IN CONVERSATION: OK-RM
In their studio in somewhere between Hackney and Bethnal Green, we sat down with Oliver Knight and Rory McGrath, founders of OK-RM - a design studio that takes a collaborative and uniquely multidisciplinary approach to their work. They are the Creative Directors of quarterly magazine Real Review, in partnership with the Real Foundation, and are responsible for the identity and design culture of the Strelka Institute. They were part of the team that designed the British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale (2016) and founded InOtherWords, an imprint which produces books in close collaboration with artists, writers, institutions and other cultural protagonists.
There is more content produced now than ever before. The emergence of multiple platforms of distribution has afforded an equity amongst brands and individual users which now holds an intrinsic monetary and social value in our culture and economy. This radical change over the past decade has led to unusual behaviour - people are adopting the mode of a brand in their own communication and at the same time, brands are imitating people in the pursuit of authenticity. Despite operating mainly in the cultural sector, it was clear when talking to Rory McGrath and Oliver Knight (OK-RM), that they were aware of how these emerging spheres of communication present new challenges for brands and consequently the role of design within them. On discussing a current project with fashion brand, Alyx, Rory explained:
“It was important for us to establish an approach which would place ideology, meaning and narrative at the core. Everything that comes after that - a design, a typeface or a book - responds to it."
With content holding a central focus in OK-RM's work, their collaborative projects with artists and writers - such as FOS, Shezad Dawood and Jack Self - have fed directly into their approach towards design. Being involved at a conceptual level within the arts and cultural sectors has led to how they consider the role of a brand.
“Exhibition design has definitely been important for us to question the potential of space and spatial design,” Rory told us. “We think about how to create an environment for content beyond a book or a website or a specific object - whatever that may be. You start to think about space and suddenly you’re really dealing with someone’s whole experience. That sets you up for questioning space in a more abstract sense - the space of a brand lets say.”
On this, Oliver highlighted how the emergence of new platforms for content has expanded our expectations and interaction with the brand as well as the scope of possibility. “Historically, a fashion brand would communicate mainly through advertising. There would simply be an image consistently in each magazine with a logo placed on or near it. Whereas now our interaction with a brand exists across a multitude of contexts: online, social media, in print, physically. You can’t just repeat the same thing over and over again (well, unless that’s the concept). We now have the opportunity to question how we create a narrative in an incremental way, we can open a more dynamic discourse with the audience. This is something we’ve been really interested in and have focused on with Alyx.”
It is a deliberate intention of OK-RM that a narrative can be felt in varying forms across their body of work. Whether it is felt subtly in the arc of a design culture, as was implemented during their time working with the Strelka Institute, or as an actual storytelling mechanism in Leviathan and Home Economics.
Regarding a current project, Rory explained how they were taking inspiration from other places to establish narrative in atypical ways. “We're commissioning an artist to make what you could call a ‘narrative project’, which is conceptualising a fictional character and he then undertakes that personality and travels the world, looking at things through this perspective. So in that sense, it’s very akin to filmmaking or storytelling in general. We’re using the character as a protagonist to articulate the core principles of the concept, it’s a kind of tool really. It creates a mood rather than a didactic point. It riffs on and has a discussion with the contemporary."
What became clear during our conversation was the potential that OK-RM see for creating meaningful content for those that they work with, and simultaneously being able to design the frames within which it exists. The form and shape of content is now infinitely wide in scope and it could have big implications for the relationship between brand and consumer, hopefully leading to a more experimental exchange. With particular regards to fashion, Oliver highlighted the utility of this outlook. “Fashion isn’t just about clothes, it’s often a broader cultural project which encompasses various clues to the culture and context in which it exists. The ability to work closely with artists within this framework is a way of creating authentic content which goes beyond commerce.”
When discussing their projects, there was the feeling that OK-RM were continually expanding the reach of design and that they had created for themselves (and their collaborators) a freeing space in which to work. The motivation for this expansive approach seemed to stem from a respect for communication and a continuous cycle of critique with regards to their practice.
“It’s driven by a genuine critical engagement, for instance with book making,” said Rory. “We have designed many books, some of which weren’t always commissioned with a huge amount of ambition to make the ultimate book. At the same time we were looking back toward the work of Pontus Hultén (who was director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in the 1960s ), we started to collect his books and realised that most of the time he was designing them himself, we started to wonder, how does he make such brilliant books? It was clearly because he was so intrinsically involved in the shaping of that content, likely closely with the artist(s).”
This was one of the significant realisations that led OK-RM to found InOtherWords in 2015, a publishing imprint creating books in close collaboration with the subject. It has served as a platform for reaching what Rory defined as “trying to create a ‘total book’ or ‘total project’”. InOtherWords has been a proponent for OK-RM to support artists, writers and collaborators to realise projects that otherwise may not have happened. As Oliver and Rory explained, in this way they are very much “protagonists of content”, occupying a role in which they are able to support a project from its inception to its end product. When referring to books and other items of design, they use the words 'Specific Objects' - a term eponymous with Donald Judd - somebody they cite as being an influential figure along with other ‘Total Artists’ Joseph Beuys, Sol Lewitt, Martin Kippenberger and Lawrence Weiner.
'Specific Objects' has also become a helpful delineation between the different strands of OK-RM's practice as they have expanded in scope over the ten years they have been working together. On the changes that have occurred in design over the past decade, Oliver reflected, "Its a lot more open, a lot broader, there are many ways of working. Personally we are having a lot of fun right now, we enjoy the opportunity to question what we are confronted with and extend our discipline outwardly from graphic design. In fact one of the things that’s important to OK-RM’s trajectory is that we work collaboratively across disciplines with inspirational practitioners and individual characters, like Jack Self and Hesselbrand, but also reoccurring artists, collaborators or clients. In that sense, I think there has been change because when we started OK-RM, we started to question who would be within our sphere and now we’re surrounded by inspiring creative partners.”
The quarterly publication Real Review is centred around the proposition 'What It Means To Live Today'. It is a key example of the collaborative core that runs through OK-RM’s work. In this instance, they work closely with Jack Self, director of the Real Foundation and Editor-in-Chief of Real Review.
One of the most impressive aspects of Real Review, beyond the content itself, is the realisation of placing content at the centre of the project. When discussing the simplicity of the design Rory pointed out that, "Real Review is simple but deceivably so." A key example of this is how the magazine differentiates between articles by changing patterns of text size. “That’s because we wanted to have this ease of hierarchy. You need to identify one article from the next and we wanted to do that with the most simple means possible. You have one big one and one small one big one etc. You don’t need other forms of hierarchy for the magazine to function.”
Much like InOtherWords, Real Review is emblematic of the experimental and reflective approach that OK-RM take towards design. This method of working not only results in a coherence across projects but serves as a dialectic for the role that design plays in relationship to form and content. There was a lasting impression that a key motivation behind OK-RM is to provide the cultural platform of which they have been a key proponent in defining over their 10-year studio practice. AG