Case Study by Vanessa Eckstein RGD and Marta Cutler, Blok Design
Over the past 10 years, Canada’s architectural landscape has gained considerable attention both at home and around the world. Among the handful of progressive, forward-thinking firms of note is superkül in Toronto. superkül's founders, Andre D’Elia and Meg Graham, were looking to create a book to showcase their work in celebration of their upcoming 10th year in business.
We met Meg while participating in a PechaKucha event hosted by the Design Exchange It was an instant meeting of minds and spirits. Shortly afterwards, she called us to discuss the possibility of designing their book.
As with all of Blok's projects, the starting point of our journey was our Strategic Mining process. This is designed to uncover the unique story and voice that will help a brand carve out a distinctive and own-able space in the market. A book, too, had a unique story to tell. Our role is to find out what that is, and then to express it through form, materiality, pacing and content.
Our strategic process begins with a Strategic Questionnaire, which we send to our clients. This is customized to the context of the project, and is designed to harness and align their thoughts and ideas. The questionnaire is really a catalyst for an in-depth discussion about the project, for it's the conversation about the answers that provides true insight and understanding, and begins to inspire ideas. Some of the questions we asked superkül were: What inspires you in your work? Who are you, as a firm, at your best? How would you describe the studio’s culture? What would be your dream project?
From our very first meeting with Meg and Andre we realized that their singular vision, passion and philosophy would require a more experiential and personal approach. One that went beyond the hardcover, glossy monographs that are so common in this space. Our strategic brainstorming confirmed this.
Blok's brainstorming sessions take many forms. Some are formal affairs, conducted in big boardrooms with large client teams. For these, we evaluate the group’s answers beforehand, identifying common themes and generating our own initial observations and ideas. We then use this thinking as a springboard to begin identifying what qualities define the DNA of the brand and what adjectives describe its voice. Other brainstorming sessions are less structured and more informal, and involve a much smaller group of two or three sitting around a table over tea and chocolate (a studio habit!), talking about the answers and working together to carve out a unique position for the brand (many clients have likened it to being in therapy). Our session with superkül was the latter. We met at the studio for more than two hours to review their answers, and that’s where the fun began.
In getting to know this client, we learned what made their hearts race, how they saw the world, what inspired them, the challenges they faced and their aspirations. By asking questions about their process and their work, we discovered many interesting and exciting opportunities for this project, including the story of a dress shirt that inspired a building's exterior design.
We were fascinated to learn about their diametrically opposed working styles: Meg starts with the big idea and works down to the details, while Andre begins with the micro and works upward. These two movements gave us beautiful insight as to how we might balance both approaches within the format of the book.
We also discovered that Meg and Andre were as passionate about the passage of time within a building -- the light and the seasons – as they were about the building itself. These themes of time, transition and light had a profound impact on our approach to the book, and inspired us to request a study of shadows and light, as well as the forms and shapes that inspired and guided their building designs.
Another key theme that emerged was what we called, ‘beautiful responses to real issues’. Andre spoke of causal elements that influenced their thinking and approach to architecture. In his profound yet simple observation, we had the title of the book: 'Rain, Gravity, Heat, Cold'. For us, it eloquently and beautifully summed up the unique organization of matter, energy and space that characterizes superkül’s work.
One of the beautiful aspects to this project was the freedom Meg and Andre gave us to experiment, and to push materiality and form in order to create a highly exploratory experience that would mirror their processes and thinking.
We set out to create a physical, architectural presence for the book, choosing French-folded interior papers to give it weight and substance. We played with the idea of transitions through subtle movements in colour. The paper, for example, shifts from cream to pale salmon to soft grey, while silver became our tool to express light throughout the book.
We printed the cover in black and white and then silkscreened silver on top with varnish. These two approaches aren't usually compatible, but in this case we found the perfect percentage of each to create a lovely subtlety and a sensuality of material. In certain light the title almost disappears, challenging the reader's perception of space and shape to achieve an effect similar to what good architecture can accomplish. The cover folds in at either end and features an extreme close up of shadows on a wall, teasing the content inside.
Our biggest surprise was how the silver printed on the grey paper. Even the printers, with all their years of experience, were astonished at the result. Our expectation was that it would be absorbed by the colour and become flat, but for some reason unknown to us, it rose to shine.
Our experimentation with colour didn’t end with silver. To get a soft salmon on grey paper, we mixed intense neon inks to achieve a balance of subtle tonality with a much needed clarity and openness of colour.
We’ve always felt that books are like music; they have a pacing and rhythm that flows from the subject matter. Meg and Andre provided the list of projects they wanted to feature and gave us the freedom to curate the order. We worked with their images, finding where we needed to whisper or to insert a breath and where we needed to achieve a little more boldness. We looked for opportunities to reinforce the idea of light and transitions. In some places we used photos with similar angles that were shot at different times of day. At one point, a project literally meets between two different papers, shifting from matte to satin, from cream to pink.
During our strategic mining we were impressed by Meg and Andre’s deep appreciation for collaboration and the strong relationships they forged with their clients. With their permission, we designed a series of charts that show the ebb and flow of superkül's projects, materiality and people over time. These charts form one of two interior foldouts that create an element of surprise within the book. The second showcases the full scope of superkül’s projects over 10 years, arranged as a series of black and white images overprinted with silver on grey paper.
Finally, the book was hand-bound and printed with a high level of craftsmanship to match the studio’s own superlative attention to detail and craft. One thousand were printed in total.
Not surprisingly, the project proceeded in true superkül spirit from start to finish – highly collaborative, open to ideas and full of passion, with an unwavering dedication to producing an extraordinary result. There were occasional challenges - our leap of faith to print silver on grey was one; trying to figure out how to allow the silver to shine on the cover without the usual process of adding varnish was another. But these arose out of our own desire to push all the elements of the production. The project flowed, simply because what is true for superkül is also true for how we work and what we value.
Before the book had been printed, and with only a PDF of the design for reference, Rain, Gravity, Heat, Cold was picked up by Idea Books in Amsterdam, one of the top high-end art book distributors in the world. The book will also be available at Amazon, and at top retailers in Canada, including Swipe in Toronto and the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal. It will be launching late August, early September.
- Books, like brand identities, have unique stories and voices. Understanding the story and voice of a project is critical to creating a design that is true and authentic to the subject matter.
- Never miss the opportunity to challenge yourself, both in thought and materiality; true craftsmanship is a rare art and thus highly valued.
- Don’t forget the importance of exploration as a way of connecting us back to our own senses.
We cannot express how grateful we are for the trust that superkül put in our thinking and our decisions, and for the freedom this gave us to do what we believed was right. As designers, this is probably one of the most important things a client can contribute to a project to ensure that the end result is the very best it can be.
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