After thirty years, the FUEL team remains to be the duo composed of Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell. They never employed assistants or interns, nor had ambitions to enlarge the design company
The London-based FUEL Publishing was established in 1991 by the British graphic design students Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell. With their works, the duo has polarised ever since. After the self-published book series Russian Criminal Archive, a collection comprising the pen and ink drawings of Russian prisoners’ tattoos, FUEL’s publications continued to center around nonconformism and individuality. «We hope our books show the possibilities graphic designers have to produce work of cultural value – not just in terms of design, but as artifacts in their right».
Murray’s and Sorrell’s business partnership commenced in 1990, when both were amidst their Master’s Degree in Graphic Design at the Royal Academy of Arts. Neither of them could identify themselves with the course approach — tradition, not modernity —, resulting in dissatisfaction and the founding of the FUEL Magazine.
«The magazine was a vehicle to express ourselves in content and form, a means of reaching an audience, outside of graphic design», explains Sorrell. With no production experience and their focus on cost-effectiveness and quality, they assembled magazines, confronting the reader through the juxtaposition of text and image. The work aimed to examine the purpose of graphic design, the messages transmitted boldness, and ambiguousness. Recognizing that their way of working differed from the interior processes of a design studio, they decided to establish a business, following their ambitions and design approach.
«We wanted to work on books outside of those we were designing for other publishers. Content has been paramount in our design. To produce our books would allow us to make editorial decisions and have control over the publication». When FUEL Publishing was established, Murray and Sorrell were still studying at the Royal Academy of Arts. In 1992, the founders installed their office on the edge of the City of London’s financial district, Spitalfields. During the time, the area was known for its art scene, yet has had no design group settled there before. Studio neighbors were Gilbert & George or Tracey Emin, who Sorrell and Murray have worked with, designing her books and catalogs.
By the time FUEL entered the market, the publishing scene started developing towards democracy. This transition represented the opportunity for publishers to consider and incorporate niche subject matters and aesthetics for their publications. Buyers became more accepting of obscurity.
Along with the evolution of the industry and their business came the freedom to expand and focus on subjects of cultural value. FUEL Publishing was no longer viewed as part of the service industry and engaged an audience, ambitious and interested in the duo’s work approach. «The people we work with either know us or like what we do. It’s not a case of ‘selecting’ — we work with people who want to work with us, just as we want to work with them», underlines the founder. The majority of the commissions, the duo would be expected to contribute something of themselves, something representing the image FUEL. A combination of commerciality and character.
Over time, the company’s books embarked on centering around Russia. In 1992, Murray and Sorrell visited the country to produce the third issue of FUEL Magazine from Moscow. It was a time when capitalism began to influence the country. «There was an aesthetic of melancholy and integrity that we sensed then and found an affinity for which has resonated with us ever since». The Soviet Period and its never documented cultural elements, hidden by facsimiles of propaganda, gripped their attention. History, Ideology, and Linguistic would have impeded the comprehension of the Russian character for westerners. With this selection of topic, the FUEL publication appealed to this understanding. With the title Russian Criminal Archive and the book series Russian Criminal Tattoos, FUEL Publishing caught the attention of many.
Some of the archive works have been exhibited at Saatchi in London and Max Hetzler Gallery in Berlin. After Sorrell, the success of the series had been assembled by the design of the books, taking the form of ethnographic volumes, and the authenticity of the tattoos themselves. «Tattoos are now ubiquitous and carry little meaning to anyone else but the person wearing them. By contrast, in the world of the Russian criminal, they were a passport, a matter of life and death». The books would demonstrate the alternative history of Russia, told by the underclass whose viewpoint had not been considered before.
«The tattoos reflect the lives and traditions of convicts, reproduced from a primary source. They are the first-person testimony». After thirty years of working together, FUEL remains the duo. They never employed assistants or interns, neither did they cherish ambitions to enlarge the design company. «Whatever each of us produces, it is viewed and commented on by the other, so nothing leaves the studio without it being authored».
Their persistence in approaching the publishing sector, without following the tradition the industry maintains, sets them apart from their concurrence. Individuality as a foundation of FUEL’s reputation. Even in the uncertain times triggered by Covid-19, the duo managed to assemble three publications, planned on being released in September. One of them, named Soviet Cities, presents the work of photographer Arseniy Kotov — images of Soviet-era buildings and monuments. «In an interview, he stated that he merely wanted to make a book with FUEL and therefore didn’t approach any other publishers. For us, this is an endorsement of our singular attitude towards publishing».