Today i am super excited to introduce you to my dear friend, the über talented max fraser. We met almost 11 years ago on a sunny day in the early summer of 2001. Tired and ready to leave a rather badly curated trade show at excel – london, i decided to quickly browse the little book stand before heading home. Out of nowhere, this freshly faced 21 year old thrust a chunky black book into my hand and blurted out: “do you want to buy a guide i wrote to the best design shops in the uk?” “Err, well, how much?” I asked. “A tenner to you. A tenner for a signed copy, what can you get for a tenner these days?” he shot back.
Well, dear readers, i spot talent when i see talent and being entrepreneurial myself, i could not refuse such an offer. Money was exchanged for a black ‘design shop bible’ and a long friendship was sealed. And that’s what i call a deal!
A couple of weeks ago, while having max and his lovely girlfriend over for dinner, i thought it’s time to cash in on my hard earned brownie points. “You know i’ve started blogging. Well, i want to blog about you. I know you refuse interviews at home but you can’t say no to me!” i proudly announced, hoping my sheer chutzpah will get me a result! “Ok”, came the reply, “let’s put a date in the diary”.
So, before i start, i just want to officially thank you max for giving me your time, being generous, open and totally inspirational with your answers and allowing me to take casual photographs of you and your home. Oh, and thank you for the friendship. Love from your groupie #1.
Where were you raised? I was born in london but soon after my dad, who was an architect, got a commission in hong kong. So we lived there until i was three years old. Unfortunately i don’t remember a thing but my sister does, who is older. We then came back to london and i lived in the same house until i moved out.
How did your upbringing influence what you do now? So you already know my dad was an architect. My mum, an american, was in publishing but also worked for the first real design shop in america called design research when she was in her twenties. It was like the conran shop or skandium of america, totally amazing! I have their book here. The sub title says: the store that brought modern living to american homes. They were the first ones to import marimekko, alvar aalto etc.
My parents had a real appreciation for design, so as kids we observed how they implemented their design aesthetic at home. For example, we had ultra modern vola taps in bright red. Mixer taps didn’t even exist then, but we had the next best thing. To me that was completely normal, yet to my friends this was fascinating and very different to their home environments.
What did you want to become when you grew up? When i was 10 years old i was obsessed with planes, wanting to become a pilot. I started collecting airfix models and would spent all weekends building plane kits and displaying them all over my room. In fact, if you gave me an airfix kit now i would be over the moon! I also had lots of posters of jets and fighter planes and was even featured in a book about the transition from childhood to adolescence. I was chosen as an example for the chapter about hobbies and obsessions.
When did you start planning what to do with your life? As i was growing up i didn’t consciously think about design or being creative but knew i definitely didn’t want to follow in my parents footsteps by becoming an architect or publisher. Funnily enough my sister became an architect and i went into publishing. Anyway, i wasn’t brilliant at school and never quite saw the point of everyone being taught the same thing. I found my creative outlet in the art department. I was more interested in abstract, conceptual and mathematical artwork, unlike my fellow students. I got more and more into it and spent most friday afternoons visiting art galleries, instead of playing football or hanging out with friends.
While doing a foundation course at chelsea college of art & design, i was convinced i wanted to be a fine artist. I still felt no design connection. I became very despondent on the course and so decided to dabble in the interior design department but that didn’t feel right either! I remember thinking that there must be more to life than studying. I wanted to get out there and do stuff, create things and start living! On friday mornings, i did some hair modelling for vidal sassoon and slowly progressed to catwalk stuff, which was really well paid. With my first £1000 i bought a plane ticket to go and visit my sister who was living in new york. Magazines such as wallpaper were popping up in the uk and they were very design led. That got me thinking, so i did my own research and while in new york i checked out some design shops but got really frustrated that there was no guide i could buy to help me discover some of the hidden gems. I found out the same was true for london. That’s when i had the idea for my first book design uk.
Can you give a brief insight into how your first book came about and your first proper pay cheque? Ok, so my knowledge of design shops in london, at that time, didn’t go beyond heals, habitat and the conran shop. I started putting together a little notebook where I noted down reviews of shops and restaurants i visited. One day i discovered a small, well produced free booklet in a bar in london. It featured the best japanese restaurants. That struck a cord with me so i phoned the publisher saying i’ve got an idea along the lines of the booklet you did on japanese restaurants. Mine is on design shops in london, can we have a chat? We met, he loved the idea and the notebook, so offered to find sponsorship for the project and split the proceeds 50/50 down the line. Amazing! However, he didn’t really get his act together so, in the end, it all came about through my great friend and mentor who got me in to talk to mazda. They ended up sponsoring my book. It all snow balled from there. It went from only focusing on london to covering design shops across the uk. I got to speak to major publishers and my little idea, a subsequent pamphlet, turned into a best selling book.
My first pay cheque was for around £18.000 as i had an unusually high royalty deal, never to be repeated again. The book was sponsored so i set my own terms and conditions with the publisher. It was 2001 and very different to today! But, hey, i didn’t complain. I was just amazed how it all happened. My biggest joy was to show my parents that i could make a living doing it my way. I come from a background where higher education is greatly valued and it wasn’t easy on my family to see me leave university after only one term. It just wasn’t for me, but i gave it a shot.
How did you get into curating design shows? My first book helped to position me in the design industry. I became interested in supporting young designers. I was aware of the prohibitive costs in exhibiting one’s own designs, so why not pull together a few designers to show as a collective and, at the same time, mix it up in an interesting way for the visitors. That was back in 2001. My first show was included as part of designers block which still happens every year at the london design festival. I didn’t make any money out of it but hey, it got my name out there and i felt really passionate about helping to promote young designers.
After design uk 1 & 2 you started writing books about designers. How did that come about? In 2004 I was approached by terence conran to co-write a book on a-list product designers around the world, looking at how they got to where they are. Designers on design was the result and came together in only 6 months. It was really stressful but, of course, it was exciting and at that time i was 24 and terence was 74 so it was an unrepeatable opportunity. The book was a success and the rights were sold to various countries around the world and it was translated into different languages.
While launching the book at the conran shop, tokyo, in october 2004, i met piet hein eek who had a solo show in the city. It was tokyo designers week and we kept bumping into each other. We got on really well and exchanged cards. Two weeks later i happened to be in amsterdam and had a free day in between meetings. I decided to call up piet, who lived and worked in eindhoven, about 90 minutes on the train from amsterdam. He invited me over. I had no idea what to expect. I found myself in a massive office warehouse with piet and his 30 odd staff producing the most incredible furniture. You walked though a little garden and ended up in his house. It was like magic. I had a great time. We stayed in touch. After a while he approached me to write the book about his work since the business launched in 1990. It was the first time i had written about an individual, which was very detailed and quite intense and different yet again.
I always say i work in the design industry and i happen to write about it. The writing part has been the outlet, allowing me to pursue all different projects. I am not just a writer, but then i am not just an editor or curator either. I have a passion for design and that has taken me down many routes. It enables me to stay fresh, interested and allows for variety within my chosen field.
I am interested how and why you got into publishing? That’s really down to my mum. She was in book publishing for years and i used to complain to her about how little money authors earn and how it all goes to the publisher. She would explain to me how it all worked and i had the thought that i could do all of that myself. I must say, my mum (who died in 2008) was always supportive of my ambitions. I plunged into self-publishing in 2009 and worked really hard. I remember thinking that if i can make it work in the depth of recession, i’d have no problems. I had to find printers, sell advertising, get distribution, all kinds of stuff that as an author you normally don’t have to think about. I’m glad to say i launched the guide in september 2009 ready for the london design festival and i sold all 10.000 copies by the end of 2010. That gave me the confidence to carry on and the 2012-2013 edition has been out since september 2011. I’ve already got some ideas for the next edition due out in september 2013 but will not get into specifics here. All i will say is that i am exploring the possibilities of digital publishing.
I’ve also published the dezeen book of ideas in partnership with dezeen, which is a leading architecture and design online magazine. I have had a long-standing relationship with the owner of dezeen, marcus fairs, so it seemed natural for us to collaborate on a book. It was a good model of shared risk and reward.
Can you talk about the charity project you set up last year? My mother died of cancer in 2008 and, subsequent to that, i wanted to do something for a cancer charity. When i came across maggie’s cancer caring centres i knew that’s who i wanted to raise money for. They’re all about optimising design as a major component in the healing of people living with cancer, and that’s very close to my own beliefs. I wanted to do something with the graph paper that is on the cover of the first london design guide (2010). Lots of designers had commented how much they loved graph paper – it has nostalgic connotations. So basically i decided to send out a sheet of A4 graph paper to all the uk based designers i had met over the years. Using the paper and any other medium they wanted, i asked them to respond to the project title “joy of living” as i wanted them to come up with something joyful.
I was amazed at the results i got back. Everyone had sent in an artwork of either a drawing, painting, cut-out etc. I knew one of the curators at somerset house so i secured the venue. All artworks were hung up without revealing the name of the designer. It was meant to be democratic just like maggie’s. We had 120 pieces and priced them at £250 each with all proceeds going directly to maggie’s. 100 got sold and we managed to raise a total of £33.000 including donations. I was really touched at everyone’s generosity.
Do you have any tips for how bloggers can break into freelance writing? Just be yourself out there. Blogging has given everyone the chance to have a voice, which is brilliant. But just blogging is not enough. Be specific, carve out a niche for yourself and stand out from the online media noise. Most importantly, make sure your passion comes across. Also, ask for help and for what you want and just get on with it. There are so many people out there with great ideas but so many never take them further. Having a mentor or someone to bounce back ideas with is vital. Start small, dream big and foremost have fun.
Breaking news! Max has landed his first ever job🙂 It’s been announced today that Max is going to be the new Deputy Director of the London Design Festival. Massive congratulations!!! It’s the perfect next step and it couldn’t happen to anyone nicer. Watch out, i’ll be after VIP invites. (Max, the caps letters here are just for you)