What We Buy is the latest collaboration between designer Ben McLaughlin and photographer Theo Simpson, and a very handsome object it is too. We asked the pair to tell us a bit about the project…
How did the project come about?
In quite a similar way to our first publication Dead Ends, in that it was influenced by a topical issue. With the country balancing on the edge of recession, discount stores were experiencing accelerated growth and popularity; we became very interested in modern throw-away culture and the bizarre inventions, and creative solutions that result from an attempt to satisfy every possible need at the cheapest possible price.
We were also fascinated by a Walker Evans project entitled ‘Beauties of the Common Tool’ published In Fortune Magazine July 1955, which elegantly portrayed beautiful everyday tools. Evans was documenting a particular period in time with those tools and in the same way the project documents a part of consumerism that will be very interesting to look back on in the future. The topic is particularly relevant as we live in a city that is renowned for its manufacturing heritage. It appears that a lot of these long lasting, beautiful products and tools along with their designers and makers have been replaced by a new attitude to consumption – buy cheap and buy more.
Can you tell us a bit about the materials and processes used?
Photographically, it was important to let each product reveal itself, which was achieved by adopting a very minimalist style; simply removing the packaging and lighting them very flatly on a neutral background to create something very honest, almost like evidence. More than anything it was important to create the illusion of the object’s originality and function.
The printing process itself was a fundamental part of the project and something that we both discussed from the start. We looked at reference material from mid-twentieth century books and commercial catalogues. There is a particular quality to the printing that we tried to incorporate – the slight misregistration and visible halftone dot was something we wanted to embrace. The images in the book are 4-colour screenprints, printed by a large commercial printer. This particular process felt appropriate for the project as it’s generally used for consumer facing graphics such as billboards and point of sale displays. As well, viewed from a distance the prints look flawless, but when examined up-close they begin to break down becoming raw and abstracted. This itself mirrors the apparent allure of the products at first sight.
In terms of format it was a case of deconstructing the traditional elements of a book and applying them to a folder and loose sheets; although the structure is different, it still manages to retain a very book-like feeling. For us this was a much more exciting approach and also more suitable for the project. It changes how the viewer interacts with the project, giving them a chance to rearrange the prints and the potential to display the work. On the pages of a conventional book the work felt quite stale.
What were the particular challenges involved?
One of the main difficulties was knowing what to include in order to keep the interpretation of the project open to the viewer. Money was also a really big issue as the book, like our others, was entirely self-funded – for the design and production this was a major consideration. We used four separate places for different parts of the book and a few trips up and down the M1 to save money on couriers. Without this it would have been impossible to achieve the kind of production values necessary.
What sort of reaction has it had?
So far it has been really interesting, it’s great to watch people’s responses. There’s been a general surprise by the way in which it’s printed as it’s not a typical form of photographic reproduction. There’s lots of elements to draw you in which creates a sense of anticipation before you get to the content inside. As an intention of the book is to record these products in a very matter of fact way, seeing people relate to it differently is very interesting – everyone seems to get something particular from it and understand it on an individual level.
What are your backgrounds?
Ben studied graphic design, Theo studied photography – we both graduated from University in 2009. We’ve been working both independently and on collaborative projects together since.
What are you working on now?
We both want to continue publishing books and would ideally like to start working with other people on collaborative bookmaking, and publishing projects alongside our own independent work. Its great to find something you really enjoy doing, although currently it’s hard finding ways to sustain it financially.
At the minute we’ve just begun work on our next publication ‘84’ – it’s about the 1984 Miner’s Strike in the UK, which is known as the ‘twelve months that shook Britain’. We’re investigating not only the tragic and suspicious deaths that resulted from the strike but also its duration. For a period of time it seemed the country was on the brink of civil war.
What We Buy
Size: 310mm x 250mm (Folded)
Printing: Offset, Silkscreen
Edition of 200
Current stockists include The Design Museum, London and Site Gallery, Sheffield.