Marc Valli/Magma profile
I once presented some design work to a client. He looked at it and said: ‘Looks like something you might see in Magma.’ This comment (not intended as a compliment) suggested to me that Magma, the small chain of shops selling design books and graphic design artefacts, had come to occupy a unique position in the contemporary design scene. Perhaps there is now a style of design known as Magma-design? If there is such a phenomenon, then it’s something that is likely to appeal to the chain’s ambitious owners, Brazilian Marc Valli and Spaniard Montse (she has a longer, grander name, but chooses to be known only as Montse). They opened the first Magma store in Covent Garden in 2000. A Clerkenwell branch followed in 2001, and a year later a third store was opened in Manchester. The shops reflect the owners’ idiosyncratic and idealistic retail vision.
Valli is a friendly guy. He smiles energetically and oozes enthusiasm. He talks about design, retailing and visual culture with Zen-like intensity. Born in Sao Paulo, the teenage Valli left Brazil (‘when inflation reached 1000%’) and moved first to Switzerland and then to England. In London he studied film, having previously studied economics in Lausanne. Frustrated by the slow-moving film world, he found himself working in the art bookshop Zwemmers. ‘I was in Zwemmers one day,’ recalls Valli, ‘and this young lady walked in off the street and asked if we had a vacancy. I told her we did. She burst out laughing. I asked her why she was laughing and she told me she’d just arrived in London, and had said to herself, wouldn’t it be nice to work in an art bookshop. She got the job, and that’s how I met Montse, my future business partner.’
Valli and Montse noted the fervour with which many of Zwemmer’s customers devoured books and magazines on graphic design, photography and fashion. ‘It was clear that something was up,’ explains Valli. ‘It was something that didn’t have a home. Certainly not Zwemmers, which was on the brink of bankruptcy.’ After some hesitation on Valli’s part, they ignored the pundits that said book retailing would be repacked by internet sales, and opened their first Magma. ‘For Montse and me the big idea was not books,’ he notes. ‘The big idea – the thing we found really exciting – was retail.’
If Britain was once a nation of shopkeepers, we seem in recent years to have lost the art of good shopkeeping. In many well-known shops, simple helpfulness has been replaced by staff handbook-mateyness; in others, it is not uncommon to be treated as an unwelcome intruder. Valli is evangelical on the subject of good retailing. ‘Generally I get frustrated when I go shopping,’ he claims. ‘Every time I enter a shop I get the distinct impression that that place is there just to rip me off. I see signs saying 3 for 2, sale this, sale that. That’s not what I’m after. I often have no idea what I’m after, but I don’t want to be ripped off. I want to walk into a place that surprises me, inspires me, makes me dream. But that doesn’t happen very often, unfortunately.’
In Valli’s view, retailing is a creative act, just like advertising or design. ‘A lot of people have missed this,’ he reckons. ‘Even most people working within retail. Retail has a voice. It just hasn’t learnt how to use it. It has an immense potential for communicating to a very large number of people. I believe that you can actually shape a culture with a shop.’
The aesthetics of retailing are paramount in the Magma philosophy. ‘We’ve always worked with the same architects and designers,’ notes Valli, ‘and the ideas have grown in an organic way. We always thought that the key thing was to put ourselves in the position of the customer and try and imagine what it feels like to walk into the shop for the first time.’ Magma fans invariably mention the fact that nearly all the books are displayed face up. Browsing is easy in Magma, and the stores have a comfortable, welcoming ambiance; not over-designed, not Spartan either. ‘Placing all books face up, is our way of saying, look, we only carry things we believe in,’ says Valli. ‘We wanted people to look up and not down, which is why we always try to use height, vertical elements rather than tables. We also wanted people to be able to find their way instinctively. The place had to make sense. We decided to do away with signage and sections and that sort of thing. If you need a sign to find your way around, what does that say about that place – that it is badly designed.’
Magma stores always look busy (none of them are large), and there is a growing sense of the chain becoming an arbiter of what is hip and smart in design, without becoming in the least bit elitist or rarefied. Magma’s success is based on a rare combination of good buying policy, a human-scale layout conducive to browsing and discovery, and informed, friendly service. It reminds me of a pre-megastore record shop; the sort of place where you could wander in, hang around for as long as you liked, sample the goods and get tips from knowledgeable counter staff. Valli, Monste and their team seem to have created that most desirable of retail attributes – a community. It’s something attained by only a handful of messiahs of the cash till.
Magma has recently launched a design magazine. Called Graphic, it is a big chunky mag stuffed with the graphic doodling of ultra-hip graphistas. It further emphasises the notion of a Magma community, and is part of Valli’s strategy to expand the Magma concept. A new Magma store in Central London is currently being planned. It will not be like the existing ones: ‘We would like to grow into something new, something different,’ he says. ‘I want to come closer to creating the shop that could one day, maybe, shake things up. To do this will mean exploring new areas, selling culture and creativity in all its various forms.’
Like all good retailers, Valli knows the benefits of keeping in close contact with his customers. ‘I like working behind a till,’ he says. ‘It’s a very interesting place. You can learn a lot by looking at the world from behind a counter.’