Tony Arefin - the best designer you've never heard of

Birmingham's IKON Gallery presents the work of little-known designer Tony Arefin, curated by James Langdon
Installation view, Arefin & Arefin, IKON Gallery, Birmingham (2012)
Installation view, Arefin & Arefin, IKON Gallery, Birmingham (2012)

Tony Arefin is the best designer you've never heard of. Prominent in London in the early '90s, the Karachi-born creative moved to New York in 1993, but sadly died in 2000, aged 38, at the peak of his powers. Now, designer James Langdon has curated a show about Arefin at Birmingham's IKON Gallery, exploring his surprisingly extensive oeuvre in the comprehensive detail it deserves. Here he explains why.

When did you first come across Tony Arefin's work?

I first discovered the work in 2000. I had finished art school in Coventry the year before and was working part time at IKON Gallery in Birmingham. I was becoming interested in design and Jonathan Watkins, IKON's director, gave me copies of the series of catalogues Tony Arefin had designed for him while he was director at Chisenhale Gallery in the early 1990s. I learned from Jonathan that Arefin had been for a time the most prominent graphic designer in the UK art world, before leaving suddenly for New York in 1993.

What made you want to curate an exhibition about his work, and why now?

At first I found the work quite ordinary and obvious. As a student working with painting and photography I had been stimulated by the contents of books such as Rick Poynor's Typography Now, which documented the layered and complex appearance of much contemporary graphic design in the early 1990s. In this context Arefin's work seemed oddly minimal. But I do remember one double spread being very striking. In a catalogue for the ‘shared sculptures’ of Bill Woodrow and Richard Deacon there is one opening that shows a sculpture comprising four objects connected by an electrical wire. A photograph of the work on the floor in the gallery is paired with a detail of one of the fixings binding the wire. The arrangement of the two images creates a sweeping formation across the binding that is suggestive of the way this configuration of objects occupied the space in the gallery.


Chisenhale Gallery catalogue, Tony Arefin
Chisenhale Gallery catalogue, Tony Arefin

As I began designing catalogues myself, I often returned to these Chisenhale catalogues, and they became an important source of inspiration. In conversation with other designers I was surprised to discover that hardly anyone was aware of Arefin's work. I prepared a text about the Chisenhale books for Grafik magazine in 2009, and in early 2010 I resolved to attempt to gather more exampes of the work for an exhibition. 

Through that process I came to realise that Tony Arefin was actually an extremely inventive and transgressive designer. He formulated a bold and intensely colourful visual language, borrowing from magazines and advertising. Applying such stylised graphic design in the art world was a radical break from the typically conservative norms of art catalogues at that time.

What's in the show exactly?

The exhibition covers the full extent of Arefin's output. We show early work made in London: flyers, posters and books for artists and galleries. From his time in New York we include examples of the four magazines that he art directed: I.D., Bomb, Blind Spot and Art + Auction. Finally we show examples of his advertising work. He was an extremely prolific designer and the selection is necessarily reductive. In one sense that's a weakness that it is hard to counter: we show some books only for their covers, very few books are shown with multiple openings. Yet I think Arefin would have liked to see his work presented this way, stripped down and iconic.

Why don't more people know about him? Why has Tony Arefin been so overlooked?

Because of the timing of his death in 2000, images of his work are not circulating on the internet, which has become the primary platform for disseminating design. A year ago an image search for Arefin's name through a search engine would yield a very inadequate reflection of him. It's rewarding to see our photography of his work correcting that. But his influence can also be seen in the fact that the art catalogue has become such a desirable format for young designer


Barclays catalogues, Tony Arefin
Barclays catalogues, Tony Arefin


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