“There’s no right or wrong way of designing, just the way that’s right for you.” Introducing 21–87
Based in London’s East Ham, 21–87 is an office for design that draws upon an international community of specialists to create identities, publications, packaging and installations. Founder Matt Busher is a British art director and designer with a stellar history at some of London’s best design studios and a design approach rooted in research and physical materiality. From his school days to the launch of his own practice, there’s no shortage of curiosity. In our catch-up with Busher, he reveals how he began designing in the first place and how his penchant for research, reading and language have led to his exploratory and in-depth design process.
PT Hi Matt, how’s your summer going so far?
MB Hi Poppy, how are you? This summer’s been great, thanks. After working flat out for the first half of the year I’m taking a bit of a breather, doing some travelling and catching up with the stack of half-read books and magazines in my studio space.
PT I’m good, thank you! And that sounds like a nice plan. Can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your journey into design?
MB I’m the Founder of 21–87, an office for design. Our work explores unexpected connections to create remarkable brand experiences, from memorable identities and thought-provoking publications to surprising product packaging and multi-sensory installations.
I didn’t really set out to become a designer; I just sort of fell into it. At school I was fairly academic but also liked making things so I’d considered engineering as a career, but my maths wasn’t strong enough. So I switched to the humanities and got involved with things like the school yearbook, writing articles and helping with page layouts on an ancient Mac with a really early version of QuarkXPress. A friend I climbed with encouraged me to consider art college instead of pursuing a more academic career.
I did my foundation at Camberwell, which was great. I immersed myself in concrete poetry, Dada, the work of B.S. Johnson and James Joyce – anyone who experimented with language and the written word, really. After that I went on to study for my B.A. at the London College of Communication, on the typography pathway. The course had an optional year in industry that gave students real-world experience, so I was there for four years in total. After I graduated I was offered a junior role at Cartlidge Levene, where I’d interned as part of my year out. I stayed there for four years, freelanced for another four, and then went back into a full-time role before setting up 21–87 in 2020.
I’m more selective with the projects that I take on, which gives me a good work/life balance.
PT How has your time at Zak Group, Cartlidge Levene and other studios influenced your career?
MB There’s no doubt that my approach to design is a culmination of everything I’ve learned from the various studios I’ve worked at. I was very fortunate that my first job was at Cartlidge Levene which gave me a rigorous grounding in Swiss Modernism; one of my earliest projects was methodically typesetting hundreds of labels in Helvetica for the V&A’s Ceramics Galleries. Those four years were probably the most formative of my career – you can trace a thread through all my work back to that period.
Moving around as a freelancer was a great way to meet other designers, learn from them, and apply a different point of view. At Zak Group the approach was much looser: bending rules, stretching the limits of what was considered ‘good’ design, exposing the mechanics behind the design process. At Studio Frith, I was able to indulge my love for research, spending days digging through books, pulling together references from the most unlikely of places – George Orwell novels, concrete core samples, the reflections on a lake. It made me realise that there’s no right or wrong way of designing, just the way that’s right for you.
PT After working for others and freelancing, why was it time to launch your own practice?
MB I’d reached a point in my career where the next step would have been a role that was more managerial, but far less involved in the actual design process. A few friends had already gone in that direction, but they seemed to spend most of their days either in meetings or building presentations. I wasn’t sure that was for me, so I made the decision to start my own practice instead. The first half of my career was spent working all hours which left me feeling a bit burnt out – I’m a bit more selective with the projects that I take on now, which gives me a good work/life balance.
The design landscape is very competitive, so the biggest challenge is visibility.
PT How has it been for you so far? What challenges have you faced since starting 21-87?
MB The first couple of years were pretty tough. I opened the office in January 2020, which obviously wasn’t the best timing given what happened a few months later.
My first project was consulting with Soho House on a new packaging suite for their homewares brand, Soho Home. On paper, it was relatively straightforward, but with suppliers all over the world, each doing things differently, it was actually incredibly complex. So we developed a tiered packaging system, introduced new processes, and produced a comprehensive design framework to help the product design team brief suppliers. Mid-way through this the pandemic struck, which put an immense amount of pressure on the e-commerce business. At times it felt like a bit of a Sisyphean task as we battled factory closures, paper shortages and a traffic jam in the Panama Canal. It was probably the most stressful period of my career, but somehow we managed to deliver everything on time.
After that, I gained a few small branding projects through referrals and began working with Song for the Mute on a regular basis. The design landscape is very competitive, so the biggest challenge is visibility – I’ve been quietly working away under the radar for the last couple of years, and need to get better at talking about the work 21–87 does and how our unique point of view can help elevate brands.
PT How is your workday usually organised?
MB My days are fairly varied, but generally follow the same structure. Emails first thing in the morning, then deep, focused work until lunch – I usually turn notifications off so I don’t have any distractions. The approach at 21–87 is very research-driven; we create what we like to call future archaeology – the stories, objects and experiences that people talk about – by exploring and uncovering unexpected connections. The process doesn’t work if you're not able to immerse yourself without interruption.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed more studios offering services like a brand in a week, or even a brand in a day, but I don’t think you can do more than scratch the surface with those short timeframes. We spend time really digging into our clients’ businesses so that what we produce for them resonates with their customers on an emotional level, and you need time to do that properly.
Most lunchtimes I go for a walk with my dog, Olive. I find it really helpful to let my mind wander for a bit, especially if I’ve hit a block on a project. Then it’s back to the studio to respond to any emails followed by more focused work until the end of the day.
It’s satisfying to look at something and say that you made it with your own hands.
PT If you weren’t a designer, what do you think you would be doing?
MB I was quite a serious climber when I was younger and had ambitions to do that professionally, but scrapped that idea after taking a nasty fall and injuring my shoulder quite badly. So perhaps something that’s a complete contrast to what I do now, but still has a physical outcome: joinery, landscape gardening, horticulture, mechanics. Like many people during the pandemic, I spent a lot of time at home and taught myself how to do things like plumbing and electrics so we could refurbish our house, and started growing fruit and vegetables in our small garden. It’s really satisfying to look at something and be able to say that you made it with your own hands. I’m currently in the process of designing a studio building for the bottom of our garden using partly reclaimed materials – we’ve collected so many Victorian doors that my partner keeps joking that I should start an architectural salvage yard. It’s not the worst idea!
PT Can you tell us about your collaboration with Song for the Mute? How did that first begin?
MB I’ve been collaborating with Song for the Mute since 2019, when I was part of the team that worked on the brand refresh at Assembly. When Melvin and Lyna heard I was leaving, they asked if they could continue the relationship as I’d been so closely involved with the brand’s evolution – we’ve been working together ever since. I’m a cross between their brand guardian and a creative director-at-large, guiding their output and helping translate their seasonal narratives into memorable brand touchpoints: seasonal lookbooks, product packaging, art direction, retail installations. They give me a lot of creative freedom, which has resulted in some pretty ambitious projects, like the pop-up store we designed for Harrods inspired by early German Expressionist films.
PT How has the brand evolved since you’ve been working with them?
MB The brand’s profile has grown tremendously over the last few years. They’ve collaborated with Adidas Originals, launched a temporary concept space, and are opening their first permanent retail store this Autumn. I’ve been working with them throughout, refining their visual language and elevating their brand image to create design signatures that are recognisably Song for the Mute. The e-commerce website we produced for them is a great example of this approach – it combines a wealth of archival material with more traditional e-commerce elements to create a unique and memorable online shopping experience.
I always endeavour to produce work that has meaning.
PT Which project or collaboration do you think best encapsulates your practice?
MB The work for Song for the Mute’s 22.1 collection, Avenue D’Ivry, is probably the project that I’m most proud of, and best encapsulates my practice. There were two strands – a collection film inspired by Heinrich Riebesehl’s 1975 series Menschen im Fahrstuhl (People in the Elevator), and a special project in collaboration with photographer Daniel Gurton.
We collaborated with Daniel on a series of portraits and short films of the residents of Les Olympiades, the brutalist housing development in Paris where Lyna grew up. Each person chose one or two garments from the collection to pair with their own clothes, and were filmed talking about what the area meant to them. The portraits were printed in a broadsheet newspaper alongside architectural photographs of the area, and we built installations featuring life-size imagery to make shoppers feel like they’d been transported to the outskirts of Paris. It was great to be so deeply involved in what was a very personal project for Lyna – the 13th arrondissement has a bit of a reputation, and she wanted to change that perception.
PT What would you say your strengths are?
MB I always endeavour to produce work that has meaning, and that tells a story – it’s not just layers of decoration, or style for style’s sake. The identity for Inland encapsulates this approach: their motto is ‘progress towards perfection,’ which is reflected in the upward, stepped forms of the wordmark. I think this comes from my inquisitive nature – I’m always asking why, how, what if, trying to understand and develop meaningful interactions. I also love a good challenge, especially if it involves taking a slightly sideways approach. We have a great network of manufacturers and collaborators so we can usually find a way to do most things, no matter how crazy or unexpected.
If we want the planet to be habitable… we need to rethink the way we do business.
PT And where could you improve?
MB I wish I was better at programming, but find it a bit of a struggle – it's not that unlike maths in that respect. I enrolled on a Python course last summer while redesigning the 21–87 website, but put it on hold as I was quite busy. When I came back to the project earlier this year I found I couldn’t understand most of the code so ended up starting the course over. If I don’t put my knowledge into practice on a regular basis it ends up being replaced by something else!
PT You’re also a member of 1% For The Planet – what sparked this decision?
MB I was feeling slightly helpless about the climate crisis, and didn’t really know how to respond in a meaningful way. It’s easy to say, “oh, we printed this on recycled paper using renewable energy,” but that isn’t really much help when the forests themselves are on fire. In isolation, the individual contributions 21–87 makes might be fairly small, but combined with thousands of others it’s a significant figure that can really effect change. We also work pro bono with some of the programme’s environmental partners, helping to communicate their message more effectively and with more impact. If we want the planet to be habitable for future generations, we need to rethink the way we do business and our relationship with consumerism in general. Alex Leach talks about this quite eloquently in his book ‘The World Is On Fire But We're Still Buying Shoes.’ There’s no such thing as a perfect shopper, just as it’s impossible to be 100% sustainable – but if we’re better informed, we can make better decisions about what we do buy, which is to everyone’s benefit.
PT Outside of design, what inspires you?
MB I’m an avid reader – everything from novels and non-fiction to magazines like Monocle, System, Press & Fold, etc, all of which are fantastic sources of inspiration. I also buy the FT at the weekend, which has an amazing team of writers and picture editors commissioning incredible stories. I’ve discovered some brilliant photographers this way. Design can sometimes feel like a bit of a bubble, so it's good to step back and look at the world from a different perspective. I also find a lot of inspiration from visiting exhibitions, outside on the street, and from digging through historical archives. I post some of my research on a separate Instagram account, Information Research Department. There’s everything from newspaper broadsheets to paint swatches and antique tools, but my favourite is the Christmas Card to Nikita Kruschev that I found on eBay – it had been returned to the sender because it didn’t have enough stamps.
PT What can be expected from 21-87 throughout the rest of 2023?
MB There’s lots of exciting projects in the pipeline: a book with photographer Daniel Gurton and poet Rishi Dastidar exploring memory and loss; store installations for Song for the Mute’s latest collection; and a new website for 21–87. It’s a bit of an experiment into how far we can push the low-impact approach to digital design, and will hopefully run from an off-grid, solar-powered server. We’ve also recently started working with a few local businesses in East Ham, where we're based – one of our bucket list projects is to do the branding for a coffee shop, so we’re trying to find ways to make that happen!