Sonya Dyakova is a Russian graphic designer based in London, where she runs her own studio. She is also the art director of frieze magazine. After studying in San Francisco, California she moved to London where she began her career as a graphic designer. Her approach to book design is strongly rooted in attention to conceptual and tactile details, as well as typographic experimentation developed through research.
Sonya Dyakova with daughter Isabelle in the herb garden of Geffrye Museum in June 2011
Would you say that you are a book lover per-se? or would you say that the love grew out of your profession?
Definitely a book lover — from the beginning. At home we were surrounded by books. My parents are both architects, so they used to buy a lot of books when they were students, especially my dad… They bought very nice books not only about architecture but literature, fine art, photography…. an entire wall of a books in our flat. We lived in one of those soviet concrete blocks.
Your parents are both Russian, how come you then went to America to study and later came over to London?
Well that’s a long story. My parents met in an architecture college in Siberia. In the 80s my parents split up. Things were getting really tough in Soviet Union and my mother left for America to find a better life, primarily for us, kids. I was fourteen when we emigrated to San Francisco, California — it was a real change — such extremes…. not only geographically, but socially. I remember I found it hard to cope with a completely different mentality.
…the whole culture is completely different isn’t it?
Yes! Everyone seemed to be smiling all the time and was strange. So confusing, as it came across quite fake. It was hard to get used to it. In Siberia if someone was smiling they really meant it.
Do you have any connection to the design scene in Russia or any professional links?
I am interested, and I follow the scene a little, but not in particular. For me now Russia is about my babushka (grandmother), and my childhood friends — I have kept in touch and I really treasure this.
But I remember one trip I took from America to Russia. I was very curious. I was still a student and I really wanted to find out about Art and Design Universities in Siberia — what are they like?. So I asked my uncle, who is a sculptor, to help me to find out more about it and maybe do a design project there. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I discovered that the design education in Novosibirsk was quite different, it was a lot more about decorative arts and crafts. Any given person on the street doesn’t understand what design is, people assume you are talking about advertising. Strangely, the astonishingly rich history of design wasn’t felt and seemed to be forgotten.
What I saw didn’t fit with what I was taught at that time in the states. In America we were taught about ideas and different ways of getting them across. Basically it is about communication, rather than decoration.
Are you still influenced by your origin and your studies in America or has London changed your approach?
Influences come from so many sources, it’s hard to say. The approach is something that builds up bit by bit, and changes according to the task at hand.
Surely the building blocks of problem solving must be learned from very early on….
I think it’s in London that I learned to be truly independent, in terms of thinking about design problems and finding imaginative solutions.
My first job in London was at Frost Design and it was amazing opportunity — I was just an intern and then I became a designer and kind of grew into a bigger position. but I somehow felt that I wasn’t doing my own work, but rather it was under art direction of Vince. I didn’t have a feeling of ownership, … but I was learning, and that was invaluable.
When I started to work with Amelia and Frith at Kerr Noble, I saw different ways to approach projects and it broadened my prespective.
I felt a lot more relaxed, we had a lot of fun and I was doing more thinking, more research, more observation from unexpected sources. I was really surprised and relieved, to see two women not much older than me doing such wonderful, inspiring things, and being quietly confident about it.
How long did you stay at Kerr Noble?
About two years.
And what kind of work did you do at Kerr Noble? Any book design?
We worked on a lot of exhibition design, exhibition identities & catalogues for clients like the Design Museum, Crafts Council and British Council. Working on film titles and typography for moving image for Tony Kaye was also a new thing for me and I learned a great deal.
One of the most memorable projects was a Christmas packaging range for Liberty, when we commissioned an illustrator James Lambert. I remember doing an incredible amount of research at the Victoria & Albert Museum library, you know it’s an amazing place, do you know it?
No, I didn’t.
It is fantastic, you can’t take anything out but you can have a look at everything and make photocopies as well. You search the catalogue and when you find what you are looking for, they bring it to you. I was looking for literature on manners, and rituals to do with food and cooking. I came across Vogue’s book of table manners, and it turned out to be a treasure chest! We had a lot of different projects at Kerr Noble but I wasn’t in involved in book design. It was just by chance that the opportunity came from Phaidon.
Tell me how you ended up at Phaidon? Did you apply for the job or were you invited to join?
I began to feel that I needed more room to grow, and things came to an end at Kerr Noble. Shortly after this, I received an email from Angus Hyland at Pentagram letting me know about a position opening at Phaidon. He has recommended me for the post and I was extremely interested straight away.
It sounded perfect, to be involved in book design at a place that’s known for quality.
Even though I preferred to work in a smaller company, it was nice to try something new, a challenge. Immediately I replied without hesitation that I am very interested, went for an interview and they took me on board. I was kind of going into something without knowing what I was really doing. The job required to manage people, to be in contact with designers in the industry and I would be commissioning them to design books. I never did that before.
How do you decide who you commission? How and where do you meet people?
First the editor tells me I have this book about — I don’t know, let’s say fashion — I need a designer and tells me about the book, so that I understand what’s required and what kind of person is required for the job, then I try to find that person. It needn’t be a person who have done books on fashion in the past. If this particular book will use a great amount of images from various sources, and a lot of text, then this designer will have to know how to put these together in a way that tells a story, come up with a strong identity and a concept.
Normally my colleague Julia Hasting and I would come up with a proposal for our publisher, who either approves our choice, or tells us to try harder. Sometimes you need to go back to the drawing board and find someone completely new and fresh, or unexpected. One way of keeping on top of who is doing what is to look through design magazines or online, you go to openings and just talk to people in the field.
It is a lot of work actually. You’re always keeping your eye out as well as doing your own design. Sometimes I would get quite tired of it, always searching, it’s not easy.
But on the other hand it is really nice when you find the right person for a book, it’s so very satisfying to ask this person ‘do you want to do this book?’ . Being a designer, we can speak the same language, I would be the connection between the team at the publishing house and the designer. I am a link.
Does it also work the other way around? That you can propose a subject or a concept to the editors, rather than the editor coming with a new book proposal?
Of course, you can propose ideas for a book. I just found that for me, at the time, there were plenty of great editorial ideas to get on with, and I focused on the design, rather than generating ideas for books. Actually the person who is my maternity cover, William Hall, has come up with an idea for a book about concrete, naturally he is designing it too.
Do you get tired of designing books?
So would you one day like to do something else?
Although I love designing books, and will continue to, I would like to be involved in a variety of projects. I am leaving Phaidon to be an art director for Frieze magazine.
Wow, very exciting! Did you get invited to join them?
Yes, i was invited. I was recommended, it was really unexpected. I was planning to go back to my job in October but it is such an opportunity that I can’t resist.
Did you ever consider founding your own studio or company?
This is what I am doing now — Frieze magazine has eight issues a year, which means I can find time to develop my own business, working with new clients and also spend some time with my daughter, Isabelle. I think it was amazing to be part of Phaidon but what I found it slightly rigid to be part of a big office or a system. It’s nicer to be able to juggle things around, to have change of pace a bit.
So it is not the typical studio atmosphere but more an office atmosphere?
It’s a creative office. Yes, it’s more office-like. I tried to create a mini studio within the office, (like a russian doll!). I had my corner, overlooking the canal, covered my walls with things that inspire me, or make me laugh, and it felt very cozy in there. I guess you adapt to an environment, and try to make it work for you. I am happy to now try something new: I have never done magazine design. Somehow I wonder why they have let me do it, I don’t know, but it is exciting. I think they may have liked Creamier, a book that looks like a newspaper.
About 10 curators?
Yes, 10 curators choose 10 contemporary artists they feel are significant. The challenge of Creamier was to make visually diverse material look great and tie it all together.There is a similar challenge for a magazine. I feel honored to be part of Frieze and to try and evolve the magazine in a new direction.
Phaidon has been a fantastic, what an opportunity to work with truly inspiring, creative, innovative people. And to have your own little studio within a bigger organisation was great, it gave me confidence and I learned to push things further.
And you also managed to establish your name outside of Phaidon, which is great. I think there must be plenty of other designers within big institutions who are completely unknown to the design industry, which is a shame. It is not that common to hear from in-house designers.
Alan Fletcher at Phaidon encouraged me to do so. It’s up to you — to create work that’s noticeable. I also made an effort to speak out a bit, rather than just waiting for someone to discover my work. Made my own publicity so to speak.And how did you go about doing your own publicity?
Just by looking at magazines and thinking, well this person’s work is in a magazine, why shouldn’t my work be in a magazine? When I have a new book out I would write a kind of ‘design press release’: a summary, saying this is a new project, it just came out, would you be interested in featuring it? And so this generated some attention.
And you also won a few awards?
Yes, I started entering projects into competitions. It’s important to be recognized in the design community. Alan Fletcher always encouraged me to be involved and to be part of it.
I quite like that you have a wiki-page. How did you get this? Was it a conscious decision?
It’s quite funny, it was this young Italian designer who wrote me out of the blue and asked me for information about myself, because he was writing a Wikipedia entry. I was so surprised, but very pleased. I never though about it and I thought why not. The next thing for me is to create my own website, to showcase projects I have been working on. Though it’s proving tricky to find the time.
You mentioned that you are on maternity leave at the moment but you just finished a book…
It’s about to go to print and I can’t wait to see it. Within the maternity leave scheme, there are ‘keeping in touch’ days: which means you can work for up to 10 days while you are on maternity leave.
And that’s special to Phaidon or is it a regular scheme?
It’s an entitlement of Statutory Maternity Leave scheme in UK.
It allows you to be in touch, so you don’t feel totally isolated and completely out of the loop, it’s brilliant.
The book I have finished while being on maternity leave is a monograph for product designers Ronan & Erwan Boroullec, two brothers based in Paris. They design for numerous manufacturers — Vitra, Kvadrat, Magis, Kartell, Established & Sons, Ligne Roset, Axor, Alessi, Issey Miyake, Cappellini, and Flos. I love what they do and was thrilled to work on this project.
Do you know their work?
Yes, yes! I know their work!!
Is it possible to multitask between being a designer and mum at such an early stage or is it very difficult?
It is quite tricky, but it is also very rewarding. You feel that you haven’t fundamentally changed, but you have more facets to your life.
I love being a parent, it is the best thing I’ve ever done — it is also nice though to feel like you still have a head on your shoulders and that you can come up with ideas, design solutions. There were a couple of late nights but if you ask any mum, they all say the same thing: you become more efficient in the way that you work. You faff less thinking of all the different options… you become more decisive. Because your time is more precious.
Recently there was a very nice story about a cover. When I had to come up with ideas for the cover, I had come up with a viable solution, and was quite happy with it. As day went into the night, and my daughter went to sleep, I was finalizing my proposal and was about to send it to Phaidon. My daughter woke up for her milk feed, and as I sat in the night and fed her, I suddenly realised that I haven’t tried to see how this cover would look in the book shop, amongst other books on a similar subject. Is it strong enough? Would it stand out?
After Isabelle was asleep again, I have mocked up an A3 document with covers of monographs of contemporary product designers and placed my cover in the middle. It disappeared instantly.
Having a quite moment to sit and think at times is more valuable than doing endless options.
I had to turn things around and do it quickly. Taking a much simpler approach, thinking back to my visit to the studio— what we talked about and what I saw — I came up with a stronger solution. Place it among the competitors and boom, it stands strong.
What happened next is that I send it to the editor and she went to Paris to show Bouroullec brothers. Before she had a chance to show them, they said you know, we did our own cover, can we show you? And she said OK show me what you did and they took it out and it is exactly the same cover. Apart from slightly different colour and typeface, everything else was identical. Isn’t that crazy? This has never happened to me before. Without us talking. You know they have thousands of images they could have used, but they used the same single drawing, at the same size in the middle of the cover, and it is seriously the same. It was really spooky but a great coincidence that means we are on the same wavelength. It means I listened well. I guess I have taken the right information from the meeting to get the same result as they did. It is really exciting that it is coming together.
And in regards to working as a young mum can you share the responsibilities with your partner? Does his work and schedule allow this?
My husband, Edward Park, is a photographer, and he works for himself. We share the workload, and we both get to look after our baby daughter. Sometimes when he is very busy I have to step up and help. For example in early spring he has been commissioned by Phaidon Press to take 400 images of recipes for The Silver Spoon, the bible of traditional Italian cooking. While he was busy shooting, I was a full time mom and it was quite exhausting. He helps me when I am busy working on an issue of frieze.
And do you think it would be possible if he was not self employed?
It would be much more difficult!
So you both being more flexible makes it easier?
Absolutely. The move to freelancing and frieze has a lot to do with wanting to be able to be more flexible. To be able to say I am going to work during this period very intensely could you look after her? And afterwards I will be free and we will switch and he can work very intensely on other projects.
And this is fantastic for him as well, as he can spend some time with his daughter, I guess?
Exactly. And he loves it. He comes home at night and ask what did she do today? Tell me! He wants to know everything, what she ate today… where we have been…. So this job change will give us much more joy from being parents, I don’t think I would want the traditional structure, where a husband goes to work, never sees their child and the mum is at home.
And do you feel that there is enough support form the government and society?
What is great is how much activities and things to do there are for children and moms. I was impressed that all these services and either free or very inexpensive. Music sessions, dance classes, play groups, advice for parents, you name it. There is a lot of support in this sense.
But, child care in UK is very expensive — I understand that now, and it’s quite tough. Though there are options, you can share a nanny for example, and share the cost.
There are a lot of networks that parents create themselves which is great. I think it used to be that one had the support of the entire family, but now that family structures are much more loose, people travel and live away from their parents, grand parents are not around to help as much, and so people create their networks where you can find advice, or just a friendly face, someone who can identify with what you are going thorough, and also most importantly to have fun together! I’ve had a great 9 months where we did so much every day. I think London is a family friendly place.
And design wise, you mentioned lots of different names and it seems that you are very well connected. Do you have a particular network you are actively involved in? Or a network of people you met while studying?
I studied in California, and I have kept in touch with my fellow students. One of them, Peter Neumeister has a branding consultancy in Stockholm, and has recently commissioned me to do a book for his company’s 5th year anniversary, a nice project to be involved in, and because we know each other well, he gave me a lot of creative freedom.Neumeister Circus, A book designed for the 5 year anniversary of Neumeister, strategic branding consultancy in Stockholm. The idea was to create a story, where we talk about skills required in the world of branding and design using a metaphor of circus and its characters. Illustration by Jonas Bergstrand.
Generally I am a very social person, and I meet a lot of people in our field, wether it’s at private views or visiting studios, or through other friends. It happens naturally, may be because i am so curious. I have met a lot of the designers through commissioning at Phaidon.
How many people work at Phaidon as full-time designers?
I have a colleague in Zurich Julia Hasting, who is originally German, she has worked at Phaidon for 13 years. We were sharing the responsibility of the art direction for the company. I had an assistant at Phaidon and also a group of freelance designers, that i would call upon when we needed more help.
And they work in-house then?
Yes, in-house, sometimes out, but mostly if I do bring someone in it is much easier to work together in the same space, it makes life so much simpler, and more enjoyable, because you then have a little team. It’s easier to keep on top of what is happening.
Do you have any role models? Where do you get your inspiration from, is it from design or from completely different subjects?
I get inspired by looking at art, traveling, reading, watching films….
In the summer we take camping trips to the South of France, where we visit Corbusier’s buildings, which I just find so inspiring. It’s a pure joy to be in his structures, and I think this will be something we’ll so again and again. Seeing a lot of Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse and Léger, really opens up my eyes and makes my heart sing.
Alan Fletcher is someone I am so honored to have known, he is definitely someone I think about often, and I treasure what I learned from him.
The list can be very long of people and things or places. You can find inspiration in everything.
How did you come up with the idea of the paper alphabet you did?
I really didn’t want to put an image of sculpture on the cover of book about sculpture. So I started thinking what is it about sculpture that is unique. And I tried to understand what sculpture is. It couldn’t be one particular material, or style… so — what is it? The fact that it is three dimensional is an integral aspect. I focused on the idea of doing something three dimensional and because I didn’t want to put a picture on the cover, that left me with typography.Sculpture Today and Paper Alphabet, Paper Alphabet was created by cutting and folding a flat sheet of paper. This typeface was created specially for Sculpture Today, a comprehensive survey of sculpture in the last 30 years, published by Phaidon
So the book and the brief for the book existed before you did the alphabet?
Yes. The solution was completely bespoke for the brief.
— December 2011 GBW followed up on Sonya’s developments with a few more questions
You now have started work at frieze and I heard (through twitter) that you are planning a redesign of the Frieze Magazine. What can we expect to change, what is your ambition?
I’d like to create something fresh for a magazine that is established and grown up without succumbing to trends.
To pay attention to typography, perhaps in a more tactile way. I can’t reveal too much, partly because I don’t yet know myself. It would be great to evolve the magazine and keep it fresh, perhaps being playful and restrained at the same time. Sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it? That’s when it starts being interesting.
Have you managed to combine freelance work with the work on the magazine? And what would be your dream project (freelance)?
It’s working out really well, being able to work on the magazine and other projects too. I have worked on two book projects while working on frieze, and there is more to come. Dream project? Something on a BIG scale!
This interview with Sonya Dyakova was conducted by Catherine Nippe – edited with the help of Lynsey Power and Sonya Dyakova.