SMEL’s longest standing collaboration is with star photographer Anton Corbijn, with whom they have also produced the recently published Tom Waits book. It’s a rather stern looking document encased in a sturdy slipcover, portraying the American singer in a black and white rendition that's as grainy as Waits’ vocals. The last section of the book contains the singer's own photographic experiments.
Tom Waits, the book.
Their first Corbijn job dates back to 2002, a posthumous salute to Dutch rock 'n' roll junkie Herman Brood. "That book became a kind of blueprint", Smaling states. "It was rather straightforward, with a steady rhythm of single photographs accompanied by Corbijn’s handwritten comments. With a subject as wild as Herman Brood, a subdued approach was exactly what was needed." A couple of years later, Corbijn approached SMEL with a proposal for a book documenting his 22-year involvement with Irish superband U2. Elias: "He wanted to create the ultimate Pop book and gave us carte blanche." The result, U2 and I, has since risen to exactly that status. The first edition of six thousand copies was sold-out in no time. In total, thirty thousand books made their way to fans and, today, you will be hard pressed to even find a second-hand copy. Quite a feat for a 416-page tome.
"Often the public doesn’t recognise our input", Elias observes. "But we feel that graphic design should always be facilitating. We try to tell a story with a certain flow. For example, for the U2 publication, we sifted through a thousand photographs, selected four hundred, and then decided on six- to twelve spreads per year. Every spread had to inspire a wow-effect and drag the reader further into the story." No freaky typography, off-the-wall framing, or eccentric editing for SMEL. Their design is rather like high quality make-up: you only really notice it when it is absent. It’s all about rhythm, about space as interpunction, and about making visuals individually standout while not getting disconnected from the whole. In that way, the designers are different from other typical Dutch studios, as they admit. Smaling: "We don’t enforce our handwriting on a publication, but we do lace it with our DNA. It’s just less in your face. It’s an atmosphere, almost intangible. We do lay down a grid, but it’s encrypted in such a way that the methodology does not shine through. Designing the way we do is a delicate process that is difficult to explain. It’s very much trial and error, but at some point you have to decide on the ground rules - you shouldn’t, for instance, rotate the page too often. Without guidelines, unrest creeps into the process."
This modest approach is remarkable if one takes into account that Smaling and Elias started their careers in the studio of Swip Stolk, one of the most outspoken post-war graphic designers in The Netherlands. This emotionally expressive designer, who is best known for his art catalogues for Larry Clark and Mischa Klein, taught them all about printing techniques and to never compromise with regard to quality. They, in return, introduced Stolk to the world of computer-aided design.
Even though art publications are still an important and high-profile part of their portfolio – besides Corbijn, SMEL has worked with photographers Loretta Lux, Ellen Kooi, painter Terry Rodgers, and lingerie designer Marlies Dekkers, amongst others – Smaling and Elias have expanded their field of work. They design annual reports for government agencies, take care of company branding for florist Menno Kroon, interior designer Piet Boon, art gallery Stigter Van Doesburg, and high-end boutique SPRMRKT, and they do the art direction for style magazine L’Officiel Hommes NL. For fashion agency House of Orange they thought-up a tabloid drenched in gold and deep black. They stood at the cradle of Ilovefakemagazine, a fashion mag with the look of controlled chaos, which evolved from a blog to a glossy. And they have been asked twice to design a stamp for the national postal service. Pragmatic and intuitive, that's what Smaling and Elias call their mode of operation. The designers, who on a regular basis collaborate with other experts, are like an old couple who communicate with each other without even speaking. "We always work as a collective", Smaling says. "We continually look into each other’s brain. Very much like the way we try to creep into the heads of our clients. Working with people is the core of our business."
Piet Boon flyer.
125 years Carré stamps.