Hugo & Marie: Talent show

One part talent agency and one part boutique studio, New York-based Hugo & Marie is small, nimble and dedicated to artful design

Every story has to start somewhere, and it was a housewarming party in New York that first set the scene for what would become Hugo & Marie. “We met having both just moved to Brooklyn in 2004,” co-founder and business director Jennifer Gonzalez says of her initial encounter with artist and designer Mario Hugo.

“We lived across the street from each other, and shared a love of interiors, fashion, film and design. We quickly became inseparable.” Nine years later, and that’s still the case. Together, they’ve turned Hugo & Marie into one of the world’s most exciting creative agencies, dividing their energies across an intriguing split focus.

Essentially, the company is one part artist management and one part boutique design studio. Being one of the very select group on Hugo & Marie’s roster means getting your teeth into an eclectic mix of projects in the fields of fashion, music, publishing, advertising and online, taking in everything from editorial illustrations and record covers to custom typography and textile patterns.

Hugo & Marie encourages its artists to collaborate with each other, drawing from its talent roster to hand-pick creative teams ad hoc. For example, Hugo and Norwegian graphic designer and illustrator Magnus Voll Mathiassen, aka MVM, recently teamed up to create illustrations, photo treatments and custom type for Rihanna’s seventh studio album Apologetic. Other collaborative projects range from a collection of record sleeves for the Secret 7” showcase, which raised funds for Art Against Knives, to creating artist packs for the interactive iPad app Granimator.

Also among the agency’s recent endeavours, you’ll find a collaborative T-shirt collection for Lacoste L!VE by illustrator Micah Lidberg, who is based in Kansas City, USA, a videoshoot for the Wallpaper* Design Awards 2013 that was produced and directed by London-based designer and art director Tom Darracott, as well as illustrator and designer Deanne Cheuk’s custom typography for the Wanderlust store in Japan.

Hugo collaborated with graphic designer and illustrator MVM to create the illustrations, photo treatments and custom type for Rihanna’s Apologetic album

While Hugo is the agency’s creative director, he is also an individual artist who’s represented on the Hugo & Marie roster. He takes on art direction, design and illustration projects as well as creative direction, pitches and other, broader internal pursuits. He worked for Syrup NYC and freelanced before teaming up with Gonzalez. The pair purchased the URL – a combination of their respective middle names – back in 2005, three years before they launched the agency from a basement apartment near Manhattan’s Union Square. “It had a ring to it, and we loosely settled on some sort of creative future together,” says Hugo.

“We didn’t know what that future might be,” he adds. “We’d tossed around the idea of a kids’ clothing label for a while.” And it’s not just a creative partnership; the pair are about to celebrate their first wedding anniversary – Hugo avoids using his surname professionally in case of confusion with another Mario Gonzalez.

The Manhattan basement apartment is now a distant memory. These days, Hugo & Marie is headquartered in the hipster Dumbo neighbourhood in Brooklyn, in a long, tall space with wooden factory floors and windows facing the Manhattan Bridge. Black, grey and white interiors allow bright prints and framed work by the whole Hugo & Marie roster to sing. “We have parks, a swing, views of the water and a lot more blue sky than in the city proper,” says Hugo. “We thought we’d never leave Manhattan, but moving here has turned out to be one of the best decisions we’ve made.”

Hugo & Marie has a New York base, but the agency held its first ever group show, entitled Being/Dreaming, at London’s KK Outlet in April this year

Subtle macabre

Why did the pair choose to focus on artist management? “We were a bit ambivalent about outside representation,” explains Gonzalez. “We wanted to explore how to make the relationship between artist and client more positive. We also wanted to enable independent creative talents to combine with management and production to take on projects of any size.”

Map the creatives that are currently on Hugo & Marie’s books and you’ll travel from New York and Kansas City to London and Paris, taking in cities in Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands along the way. If anything unites them, it’s artful design. “We’re attracted to handcrafted work and stuff made with love,” Hugo says. “We’re really inspired by words, whether spoken, sung or extracted. We enjoy telling stories and, for whatever reason, there tends to be juxtaposition of human warmth and a subtle macabre in the work that we most love.”

Hugo & Marie teamed up with the New York media and design agency Doubleday & Cartwright to create a series of posters for the upcoming Red Music Academy summer events in New York

They don’t follow a rigid process when it comes to finding new talent. “Certain artists touch us personally. We speak with them for a while, share our motivations and see where things go,” Hugo explains. “We like to keep the artists very diverse and the roster very small.” That roster has changed over the five years they’ve been in business. “But, in general, the theme has been slow and steady. We’re not looking to expand it at the moment, but there are certainly creatives who interest us – and that’s all we’ll say.”

The agency’s model is ‘a bit odd’, admits Hugo, given that they have a team of 12 independent artists (two of whom work together as Hvass&Hannibal) as well as eight internal staff who handle creative direction, account management, digital design, production support and so on. “We’re small, which romantically translates as ‘nimble’, and everyone is very, very busy on a number of disparate projects at any one time.”

“We like working with people who adapt well,” he continues. “It gives small teams a lot of flexibility and reach. Everyone’s a specialist, but we try and encourage the team to participate in a variety of tasks. If someone is interested in copywriting this week, they’ve just got to speak up.”

The mix of artist representation and design is an unusual one, but Hugo says they’re not so different to anyone else. “Every agency is incredibly multidisciplinary at the moment,” he explains. “We’ve always believed that old adage about variety being the spice of life. We hope that a breadth of creative experience will strengthen each of our projects, and we like it when everything informs everything else.”

Collaborative spirit

Clients tend to fall into one of two camps. “They’re either looking for a specific artist to work on a particular project, or contacting us to curate or creative direct a project,” says Gonzalez. Their collaborative spirit extends to working in concert with clients, who oft en come from the worlds of fashion, music and cosmetics – “I’d say we att ract emotional, cultural clientele.”

Hugo & Marie launched an online shop in 2009, but the pair are not currently planning to expand this, as Gonzalez explains. “It hasn’t been a failure, but it would be a stretch to call it a success. That said, the shop encapsulates some of our broader goals. We’re generally interested in finding ways for illustrators to be their own product and their own business.”

“We don’t always want to be concerned with mass communications,” she continues. “We really like small, intimate conversations with an audience, too. We love the idea that a product and its owner can share something, however quiet – such as Micah Lidberg’s peony scarf. Look closer and little webs are hidden for only the owner to see.”

Creative director Hugo is on the books of Hugo & Marie as an artist and designer in his own right

As it stands, they’re not actively pursuing the shop. “Although that doesn’t mean we won’t approach the idea from a diff erent angle,” says Hugo. Right now, a key ambition is to make Hugo & Marie’s work even more collaborative. “As an example, there was a time when we would be contacted about the singles from a record, then the full-length covers and then the package.”

“Now, we’re looking holistically at a much broader, more collaborative relationship. Att aching creative talent to the music, choosing the typefaces for all communications, consulting on music videos and so on, and we’re more interested in photography than ever before.” Several major self-initiated projects are also in the pipeline, although they’re keeping the details tightly under wraps for the time being.

How do they cope with literally being married to the job? Hugo says it’s more a case of having a sense of family at the office than keeping a strict split between work and home. “We’re small, but we’ve got perks. We play FIFA 13 in the middle of the day, but we also work late nights. It’s hard to produce the best creative work when it feels like work, so the goal is to feel like work isn’t always a burden.”

“We’re actually currently near our end goals,” he continues. “There is a lot more to the soul of the business than what we’ve got out there to date and we have big, difficult plans for the future. We’re a bit surprised by what we’re doing, but at this point the only thing that is certain is that you can only anticipate so much of this stuff .” Nevertheless, Hugo acknowledges the power of faith to change outcomes: “We’re absolutely firm believers that you can will things into existence,” he smiles.