Dezeen Book of Interviews: A Conversation with Marcus Fairs

By Steve Kroeter August 26, 2014
Marcus Fairs, founder and co-director of Dezeen
View Marcus Fairs’s Profile

Marcus Fairs, founder of the international award-winning design magazine Dezeen, talks to Designers & Books about his latest foray into book publishing: Dezeen Book of Interviews, which features 45 of the magazine’s conversations with architects and graphic, interior, and product designers.


Designers & Books: Of the 45 interviews in your book, which two or three included something that genuinely surprised you?
Macus Fairs: There are lots of examples of that. One of my favorites is the interview with designer Oki Sato of Nendo, who told me how bad he was at drawing. I just assumed that all successful designers have strong drawing skills.

The interview with Yves Behar, conducted in September 2012, was memorable because he started talking about how Apple had slipped behind in terms of interface design, and how its “skeuomorphic” approach was outdated. It felt like sacrilege at the time but within a year Apple had overhauled its interface design team and ditched skeuomorphism.

I also very much enjoyed talking to Richard Rogers, who didn’t really want to do the interview but quickly relaxed and started to enjoy himself, talking about how the Pompidou Center in Paris was partly inspired by the Vietnam War. I had no idea the building was so radical.

However, the interview I’ll remember most of all is the one with musician Imogen Heap, because the technology she showed us—her digital gloves that control her music hardware—was spellbinding. Watching her demonstrate them was one of the most amazing experiences of my journalistic career.

The Book

D&B: In her interview, Shanghai-based architect Rossana Hu suggests that “architects feel lost” and that this “is a global problem.” What do you think she means by that? And what do you think of that assessment?
MF: She meant that architects today don’t tend to work within the framework of a broader manifesto, or belief system, as they did under Modernism; and they don’t have a clear-cut role in society, as they did when they were designing great public works for the common good, as many architects in the West did in the last century.

She said that the problem is even greater in China, because rather than working their way up from small commissions to larger ones over the course of many years, some architects are designing huge projects without much experience or context, because of the speed of development in the country.

That part of the conversation was in reference to a project Neri&Hu were working on to get architects and designers to write their own manifesto as a response to their observation.

I think that many architects have yet to come to terms with the new, rampantly capitalist world they operate in, and their lowlier role within it. However there are plenty who are doing very well without adhering to any particular credo, including Neri&Hu.

D&B: In many of the interviews with British designers you asked specifically about their sense of being a “British designer.” Why did you focus on that? And what are your conclusions from how that question was answered?
MF: That partly comes down to curiosity about why so many leading designers are from, or based in, the UK, and partly because they are so often jingoistically billed as a “British designer,” and I wanted to find out what that meant to them.

Personally I think there’s no such thing as intrinsic Britishness in a designer and most “British” designers are actually from somewhere else. So nationality isn’t relevant but the question of why the UK, and specifically London, is home to so many of the world’s great talents is a fascinating one.

D&B: Did it happen with any of the interviews in your book that after the interview was over, you thought of a particularly good question you forgot to ask?
MF: I must admit my interview technique involves doing only a modest amount of research and not preparing any questions—instead, letting the conversation flow. I find that that way, you are more likely to think of good questions as you go along, and get unexpected answers.

D&B: How important are books in your life? Do you have a large library?
MF: They used to be very important, but now the Internet has taken over as my primary source for information. I have a lot of books in storage and lots more in boxes in cupboards in our house. I’m not one of those people who likes to line the walls with hundreds of books I haven’t touched for years. I have regular clearouts where I give paperbacks to charity, although I’ve never thrown out a hardback and I particularly cherish the books that have been signed for me. I have lots of books with lovely dedications or drawings from the authors.

Desert, Marsh and Mountain: The World of a Nomad by Wilfred Thesiger (Collins, 1979)

D&B: What book about design has had the biggest impact on you—and in what way? What’s your favorite non-design book—and why? And what are you reading now?
MF: I think I first got interested in architecture and design when I went to my local town library and found a book about Gaudi. I must have been about ten years old. I remember very well the first art books I bought, partly because they were so expensive for a young student to buy. The first was a great, big, thick monograph about the artist Jean Tinguely that I still treasure.

In terms of non-design books, there are many of those. Probably the one that had most impact in my early life was Desert, Marsh and Mountain by Wilfred Thesiger, which gave me the desire to travel.

At the moment I’m reading Catastrophe, a history of the First World War by Max Hastings.

D&B: Every city of any size now seems to have a design week. Which design week festivals that you’ve attended do you think are particularly special and what makes them so?
MF: It’s important to have fun at design weeks; more than the exhibitions it’s the parties, dinners and random conversations are what make them worthwhile. Design Miami has to be the most fun, because it’s in Miami and it’s in December, when it’s warm and sunny there but cold and dark in London. Milan is the most important, but can be the least pleasurable due to the size, congestion, and reliably bad weather.

D&B: You are in your eighth year publishing Dezeen. Over that time, what are the most significant or interesting changes in design culture that you have witnessed—either in Britain, where Dezeen is based, or internationally?
MF: The Internet has changed the design world immensely. The ease with which projects can now get published and the speed with which they are transmitted around the world has created a global design community that didn’t exist before. The Internet is also shaking established models, such as the way design is marketed and sold. This change is still happening at breakneck speed and it’s difficult to predict what will happen next.

D&B: The Book of Interviews is the second book published by Dezeen. The first was the Book of Ideas (2011). What made you decide to get into the book publishing business? Since most of the material in the books was originally published online on Dezeen, why did you opt for doing the books in paper editions?
MF: As a completely online brand we felt we were missing something. We’d often get offered stands at trade shows or be invited to do pop-up shops, but we had nothing tangible to offer people. Dezeen is a media brand and we’re interested in publishing in every format—including print. I know from experience that a regular magazine is incredibly hard work, since as soon as you finish one edition you have to start work on the next one, so we thought it would be a good idea to publish a book. We were pleasantly surprised at how many people bought the Dezeen Book of Ideas and realized that even though the content is based on material we’ve already published on the web, people enjoy the experience of holding our book in their hands, stuffing it in their pocket, buying it for their friends, wrapping it as a gift, and all the things you can’t do with a website.

D&B: Is there a third Dezeen book in the works?
MF: Yes!

Unless otherwise noted, all images are from Dezeen Book of Interviews, edited by Marcus Fairs (2014), courtesy of Dezeen.

View Marcus Fairs’s Profile.

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