30+ Inspiring Pieces of Midcentury Print Design From the Excellent New “Design Reviewed”
PRINT on Print is a column about all things … print.
It started earnestly enough.
When he was completing his university studies in graphic design, the British designer Matt Lamont began collecting a few books. Nothing rare (yet)—just some Taschen tomes and contemporary titles.
But things took a turn at a newsstand that imported magazines in his hometown of Bradford (about 15 miles from Leeds).
“Magazines from America and Hong Kong in this tiny, little newsagent, was quite surreal,” he recalls. “And I just started buying them. And then, I kind of just got addicted.”
As is the case with most collections and obsessions, everything snowballed—and now Lamont sits atop a brilliant archive of some 4,000 pieces of historic design. Or rather, he sits in front of them, as he did on recent Zoom call.
“I’m going to say this is just a quarter of it behind me,” he says. “Luckily, space is quite cheap to rent where we’re based. People think I’m well-off and rich and things, [but] … I love a bargain. And I’m good at finding things really cheap. Cost-effective living, and eating not as much as I should when there’s rare books on eBay, works out quite well.”
Around eight weeks ago, Lamont launched Design Reviewed—a site that instantly inspires, offering around 1,000 items from his collection, featuring magazines, books, brochures, matchbox labels, stamps, type specimens and more. Scanning binges happen daily, and Lamont often tracks down and buys vintage design artifacts to resell to continue funding the acquisitions at the heart of his archive.
He exudes passion and incorporates the archive deeply into his own work, and that of Out of Place, the full-service design agency he runs with Haigh Simpson. Yet while the archive informs his client output (more on that below)—there is perhaps a bit of a downside to it all.
“I’m surrounded by such great content—I can never live up to that,” he says with a smile. “For me, buying and collecting has almost been like a shield. It’s almost like, I won’t share my work because there’s better stuff I can share with people. And it’s just sort of gotten out of hand.”
Out of hand in the best of ways. Here—alongside some highlights from his holdings—Lamont riffs on his archive, the nature of collecting, and building an online showcase to the gloriously tactile and vital nature of physical ephemera.
Over the years you worked at different studios and as a freelancer, and today you’re at Out of Place. What all do you produce and work on?
We do a lot of random stuff, but it’s mainly for the arts and culture sector. We have this little internal philosophy where we have to do quite a few corporate jobs to pay for the cool jobs. And so we all have to chip in, in some of the … I wouldn’t say “shitty” work, but it’s not as fun. It’s dry. But then we always say, it’s good because if we get all that done, we can do the creative work. And if there is no creative work, we’ll just do a personal project, what we all enjoy.
It’s easy to fall out of love with design. … Sometimes I find it overwhelming. So I’ll go home and scan catalogs, and I’ll do something else, and my partner will be telling me I need a break. And I’m like, “this is a break. I’m just scanning magazines in; I’m uploading to a website. It’s a break.”
You’ve been collecting for around 10 years. What first set you on the path, or what was the initial spark or initial item that really pushed you into it?
I’ve got a fascination with looking at people’s studio setups. So I love seeing the way people work, rather than their output of the work, quite a lot of the time. So I’m like, What’s on the desk? What’s on the wall? What’s in the bookshelves? And I kind of sat, thinking, Oh a few of them have that book. What’s that book? And then it turned into trying to find these rare design volumes at really good prices. I don’t know what really triggered it. I kind of just started buying a few and looking at the bibliographies at the back and thinking, Oh, what’s that book?
Was there a tipping point when things moved from a casual hobby to a serious collection? At what point did you realize you were building an archive?
When I moved from a student house back to my parents’, probably. I was quite fortunate at the student houses. I had the biggest room with loads of bookshelves. And moving back to my parents’ after university, there wasn’t even enough room for a bed in the room. It was just piles of books everywhere. I was sleeping on the sofa so my books could have a place to sleep. I guess it became more formalized when I knew what good design was. Which was not until I was employed in design.
Before I got my first formal job in design, I was working in a warehouse at a supermarket. And I kind of really liked the job because it was very much systematic. It’s just like, this there, this there, and my days would go in no time. But I was so unfulfilled that I’d spend all my wage on design books and then I’d … say to everyone, “I’m going to cram all my breaks in an hour and a half, and I’m going to go to a coffee shop. And I’m going to take these books and remind myself what I really love doing before I just don’t do anything,” basically.
What all do you collect? I know it’s a broad, overarching question …
So, it’s varied. And sometimes I’ve got a really bad memory, but I can tell you exactly when I bought every book. I’ve got about 4,000 things in here, and for some reason I remember exactly where I bought every single one.
I love that.
So if I ever get Alzheimer’s, I’ll just have to stand in the office for a year and try to regain memories. But I collect a range of things, really. Over the last few years, it’s more been magazine collections, mainly because I just love 1960s magazine covers, and Dutch design. I met Wim Crouwel. I’m lucky enough to have met him a few years ago, and I’ve just become obsessed with Dutch design.
Do you keep everything in the Out of Place studio?
Yeah. I’ve got a small collection at home, which is more like the history of design, big books. And sometimes I think, Oh, I’ll have a part of the [larger] collection at home. And I’ll be in the office and think, No, actually, it all needs to be together. And then I keep thinking, Maybe one day I’ll have it all at home. Then I’ll buy some new stuff and think, This is never going home. Or then I want to do it half at home and half in the office …
This space is cool where it is now. I think it’s happy here.
How do you keep it all organized? Is it thematic or is it just all together?
[Lamont begins moving his laptop’s camera through the office.] So this is just a big open space. But in the floor below, we’ve got a small office, which is just piles of magazines from what I’ve been scanning in. [Pivots camera.] That’s mainly monographs. Monographs and catalogs at the top. And then there’s loads of bookcases here, which is the history and typography. And then, on that side is all annuals. There’s just loads of bits there. Sort of branding, there’s quite a lot of branding stuff on the floor below that we use in the office.
You’ve written about how you view collecting—“one thing leads to another.” Tell us a little bit more about that.
So, weirdly enough, I’m not the most academic person. Just because of the things I collect, I think people think I’m overly academic. But I’ll look in a magazine and it’ll have some content about a designer. And then I think, Oh, that’s really interesting. I’ll do a bit of research and find a book with them. …
Every time I get a book, I find some information about someone I’ve not heard of. Even with scanning, I’ll think, I’ve never heard of this designer who designed this book cover or magazine cover. Who’s this person? And then it just leads down a rabbit hole.
It’s hard to balance sometimes with work. I say, “I’ll get to work early to scan stuff in, and then get the quickest lunch I can get, so I have got a little bit more time.”
You’ve detailed how Bradford doesn’t have a massive design scene. How has that impacted your collection, for better or worse?
It’s a mixture, really. If everyone was into this, I wouldn’t feel as personal about it.
So I’ve done shout outs before to see if anyone wants to come and spend a day looking in the archive; as long as I can pop upstairs every hour and just be sure nothing’s stolen, feel free. I don’t get much uptake on that. But neighboring cities have a really big design scene. … There’s a lot more going on. We’ve got beautiful architecture, we’ve got a rich history of print. The college has gone downhill over the years, as well, and people who are good move elsewhere. I’ve just never left—which I kind of like as well. I feel like there’s the opportunity—Bradford is going for a Capital of Culture bid in the U.K., which will be really beneficial. And there’s a lot more underground stuff starting to happen now. But I kind of like that it’s not got this massive design scene, because I wouldn’t switch off even more then.
In your collection, what’s your white whale, or the thing that you’re endlessly trying to find?
There are a few things, really. I don’t know if it was Steven Heller who wrote the book, but someone wrote a book called “A Hundred Books on Graphic Design.” It sounds really morbid, but I’ve made it my mission that, before I die, I need those hundred books. I’ve got partly way through them now. I guess there’s not something in particular I’m looking for anymore. I kind of get a thrill off the little things I find. I kind of get more of a thrill of finding something that’s not necessarily rare, it’s more not as much in the public domain. Because then I feel if I can share that with the design community I’ve built online, I’m inspiring them with something new, rather than just showing them something that someone might have seen, or it’s already documented.
If you had to pin down your absolute favorite item in your collection, could you do it?
That is the meanest question anyone has ever asked me. But I reckon I can get it at five, based on stuff around me.
This book, which is ... Carouschka’s Tickets. This is an artist’s book, and it’s a collection—this is someone who’s spent their whole life collecting travel tickets. And it’s all bolted together. And all these are French folded. And it’s all split into years and places, and every page is just a gem. And the colors are fantastic. And the spine. That’s one of my favorites. I was looking for that for three years.
My other favorites are probably this Walter Marti Typo book. And there’s another Walter Marti one here.
And then my other two would be … they’re like [my] ultimate two gems. [One is] Publicity and Graphic Design in the Chemical Industry. It just took me so long to get this. I ended up buying it from the guy who runs thisisdisplay.org in America. This is one of my favorites. And Graphic Design in Swiss Industry, as well. But I don’t look through them much. They’re top-shelf material.
Why collect? What drives you?
I guess I’ve got a really obsessive personality. It’s like, “I won’t have one beer when I’m out; I’ll have four.” “I won’t go for a little walk; I’ll go for a marathon.”
It’s weird. I’ve engulfed myself too far into [collecting] now. It’s like a vortex. As I said previously, it makes me feel like a better designer knowing I’ve got good design around me.
It’s the thrill of getting something sometimes.
I said this to someone else once, and it sounds a bit cheesy, but it’s like every one of these items is a collection of decisions. It’s someone’s life’s work. To have that in my hands is just, it’s amazing, really. It’s something that’ll never be replicated online. Every print finish, every piece of paper stock, it’s a decision someone’s made. [Lamont holds Typo up.] This book probably has a thousand decisions in it, and I can now look through the decisions and feel their decisions, where, online it’s great to quickly read something—but to experience it is just not the same. And for someone who does lots of digital design, and we’ve now been trying to build a blog and stuff, it’s—
I was going to ask you about that in regard to your website. That’s the hard to replace factor—the tactile nature of everything. So you get a portion of the experience, but not the full experience, without having the object in your hands.
I was posting a lot [of my archives] on my personal Instagram, and … I just got to the point where I was like, “Actually, why don’t I just create a website with it all?” The scary thing is this is not insured. Because to insure it, I need to document it. So I thought, Well, if I document it all online, then it’s sort of a win-win for everyone.
I guess one of the things I want to get into is publishing, as well. Sort of independent publishing. So, I feel like curating a collection of items is one step closer to me producing little zines and things, as well. So I’m making analogies and putting different items together on a digital canvas and thinking, What do they represent? And how does that relate to this? And sort of using that as a way to start publishing, because I’m so visual.
You and your team actively use the archive. Tell us how it comes into play with your work.
Yeah. It’s been a struggle with COVID. But before … I kind of get clients involved with the research process. When clients could come in the office, I’d be pulling books out, and they’d be like, “Oh, I really like that design.” I’d be like, “well, have you seen this?” And I almost create my Pinterest board with real content, so they can see it and interact with it and kind of understand design a little bit more. You know how some people just use fancy buzzwords, and they’re kind of like overly proud? I hate that. I hate that.
I don’t know. I try to educate everyone I work with to understand what I think is good design and get them so involved with the process that they’d be like, “I’ve been in there, and I’ve looked through those books.” And this final outcome is based on joint decisions rather than me thinking, That’ll fit that. That’s on trend.
I get them really excited, then I get really excited. Then, when everyone’s really excited, we can do a good project, basically.
Why do you think it’s important for other designers to view historic material like this?
If I’m not sharing stuff from the archive, I’ll look for random images off Pinterest, then find where they’re linked to and end up in a rabbit hole again there. Random blogs, and things like that. And I feel like, because of algorithms, the internet’s always going to show you what you want to find. It’ll always show you the output of the projects which might work, and might be spot on, and there’s no spontaneous things with the internet. Everything I’ve mentioned in this call will be a Facebook advert if I mention something not design related.
It’s almost like the joys of having historic material is, one, you own it. You’ve got a piece of history in your hands, which is phenomenal. You’ve got a museum in your fingertips. So earlier I was scanning in these German print magazines. They’re not documented online, really. They’re called Form and Technique. And they’re absolutely amazing.
I feel like that’s the problem with the internet: It’s based on what is documented and what you like.
How many collectors do you know? Are you part of any collecting communities, or do you just do your own thing?
So there’s a small group on Facebook called Design Book Collectors Group. I think it’s a private group. I’m not an admin for it, but I think I’m a moderator or something. When that started, there were five of us who were in the group. It’s sort of built up, and I guess with other collectors, some of them have become digital friends. There are people who I’ll buy stuff off. I guess it works both ways now. And I’ve come across some amazing people. In fact, collecting design is probably what’s helped me get clients. It’s helped me get connections. It’s helped everything, really. It’s helped with any sort of regret I’ve got from buying myself. And it’s just built up this massive network now. I love it when someone shares something on one of my groups that I’ve never seen before. Or equally, I like it when I post something, and I’ve got a reference wrong, and someone edits it.
And then I think, I’m glad I got that reference right now. The joy of the website is I can just go into WordPress, I can edit the artifact. And that’s referenced right for eternity. Because that’s the thing with the internet. It’s so “shoot and share,” a lot of stuff is not referenced properly, and that’s one of the ideas behind the website is to make sure things are referenced.
Do you think there’s a duty on people who collect to share their material publicly online like this?
I think, maybe not online, but I feel like collections shouldn’t be in dusty cabinets. Obviously Roman artifacts and Egyptian artifacts and things like that—fair enough. But I feel like, especially with posters, people collect posters, and they exist in a planchest. As depressing as it is, we all live to die. We’re on a time limit when we’re born. We should share this information, knowledge, otherwise it’s just gone. It’s just gone completely.
So I’ve got a little boy on the way who will be here in July. He might not like design. He might just see how much I am involved with it and think, Oh God, I hate that. I might as well share it all online and let everyone else get a buzz off it because I don’t know what’ll happen when I pass away when I’m older.
You can have your archives in your mausoleum.
Oh, I’d love that. [Laughs.]
As a bit of an aside, I was talking to someone recently about design archives. They believe that since so many libraries and museums now have all their archives online, collecting isn’t really as necessary or as fun as it used to be. Would you agree or disagree?
I disagree because it depends what you’re collecting. … I’ve picked up brochures designed by like Karl Oskar Blase, who’s one of my favorite designers—I picked up pieces which I didn’t know were designed by him on eBay for 99p. Or I got a Max Huber travel brochure, which was £5. And I feel like there’s a thrill of collecting. And it’s OK seeing everything on an online archive, but you’re only seeing part of it. It’s like, the flaw of me putting a magazine cover up is you can’t actually look through the magazine or see the content. If I had a hundred volunteers, you might be able to. But it’s all single-handedly done by myself on evenings and weekends. I just feel like [the internet is] good for sharing and finding content, but it’s not good for an experience, really. Even with VR technology and things. There’s a lot that can be done with archives and VR technology, but you can’t hold the item. It’s got no tactile purpose.
[Lamont picks up a magazine.] If this is on my desk, every time I come to the office, I’m going to see it, every day. I might open it up, and I might look through it. Or I might put it back on the shelf. But there’s so much visual content online—sometimes I’ll see a really good piece of design, then my phone will ring, or someone will come at the door, and then I’m on a new tab. And then it’s forgotten about. And I think that’s the thing with digital archives. They’re so easy just to browse past and just forget about. They’re good for preserving things, but I feel it’s too quick—it’s there, and it’s gone. But I’m not dissing my own website. [Laughs.]
What plans do you have for your archive in the future?
Well, I would say, I should really pause. There’s a little baby on the way and I’m moving house. But I guess [I’ll be] continually putting things online, and with the website I want it to be a little bit easier to navigate. … So my first plan is to get [all of it] digitized, then to start creating publications, with the hope of, one day—and I’ve been saying this for years—but doing either physical or digital events about the history of graphic design. But instead of having a PowerPoint, have it live from the archive. I can turn pages and zoom in. People can screenshot, or I can send the video afterwards, and people can look at the actual, physical things on screen; rather than them just being flat, they’ll actually see the movement, and there’s a lot more to it. …
There’s always stuff being scanned. I scanned a load in today. It’s kind of like, I’ll take a 15-minute break, and I’m running back and forth from the scanner. I’m like, I’ve got 15 minutes before I need to do my next design task; I’ll try to scan 12 magazines. And then I’ll get home and think, Oh, it’s half an hour before I’m going to make some food. I’m going to cut them out and get them on the black background in half an hour …
I was just thinking, your scanner must get quite the workout.
Oh, definitely. It’s really annoying because it puts a white border around the edge. So I’ve got like two coffeeshop stirrers that act as an ‘L’ shape. And then I line up the magazines against the coffee stirrers. So then it’s a perfect shape, and then just set up a crop field. But then I’ve always got a white border at the bottom for some reason. So I have to put them in Photoshop and just crop them all again.
But it works for me. [Laughs.]
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.