Chasing opportunities with Melanie Mues
Inspiration comes when you least expect it
By Jim Holland
Melanie Mues, originally hailing from rural Germany, is a graphic designer who came to London to chase the unparalleled opportunities found in that city. Going slow, in life or on two wheels, is not Melanie’s style. We spoke to her in Summer 2019 – when life in the UK capital looked slightly different to right now – about seeking opportunity and how design and exploration overlap.
Tell us a bit about where you’re from?
I studied in Germany, in Bremen, at an old college which had its heyday in the 1970s with experimental film. I studied graphic design but everyone was under one roof – sculptors, architects, fine art. We were accidentally interdisciplinary without even asking for it. After the diploma, I planned to pursue an MA at St Martin’s in London, but I never went because I ran out of money. I’d applied because a visiting professor called Peter Rae – an Irishman and great educator – told all of us “you’ve just got to come to London, it’s amazing. You’ve got a great foundation here but you’ve all got to loosen up.” That idea of loosening up really stuck in my head.
How do you find cycling in London?
We cyclists don’t have the best reputation in London. There are plenty of bad drivers here, but I think a lot of cyclists misbehave too. But overall, it’s great to cycle around London and I always choose the bike over any alternative transport.
Do you think that the geography of the city changes when you are cycling?
Yes, definitely, and the way you see the city from your bike makes you enjoy it totally differently. ‘Just around the corner’ takes on a completely different meaning compared to people who just use the car all the time. Whenever I have a meeting to go to, there’s never any doubt that I should cycle there. I just look it up on Google Maps to see how far it is, and set off, holding the map in my head. I usually have a vague idea where I am.
“Just around the corner takes on a completely different meaning compared to people who just use the car all the time.”
Does cycling change what you discover in the city?
My partner and I cycle everywhere – we’re looking for a plot to build on so that keeps us exploring. London changes all the time, and for someone who comes from a village that doesn’t change at all, it could be a very scary thing, but for me it’s opportunity. Things get knocked down and built up again; it’s an opportunity for something to happen – a constant evolution that keeps you on your toes and which filters into my work. I think cycling just gives you that energy and inspiration.
Do you ever just go out cycling without a destination?
We sometimes do that with the family at the weekends. We have the marshes here which is a great area to explore and you never know where you’re going to end up. Or when we’re looking for a site we just aimlessly cycle around. I know my partner wants to cycle to France but for me, the bike is city transport.
Tell us a bit about your design practice.
I think it’s a practice that has grown naturally, fuelled by meeting people, clients being friends in the end rather than clients. I’m not going out to get work, it just comes to me and I’m still passionate about it. It’s multi-disciplinary, but in a very natural way; people think that if you can do the book, why can’t you do the show, or the online material… It’s really nice to reach a point where you’re on eye level with people and conceive the project together. The Brooks Book [in 2016 Mues worked with Brooks to produce a one-off book to commemorate our 150th year] was definitely one of the projects where it was very collaborative, there was a good long timescale so we could get a lot of good content together and work with a lot of amazing people. The Brooks Book [in 2016 Mues worked with Brooks to produce a one-off book to commemorate our 150th year] was definitely one of the projects where it was very collaborative, there was a good long timescale so we could get a lot of good content together and work with a lot of amazing people.
“We made something that was not art and that didn’t overshadow the art, but which supported it, making it part of the experience.”
In the last couple of years you’ve done some really big projects like the Venice Art Biennale. How did that come about?
I did a lot of exhibition design at Tate Modern at a time, where we could change the way Graphic Design worked around Artworks. I was lucky to work with ambitious curators on extending the realm of what you can do with exhibition design. We introduced more inventive materials and designs to go beyond placing a big block of vinyl type on a wall, reaching visitors that are not your usual Art Gallery goers.
So we made furniture, on-screen behind the scenes programmes, Handling objects, providing all this extra value and information. It loosened things up and made it more three-dimensional. We made something that was not art and that didn’t overshadow the art, but which supported it, making it part of the experience. I also worked on exhibition and book design at the Hayward Gallery, where Ralph Rugoff is the director. When he was appointed to be the Artistic Director of the Venice Biennale, he asked me to get involved. This was summer 2018 – I had no idea really what I was getting myself into.
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