"I was born in New York. I’m American but my father, who was an art director, fell in love with Paris when I was young, so we moved—that’s why I’m an ex-pat. I grew up in France, but came back to go to the Parsons School of Design for Communication Design. I was also the editor of the Parsons paper which was fun. I’ve always loved typography, graphic design, photography… My grandfather was the head of the typesetting union and worked in magazines, so I’ve always been interested. Before I moved back to Paris, I was working at Interview magazine, but I decided not to stay in the States. I came back to France, where the culture climate was very conservative and it was very hard for creative people to express their voice and find support. It was really the avant-garde versus the establishment. Thus the reason for the inception of Self Service - a creative medium that would support and champion those voices.
In ’94, I and my former partner Suzanne Koller started Self Service because we wanted to create something that reflected the youth and what we were interested in. At first it was very naïve of us but it became very fun. It was a way to support creative thinkers and we had all these wild conversations with people—CEOs of companies to 24-year-old writers. We always had our conversation section at the end and creative forums where we asked different people different things. Now it’s one of the only magazines where we can give people—David Sims or Juergen Teller—the possibility to show our readers their process. Creating it has always been about the collaboration, instead of just commissioned work. Having a strong team is very important.
In those early days, it was overwhelming—but that’s not being very grateful. We create this object that people wait a half a year for—that’s part of the reason we started binding it in hardcover. In the library, old Life magazines are bound and we thought maybe we should bind our old things. And we also realized that we are an independent magazine…we’re not trying to be an ego-publication that thinks it reaches more people than it does. So we made it a luxury, and we made it expensive. Our obligation to the reader is to deliver quality every time.
Prior to Self Service, we had started Petronio Associates where we work with clients on developing creative direction. If there is a philosophical principal that I have tried to maintain since I started the agency, and that we apply to every collaboration, is that the creative journey is as important to us as the final result. Perfection of every little detail is fundamental and creative excellence must be achieved throughout everything we do and on every project, regardless of it’s nature or size. This creative attitude or personal dogma is something I learned very early while working with Rei Kawakubo on Commes des Graçons Parfums in the agency’s early days.
I will always remember working on our first presentation for to Adrian Joffe and Rei. When we had finished presenting our creative layouts Rei asked us where was all our research and creative roughs. When I said that we had thrown it away, she simply said that next time we should bring her the trash can too! Because she was interested in understanding our creative process and that maybe something we had edited out of the presentation could have possibly had some great potential! What this brought us, was the importance of the creative process, of research and the importance of exploring and making mistakes. Creative inspiration is a very unexpected, versatile and beautiful thing that must be constantly stimulated and fueled.
I have had the privilege of working with Miuccia Prada for many years on an extremely wide range of projects: advertising, fragrance bottle design, collateral, visual identity, copy writing, window displays, fashion show venues … What is so amazing and inspiring to see is that everything that is produced, regardless of the size or importance of the project, is subject to the same level of creative integrity and excellence. Sky is the limit when it comes to her level of expectation! With Mrs. Prada, the creative process is systematically an intense journey that inevitably always leads to excellence. Everything, is always imagined, intellectualized, conceptionalized, rethought and revisited until it just about seems to be perfect. What she has taught me was to never take anything for granted, that every detail or aspect of a project, even one that seems so minor must be addressed with intellectual integrity and creativity. When I was developing the Infusion d’Iris Institutional fragrance bottle and packaging, it became so apparent that Prada would always consist of a harmonious duality between classicism and progressiveness, something classic but with an edge or a twist. That is when I implemented this idea of reintroducing the classic PRADA logo, but decentering it and adding an embossed shadowed second Prada logo over it. Furthermore, I designed the entire facing of the fragrance packaging in a very balanced and pure manner, but then shifted all the type and logo to the right creating this effect of “off-registration”.
I think that we do our best brand creative direction, when it is global, in-depth and on the long term― revisiting the history of a brand, and defining and sublimating each brand’s individual identity. Unfortunately today, there are fewer cases for which a creative director or an agency is integrated and impacts all aspects of a brand’s communication and visual experience and maintains a global coherence. Most big brands have a tendency to segmentation and hire a myriad of creative and strategic assets, especially today with the multiplication of mediums of communication and the importance of digital and social media. So there are suddenly a myriad of different outside voices and creative resources all telling a brand how to best operate and, if that isn’t confusing enough, you now have a tendency to see more and more players within brands from so many departments and divisions, all supposedly creative and strategic experts themselves and full of opinions to share. We just did a perfume ad for a big American brand and the time it took to manage to get everyone aligned was tremendous and to make things even more complex, throughout the long process there was a succession of three project managers as well as new people and teams coming in non-stop! What is absurd is that in this case for instance, I was hired for my expertise by people who have a great admiration for what I do and the big commercial successes I have achieved. Yet, we end up battling and struggling to keep that level of excellence for them because there were always so many people involved and information was poorly communicated, if not constantly diluted. Finally things become very disconnected. Then the brand doesn’t feel coherent. When I confront clients with these issues, they usually always agree, yet can not manage to rid themselves of these unfortunate bad habits and dysfunctional operational work methodologies that have now become the norm!
But I’m not nostalgic about the past. There are a lot of great things happening. You have to deal with that and work differently. Spend more time speaking and challenging people. Today, brands must adapt with such rapid change, whether it be in consumeral behavior, retail experience and or with the profusion of different outlets in which they must coherently express their brand personality and ideology. I just created a new agency called Content Matters. It offers a unique 360° approach to content creation, digital narrative and brand storytelling. It's a very distinct and complementary structure and expertise to that of Petronio Associates and the traditional overall brand creative direction that we offer to clients, yet it is also a vital one that will contribute in helping a brand coherently affirm it’s voice, personality and legacy. Things are different. But that’s OK. Some people knew me through the magazine, some people know what I’ve done with the agency. Young people know that I’ve photographed Victoria’s Secret Models. But I’ve always designed that perfume bottle and people don’t realize. You just have to let it go."
—as told to ITG
Ezra Petronio photographed by Tom Newton in his home in Paris on December 1, 2016.