Interview with Fanette Mellier, French Graphic Designer

December 8, 2014 | By Louise Lassarre
© Pascal Béjean - Olivier Körner - Nicolas Ledoux -

Fanette Mellier’s work will be displayed at the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York when it reopens on December 12, 2014. Visual Arts Program Officer Dorothée Charles interviews the artist below. 

Dorothée Charles (D.C.): What projects are you working on right now?
Fanette Mellier (F.M.)
: I’m working on a bunch of projects at the same time. For the past few months, I’ve been working on the graphics for a learning kit commissioned by the Centre national des arts plastiques (CNAP) that’s intended to introduce middle schoolers to graphic design. The kit was conceived with a group of teachers and education professionals. It includes a leaflet and sheets on different aspects of graphic design—color, layout, typography, etc. It’s been wonderful to work on this project, which leads me to explore questions of both form and content.
I’ve also been collaborating with the French writer Laure Limongi on a book that will come out at the beginning of 2015. During my residency at Chaumont-sur-Loire, I became interested in the intersection of graphics and literature. I laid out literary texts. This book with Laure will offer me an unprecedented reading experience!
And I’ve been working on several other commissions in the cultural sphere. I always have between five and 10 projects going at once. 

D.C.: In the Recto-Verso exhibition at the Musée des Arts décoratifs in Paris (the exhibition is on view from May 21st, 2014 until February 1st, 2015), you present your work Replay. How did you conceive this work within the framework of an exhibition? What mechanisms did you use in your work—and why this title?
: Within the framework of the exhibition, I chose to present all of my works as if they were objects in a museum—in a glass casing, in a delicate way. The audience is invited to “play back” the works, to push the “replay” button. This set-up was the result of a collaboration with Grégoire Romanet, who designed the glass casings, which were inspired by an ordinary and widely known object: the pinball machine. I chose to present the commissioned projects in that context—I like to present projects in free, experimental contexts.  The idea was to make visible the circulation and interaction of colors on different levels within the machine, which symbolizes the recurrence and the variety of questioning, in this unprecedented format.

D.C.: How do your projects come into being?
: My graphic designs are rarely born purely of their own accord. They emerge in the framework of other commissions that allow me to immerse myself in different subjects, to be subject to certain constraints, different contexts. That variety is the cornerstone of this profession. It’s very intellectually stimulating.
The more “atypical” projects that I develop simultaneously often develop within the framework of residencies or invitations to exhibit my work. These then are also linked to a specific context, in which I have increased freedom. This freedom allows me to take risks, and my curiosity often pushes me to propose collaborations with other creators. This collaboration creates a stimulating and exciting context, one outside of commission work. Graphic design invites interdisciplinary work.
I have thus had the opportunity to collaborate with writers, set designers, musicians, painters, poets, etc.
This openness has allowed me to explore commissions that are sometimes atypical!

D.C.: Your many areas of exploration have allowed you to investigate the different elements of graphic design (color, typography, materials, public spaces…). Could you tell us more about that?
: These different elements are the tools with which we work every day. Color, like typography or formatting, allows one to structure a graphic design project, and also to make it “say something.” These are both technical and artistic tools.
When I work with more open, experimental projects, I refuse to get caught up in the cornerstones of my practice as a graphic designer. On the contrary, I try to focus on the essence of the work.
So, at the Pangramme exhibition that I did this year at the Une Saison Graphique festival in the Havre in France, visitors were exposed to typographic composition with a playful and experimental dimension. The Dans la lune exhibition, on the other hand, was an exploration of the poetic and emotionally evocative potential of printed color. 

D.C.: In the film “Jacky au royaume des filles” by Ryad Sattouf, you worked with the Bubunne alphabet. How did your proceed, and what did you to do research the topic?
: Ryad Sattouf commissioned me to create an original typography for his film, which would be used both in the film and on the film set. I also developed other graphic design elements linked to the history of the country of Bubunne—emblems, flags, etc.
My work was inspired by non-Latin alphabets (Greek, Russian…), without having a specific type of writing as a reference, because Bubunne isn’t inspired by a particular country. For certain aspects, it was important to think about European and Eastern countries, and for others, about North Korea or Muslim countries. The Bubunne language also draws from western European countries, at different moments in history. I wanted to inject a feeling of exoticism in certain letters for words that seemed “unfamiliar,” while still being readable.  
I was inspired by spider webs, by women’s braided hair. Rounded typographical edges evoke a fun and vernacular feeling. Ryad Sattouf had specific requirements that were linked to the script. He had a specific idea for the emblem (two mare heads), but he drew it with his hand, and his style is pretty loose and playful, and he wanted to inject a bit more strictness, hardness, and efficiency into the graphic. The geometric aspect of my designs, opposed with his own flexible style, doubtlessly interested him in this context.
I know he liked my graphic style, the exotic quality of my typography. The radical aspect of the design went well with the totalitarian society and the paradoxically humorous aspect of the film.  The fact that I am a women was also not unwelcomed! (N.B.: The movie “Jacky au royaume des filles” is about the Democratic and Popular Republic of Bubunne where women have the power, control and make war while men wear the veil and take care of their homes)

D.C.: What role does graphic design play in New York?
: The visit to Chermayeff and Geismar studio, where one of my best friends worked for 10 years, was a great experience. I noticed that the designers there work in a very open and free way.  Historians work toward creating content for exhibitions alongside graphic designers and set designers. Cultural and commercial commissions are executed side by side. In France, many known graphic designers work alone or in workshops for confidential projects (as I have done myself!). Even if this European model works for me, personally, I get the sense that in New York, design is a collective adventure and that commissions have even more power! This different and unusual approach makes me quite curious.

D.C.: You are among the French designers chosen for the reopening of the Cooper Hewitt in New York: which of your works will be there, and which ones have been acquired by the museum?
: I will have the pleasure of seeing my Specimen (2008) poster integrated into the permanent collection at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, after the Graphic Design: Now in Production exhibition initiated by the Walker Art Center. 

Interview by Dorothée Charles, translated by Kimberly Corliss
Fanette's Mellier website:

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