French design duo DeValence thrives on producing conceptual, highbrow work, such as a ‘signage book’ for an exhibition, yet they dream of doing more mainstream projects. John Stones catches up with the pair

It all started off as a bit of a joke. Calling up for internships after their graphic design courses, Alexandre Dimos and Gaël Etienne introduced themselves as ‘from Valence’ (‘de Valence’ in French). When, a couple of years later in 2001, they set up shop together, DeValence seemed a quirky yet obvious name – and appropriate for their witty, even intellectual, approach. Etienne had been in a band, so they started off designing music magazines, progressing to producing graphics for a variety of artists, and for five years the pair worked out of an artists’ community in a north Paris suburb.

In 2005 DeValence got a big break, landing the job to produce the signage and exhibition catalogue for the Dada blockbuster at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The curator wanted these two aspects to tie up, and DeValence responded with a brilliant catalogue: printed on super-cheap paper, it had a cover design that allowed the stacked catalogues to become part of the visual identity of the exhibition. The ‘tough, but discreet’ signage was laser printed and pasted on the walls, and DeValence developed a bespoke font for the exhibition from Dada samples, revelling in its inherent errors.

‘We like to make our own tools,’ they say, fresh from toiling over the italic and heavy forms of the font that evolved out of this, Dada Grotesk, which is being made commercially available this year by Swiss foundry Optimo. DeValence’s other fonts will, however, be retained to give their studio’s output a distinct flavour.

Apart from a couple of more mainstream projects, such as graphics for Kenzo perfumes, the work has all been pretty highbrow. ‘It wasn’t really a choice, just the way it happened,’ they say. ‘We didn’t do very commercial projects, [but] it’s not that we are against it.’ In fact, Paul Rand’s postwar American corporate branding is some of the duo’s favourite stuff. ‘We really love his way of working, it’s very beautiful and smart. For us, it would be a fairytale to do this kind of work,’ they say.

Since recently moving from the artists’ community into the centre of Paris (‘five years was enough’), DeValence has been busy redesigning and art directing the fashion magazine Double, and designing a series of 60 covers for the French publisher Flammarion’s 30th birthday project. It’s a project Dimos and Etienne are particularly excited by, because it sees them stepping in the footsteps of another hero, Pierre Faucheux, who designed the publisher’s paperback covers in the 1950s and 1960s.

But it would be a mistake to think DeValence is selling its soul. Take its latest project, Promenade au zoo (A stroll at the zoo), created for an exhibition of artists Saâdane Afif and Valerie Chartrai at the Lyon Biennal. It is what DeValence terms a ‘signage book’: the pages can be folded out to form the signage of the show. ‘Of course, people were not interested in supporting a project like this, so we had to become editors and a publisher too. We lost a lot of money, but we are very proud of the project,’ says Etienne.

In response to an invitation from their alma mater in Valence, the duo transferred their studio there for a month to work on a magazine with the ever so slightly caustic title of Marie Louise. (Dimos claims the name isn’t a reference to Marie Claire, but a French term for the white paper mounts surrounding engravings.)

Marie Louise exists under the mantle of F7, an organisation they set up in 2003 to raise the level of debate and status of graphics in France with invites to the likes of Stefan Sagmeister, Norm, Optimo and Peter Saville. Marie Louise has similar intent, containing articles about French designers in French (‘Usually we have to read about them in English,’ they say, politely concealing the horror), and translations of pieces by international designers. The favour has been returned, and DeValence was invited to take part at the recent Forms of Inquiry exhibition at the Architectural Association, curated by Zak Kyes.

Yet the pair dream of mainstream projects and seeing their designs ‘covering the sides of trucks’. While not doubting the sincerity of the wish, somehow you get the feeling that their conceptual approach and idealism might make it a difficult journey.

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