Celebrating 10yrs Fantastic Man: Interview with Emily King


With the release of Fantastic Man’s much awaited book, bringing together 10 years of content, we speak to writer and curator Emily King…

To be clear, Emily King is not a designer. She curates and writes about design. “I have so many friendly acquaintances in the art world that still think I am a designer. They can’t possibly imagine that someone can curate design,” says King. “I find that weird because these people are curators, art historians and art writers, and no one would dream of asking them if they were artists.”

King’s ties in the art world stem from her involvement with Frieze. As her husband, Matthew Slotover, is the founder, she has “written for [Frieze] on and off, and had an informal consultant role.” She has also written for Gert Jonkers and Jop van Bennekom’s Fantastic Man and The Gentlewoman. In fact, when I met King earlier this year she was on deadline, finishing her feature on Matthew Moneypenny for Fantastic Man SS15 (on shelves now).

King is also working on the Fantastic Man book commemorating a decade of content. While, she spent five years editing M to M of M/M (Paris), thankfully, readers will have 10 years of Fantastic Man in their hands before the year is up.

You are a design historian, curator and writer. Where and what did you study?

I was a student at the Royal College of Art between ’91 and ’93. I did an MA in Design History there. I graduated and got a bursary to a PhD from Kingston.

What did you study for your PhD?

The design of typefaces after the introduction of digital technology. Basically, typefaces used to be machine parts. Type designers used to be the employees of people who made type machines, and then all of the sudden type designers were people who could just manipulate software. It was this big shake up. I started it in 1993 and finished it in 1999.

While, I was doing the PhD I taught at the Royal College of Art and at Kingston. I felt like I was just providing a required component. I don’t think any London art school had (or probably still has) worked out how theory should be delivered.

How should it be?

Close to their studio practice. The people teaching theory should be in the studios looking at the work and trying to tailor the theory conversations around that rather than delivering remote lectures. I forged relationships with the students who were great, and that’s where I met Frith [Kerr].

You two worked together on a book for Hussein Chalayan in 2011.

We have done a few things together!

Yes, you worked together at Frieze. You’re Frieze’s Design Editor.

No, I am not actually their Design Editor anymore. My husband is the founder of Frieze, alongside Amanda Sharp, so I have written for them on and off, and had an informal consultant role.

You said you are writing a lot this week. What are you working on?

Right now, I am writing about entrepreneur Matthew Moneypenny. He works in photo licensing, which means he takes photographs by artists like Nick Knight and Annie Leibovitz, and deals with the way they are sold in other places. At the moment he is firing up lots of other photo agencies or licensing businesses, like Streeters stylist agency, to create a larger conglomerate. There is a lot of talk of him in the industry right now because he is effectively trying get everyone who creates fashion images together in a single company. So that they can prepare for what’s coming.

What’s coming?

He has a technology that will recognize everyone’s images online and where it’s being used. At the moment if a blogger uses it for their own purposes nothing will happen. It’s simply where it’s used in a context where there is commercial gain, that they will challenge you legally.

Photographs are circling more rapidly, and so you need to control the circulation. I am trying to map out what he is doing and how it will work. It is for Fantastic Man [SS15].

Where else are you contributing to at the moment? In the past you have contributed to The Gentlewoman, Apartamento, and Printed Pages.

I have a policy of working only for people who ask me. I don’t really pitch stories because I find by the time you pitch a story you are already completely exhausted and not interested in it. But that is not a career strategy.

I have loved working for The Gentlewoman and Fantastic Man because it has really taken me out of my specialism. It has allowed me to kind of apply my specialist knowledge in new fields. Jop van Bennekom, the founder of Fantastic Man, launched The Gentlewoman through graphic design. He was a graphic designer in the Netherlands and I followed his work for ages, then he launched these magazines.

Bright Young Things

I am going to edit the Fantastic Man book. It’s been 10 years since Fantastic Man launched and so I am working with the fantastic men to make the content into a book that can stand-alone.

You have edited a lot of books – M to M of M/M (Paris) book and Designed by Peter Saville.

I think that is why they asked me! It’s another case of people with very strong ideas about their own work trying to put it into a book and create enough distance where the person responsible for the original content feels reflective of it. It is going to be very much about men.

A lot of your work has been in the design field. Rather than writing about design and curating design, did you ever want to physically create the work?

Not at all! I have many friendly acquaintances in the art world that still think I am a designer. They can’t possibly imagine that someone can curate design. I find that weird because these people are curators, art historians and art writers, and no one would dream of asking them if they were artists.

There are a lot of people doing design, but there are little great designers. It takes real specialism and imagination, and I think people like Frith demonstrates how specialist it is. I have worked a lot with Frith and with GTF [Graphic Thought Facility] (who designed M/M book). I love discussions with them. They can take ideas to a completely different level and think in a totally different way.

In 2011, you curated a show in Lisbon, ‘Sidelines,’ and coinciding with that exhibit you reflected on the challenges curating design. You said, “To an extent I view the problem of curating design exhibition as one that can’t be solved.” Can you elaborate on that?

Art is made for a gallery setting where design isn’t made for a gallery setting. There will always be a wrongness about putting design into an exhibit. I don’t think there has been a single design show where people couldn’t say, ‘what’s the point of this.’ I think you need to make people see what’s in the gallery in a completely different way than they would in the outside world.

Are you working on any exhibitions at the moment or have anything planned?

I am working on something about type for the Design Museum with Frith. They are working on such long leads, it is in two to three years time. I would like to do more curating, but it is difficult because you have to work through an institution to create things. Although, I am very lucky to work as a freelancer.

What would you like to showcase?

I would like to do an exhibition about heaven and hell as design solutions. You see a lot about how internal torment or eternal pleasure is delivered, as in, here is the pool of fire and here is the pitchfork. In film, you see heaven and hell imagined in terms of objects, spaces or experiences, and you could even extend that into luxury hotels. I haven’t managed to get anyone to take it yet.

I did have a little show at my studio flat with Karel Martens, a 70-something graphic designer from the Netherlands. He brought some work and he just leaned work on my shelves. Hans-Ulrich Obrist curated his first exhibition in his own kitchen. I think that’s the solution to this, start curating in your own apartment.

INTERVIEW: Janine Leah Bartels
ILLUSTRATION: Christy McCormick