Susan Sellers, 2x4
Founding Partner and Creative Director
Founded in 1994 by Michael Rock, Susan Sellers and Georgianna Stout, 2x4 is a global design consultancy headquartered in New York City with satellite studios in Beijing and Madrid. The focus of their work is brand strategy for cultural and commercial clients who value the power of design.
Susan Sellers is a founding partner and creative director of 2x4 and Senior Design Critic at Yale School of Art. At 2x4, she leads a wide range of strategy and design projects in the cultural, commercial and urban sectors, from large-scale brand identity and experience programs to brand environments and exhibitions.
I am a partner at 2x4, a design firm in New York City. We focus on strategy and design that integrates content development, graphic design, technology and space.
On Family and Identity
Family is something quite literal in our practice: I started this studio together with my partner. But more specifically, and more meaningfully, from the earliest start of our practice, we have contemplated the idea of family through the creation of visual identity. That entails the distillation of a complex entity like an organization into an essential and generative idea, identifying core principles at the heart of that idea and its associations and articulations. It entails understanding context, how things are alike, how things are different, what is at the essence of this relationship, and how that it is iterated.
Brand is now based on an ever more dynamic and loose notion of personality. It’s the personification of organizations or corporations, wherein a brand is really a relationship more than it is a system. ("Wasn't it Mitt Romney who so presciently said "corporations are people.") But seriously.... And this relates a lot to family; like any relationship, brand is something you need to manage. A friend articulates this as “co-ownership”: you don’t own your brand, you co-own it with your consumers or constituents. The people that participate in a brand as consumers, members or followers also confer value on that brand. In this way, they co-author the brand.
Organizations are like families — groups of people who need to find a way to move together individually in common purpose. Branding helps make that possible. It’s like institutional or organizational psychoanalysis really. It guides that process and creates the tools to make change happen. And design is the language to articulate new principles and desires as well as the means to implement the change. It is a reflective process that helps renegotiate what might and should stay the same and what could and should depart, be different, or take a new direction.
I always think about how voice works in design in a very simple way: you create a design language and then you modulate that tone based on your audience. It’s no different from talking to your mother, or talking to your boyfriend, or talking to your best friend. It can be very simple but necessarily very elastic as well.
We work a lot with collections—collections of art, collections of design, fashion collections. Consequently, we spend significant time thinking about what brings a set of things together and what bringing them together means exactly. For us, design is really about the creation and the creative use of collective language. We create voice and a point of view through the careful manipulation of existing visual language. Of course, the alphabet is a great example to describe this. We all understand the simple, subtle codes of individual letters and their combination in words. But what happens when we change a font visually? When it is carved and chiseled with serifs and strokes that look like they were cut in stone or brushed in ink? Or when it is uniform and engineered, devoid of references to the hand, subject instead to the intention implicit in digital processes. Those shifts in visual language all mean something; they are filled with intention.
We see it as our job to first present, and then interpret those differences, to understand those subtle nuances as linguistic, and read what they mean and what they say. I think that is what is really provocative and captivating about collections more generally: a group of objects asks the viewer to suss out these details and differences and make sense of the group.
On working with Arper
We started working with Arper about a decade ago. Initially we produced a manifesto together, trying to hit all the points of what design is: it’s functional, it’s technically elegant, it’s refined in its production, it’s crafted, but most of all it has to serve human needs: design is human. I think that was really what sealed our relationship, and set us on the path of working together for over a decade.
One of the most impactful things we did was to hire Scheltens & Abbenes to create evocative, modernist compositions that were almost diagrams of each furniture collection. We wanted a new way of showing furniture that was explicit and detailed in description, but also implicit in its expression of the distinctive quality of Arper furniture. We wanted Scheltens & Abbenes to convey a kind of zeitgeist that reinterpreted modernism, and also be really specific about the key ideas and articulations in the individual collections. The nature of communicating these systems is pretty complicated and their contribution was essential in describing both the product lines as well as Arper’s core values. Each image is a picture and a literal diagram of the product family: the shell defines the visual sensibility, the base extends that and responds to explicit conditions, color and material enhance and elaborate these qualities, really honing the voice of each piece.