Showing restraint

OK, let’s dream a little. You put your work up at your degree show, stick the corners back down on a piece of curling foam board, then you sit there and wait. And wait. And wait some more. This is it, you tell yourself. This is the day Gill/Fletcher/Peters/Brody/Dumbar/Carson (tailor the dream to match your decade) walks into Nowhereville’s Poly degree show and gives you the dreamiest of dream jobs. You can wake up now. We all know, it simply doesn’t happen.

But, it did to Alan Aboud. In the summer of 1989 someone from Paul Smith left a note for several Central St Martins’ graduates to pay them a visit. One of those graduates was Alan Aboud. Fast forward to 1999 and Aboud and his long-time photography partner Sandro Sodano have been reappointed to begin their second decade of work for Paul Smith, beating the likes of St Lukes and Weiden and Kennedy in the process. Not bad for half-a-dozen people in a studio sandwiched between strip joints in the depths of Soho.

Listen to Aboud and you get the impression this wasn’t planned. “I had no interest in fashion when I was at college. It all happened by accident,” he says. There may have been no grand plan – by Aboud’s estimation, 30 per cent of his work still comes from that area, and at least half of that from Paul Smith.

Initially, the Paul Smith work involved just a couple of days a week, and the other days were spent assisting Stephen Coates at Blueprint magazine. These two contrasting jobs were instrumental in Aboud’s development as a designer. “The freedom that I had for half the week followed by the constraints of a magazine was very good, and Stephen was extremely thorough, a really good teacher,” he says.

An ex-tutor took pity on Aboud and Sodano. “We were the only ones without proper jobs,” says Aboud, offering them studio space at a knock-down rate. “The rent was low and by chance a friend of ours was launching a computer company that needed a brochure.” With Sodano deciding to pursue the photography he had experimented with at college (while “technically” studying graphics) the partnership was formed.

And as more Paul Smith jobs needed photography, Aboud used his partner for much of that work and thus began an almost symbiotic relationship that continues today.

A lot of designers and design companies tend to use one photographer more than others, and often these relationships reach an almost “fifth Beatle”/George Martin-style degree (think of Peter Saville and the late Trevor Key, Sean Perkins and Richard Burbridge, Gert Dumbar and Lex Van Pieterson).

But what Aboud and Sodano have often been able to do without any undue hassle is to try out ideas almost instantaneously. “We don’t need to go out to expensive test photography,” explains Aboud. “I can’t do Magic Marker visuals, and if I have an idea hanging round for too long I get terribly bored of it. So we just go away and try it; if they [the clients] don’t like it, they don’t like it.” Those of us who have struggled over explaining an unvisualisable idea, or laboured late into the night clutching the Photoshop manual, can only dream of having someone there, at the same moment, to try it out together.

Unlike almost every other designer in London, Aboud has taken the highly unusual step of appointing agents in London and New York for his design and art direction services. This seems to be driven partly by a lack of interest in looking for new clients and a mistrust of the business side. “Designers are not very good at selling themselves and agreeing terms on a project,” he says. “I hate all that stuff, I absolutely hate it.” As if to prove his point, he then reveals that he has no idea what the company turnover is, and looks completely blank at the mention of a break-even figure. “My accountant tells me there’s nothing to worry about,” he assures me.

Certainly, the desire to keep it small is a driving force. Aboud knows that he is essentially the one the clients want. He admits a lack of true delegation skills and his desire to keep it as compact as possible, even if that means keeping clients waiting several days or more.

When asked about the studio’s relatively low profile, he admits that it is partly intentional. “I don’t do the conferences or the parties or anything, but it’s not out of snobbery. I just don’t have that much interest in the design business. We’ve never been trendy. We’ve never been the next big thing which we’re really happy about. If you’re hot one minute you’re only going to get colder, and the only way is down,” he says.

Even submitting work for awards is something he does almost reluctantly, mainly using it as “a way to force myself to sit down every January and think to myself: well, what did I do that I really liked last year”. Although he admits that it was “a great feeling” to win a D&AD Silver in 1997 for some exceptionally unique © photographic work for the Paul Smith diffusion line – R Newbold.

There is quite a contradiction in all this, of course. Graduating from Central St Martins within a year of Graham Wood (Tomato), Chris Priest (ex-Why Not Associates), Paul Neale (Graphic Thought Facility) and the renowned typographer Jonathan Barnbrook, Aboud admits that what bound the graduates of Central St Martins together then, as now, was their “huge ambition”.

But, for driven people, most of his generation have been quite reserved about coming forward. He tries to explain it: “The whole design ethos had broken down when we graduated. It was trendy to be anti-awards. D&AD meant nothing to me at college. All of us have remained quite hidden away, quite secretive. We’re all still a bit embarrassed about our surroundings and try to keep people away because we don’t have meeting rooms.” He adds that he and Sodano “have never really taken it that seriously, we both have a fairly healthy disregard for the business”.

But Aboud is happy to acknowledge the notoriety that comes with his college’s image. “The nature of the Central St Martins mafia is built into you. I like it. It’s nice to take pride in your college. Remember when you were a kid, there was always one school that was really good at football that everyone hated? That’s how people feel about Central St Martins. Admired, but reviled, all at the same time.”

The bits of work that he releases to the press or enters into awards are occasional rather than constant, but are consistently original and seemingly uninfluenced by whatever’s hot (or not) at any particular time. This, it seems, is an intentional policy. Aboud admits that he studied the likes of Creative Review, Eye, and Design Week while at college, but now reads none of them regularly. “I don’t like being influenced by other design. I’d rather take my influences from the everyday vernacular,” he says.

Perhaps it is his love of the vernacular that explains his admiration for the work of the American designer, Tibor Kalman. Kalman’s groundbreaking work with his company M&Co throughout the Eighties started trends that few have bettered since. M&Co was renowned for its use of everyday design, once cutting up the Manhattan Yellow Pages to provide the illustrations for an advertising campaign for a 24-hour restaurant.

A meeting with Kalman at the end of the last decade has left deep scars on Aboud with regard to handling clients. “One thing he said to me has always stuck in my mind: ‘If the client likes what you’re doing, that’s the death of you. You should have arguments with your client and they should be really suspicious of what you do.'” Perhaps we should all think of this next time we catch ourselves agreeing with clients who we believe are talking nonsense.

The topic of America comes up regularly throughout our conversation; the meeting with Kalman early on, and the revelation that 90 per cent of Sodano’s independent photographic work now comes from the US. “New York, especially, remains a great source of encouragement and income and gives us such a buzz creatively. We have a great affinity with the whole scene,” he says. When quizzed about a possible move, Aboud admits, “We might move one day. There’s one major project that I’ve been considering which would mean moving over there, but it’s hard to say without jinxing the whole thing.”

Strangely, the other international aspect to the work – the large amounts produced for Paul Smith in Japan – has given them no other leads. This is obviously a source of frustration for Aboud.

“The work in Japan is really well known but the biggest bafflement is that we’ve never had any other work come from there in ten years. We had an agent in Japan about two years ago and we had one phone call in a year, that was it.” This may have something to do with Paul Smith’s huge popularity in Japan (with hundreds of shops across the country), that Aboud Sodano’s identity tends to get buried in the level of “noise” produced by such a high-profile client.

But art directing a few short Christmas films for Paul Smith, and specifically a Japanese ad for a Paul Smith-endorsed Mini car, has sparked Aboud’s enthusiasm for a new direction of work, admitting to being bored with still images. “I’m more excited by trying to do some moving image work. It’s good to work with great photographers, but sometimes I think I could do it myself, I can amalgamate the type and image in my head. I suppose that’s my new goal – I have a production company that represents me and is currently looking for scripts.”

Another recent project in Japan with WNA was to produce 2000 images for a Paul Smith slide presentation at the Kobe Fashion Museum, part of the True Brit travelling show. The experience has enthused him with the notion of collaboration, and fuelled admiration for WNA. “WNA is a very grown up and meticulous company, but still manages to create work that’s really free. If you want to be truly successful you have to be a great businessman and a great designer at the same time, and WNA is. Collaborating with WNA taught me a lot; it’s a shame it doesn’t happen more.”

As small consultancies collaborate more, this could become the new model for all trying to solve bigger design projects. While Aboud is reluctant to come forward on behalf of his consultancy, London is thriving with highly creative teams of designers of fewer than ten people that consistently beat the big fish to the plum jobs. By pooling their resources for the duration of the project without any formal or physical links, each party can then return to their core work without the danger of over-expanding.

If the prophets of economic doom are to be believed, then it is the small and flexible groups that will survive the next crash, being better placed to cope with the changes in demand that recession brings.

And Aboud Sodano is the perfect example of this ethos. As Aboud points out: “Our American clients are always astounded that there are so few of us handling the Paul Smith account.”

Maybe size isn’t everything after all.

Collaboration: True Brit

The ‘huge ambition’ Alan Aboud shared with fellow graduates from Central St Martins College of Art and Design ten years ago has emerged as the collaboration between Aboud Sodano with Why Not Associates over the airing at Kobe in Japan of the Paul Smith show, True Brit.

The two groups share a building in London, but they were brought together by the Kobe Fashion Museum near Osaka. WNA had created the museum’s first installation and because of Aboud Sodano’s relationship with Paul Smith it made sense for them to work together on the show, originally designed by Tom Dixon and Richard Greenwood for its London debut. Aboud Sodano handled the exhibition graphics.

WNA created an installation in the museum’s Fashion Square, involving 24 slide projectors. These projected images on to the walls and floors, to give a ‘take’ on Smith’s eclectic approach to his work. These flag up the Paul Smith fashion show in a separate gallery.

‘It’s a big space and a large project,’ says WNA creative director Dave Ellis of the Fashion Square. ‘There are something like 800 images,’ he says, in a presentation lasting five minutes.’It was the perfect opportunity to put together something with music on the theme of English eccentricity.’

The two consultancies ‘evolved’ six sections, taking account of Smith’s influences – his holiday snaps, his toy collection and so on – to show the clothes in context.

The sections include The Magpie, on Smith’s eclecticism; British Tradition, set to This is the Modern World by The Jam; Fashion Heritage, highlighting English tailoring; Traveller, featuring Smith’s snapshots; the more abstract Colour, showing a striped Mini car with music by Brian Eno; and Paul Smith People, featuring the ‘untypical’ models Aboud and Sodano use in Paul Smith ads.

So good was the collaboration that Aboud is keen to do it again.

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