The Sound of Pentagram


24 November 2018

Best known for this sound-based installations, the artist and designer Yuri Suzuki has just been appointed as a partner at the branding powerhouse Pentagram, bringing his specific brand of esoteric, off-beat experience design to an environment better known for high-profile campaigns for globally renowned clients. So what led Suzuki to join Pentagram; what prompted Pentagram to look into the emerging field of sound design; and what to both parties hope to achieve through the union?

Congratulations on your appointment as partner at Pentagram. What is it like taking up the role?

I'm not sure I'm allowed to say this, but [Pentagram] is a little bit like the Freemasons. It’s quite bizarre as a company because it has 23 partners and everyone runs the business equally, with the same amount of responsibility. There's no hierarchy, there's no boss, and everyone has to agree on any changes that are happening in the company. It was a two year process to become a partner, and during that time I met all the other partners and talked to them about my practice.

To be honest I'm really surprised [to have been appointed], because for them it's very risky to have a partner like me. I'm quite an abstract designer – I'm doing far-fetched things. But somehow it’s an incubation as well. [Pentagram take] three to five years to look at a new partner and grow them to a certain level. They're bringing in my skills and they are also helping me.

Do you have a sense of why the other partners wanted to bring you in? As you say, your practice is unusual.

Pentagram is a traditional company in some ways, but its way of thinking is quite advanced. Of any designer in the world, I would probably have been one of the most risky choices for Pentagram, but I think the partners wanted to extend into a new field of design. Many companies now want to offer public experience or public engagement, and you can see that a lot of communication now happens through audio. Many areas of design demand audio – for example, in relation to electric cars people are now thinking about how they could design the sound of that car from scratch, because an electric car doesn't produce any sound naturally. I believe that Pentagram is investing in me to help it find out what it should do next.

Is technology steering things back towards a more aural culture?

I recently had a nice conversation with [Shuntaro Tanikawa], one of Japan’s most famous poets. He's about 88 but he's actively giving poetry readings at bookshops. I asked him why he does that, and he said that the human brain translates things in a phonetic way, so communicating through audio offers a much more direct route to the brain. A client might email you, for example, but it’s actually much more direct to call and make sure you understand what they want. What I want to do in my practice is elementary – what do human beings want as a sound? My work with sound is nothing about aesthetics or decoration. We fundamentally have to think about what kind of sounds we need in our lives.

Your work is quite experimental, whereas Pentagram has a strong commercial impetus. What appealed to you about the company?

In a way, I felt like I’d been out of the [mainstream] design industry for a long time because I was producing my own installations and functioning in this bizarre position between art and design. I felt like I had to change that somehow. I have a passion to create my own art projects anyway, so I somehow wanted to separate out my art projects and my design projects, and start to feed back to the industry. I think design itself is at a strange point in its existence, because so many people are crossing between it and art. Operating in the middle of that can be quite difficult and many people are struggling. Also, there’s a limit to what I can achieve [on my own]. I felt this could be a good opportunity to step into a different world.