Dissatisfaction with lame college projects led the founders of Fuel to originate their own. Yolanda Zappaterra talks to the team who divide their time between client commissions and running an independent book publishing business

There’s an old joke in publishing – ‘How do you make money in publishing? You don’t’. So if you’re a successful design group, it might seem contrary to give half your business over to publishing books about Russian tattoos and eccentric on-line collections. But then Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell, who run London design and publishing company Fuel, have always been contrary – ‘outsiders’, as Murray puts it.

At the Royal College of Art almost 20 years ago, the two of them, along with ex-Fuel designer Peter Miles, were so fed up with lame college projects they decided to originate their own. ‘The projects had to have a certain rigour which set us apart then, and [they] continue to do so,’ says Sorrell. Breakthrough projects included a magazine that exhibited a style of art-based, expressive design that was the antithesis of the big-brand, clean-lined ‘aesthetically pleasing, commercial’ work being produced by established corporate groups like Pentagram. It led to the three setting up Fuel on leaving college, and to a series of books that would ‘examine accepted notions of graphic design, illustrate our ideas and produce work that was not possible in a commercial arena. Sometimes the work or ideas would later be adapted or developed further through our commercial work’, say Murray and Sorrell.

What drove Fuel’s work then – and still does now – is narrative and stories, in particular the kinds of narratives behind collections. This interest is evident in all Fuel’s publishing work, which took off in earnest in 2005 when Fuel Publishing was formed with the idea of creating books that grabbed the imagination of the designers and a growing number of sophisticated visual readers. ‘In these publications we aim to uncover stories and open doors to other places. We’re interested in visual languages and subcultures. Our books must be beautiful objects, but the depth and quality of the content are just as important,’ they explain.

The recent publication BibliOdyssey is a case in point. Originally a blog documenting the best of archived library images on-line, Fuel persuaded blog writer PK to help turn his collection into a book, creating its own collection from his. ‘It’s all about telling stories in different ways,’ says Murray.

The latest of Fuel’s Russian-based titles, Notes from Russia, offers another type of storytelling. Less immediately arresting than its three predecessors in the group’s Russian series, it has a raw energy that represents Russian society now, while also illustrating Fuel’s interest in the vernacular – ‘It’s a perfect joining of the two,’ says Murray. Unsurprisingly, when Fuel was invited to contribute a title to last year’s Penguin Classics 60th anniversary limited edition set of five luxury books, it looked to the East again, choosing Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and producing an extraordinary object that dealt with the book as a visual expression of the tale in all its intricate detail.

But how does Fuel make this kind of independent publishing work? ‘Half of the business now is publishing, so the books have to pay for themselves. Obviously each book is a huge undertaking and financial risk, so there’s a rigorous process from the initial idea to the possibility of realisation before we develop individual titles,’ explains Sorrell. They edit the copy themselves, because ‘editing text has much in common with art directing in terms of deciding what to take out and what to leave in, and it’s all problem-solving, whether it’s for a client or a personal project’, says Murray.

The publishing side of Fuel is now linked closely to its design side, which includes a lot of editorial work for art publications. ‘Our own work is self-indulgent, so the constraints of client projects and collaborations with artists on catalogues and art books can bring something new for us,’ explains Murray. In Juvenes, a limited edition book of Joy Division photographs by Kevin Cummins, the understated design enables Cummins’s elegiac photos to shine unchallenged by another visual voice, but Fuel was able to use its styling for the endpapers and cover. It’s a stunning book that Fuel is rightly proud of, and it illustrates the company’s commitment to exploration and innovation in publishing. If anyone can make money in publishing, let’s hope it’s Fuel.

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