While you read this introduction, look through Ill-Studio’s online portfolio. There’s no better way to describe how multidisciplinary the Paris-based studio’s work is than to keep hitting that endless scroll, flexing your eyebrow muscles repeatedly as you pass through countless photo campaigns, print books, T-shirts and exhibition spaces along the way. Thomas Subreville and Leonard Vernhet founded Ill-Studio in 2007 with an ambitious goal to work on whatever creative projects they wanted across any and all industries. Today, their client roster is a veritable list of dream clients—Louis Vuitton, Supreme, Colette, Nike, Tame Impala and Nowness, to name a few. Needless to say, their plan worked.
However, starting a studio that transcends all creative industries back in 2007 was tough. This model hadn’t quite been invented yet and neither had Instagram—a social media platform that has become trodden with archival image accounts that compile a person’s aspirational furniture, design objects, album covers and fashion into one neat package. Communicating a business model that was new and confusing to many at the time took relentless persistence, consistent outstanding work and, most importantly, versatility. Each time a new or returning client approached the duo with a project, it would be different than the last. One day it could be creative consulting work for Virgil Abloh and the nexţ designing a purple and lime green ombre playground in Beijing.
When asked what the most challenging part of starting a studio was, both designers were quick to respond that they wanted to avoid being cornered into one industry at all costs. “We could easily end up doing only fashion or only music, so we always keep the lines blurry enough that we can maintain the freedom of doing anything we want and also maintain the freedom of not knowing what we’re going to do in the future,” they told HYPEBEAST.
One way the team has accomplished working on so many different types of projects is by including self-initiated projects under the same Ill-Studio umbrella as their client work. However, in order to establish a more distinct line between contracted and personal projects, Ill-Studio’s new label GENERAL_INDEX was born. Inspired by an encyclopedia’s general index page, the label functions as an extension of Ill-Studio, offering up the studio’s personal work in all formats, centered around Subreville’s and Vernhet’s inspirations, ranging from Bart Simpson to DJ Screw to the DIY skate culture they grew up in.
“We don’t think it’s necessary to explain or show everything we do. Some people know us through our video work, some through fashion, others through music or architecture.”
The self-taught designers were, and still are, ahead of their time when it comes to connecting the dots between creative industries. In fact, over time Ill-Studio has become a pioneer of sorts, paving the way for a new wave of young creatives starting their own all-encompassing practices. Subreville and Vernhet welcome this industry shift with open arms. “When kids tell us that we opened the door for them to do this type of super transversal creative business model, it’s the best compliment of all.” After 13 years, Ill-Studio’s once confusing business model is now the norm, and the duo is ready to delve into their process and give advice to those looking to adapt it.
How big is your current team?
It is just the two of us. People are usually surprised when they find that out, but we like it this way. We work with a lot of talented freelancers, though.
How would you describe the work you do at Ill-Studio?
Over the past 13 years, we’ve experimented with many different fields—some we liked, some we didn’t. In general, we mostly do creative direction at-large and consulting for different brands, record labels and magazines. We also work on personal, self-initiated projects, such as exhibitions, publishing books and other spontaneous, self-produced projects.
“When people ask us what our job is, we love to say that we’re still figuring it out. Our job is constantly evolving.”
When we first created the studio, we wanted it to be a platform that allowed us to work on a different project every week. A lot of people are actually confused by what we do, and we kind of like keeping these lines blurry. When people ask us what our job is, we love to say that we’re still figuring it out. Our job is constantly evolving.
Why do you think people still have trouble grasping the way you work and the projects you do?
We kind of cultivated this on purpose. We don’t think it’s necessary to explain or show everything we do. Some people know us through our video work, some through fashion, others through music or architecture. What counts the most for us is the overall vibe people get from our work. Our families and girlfriends still don’t understand exactly what we do.
What are some places, industries, people, etc. that you have gotten powerful inspiration from in the past?
We don’t pretend to invent everything we do from scratch. It can be anything from 1960s Polish conceptualism to early ’80s obscure music. It ranges from Jean Cocteau to Bart Simpson, Paul Virilio, DJ Screw, Issey Miyake, Reinhold Messner, Michel Foucault, Haruomi Hosono, Marco Van Basten and Carl Sagan. The best is when inspiration comes to you—not when you look for it. It is very important to keep some space for that in your daily life.
“The best is when inspiration comes to you—not when you look for it. It is very important to keep some space for that in your daily life.”
Tell me about your new self-initiated project, GENERAL_INDEX.
For a long time, all of our projects were mixed together under the same Ill-Studio name, but we’ve decided to separate it all. So now all of the product collaborations we’re doing—the exhibitions, the self-initiated projects—are going to be released under GENERAL_INDEX. Our studio has always worked with a lot of cultural references—that’s one of the main particularities of our studio. GENERAL_INDEX is basically the index page of Ill-Studio. Our idea for GENERAL_INDEX is for it to be the merchandise of our culture—not the other way around. We consider it to be an encyclopedia, or an encyclopedic program, where every project we produce for this label is one page or chapter of a subjective encyclopedia.
There’s something to be said for people who don’t need Instagram to find inspiration in today’s world. Many kids probably haven’t even used a physical encyclopedia before.
The way we use the Internet is probably different than the way a kid who was born in 1998 uses it. We love the mix of being connected to the youth and digital cultures, while still maintaining our DIY background where we had to make everything up on our own. It’s funny to think about how it wasn’t always like this.
Did growing up in the ’80s and ’90s also influence your work?
We were both born in 1980, and I think we’re the last generation to have grown up as teenagers without the Internet. We’d constantly look for new information and references to level-up our own knowledge. This mentality has had a lot of impact on the way we work today. When we started the studio, there was no Facebook or Instagram, so we had to make our own way to communicate our ideas.
“I think we’re the last generation to have grown up as teenagers without the Internet. We’d constantly look for new information and references to level-up our own knowledge. This mentality has had a lot of impact on the way we work today.”
Do you guys have any advice for designers or creatives hoping to start their own business or creative agency in today’s landscape?
You can be the best designer in the world and have the best ideas in the world, but you need to know how to communicate them. It’s very important to consider your network and your ability to show your ideas. You also need to try to understand what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. The problem with doing a lot of different things like we do is you can be tempted to do everything yourself. The truth is, you can’t be good at everything. The day you understand this, you’ll save a lot of time and energy to focus on what you really are good at.