got to know more Chilean people in Barcelona, so Chile became something more or less familiar to me. I went to visit the country a couple of times and years later in one specific moment when we were already thinking about the growth of Base, I thought that one logical way of expansion was through language – expand to more Spanish speaking countries.
It was a connection of ideas. Once I visited Chile for personal reasons but I took some time to do meetings and interviews there, showing what Base did to see what was the reception of it and it was really good! But later I realised Chileans are very ‘polite’, saying yes even when they want to say no. I ended up opening a studio there with people that previously worked with me here in Barcelona and Madrid, it stayed like this for a couple of years until another crucial moment in 2011 when the person that was managing the studio there told me that she couldn't continue with it, and it was a crossroads situation where one of the partners had to go or it would close.
"...unfortunately, something that is actually coming here now, it's also a very ultra liberal economy, where the only thing that matters is that today you'll make a little bit more money than yesterday."
I was already in my forties, thinking "Is this it? Or is there still time for new adventures in life?" So after long discussions with my life mate we decided to move to Chile in 2012. It was an exciting situation on different levels, a new adventure in the life of a young couple – our daughter was born there in 2013, a new studio and team to build in a new city – at that moment Santiago was quite effervescent, and a possibility to make Base stronger when Spain and Europe were not at their best moment.
Was it a smart strategic move? When I think about it now, in a certain way it doesn't make sense. Why did we open a studio in Chile? And the basic answer is because at that moment we could. But Chile wasn't mature in terms of design, maybe now it's becoming a more interesting place. We did some very nice projects but we had to fight really hard for them. They didn't understand design, only marketing, they were still in the mindset where clients would go to advertising agencies. And also I was shocked by a very strong ultra liberal economy, where the only thing that matters is that today you will make a little bit more money than yesterday. Unfortunately, this is something that I feel is coming here now.
After all the efforts, I was disappointed with the results we were getting in the studio. So, I stayed there for the 3 years that I had agreed with the partners and then we closed it.
In a very subtle way, this is something I try to tell the students of the master that comes from South America. They are coming to find something new in here and I try to send them back with the criteria and the conviction that the market is not the only rule. Most of them come with a very commercial portfolio, and together with all the faculty, we try to show them that design has other meanings and functions, that it can also have a social role.
How important is the figure of a mentor/teacher in the early career of a designer? I think it's totally key, it is very important to be driven by example – in music, in writing, in design, it doesn't matter. Having the connection with someone that makes you open your eyes, your mind, helping to discover new things, it's awesome.
And has there been anyone in your life that has had a profound impact on your path or that you’d consider to be a mentor? Yes, definitely yes. Josep María Mir was my teacher and I started working with him in after my first year at design school, so I learned the basic of the basics with him, my foundation of graphic design was there. At that moment I was looking a lot at things abroad and I can't call him a mentor, but Vaughan Oliver was a big influence on me, I enjoyed his work as a whole subculture. I also had a very good time with Ramon Prat doing books, which still is one of the things that I love the most in the design field.
And it's strange to call them mentors, but I was very very lucky with my partners at Base, I think part of the magic of Base was that we had the feeling that we were enriching each other all the time.
And to finish – right now, what are the things you are beginning? I'm beginning different things in different levels. On what I am most concentrated now is directing the masters of Elisava, because I'm starting to enjoy it in the sense that now I feel the programs have a certain maturity, they are solid and I can concentrate on improving them bringing new talent, new activities, new connections. In that sense, we are beginning a new master in 'data and design' and I'm super excited about that.
Another thing that I'm really excited about is that a year and a half ago an old coworker from Base, Arno Baudin, contacted me out of the blue saying "Marc, I want to do books on contemporary art and as far as I know, you are the person that knows better how to do books" (laughs). We started a small publishing house called Zolo Press, we already published 4 books last year and we have 4 or 5 more coming. I must say that Arno is doing the hard part, with studio visits, meeting the artists, making the concepts and I'm basically helping him with the production and with a kind of reassurance – he is the one with the energy and I am just behind helping him with what I can.
It was totally unexpected, but it's a new beginning in such a nice way that I recently decided that from now on I will concentrate only on the masters and on Zolo Press, no more consulting or freelance job.