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A little chat with Sarah Boris

Photo by Lorna Allen

Sarah Boris is an artist and designer. With a background of working for some of the leading arts and culture institutions in the UK before setting up her own studio in 2015, she has embarked on commissions which have seen her create visual identities, campaigns, flags, rugs and even sculptural benches. Iconic projects include the redesign of the Institute of Contemporary Art’s identity and her Fragile UK flag seen in museums and galleries as well as in the streets. She has also had several books published: ‘Global Warming Anyone?’, ‘The Graphic Theatre’ and ‘Rainbow 1’ and Rainbow 2’. She regularly lectures in universities and was D&AD judge president. She has spoken at OFFF Barcelona, It’s Nice That ‘Nicer Tuesdays’ and many other festivals. Her work was exhibited at the Design Museum, London and is also part of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and the fine art collection of New York Center for Book Arts.

Fragile Flag UK © Sarah Boris, 2015. Screens for the eight layer screen printing of the Fragile Flag artedition.

A little about your design process…

Fido: What does your process look like? 

Sarah Boris: I rarely find ideas by staying in a standstill, it’s really when I get out and let my mind and body roam freely that the magic happens. Recently my process has shifted as I make more work manually, it’s opened up lots of new ideas and ways of working. It has also triggered new collaborations such as working closely with artisans and not limiting my output to paper/print or digital realms. This feeling is perhaps exacerbated after two years of screen overload during lockdown. I have found that my energy and creativity is blooming when I am making something by hand. My most recent artist book: ‘Rainbow’ was inspired by the context in which we were living at the time of making it. I made a prototype by hand which I could then photograph and make a video of before pitching it to publishers. The book was published by Corners in Seoul in May 2023. Another recent example of the process was ‘The Heart bench’ I created for an exhibition in Saumur, France. Initially when I was approached, I was asked to make a typographical piece of work but I felt that it would be nice to try to do something I had never done before. I started researching the history of the town the festival was taking place in and discovered stories around the castle. I spoke to a historian and looked into the traditional crafts of the region. This is how I came to make an edition of three heart benches made of stone and wood. This also led me to discover wonderful texts and books about benches and their importance in public spaces. I like to think of my work not only as a visual playing field but also an investigation and experimentation space. As an artist and designer, various elements will retain my attention and I will draw these into the final piece. Currently with my art practice a lot of universal symbols are appearing in my artworks.

Amour wine, a love potion imagined to function alongside the bend, Sarah Boris, 2021
Heart Bench by Sarah Boris, a functional sculpture made of stone and wood, 2021

F: How much do you enjoy this part of your work?

S.B: I love the beginning of projects. I enjoy the discovery moment and what I would call the immersion. I love learning and so the early parts of the process are always about that and experimenting. It’s the stage when I feel the freest and most liberated creatively. I feel very lucky that most projects that I work on are about culture and art. This means I keep learning and discovering important histories and narratives. It feels very wholesome and nourishing.

F: Personal projects are part of your design practice?

S.B: Personal projects are a huge part of my practice especially since I have been focusing on my art practice more. I used to be in full time employment from 2005 to 2015 and I often felt the desire to create my own work. It’s essentially been a way to communicate my ideas, and each personal project stands as a form of extended language. On top of that, it is also a passion. Some highlights include self-publishing ventures such as ‘Global Warming Anyone’, a book which features over 100 tweets by the 45th President of the US.The book entered the political realm when a green MP at the European parliament in Brussels ordered twenty copies. I want to make work that will communicate with people in all areas and at all levels so to see my work step into such a political realm, reasserted the potential art and design can have. It gave me motivation and confidence to keep creating. Another project which is particularly important for me is ‘Le Théâtre Graphique’, it’s a flip book which shows the transformation of the waves of the sea into a theater curtain amongst others. The project was born out of a happy accident when I was making screen prints for my first solo exhibition back in 2015. I have been working since lockdown on a brand new edition of the book which was produced and published by Generation Press. The book has 72 pages and is printed in special 5 pantones. I rejoice in finding vibrant colors and the impact they can have on the reader. It’s a wordless / silent book.

‘Le Théâtre Graphique’ screenprints by Sarah Boris. 3rd edition of ‘Le Théâtre Graphique’ by Sarah Boris, published by Generation Press

Let’s talk business!

F: How simple/difficult has it been to create your own studio?

S.B: It felt like a natural next step. I had worked for over ten years within organizations (first Barbican, then the Institute of Contemporary Arts and finally Phaidon). I had a yearning to get back to my art practice and take on specific commissions. Creating the studio has also been a way to reclaim my time both in terms of work and personal life. I design my schedule and decide how it works. I have found a lot of freedom both in my creative output and life. It’s also been a constant learning curve. I often consult peers and recently I was very lucky to speak to a coach who is a wonderful retired man and volunteers his time to coach people.

F: Do you have a daily routine?

S.B: The only daily routine I have is the morning coffee. It’s a moment I love. Apart from that I have no routine. I love improvising and keeping days organic. If I’m working from home, I will often go walking for an hour and head to an event in the evening such as an opening, a talk, a gig, a meal or meet with friends.

F: How do you balance the conflict between the economic aspect and your own requirements on the quality of design?

S.B: I have become better with the years at saying no to projects and at affirming my boundaries. It’s definitely an ongoing process which includes being confident to negotiate fees. For example some clients will pay the same fees as 15 years ago despite the cost of living having gone up massively. Paper prices have gone up, printing prices have gone up but designers are expected to work for the same fees without a raise. It’s up to us to negotiate that raise but sometimes I do wish the client took the initiative especially when it’s an organization that regularly hires designers. It would show best practice and be inspiring 😉

When you are a designer/artist everyone comes to you for ‘free’ work. If we work for free, people will not value our field and expertise, they just take it for granted. I still find that Universities do not prepare students enough for that.. Luckily this has got a bit better over the years and people are speaking more openly about the business side. I have had companies asking me to pitch for free. I wrote an article on pitching a few years back but I feel it’s still relevant today and I hope it will be helpful to others. A few peers have forwarded the article to clients who also asked them to pitch for free and the pitching process was immediately reviewed and canceled. Together we can shape the industry we work in better. I have also seen artists come together and create wonderful platforms and resources such as a guideline on fees for exhibiting etc. Making our industry better on all sides is a collective endeavor.

F: Do you work in your own office or share a space? How many people work in your team?

S.B: I’ve been moving around a lot, especially in the last two years so my office has taken quite a mobile and nomadic form. I carry essentials in a hiker backpack which I had to mend quite a bit recently. I really enjoy working in different locations. I have found a lot of inspiration by adapting to different spaces and working in various cities. When (and if) the traveling stops, I would love to find an atelier where I could make my art and designs. Currently I am writing this interview from an atelier in the south of France where I am doing a short residency.

Thoughts about women in the design field

F: Do you think there are special challenges for women in the design field?

S.B: The field is still male dominated and that is a challenge of course. There is a lack of welcoming attitudes in our industries but the more I encountered unwelcoming attitudes as I evolved in the field, the more I realized if you’re not given a seat at the table, it is best to create your own. I am very independent, my measure of success is vastly different to what some peers deem success to be. For example, some will measure success through turnover, headcount and big corporate jobs. My aspirations are widely different. I think the challenge of women in the field is to find the confidence to break away from the measures of success set by society and to rewrite what success is and therefore, how the design sector could look like. I also think design and art writers, curators and festival programmers have a lot of power in helping reduce challenges by enabling representation and visibility, by celebrating a wealth of practices. We are lucky now to have great platforms that write and celebrate female creatives more often like what Fido is doing (thank you for inviting me).

‘Rainbow’ book by Sarah Boris. Published by Corners, 2023.

F: Do you see a lack of female models in design?

S.B: There are many female models. There is a Matisse quote “There are flowers everywhere for those who want to see them”. We could replace ‘flowers’ by ‘female models’ and one could read: ‘There are female (role) models everywhere for those who want to see them’. I think it’s really about wanting to see and represent them rather than the actual lack of female models out there. I was listening to a podcast recently on the artist Etel Adnan who had her first major exhibition while she was over 80 years old despite being so wonderfully talented. When I learn about artists like Etel I still wonder “why not before?”. It is as if there is a fear of contemporary art curators to programme anyone else that are not the typical names of male artists. I hope this changes. Ultimately, we need to champion each other and make way for one another.

*** All the images are property of ©SarahBoris, you’ll need her explicit permission to reproduce them 🙂

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