Branding The Art Of Beautiful Living With James Kirkup From An Open Understanding

James Kirkup

Nowadays, a brand serves a very practical purpose (to sell you things, mostly), but the true winning formula calls for a strong foundation: a mix of approachable sensibility, a hefty dose of excitement, and guaranteed self-fulfillment for the lucky buyer. Make a few adjustments here and there, assemble, then add the finishing touches—the right execution promises steadfast success.

It takes a village to build a successful brand and yet great ideas are often born out of very limited resources, in which case, the relationship between subject and brand requires a genuine, unfiltered connection.

In the era of mass-production, startups and small businesses have found in James Kirkup an ace up their sleeves. Known for his eye-catching creations, Kirkup offers a distinct perspective in the art of commercial storytelling using elegant compositions of typefaces, whimsical imagery, and conscious use of color.

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&Then. Art direction, brand identity, packaging and printed materials by An Open Understanding. October, 2020.

Kirkup is the founder and creative director of An Open Understanding, a full-service design company based in London. “An Open Understanding is essentially just me in my house, on my own,” he admits. “But the idea of the studio is that I work alongside other people, sometimes teams, and bring them into a project. Basically, I hand curate teams for projects, but a lot of the time I actually just work on my own.”

Lé Mondrian. Art direction, brand identity, packaging and printed materials by An Open Understanding. March, 2021.

As the main driving force behind his studio, Kirkup works alongside brands at any given stage of their development, from co-creating a defined visual identity, to taking early creative ideas to seismic heights. “I work with a lot of small to medium sized businesses who are at that stage where they either have something—they have some kind of an identity and they need to develop it to make them look a bit smarter, and elevate them—or they have nothing at all, and they need to start from scratch, both of which are enjoyable ways of working.”

ScienceMagicStudios. Brand identity, identity guidelines, studio creds and web design by An Open Understanding. May, 2022.

While the core of his work proves modern, Kirkup keeps traditional codes of design alive, ones that resonate with the unequivocally human desire for beauty. While there’s no question that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, studies reveal the sight of an attractive object triggers the part of the motor cerebellum that governs hand movement. Beauty literally moves us.

Such is the case with LO.W, Kirkup’s ambitious branding project, which leads the “Vintage Modern” theme of Style Cards Vol. 2.

LO.W is a New York-based deadstock furniture company that offers affordable, quality goods by turning discarded pieces into remastered classics. Kirkup was approached to create an elevated identity that would set up the brand ready for debut: “They needed to create an identity for their initial funding round. They had nothing apart from a business deck where they were going to get funding for their business.”

The overarching brief of the project required Kirkup to align his craft with the company’s desire to enter the luxury market. “The joy of the project was that they didn’t necessarily have much of a creative brief. It allowed us to set that, which is also an amazing thing that doesn’t always happen on a lot of projects where you just get free reign to do anything you like. I phase projects into three sections. The first section is always setting the creative vision for a project. With [LO.W], they were really into this idea of creating a very luxury, elevated brand and experience.”

LO.W is a far cry from your typical furniture retailer but the company’s humble beginnings will resonate with many entrepreneurs out there.

A series of curated photographs were sourced from a huge bank of in-house and stock imagery to provide the underlying structure of LO.W’s branding. “Because they had no photography of their products, we had to fashion a way of using stock photography that gave them this overall creative aesthetic straight away so they could almost launch without having spent any money.”

The life and soul of the project is the balanced dualism of new ideas and reminiscences of the past, like stillness and movement coming together at once. Under Kirkup’s creative direction, the brand reaches a nowfound way of expression and delivers a signature visual experience.

“We reached this point where we had this bank of assets that they’re now using as the photographic direction to actually go and shoot their own imagery now that they’ve got that budget. I think that is quite a common thing to happen when you’re working with those kinds of startup size businesses. They have a small budget, but they want something. They need that impact.”

Attuned with the company’s main offering, his work celebrates the meeting of the raw reality of the products as they reunite with their natural elements. A series of collaged images enhance their natural resemblance from color to texture in rugged wood, rough stone, fabrics, water and light.

“The link to the juxtaposition of having furniture against natural elements relates back to sustainability and the earth, and this whole renewable source rather than buying new,” Kirkup explains. This gesture injects that ‘zen’ component that falls back to the essence of luxury living that the brand now embodies.

There’s a staged but thoughtful feel throughout the general composition of Kirkup’s project, from the zoomed-in shots of furniture to the dramatic interplay between light and shadow. Placed against colorful layouts, LO.W’s bespoke typographic logo also acts as a storytelling element.

“At first it was just me on my own. We started with creating the logotype and went through a few rounds of where we should take that. They really liked this whole idea of keeping an elegance to the word mark, rather than going down this sans serif route, although there are aspects of that in the project. This was luckily one of the first ideas that was developed so it all worked quite nicely.”

The contrasting images on the background emphasize the structure in the typography and highlights the aspirational selling point of the brand. As LO.W suggests, sitting on a plush, refurbished sofa is as heavenly as the rich salty waters of the ocean.

Somehow, this reminds me of what Cadillac’s CMO, Uwe Ellinghaus once said, “Luxury brands don’t sell products, they sell dreams.” But could luxury today be defined by the emotional connection between product and consumer? Think: reality vs dreams.

Trends fade, tastes change but the beat goes on, so what should next-gen brands offer to the luxury consumer?

Kirkup bets on sustainability.

“I think a really interesting thing that I’ve found over the last couple of years is that nearly everyone throws in the word sustainability without really meaning it. Everyone knows that it’s important to have that angle and think about what you’re doing. But are you actually doing it? By making more stuff, we’re not necessarily being sustainable. Maybe there are ways that you can angle your business to be a little bit more sustainable than others.”

It might not be everyone’s cup of tea to hand over full creative control to an overseas studio, but Kirkup’s final results are nothing short of exceptional. “I think the way that it works is that I have a really nice open relationship with clients. There are obviously things that happen along the way that are sometimes frustrating, but there’s nothing that can’t be worked out from me just having an open understanding with the client.”

Ah! See what he did there?

“No project is ever the same. They’ve all got different nuances to them. But I think the way that we structure a project allows for details to be worked out at the very beginning so nothing is left until the end.”

And that’s the nature of creativity, right? You never know where you will end up. If it’s too structured and too defined, then you don’t leave space for some unexpected beautiful occurrences that move us.

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To learn more about LO.W, click here. Visit James Kirkup’s An Open Understanding here and Behance portfolio here.

Inspiration awaits! Get Style Cards Vol.2 and take your projects to the next level.


    Style Cards Vol. 2

    Use this set of 135 design cards to explore visual trends, define a brand’s look and feel, gamify design workshops, and enhance moodboards. These cards contain works of modern designers and are curated into 10 themes that reflect the world’s visual trends.