“I don’t know if all small studios start out with the same mentality,” says Wladimir Marnich, the founder of Barcelona-based studio Marnich Associates. “But you work more closely when you have a small team. It’s a more dedicated type of work.”
This boutique approach was a very deliberate change of direction for the Chilean designer, who previously worked for branding heavyweights FutureBrand in London and Summa in Barcelona. “I felt I wanted to do nicer little projects, such as posters and wine labels, and work more with cultural clients,” he says, recalling his decision to call time on his five-year stint as Summa’s design director.
The inspiration for his career choice dates back to the 1960s sitcom Bewitched: “I wanted to be Darrin, the husband. I liked what he did because it was about coming home and drawing, presenting to clients and staying up all night to get an idea.” Without access to a graphic design course in his home town, Concepcin, in southern Chile, he studied architecture instead – and was swiftly kicked out. “I just wanted to make mock-ups. I enjoyed doing maquettes.”
Joining his father in Australia, he embarked on a design degree at Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology, and remained in the country for 10 years, working for studios like Brian Sadgrove & Associates, among others. And, just as a move to Australia propelled Marnich down his career path of choice, it was a phone call from design icon Vince Frost prior to his own transcontinental move that inspired Marnich to start his own studio.
Preparing to leave the UK for Australia, Frost rang to discuss the possibility of Marnich taking over his London studio. “I asked him: are you sure you’re calling the right person?” laughs Marnich. They never discussed the idea more seriously, but it sowed the seed of an idea in his mind. “I think it was Vince’s call that triggered me to want to move on and do something else,” he says.
That “something else” began life in spring 2004, initially with Marnich and one junior designer. Now, it’s a four-strong team of talented and experienced designers. “We had to wait until we were financially stable,” he says of his subsequent hires. “We needed the stability to enable us to pay everyone a decent salary, and we didn’t want to fill the studio with junior staff – we couldn’t be worrying about whether the artwork was properly done or not.”
Having eventually blossomed into an award-winning studio, Marnich has built up an eclectic client list that ranges from museums and music festivals to organic food producers and food banks, and it’s clear that his design team relishes the range of creative challenges it’s given. “We go from branding and packaging to editorial and back because we like doing everything – it’s fun for us,” says Marnich. “It’s a clich of the boutique agency, but we get to do a bit of everything.”
Marnich puts this creative mix down to the range of experience in the studio, from his own stints in branding and at El Pas in Madrid to the packaging experience colleagues Griselda Mart and Susana Cataln Salvador have gleaned from local packaging and identity specialist Enric Aguilera.
When we talk, the studio has just finished an annual report for food bank foundation Fundaci Banc dels Aliments. Projects underway include an identity for the Centre de Cultura Contempornia de Barcelona, a product catalogue for top jeweller Carrera y Carrera, and packaging designs for paint manufacturer Hempel. The studio works out of a former flour factory; not that you’d notice – or find it without prior intention, given that, unlike most buildings in Barcelona, it doesn’t actually face onto a street, being cocooned in a square away from the bustle of public thoroughfares. Located in Barcelona’s commercial centre (not the most fashionable area, says Marnich, but it’s in the business area and conveniently close to his house), it has an industrial feel. Boasting iron columns, it’s an open-plan studio space that resembles an American-style loft apartment.
It used to house a meeting room but, having realised they were barely using it, the team recently repurposed it into a photographic studio, used for website images and test photography. And the reason they weren’t using the meeting room? A predominantly local client list – most of them based in Barcelona, with frequent meetings outside the studio. A big chunk of client interaction is carried out face-to-face, which Marnich says is a plus. “If you send a file by email or you’re not there for a presentation, you don’t have the opportunity to explain things. We not only do it for the client, but for ourselves.”
The close-knit dynamic makes for a communal approach to the workflow – the team frequently discuss projects together, albeit it with a clear creative lead. “Our normal process is for one designer to take on a project and generate the initial ideas. We’ll discuss them together, but there’s always one person in charge.” For Marnich, that idea generation process tends to start on a screen, not on a piece of paper. “I start designing directly onto the computer,” he explains. “Some people say: ‘We should do a meeting about concepts! Let’s get the notebook out, let’s draw with a pen!’ But in the past few years I’ve got used to putting things down on the computer rather than on paper.”
He has a signature design approach, then, but you’d be hard-pushed to pin one signature style onto the studio – the team’s work is too impressively varied for that. Instead, the studio’s watchword is consistency, according to its founder. “It’s not fashionable – it’s well done. It’s not pretentious, we don’t use funky typography and we’re not trendy for the sake of it,” he explains. “It’s very difficult to show someone a piece of our work and have them say, ‘Oh, that was done by Marnich’. I like to think that it’s the quality that’s consistent.”
A wider international client list is on the wish list for the immediate future – Marnich says he hopes to be more in contact with cultural clients in London, among other places, though stability is a more immediate hope in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Whatever ambitions it has, the studio is certainly going places.