interview :: max fraser, the joy of living

Katie | March 6, 2011

Max Fraser, editor of the London Design Guide (a book which rarely leaves my handbag), has been working on a rather special project. Joy of Living finally sees the light of day on March 15th at Somerset House.

Joy of Living artwork

In a bid to raise £50,000 for Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres, Max has asked a stellar cast of over 100 designers, both established and rising stars, to create something from a single sheet of A4 graph paper that for them, represents the Joy of Living.

For those not familiar with Maggie’s, they provide emotional support and information, helping people to build a life beyond cancer, to manage the impact of a diagnosis and to live with hope and determination. They do all of this in environments designed to feel safe and uplifting by the likes of Frank Gehry and  Zaha Hadid. Charity founder Maggie Keswick Jencks once said, “Above all what matters is not to lose the joy of living in the fear of dying,” hence the title of the project and the brief for the designers.

Joy of Living artwork

Max was kind enough to talk to me about the project.

How did you first get involved with Maggie’s?

Ever since my mother died of cancer in late 2008, I’ve wanted to contribute in some way to mankind’s fight against the disease. I am aware that continued medical research is going to eventually find us a cure but I believe it’s up to governments and pharmaceutical companies to fund this. In real terms, however, there are thousands of people suffering from cancer in one form or other, and I wanted to raise money to support a charity that is doing something for these people – right here, right now. I want the results of our fundraising to have really tangible benefits.
I was introduced to the work of Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres by a friend. They offer strong emotional support to cancer patients and those people surrounding them. Something that I observed throughout my mother’s illness was the importance of a calm environment when recovering from the traumatic treatment. Maggie’s fully understand this too. Patients need to maintain a positive attitude and a strong support network. Emotionally, the disease can take you to some pretty dark places, and I witnessed that it is incredibly lonely and terrifying to be faced with the constant possibility of death. The treatment process is rife with highs and lows for the patient as well as the family and friends affected.

Joy of Living artwork

Maggie’s Centres are designed by great architects on the grounds of cancer specialist hospitals. These centres offer support and advice to countless cancer sufferers and their families. Today. Right now. The design of their spaces is welcoming, calm and uplifting.
This relates very closely to my professional world; I use media to communicate the strengths of great design. Design is not about ‘pretty stuff’ – it has the power to do so much more. It can make a huge difference to our emotional state and, I believe, has the power to make our lives better.
So, the marriage of my fundraising aims for cancer with my inherent believes and professional output all seemed to marry perfectly when I encountered Maggie’s.

Joy of Living artwork

How did you come up with the idea of asking top designers to create something to represent the Joy of Living from graph paper?
Before I had decided which charity to support or even decided on a brief to the designers, I knew I wanted to involve graph paper. In 2009, I wrote and published a book called London Design Guide and we used graph paper on the cover design. The response from designers was really positive – graph paper seems to trigger a fond nostalgia for designers as it reminds them of the early days of drafting before computers took over. I like the idea that designers might pick up a pencil, pen, brush, whatever and create an artwork that couldn’t be repeated and that would result in something of unique value. Having received the artworks, I am pleased to say this has been achieved.
Logistically, the A4 paper is easy to send to the designers, it’s not expensive, and it’s a manageable sized artwork for most people’s walls at home.
I knew I wanted my brief to the designers to be upbeat and hopeful (a sort of celebration of life) so asking them to represent the Joy of Living seemed perfect and also very open to varied responses.

Joy of Living artwork

What’s been the best part of being involved with this project so far?
As the project has evolved, there have been many ‘best parts.’ Working with great partners who are willingly giving their time to this project has been amazing. Having so many top designers responding to the brief and generously submitting an artwork has been humbling. For me, being able to work on something with different motivations and goals has been fulfilling and refreshing.
But ultimately, the best part will be when we have sold out of artworks, received numerous donations, and I can write a cheque to Maggie’s for £50,000, which is our fundraising target. With that money, I know that Maggie’s will make a real difference to people’s lives – that’s the best part of all.
What’s been the hardest part of making all this happen?
As with any voluntary activity, it is sometimes difficult to find the time to give it the attention it needs around the demands of my own life and profession. From the start, I have been conscious of the demands on my project partners, but they have all surprised me and been incredibly efficient and generous with their time.
It has been a challenge to find a suitable venue to exhibit the artworks as I was quite specific with my criteria. I wanted a central London location, a professional gallery environment, and ideally the neutrality of an institutional venue. I’m delighted that I have achieved all of these with Somerset House.

Joy of Living artwork

What impact do you hope the exhibition at Somerset House will have on those who visit it?
I hope it will have enough impact that people will open their wallets and buy an artwork or two, or make a donation! I hope that it will make people reflect upon those that they know who have been or are affected by cancer (directly or indirectly). I hope it will trigger people to consider the fragility of life, and re-calibrate their priorities when it comes to where they spend their time and money. I hope it may inspire people to also stage their own fundraising activity for a cause that is close to them.
Above all, I hope it will raise the profile and awareness of Maggie’s in people’s minds. They provide a crucial service that will most certainly provide help and assistance for some of us in the future.

Joy of Living artwork

How easy was it to get the designers on board? You’ve got quite a stellar line up!
For the first time in my profession, I can wholeheartedly say that my primary motivation for this project is to make as much money as possible for Maggie’s – not for me, the artist, or any agents or galleries. It is as simple as that.
However, I am also aware that the success of this project is centred on desirability. In order to part with their cash, people must really want to own the artworks so I knew it was important to ask top talents to create them.
Fortunately, in the time that I have worked in the design industry, I have built up relationships with amazing talents and I felt it was appropriate to take advantage of these contacts for this particular project. The designers have responded incredibly well to the project and have been incredibly generous with their time and energy, for which I am very grateful.
Which is your favourite artwork?!
I have many, each one for a different reason, but I don’t want people to be influenced by my favourites – I want people to simply buy the artwork that they love. That is why I have opted to price them equally (all at £250) and keep the designer’s name hidden. Then, the decision is informed by one’s own passion and desire, without any other external (and quite frankly, frivolous) criteria.

Joy of Living artwork

The signed, framed works will be accompanied by a short text from their creator explaining their inspiration and will be exhibited and on sale at Somerset House, from 15th to 21st March.

Designers include: Terence Conran, Tom Dixon, Barber Osgerby, Sebastian Bergne, John Pawson, Tomoko Azumi, Daniel Eatock, Fredrikson Stallard, Martino Gamper, Rob Ryan, Stuart Haygarth, Michael Marriott, Max Lamb, and Troika.

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Further reading for the especially geeky:


  • The beady eyed amongst you will have noticed this week’s post should have been a “here’s one I made earlier”. Forgive me for including another interview instead; I thought this was important.
  • The artworks pictured are A4 and therefore have had to be cropped to fit my square format.

Further Reading for the Especially Geeky ::

Founding Editor – Katie Treggiden

Having established confessions of a design geek in 2010, Katie Treggiden has gone on to a career in design journalism, writing for titles such as The Guardian, The Telegraph, Elle Decoration, Stylist, Design Milk and Ideal Home. In 2014, she launched Fiera, an independent magazine dedicated to discovering new talent at the world’s design fairs. Her second book, Makers of East London, was published in 2015.

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